Understanding brain health and cognition can be a complex matter, especially when it comes to the grey and white kind! Words like oxidative stress, inflammation, neuro degeneration and beta amyloids which are commonly referred to when speaking about the welfare of our noodle can leave you feeling dizzy.
So what are the most important factors in brain health and why does it matter?
Your brain is important for your sensory perceptions and your motor functions, it dictates your mood and stores those cherished memories that you rely on so much in everyday life to walk, talk and reminisce. The brain undoubtedly has some very important functions in the body, so it deserves undivided attention, especially when it comes to nutrition and well-being.
There are two main concerns in brain health, both of which lead to the damage and death of neurons – a nerve cell which has the specialised function of sending messages around your body.
The first, oxidative stress, can lead to inflammation in the brain which has been shown to have many causes including eating a western diet, obesity, lack of oxygen to the brain and nutrient deficiencies. Secondly, the build-up of the beta-amyloid protein in the brain which is most known for its association to Alzheimer’s disease, but they have also been shown to accumulate in the aging brain of otherwise healthy people.
Bearing this in mind, how can you make sure that you are eating to switch on the ignition for cognition?
The blubber-like brain tissue compromises 60% fat, so it makes sense that the choices you make when it comes to eating fat are important. Studies have shown that polyunsaturated fats, often coined PUFAs, are the best in class when it comes to fat for the brain. A large percentage of brain fat consists of a type of omega 3 PUFA called Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) which is found mainly in oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines and anchovies. Try to eat 3 portions a week of these sea-living wonders to really see results.
As oxidative stress and inflammation are a major cause of mental decline, eating foods which appease this assault may lessen the damage. These include foods that contain anti-oxidants which have long been associated with brain health and cognitive function. The best way to include these in the diet is eating food that includes the colours of the rainbow so that you get a diverse range of these beneficial nutrients. Berries, beetroot, leafy greens, mushrooms, onions and carrots are all great choices with their distinctive tones.
Another major player emerging in this field is brain-derived neurotrophic factor, BDNF, which is a protein produced inside a nerve cell – often described as a fertiliser for our nerve cells as it promotes their survival by supporting growth, maturation and maintenance of these cells. This may be an important factor in protection from beta-amyloid proteins mounting up in the brain and decrease the risk of degenerative brain conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease. Recent research has shown that BDNF’s proliferation can be encouraged by the polyphenols found in extra virgin olive oil, so why not drizzle leafy greens in a delicious olive oil.
Intermittent fasting and exercise such as running have also been shown to champion the production of BDNF so it’s worth considering whether these lifestyle factors are worth including in your routine.
It is easy to succumb to unhelpful food choices when you are dealing with the stresses of every day life. Brain fog, memory loss and low mood are all symptoms of a poorly functioning brain and they can have such an impact on your well-being – so why not make some positive changes to your lifestyle and ensure you stay on the ball!
Victoria Hamilton is one of our Thrive Experts and is a qualified Nutritionist and focuses on immune health and autoimmune diseases.