Up until recently the notion that nutrition plays a vital role in brain health has been relegated to the realms of ‘alternate health care’. This usually means that it is pooh-poohed by mainstream medical science.
But the wheel is slowly turning, and articles about mental health are beginning to appear in important scientific journals such as Nature. The research presented in this prestigious journal is authored by a neurologist from UCLA named Fernando Gomez-Pinilla.
So what are the specific nutrients that he mentions for brain health? Mostly they are the old stalwarts – Omega-3 fats, vitamins (D, B and E), antioxidants and minerals (iron, zinc and selenium in particular). Other researchers would probably like to add to the list as well!
A lifelong concern
Keeping our brain healthy should be a lifelong concern, but it certainly impacts on our consciousness more as we age. It is when we find lapses in memory occurring more frequently that we start to pay more attention to this all-important organ of ours.
Forgetfulness happens to everyone, but worsens with age. And it is then usually accompanied by other issues such as a decline in our general health, in our energy, in our sense of well-being and in our mood.
Thankfully, preventing this, or at least delaying the onset of
these symptoms, can be achieved by paying attention to our nutritional
For information about our basic nutritional needs to support brain health, check our Health Foundations page.
In order to look at brain health we should look first at some aspects of a healthy brain.
Optimizing your IQ
This is not the place for a philosophical discussion about what it is that the “Intelligence Quotient” or IQ is actually measuring.
However, it is one of the ways in which brain function is measured, so it seems like a suitable aspect to consider.
Can you in fact boost your IQ?
The simple answer is yes. That is not to say that everyone who eats well will become a genius, but what each one of us can do is to become the best that our genetic makeup allows.
Research has now shown that diet does indeed affect the IQ levels of children – a good diet causes them to rise, while a bad diet has the opposite effect.What kind of diet is bad for brain health?
Unfortunately it is a diet similar to the one we are all familiar with - for example, one containing a high level of refined carbohydrates, and additives (preservatives, colourants, flavourants etc) and too much fat.
This is a diet of commercial cereals, white bread, cakes and cookies and other sugar-containing goodies, and sweet drinks. Remember that fruit juices are also high in sugar and need to be drunk in moderation.
So serious is the effect of these types of foods that in one study youngsters eating the diet that was highest in these foods had IQs about 25 points lower on average than those eating the lowest amounts!
Reducing, or even eliminating these foods would go a long way to improving brain health and increasing any person’s IQ.
The brain is made up largely of fat. DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), which is one of the Omega-3 fatty acids, forms the major component of this fat. The body is unable to synthesise DHA and it must be obtained in the diet.
So what is the best source of DHA?
You might have guessed that it is fatty fish. Grandma was absolutely right when she said eat fish to be brainy! Remember, too, that taking in Omega-3 during pregnancy has a beneficial effect on the development of the brain and the eyes of the growing foetus.
Getting enough Omega-3 in the diet is not easy for most people. It requires that one eats fatty fish (salmon, mackerel and pilchards) at least 3 times a week if not more frequently.
If one is not doing so supplementation is essential. And the risk of inadequate intake of these vital fats is not worth taking.
Vitamins and minerals
Vitamins and minerals are also vital for brain health, and studies have shown that taking a supplement of these does indeed have a positive effect on the IQ of school-going youngsters.
This does not mean that one should continue to eat badly, however! We should all eat as many fresh fruits and vegetables as we can on a daily basis, and exchange whole grains for the refined carbohydrates that we have become accustomed to.
It may be tricky to start with, as old habits die hard, but the rewards are well worth the effort: improved success as school gives kids a head start in the competitive adult world that they will be entering.
The positive effects of good nutrition are not seen only during childhood, but throughout life. Elderly people who continue to take nutritional supplements (vitamins, minerals and Omega-3 fatty acids in particular) have a higher cognitive function than those who do not.
Studies on individual nutrients, for example Vitamin C and Vitamin E, have noticed similar effects.
In 1990 a study reported that a high percentage of people admitted to a psychiatric hospital were in fact vitamin deficient.
