Brain Boosting Nutrition
Published On August 30, 2012
By Bryce Wylde
Foods That Affect Mood and Brain Function
Nutritional neuroscience is one of the hottest topics in medicine today. There’ve been a lot of studies over the last few decades that demonstrate a strong correlation between nutrition and neurological function, cognition, and memory. Our dietary choices have a direct impact on our brain power. Carbohydrates, amino acids, fats, vitamins, antioxidants and essential fatty acids are all essential requirements for brain structure and function.
Complex carbohydrates and vitamins fuel the brain
Amino acids enable the brain’s internal communications
Fats make up the structure of the brain
Antioxidants protect the brain.
We’ve all heard the saying, “You are what you eat,” how our diets can affect every aspect of our health including our moods and how well we learn new things. We have all experienced that euphoric feeling after eating chocolate and we also know what it feels like to have a sudden burst of energy after a “sugar fix” – all too often followed by a crash.
Eating junk food - everything from processed pastries to candy bars to fast food - has been shown to increase the risk of depression, not just a feeling of sadness but a full blown clinical case of depression. A study in Public Health Nutrition earlier this year, found that people who ate fast food like; hamburgers, sausages and pizza and processed pastries like; muffins, doughnuts and croissants, are 37% more likely to be diagnosed with depression over a 6-year period than those who eat a more healthy, balanced diet. The risk is slightly higher for those who eat more processed pastries than those just eating fast food.
So what should we eat to maintain a more balanced mental state? Well first get rid of the junk food (‘cmon, you know exactly what that is!) and ensure you are getting enough quality protein and a rainbow of fruits and veggies (1/2 cup of each – yes, that’s 6 colours and 12 servings every day). The amino acids in protein-rich foods are important to keep us feeling better. The best sources come from fish, lean meats, eggs and legumes (lentils are a great source of folate which has been found to be lacking in people suffering from depression).
The main reason you need to make sure you are eating that rainbow of organic, fresh colourful vegetables, and fruits as well as whole grains every day, is to reduce inflammation in your body - something that is known to trigger depression. Blueberries are full of powerful antioxidants, which eliminate free-radical damage that causes aging and also possess neuroprotective properties that can delay the onset of age-related memory loss by protecting brain cells from damage caused by chemicals, plaque or trauma, and they have been shown to combat inflammation.
Round out your diet with healthy fats that are found in fish (deep-sea fish have the highest amounts of fatty acids, including; salmon, sea bass, halibut, mackerel and sardines), avocado, olive oil and nuts. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people who eat oily fish or take fish oil supplements scored 13 percent higher in IQ tests and experience healthier brain aging. Again make sure you steer clear of synthetic trans-fats that are found in most processed food.
The vitamins with the biggest impact on mood are the B vitamins; B6, Folic Acid and B12 are all important to maintain a positive attitude, and you’ll get those by eating lots of black-eyed peas, broccoli, shellfish, tuna, lamb, lean beef and yogurt. Folic acid deficiencies have been linked to depression. It causes a decrease in serotonin levels in the brain but as little as 200 micrograms has been shown in clinical studies to be enough to relieve the depression. That is the same amount that can be found in a cup of cooked spinach or a glass of orange juice.
Neurotransmitters are the chemicals in our body that carry signals between our nerve cells and are imperative for proper brain function. They are also strongly affected by our diet. When neurotransmitter levels get out of balance, with some too high or too low, problems like depression, anxiety and panic disorders can be the result. For example an imbalance of Serotonin has been shown to trigger depression and an imbalance of GABA (gamma-amino-butyric acid) has been linked to anxiety disorders. Neurotransmitters like epinephrine and norepinephrine, regulate adrenaline for mental focus and excitement. Dopamine boosts motivation and interest. Protein raises levels of the amino acid tyrosine in the blood and the brain. And in turn, tyrosine increases production of epinephrine, norepinephrine and dopamine to boosts mental alertness and energy.
There is even evidence suggesting some people with autism have problems with tryptophan-serotonin metabolism in the brain. If you want to check your neurotransmitter levels, check back here soon as we will offer a very simple non-invasive test you can take that doesn’t involve more than a simple urine test.
Carbohydrates have been given a bad rap, but they are a key element to maintain good brain function. Eating carbs triggers the release of insulin into the blood which then clears out all the amino acids, with the exception of tryptophan (what theoretically makes you feel sleepy after a big Thanksgiving turkey dinner – many authorities say it’s just the sheer amount of carbohydrates you’ve eaten). Once tryptophan is able to get past the other amino acids in the bloodstream and enters the brain it is converted to serotonin. Serotonin helps to reduce pain, decreases appetite, and produces a sense of calm. Too much and it will make you sleepy. Research has shown that dieters tend to become depressed about two weeks into a diet, around the same time that their serotonin levels have dropped from eating fewer carbohydrates. For the best results eat your protein first followed by a carbohydrate.
In order to boost levels of serotonin, increase your consumption of foods like; whey protein found in dairy (a study in 2002 found that whey increases the ratio of tryptophan in the bloodstream triggering more production of serotonin), avocado, bananas, red plum, tomatoes, pineapples, eggplants, walnuts, and even coffee. Here’s some very interesting new research on pumpkin seeds!
Something else that has been given a bad rap is eggs, but research shows that eggs, as part of a balanced diet, will improve memory and concentration. Eggs are a good source of choline, a B complex vitamin that is a precursor to the neurotransmitter, acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is linked to memory and people who have been given drugs to block that neurotransmitter have failed memory tests. Low levels have also been linked to Alzheimer’s disease. Other sources of choline include cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower and brussel sprouts, as well as peanuts, soy beans, black beans and kidney beans.
In mild cases of depression, which do not need medical attention, a little caffeine can help. A cup or two of coffee per day can be an effective anti-depressant. Too much though and it can do more harm than good by increasing anxiety levels. Green Tea prevents an enzyme present in Alzheimer’s disease and is also rich in polyphenols, antioxidants that help prevent premature brain aging. Drink two cups a day to get the full benefit for your brain. Concord grape juice also has a high content of polyphenol pigments, the same ones found in red wine. A study found that grape juice drinkers made fewer errors on memory tests and had more activity in the right side of the brain that controls memory.
Nuts and Seeds are wonder foods for your brain. Packed with protein and essential fatty acids, nuts and seeds are also chock full of the amino acid arginine, which stimulates the pituitary gland at the base of the brain to release growth hormone, a substance that declines quickly after age 35; this is a real anti-aging bonus for your brain!
Here’s a suggestion for an “Anti-aging Brain Mix.” Eat a small handful in between meals as a daily snack to nourish and support your brain.
1 cup walnuts
1/2 cup pine nuts
1/4 cup sesame seeds
1/2 cup pumpkin seeds
1/3 cup of dried Goji berries (also known as Lycium berry and easily found in health food stores)
1/2 cup dried apricots
Pack in a sealed container or re-sealable bag to preserve freshness.
And if you like recipes, there are a few more at the end of this article.
Dark chocolate has been proven to affect our brain’s neurotransmitters. In one study, scientists found levels of stress hormones and other stress-related biochemical changes had decreased in volunteers who ate 40 grams (1.4 ounces) of dark chocolate for 2-weeks.
Even how something tastes can affect our mood. New evidence has found that simply the flavour of chocolate, teas and some other comfort foods can trigger a chemical reaction in the brain similar to Valproic Acid, which is used to treat Bipolar Disorder, Epilepsy and Depression. A study was conducted on 1700 food flavour ingredients and lead researcher Dr. Karina Martinez-Mayorga says, “Molecules in chocolate, a variety of berries and foods containing omega-3 fatty acids have shown positive affects on mood. In turn, our studies show that some commonly used flavor components are structurally similar to valproic acid.” She adds, "The large body of evidence that chemicals in chocolate, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, teas and certain foods could well be mood-enhancers, encourages the search for other mood modulators in food." Next, she says her research team will analyze the database and begin to test the flavour/mood hypothesis. Martinez-Mayorga says the end result could be new supplements that can affect our mood, but she cautions, "It is important to remember that just eating foods that may improve mood is not a substitute for prescribed anti-depressive drugs.”
Research has shown that it’s important to maintain amino acid levels in the bloodstream, especially during periods of stress. The best way to do that is to eat every three to four hours and that also means that you should never skip breakfast. By feeding your body throughout the day, you will be providing your system with enough energy to avoid chemical imbalances and that run-down feeling or sudden mood changes.
