Eating the right brain food, has a significant impact on our mental performance. Moreover, the food we eat plays a major role in determining the composition and physiological status of our bodies. A lot of research has been done on how to improve brain function through a better diet.
How does food affect the brain
The brain is more than half composed of fat, and of this the major fat is the polyunsaturate, docosahexanoic acid (DHA). Studies show that supplementation with DHA during pregnancy and childhood leads to better cognitive capacity in children. Further, DHA supplementation later life may protect against depression and even age related cognitive decline. DHA is only naturally found in foods of marine origin and good sources include, oily fish. The benefits of DHA on brain function indicate that nutrition plays a significant role in cognitive capacity.
Eating a meal per se affects how our brain works. Blood flow is directed to the gastrointestinal tract and hormones are released from the gut to send ‘fullness’ signals to the brain. What we eat is also important for brain function. Amino acids from protein may influence neurotransmitter (chemical signaling molecules) levels in the brain. The amino acid tryptophan is converted into serotonin in the brain, and rises in this neurotransmitter are associated with calmness and sleep. The amino acid tyrosine can form noradrenaline in the brain which promotes alertness and vigor. Supplements of tryptophan or tyrosine can be taken individually and studies indicate this approach can lead to measurable effects in terms of increased vitality (tyrosine), improved mood (tyrosine or tryptophan) and greater ease in falling asleep (tryptophan).
Hydration and the brain
Interestingly, one of the most important determinants of mental performance that has been revealed in research is hydration. So water really is brain food! When the cells of the body dehydrate they cannot function properly. This includes the brain cells, and there is clear evidence that memory, problem solving and mental alertness are all affected by dehydration. Best strategies to ensure good hydration include drinking dilute juices (the water is better retained in the body than drinking plain water), and not relying on thirst as an indicator. Thirst is a slow system and mental performance can drop before thirst is apparent, especially in warm weather or during sports or exercise. For more information on how much water should you drink, check out our previous article here.
Drinking too much coffee
Another brain food you can turn to is caffeine (in moderation). High caffeine intakes (especially via strong coffee and energy drinks) increases the propensity to go to the bathroom, which reduces hydration and alertness. This effect is in conflict with caffeine’s well-studied effect as a stimulant on the central nervous system. To gain benefit for brain performance,without suffering the negative effects of water loss, drink plenty of non-caffeinated fluids along with the caffeine. One should also limit caffeine intake. Caffeine’s benefits to human performance exist only up to a certain dose, beyond which irritability and other side effects negate the benefits. Zaggora’s SlenderMelt is a natural supplement that offers all the benefits of caffeine in a simple way.
Plants that are brain food
- Caffeine: Guarana is a caffeine rich plant with strong stimulant effect for alertness. Kola nut (the basis for Coca Cola and other Cola drinks) is another source of caffeine and anti-fatigue effects can likewise be attributed to the caffeine content.
- ACh: ACh (acetyl-choline). in the brain has key functions in memory, learning and cognitive function. ACh is normally formed in the body from choline, found in eggs, meat, fish and wholegrains. While food sources of choline are sufficient to support ACh production and function in the brain, nutrition supplements suggested to enhance brain function (nootropics) are aplenty, with supplemental phosphatidylcholine (intended to enhance brain function by boosting ACh) amongst the best sellers. There are many reports from individual users of enhanced problem solving and memory benefits from its use.
- Gingko-biloba: some studies have found to enhance memory and thinking skills, though results from trials are mixed.
- Brahmi (Bacopa monniera): a traditional Ayurvedic herbal ‘brain tonic’ which has good scientific evidence to support its ability to enhance learning and information processing. It should be noted however that this herb must be taken regularly to obtain the desired effects.
Many other natural compounds are currently the subject of research in the quest for cognitive enhancement and this search is uncovering some genuinely effective natural chemistry. From improved mood and lowered stress levels through to enhanced alertness, concentration, memory and learning abilities, nutritional science is at the forefront of food based and nutraceutical enhancement of brain function.
While nutrition may not yet facilitate ‘limitless’ brain power, real benefits to immediate and lifelong cognitive function are already well documented.