Not all instances of depression are due to nutritional deficiencies, it is true, but tackling this particular possibility is easy to do and a good place to start!
The most common deficiencies noted are the following: * Essential fatty acids, especially Omega-3 * Vitamin C, Vitamin D and the B vitamins * Minerals such as zinc and magnesium.
The most likely role for these nutrients is to improve ones ability to deal with stress – conversely, a deficiency of any of these nutrients worsens one’s response to stress, and this, over time, can lead to depression.
One of the Omega-3 oils, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) has been shown to outperform Prozac in fighting depression (as reported in 2008 in the Australian Journal of Psychiatry).
A Vitamin B deficiency, for example, can lead to a host of mental symptoms ranging from forgetfulness and vague fears to rage and hostility, loss of memory and depression.
The B Vitamins are also necessary for controlling homocysteine levels – and elevated homocysteine is associated with depression! They also play a role in balancing hormones, which might also contribute to improved mental health.
Vitamin C deficiency causes fatigue and depression.
Supplementation is easy – there should be no reason to become deficient in this vitamin.
Vitamin D is essential for balanced mental health. The winter blues and ‘cabin fever’ are almost certainly a response to too low levels of this vitamin due to too low exposure to the sunlight!
Magnesium deficiency leads to unbalanced moods. Interestingly, this mineral acts as a natural sedative!
And as always it is necessary to rid your diet of processed foods and refined sugars which lead to a deficiency of essential nutrients.
The ideal diet would include an abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains and a reduction in the intake of alcohols and caffeine.
Many medical practitioners are now including good supplements in their recommendations as well.
Many people seem to think that Alzeimer’s disease is an almost inevitable consequence of ageing, and many older folk joke (to my mind unwisely) about starting with the symptoms when they have a lapse in memory.
In fact, nothing is further from the truth as evidence continues to mount that this condition can in fact be prevented.
To learn more about how one can at least delay the onset of this
disease, and at best prevent it from developing at all, read our page on
nutrition and the elderly.
Click to link to our page on the elderly.
There is a strong argument developing that one of the main causes for the epidemic of ADHD is the modern diet!
We simply eat diets too rich in fats that are not good for us, and lacking in the fats that are necessary for the building and maintenance of brain tissue.
Furthermore, we eat diets that are imbalanced with respect to the Omega-6 and Omega-3 oils. While both of these are essential for good health they need to be in a ratio of about 2:1. This has shifted to about 20-30:1 in many diets.
Much evidence supports the addition of Omega-3 supplements to the diets of children who are inattentive and hyperactive. And most researchers go further and recommend the addition of a multivitamin-multimineral supplement (based on optimum rather than RDA levels!)
A further consideration is the removal of certain things from the diet: food colourants, flavourants and preservatives should go since a high percentage of youngsters with ADHD are sensitive to these additives.
Drinking water should be encouraged instead of sodas and juices, processed foods should be eliminated (or at least restricted) as should sugars. As you have no doubt noticed, these are similar recommendations to those made previously for improving your IQ!
A now-famous trial was conducted at the Aylesbury jail in the UK where young offenders were fed multivitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids as supplements to their regular diets.
To the astonishment of the warders, the number of violent behaviours occurring in the jail dropped by 37%, and the young men were better able to interact with their fellow inmates.
These studies are by no means isolated - in many juvenile correctional facilities improving the nutritional status of the inmates has reduced the incidence of serious antisocial behaviour and even violence.
So startling have these observations been that the American Medical Association has recommended that inmates of these kinds of institutions be given a multivitamin-multimineral supplement daily.
Perhaps some consideration should be given to feeding programmes in our schools as well!
These examples seem to us to be enough to support the idea that we really must pay attention to our nutrition in order to keep our brains functioning properly at all levels and at any age.
Indeed, if you read the page concerning pregnancy you will find that from conception onwards nutrition plays a role in building healthy brain tissue and maintaining it’s function.
The good news for brain health is that the story is not very different from that of any other health issue. So a healthy active brain might well be the side effect of taking supplementation for some completely different reason!