Make sure you teach your children that lesson early. Research shows that children who regularly eat breakfast have better standardized test scores, better behavior, and are less hyperactive than children who skip breakfast. The best breakfast for children (and adults) would be; an egg, a slice of whole grain toast with nut butter, a piece of fruit and a glass of organic, non-sweetened grape or berry juice. Try to avoid high-glycemic foods like cereals loaded with sugar, they will only leave your child hungry and tired.
By the way, if you are still feeding your kids food that contains colouring, stop. Repeated studies have shown that even small amounts of coloring (synthetic or natural) added to foods can provoke hyperactivity and other disturbed behavior in children.
Supplements for better mood and brain power:
Sometimes though, diet alone won’t help to restore your neurotransmitters and you may need to support the levels naturally, using specific herbal and amino acid supplements, such as 5-HTP, GABA, theanine, rhodiola and vinpocetine. Before I tell you more about them, remember to talk to your healthcare provider before you begin taking any supplements. They’ll be able to tell you how much to take and whether it will interfere with any medications you may be taking.
5-HTP or 5-Hydroxytryptophan may be helpful for people whose bodies aren’t producing enough serotonin. It can help control anxiety, panic attacks, depression, insomnia, headaches, even PMS symptoms and has been shown to be an appetite suppressant. Talk to your primary care provider about dosage but do not take more than 300mg per day.
GABA or gamma-aminobutyric acid, that I mentioned earlier, maintains the balance between our body during periods of excitation. Without it, your mind would race non-stop and your muscles would be constantly be tense. GABA supplements increase the level of Human Growth Hormones, help us to relax and sleep better, reduce stress, anxiety, depression and muscle tension. Again talk to your doctor about dosage.
Theanine is the amino acid that is found in Green Tea and similar to glutamate. It is also taken as a supplement to ease symptoms of anxiety and to as an aid to help prevent Alzheimer’s disease.
Rhodiola (aka Golden Root, Arctic Root) helps the body to deal with stress, it strengthens the nervous system, boosts immunity, fights depression, enhances memory and boosts sexual function and energy levels.
Vinpocetine is a derivative of vincamine, that comes from the leaves of periwinkle (Vinca minor). Vinpocetine is used to maintain and improve brain health, cognition and memory. Many of the things we take to increase blood flow in the body can’t get past the blood/ brain barrier. Vinpocetine is an exception, and can deliver more oxygen, glucose and nutrients to our brains. It has been studied for its potential to improve attention and alertness, and it may even have a positive effect on a damaged brain and on people who have suffered a stroke.
Other supplements that can help brain function are essential fatty acids; EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), GLA (gamma-linolenic acid), linoleic acid, and arachidonic acid, try L-carnitine to improve behavior, and even supplementing with magnesium may influence ADHD.
Taking a daily multivitamin can help to regulate the chemical balance in your body. A study published in Human Psychopharmacology studied 50 healthy men between the ages of 50 and 69. Some of the men received a placebo for eight weeks while the rest were given a multivitamin that contained a wide range of nutrients, including B vitamins, minerals, a bioflavonoid mix, vitamin E, coenzyme Q10, choline, inositol xtracts. The researchers found the men taking the multivitamin had lower levels of depression, anxiety, and stress. The men also reported increased alertness while those taking a placebo did not.
Exercise is key to good overall health including good brain function and lower stress.
And regular relaxation practices like meditation also help to reduce stress and improve quality of life. One last tip: what is good for your heart is also good for your brain!
More Brain Boosting recipes for you and the kids:
Kids chIQpea dip (get it? IQ!?)
19oz can of organic chickpeas or garbanzo beans
5 tablespoons lemon juice (depending on taste)
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1/4 tsp turmeric
Blend and serve as veggie dip
Kids Brain Boosting Juice
1 cup organic concord grape juice
1/4 cup organic beet juice
500mg Citicoline powder (empty capsules)
1 tsp NutraSea kids omega 3 oil
1 scoop Greens+ Kids
1 tblsp organic honey
Optional: 5 grams isolated whey protein
Add ice, blend, and serve in the morning before school.