Jan 26, 2009

Diet and the Brain

Athletes must watch every calorie they eat in order to stay in tip-top competitive form. This means counting carbs, watching fat intake, and getting plenty of nutrients and vitamins. Thanks to recent studies, we now know that this same methodology could (and should) be applied to anyone looking to keep their mind as sharp as possible. Last week we covered the importance of exercise and how physical activity affects the brain, so this week, we round out our mental fitness program by covering diet.

Spending a quick ten minutes on a stationary bike will help boost focus and yield higher brain functions by improving the connections made inside the brain. These connectors (or “neurotransmitters”) are dependant on a compound known as Omega-3 fatty acids. When ingested, Omega-3s help improve learning and memory by supporting synaptic plasticity, or in other words, how well neurotransmitters are sent and received within the brain. More specifically, several studies have shown Omega-3 acids to help children improve in reading, spelling, and in-class behavior. Although available as a supplement in pill form, the natural abundance of Omega-3s in fish, seeds, and nuts should be considered when choosing meals.

In addition to the Omega-3 compound, amino acids are essential to healthy brain activity. These come from the breakdown of proteins, such as those found in eggs, meat, or milk. After digesting protein, the brain responds by producing norepinephrine and dopamine, two chemicals which elevate mood and focus. Without proper protein intake, you could feel sluggish and drowsy.

Additionally, carbohydrates help fuel the brain with glucose. Whole-grain crackers or bread are great for snacks and a quick energy boost between meals. Starchy vegetables, such as corn or potatoes, are another good source.

Beyond the specifics of what you eat and how it affects your brain, diet is a matter of balance. While the intake of Omega-3s has been linked with better brain function, three courses of Omega-3s a day will not necessarily make you smarter, just as a protein-only diet will not necessarily produce an abundance of norepinephrine and dopamine. Instead, these compounds and chemicals are best used in balance with all the other nutrients your body needs. The food pyramid that we all learned in grade school is still relevant, but to eat smart, you need to know what you have on your plate.


Jonathan Lopez said...

Some important information regarding consumption of fish:


Jonathan Lopez said...

A CNN article on the research behind brain supplements: