Your Brain on Food: A Nutrient-Rich Diet Can Protect Cognitive Health

By Turner, Julia | Generations, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Your Brain on Food: A Nutrient-Rich Diet Can Protect Cognitive Health


Turner, Julia, Generations


As long suspected, the relative abundance of specific nutrients can affect cognitive processes and emotions, and studies confirm that brain health relies on many factors, including nutrients from everyday diet.

Although food has been classically perceived as a means to provide energy and building material to the body, its ability to prevent and protect against disease is starting to be recognized. Research over the past five years has provided exciting evidence for the influence of dietary factors on specific molecular systems and mechanisms that maintain mental function (Gomez-Pinilla, 2008).

As with any organ, the brain requires nutrients to build and maintain its structure, both to function in a harmonious manner and to be protected from diseases and premature aging. For many years it was not fully accepted that food can have an influence on brain structure and its functions, including cognitive, intellectual, and mental. In fact, most micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, trace elements, essential amino acids, and essential fatty acids, including omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids) have been directly evaluated in regard to cerebral functioning (Bourre, 2006).

The full genetic potential of a child for physical growth and mental development may be compromised due to deficiency (even sub-clinical) of micronutrients. Children and adolescents with poor nutritional status are prone to alterations of mental and behavioral functions that can, to a certain extent, be corrected by dietary measures; nutrient composition and meal patterns can exert either immediate or longterm effects, beneficial or adverse. Brain diseases during aging can also be due to failure of protective mechanisms caused by dietary deficiencies of antioxidants and other nutrients such as trace elements, vitamins, and polyphenols that exert protection against free radicals (Bourre, 2006).

This article reviews how food may affect mood, energy, and cognition; identifies select foods and nutrients that are particularly beneficial to the brain; and provides nutrition lifestyle tips to support optimal brain health.

The Brain's Energy Requirement

Energy, or calorie intake, is derived from carbohydrate, protein, and fat found in foods and beverages. The human brain is metabolically very active and uses about 20 percent to 30 percent of a person's energy intake at rest and higher amounts during problem solving. Individuals who do not consume adequate calories from food to meet their energy requirements will experience changes in mental functioning (simply skipping breakfast interferes with cognition and learning) (Pollitt, 1998). The brain prefers a constant steady supply of glucose; glucose metabolism is mediated by insulin. Several researchers have noted a strong correlation between insulin resistance in the brain and early Alzheimer's Disease, suggesting that Alzheimer's might be considered a neuroendocrine disorder of the brain or so-called "Type 3 diabetes" (Seneff, Wainwright, and Mascitelli, 2011).

It is well established that caloric restriction could be used to promote successful brain aging, but Gillette-Guyonnet and Vellas (2008) point out that the long-term effects of caloric restriction in adults must be clarified before engaging in such preventive strategy; additionally, animal studies must be conducted to test the effects of "multidomain" interventions (caloric restriction plus regular exercise) on age-related cognitive decline. Nevertheless, it seems a reasonable approach to control caloric intake by limiting or avoiding foods with no nutritional value, while increasing the nutrient density of one's diet.

Neurotransmitters impacted by diet

The four neurotransmitters that are manufactured in the brain directly from food components are serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and acetylcholine. The levels and activity of these neurotransmitters are sensitive to food intake, and changes in dietary patterns can have profound effects on behavior, eating patterns, sleep, and energy level (Somer, 1995). …

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