As the food choices we make affect virtually every cell, organ, and system in our bodies, eating well is important not only for our physical health, but our mental health too. Growing evidence suggests that the foods we eat have a direct impact on the performance of our brains, thus, with an awareness of the vital role that diet plays, it is possible to make more informed choices in order to improve our attention span, our memories and our overall wellbeing.
The brain depends on the glucose derived from carbohydrates for its principle source of fuel therefore an important way to boost the brains performance is to seek foods which release glucose slowly into the bloodstream, providing an adequate and steady supply of energy. One of the best ways to achieve this is to consume complex carbohydrates which, by stabilising blood sugar levels, elevate brain functioning.
The best choices when buying bread, cereals, rice and pasta are always those which are whole grain or whole wheat. These foods slowly release energy improving concentration and enabling the mind to remain mentally alert throughout the day. In addition to helping maintaining a steady stream of glucose to the brain, they also promote healthy blood flow such that nutrients can reach the brain more quickly. Whole grains also have the added advantage of containing highly beneficial vitamins, for instance thiamine, vitamin E and B vitamins such as folic acid, as well as important minerals like magnesium, iron, and zinc, all of which have been shown to have a positive impact on the brain.
Essential oils & fatty acids:
Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids belong to a group of polyunsaturated fats which have numerous health benefits such as stimulating skin and hair growth, maintaining bone health and regulating the metabolism. However, research also indicates their significance for the brain. Numerous investigations demonstrate the importance of fatty acid for normal cognitive functioning, as well as their role in enabling the body to build cell membranes and brain tissue, making the repairing of the brain and the growth of new neurons possible. In addition, prostaglandins, a hormone-like substance which controls among other things brain and nerve function, is also built from these fatty acids. Consumption has therefore been reported to assist not only with greatly improve memory, concentration and mental clarity but also with emotional balance.
Though much of the brain cell’s structure is composed of these healthy fats, they cannot be made by the body alone and can only be obtained through foods. A good source of Omega-3 fats can be derived from oily fish, such as mackerel, herring, sardines and salmon as well as through flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, walnut oil and eggs. Good sources of Omega-6 fats can be found in sesame and sunflower oil.
Vitamins & minerals:
As we get older substances called “free radicals” attack and break down our brain cells. However, the antioxidants found in certain foods can help to counteract the damage caused to the neurons in our brains, helping to improve memory. One way to improve the memories function then is through the consumption of foods which are rich in antioxidants. There are plenty of good sources available through fruit, vegetables and nuts, all of which are packed with essential nutrients which can help to boost brain capacity.
Evidence suggests the consuming antioxidants, particularly vitamin C and E, are particularly useful for increasing memory function. Excellent sources of vitamin C include citrus fruit, strawberries, papaya, bell peppers and blueberries. Whereas good sources of vitamin E can be derived from nuts, particularly hazelnuts and almonds, as well as sunflower seeds and vegetable oils. In addition, leafy green vegetables such as kale, spinach, and broccoli, as well as oranges, lemons, limes and grapefruits, which contain folic acid, have all been shown to play an important role in cognitive functioning, protecting against cognitive decline and keeping the brain sharp into old age.
Not just what, but how:
Of course though what we eat is fundamental, the way in which we eat must also be seen to have an impact on the brain. Fundamental to a healthy brain working at its optimum is the right combination of nutritious food, water and oxygen.
We’ve all experienced that lethargic feeling after a large meal. This is a consequence of the majority of the body’s oxygen being used by the digestive system to process the food consumed. During this time the brain is denied the necessary oxygen required to function effectively in order to maintain mental alertness. Thus, by eating little and often, we can avoid that sleepy feeling and instead increase our brain functioning through good food choices in smaller quantities.
The common saying that breakfast is the most important meal of the day has truth in the context of improving brain function. After a night sleeping both body and brain need blood sugar stores to be replenished in order to function effectively. Research has shown that those who eat breakfast experience greater level of concentration and problem-solving ability.
It is also important to mention the role of water. As the brain has no means to store water, the significance of proper hydration should not be underestimated. Approximately 85 percent of the brain is made up of water thus even mild dehydration can impair both long and short-term memory recollection and impact negatively on attention span. By drinking enough water, individuals often feel more focused, able to think faster and with great clarity and creativity.
In sum then, through the adoption of a healthy diet of whole grains, essential fatty acids, complete with the necessary vitamins and minerals, at the right times and in the right quantities, not only can we improve our cognitive abilities, but also our overall physical and emotional wellbeing.