The brain has many nutritional requirements that help it perform its roles. It requires glucose as an energy source, a compound that is easily metabolized from carbohydrates. Various vitamins and antioxidants help protect the brain from injury, while certain vitamins and fatty acids also carry out specific roles that help brains cells function. The best brain foods contain many of these important nutrients in an easily digestible form.
Cooked and ground whole grains, such as wheat, oatmeal, barley and millet, are healthy carbohydrates that can be digested quickly to yield glucose sugar. A convenient way to consume whole grains is as baked breads, although crackers and cereals can be just as nutritious. Information described in “Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism” points to glucose as the main fuel for the brain, with daily consumption of at least 100 g of carbohydrates needed to provide enough glucose to power brain functions. Whole grains are also good sources of B vitamins, selenium and soluble fiber. Soluble fiber can regulate blood cholesterol levels, which reduce the risks of cardiovascular diseases and brain injury, such as stroke.
Fatty fish -- such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring and sardines -- are rich sources of essential fatty acids. Perhaps the most important of these are omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for brain and nervous system function. A study in “Biochemical, Physiological and Molecular Aspects of Human Nutrition” reports that omega-3 fatty acids are required for myelin synthesis; myelin is the protective sheath around nerves that allows for speedy flow of brain impulses. Further, omega-3 fatty acids play crucial roles in behavior and cognition; deficiencies have been associated with depression, dyslexia and attention-deficit disorders.
Blueberries are especially rich in antioxidants, which act to protect blood vessels and the brain from the oxidative stress created by free radicals. One of the antioxidants is vitamin E, which can combat age-related loss of cognitive abilities. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Barcelona, Spain, and published in “Nutritional Neuroscience” in 2005 found that diets rich in blueberries significantly improved the learning capacity, memory and motor skills of aging rats. Further, the anthocyanins in blueberries were found to promote new neuron growth in the amygdala region of the brain.
Nuts and Seeds
Many nuts and seeds are good sources of protein, minerals, vitamin E, omega-6 fatty acids and some essential amino acids. As an example, pumpkin and sesame seeds are both rich in tyrosine, the amino acid required for dopamine synthesis. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that regulates mood and coordinates movement. Many nuts and seeds are good sources of B vitamins. Information published in “Vitamins: Fundamental Aspects in Nutrition and Health” indicates that vitamin B-6 is needed to produce dopamine and serotonin, which are both essential for communication between neurons. Folic acid is needed by the brain to maintain memory and concentration. Vitamin B-12 is associated with higher brain functions, and its deficiency leads to symptoms very similar to Alzheimer’s disease. Examples of particularly healthy nuts and seeds include walnuts, almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, flaxseeds and sunflower seeds.
- “Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism: 5th Edition”; Sareen S. Gropper and Jack L. Smith; 2009
- “Biochemical, Physiological and Molecular Aspects of Human Nutrition”; Martha Stipanuk; 2006
- “Human Biochemistry and Disease”; Gerald Litwack; 2008
- "Nutritional Neuroscience"; Anthocyanins in Aged Blueberry-Fed Rats are Found Centrally and May Enhance Memory; C. Andres-Lacueva, et al.; April 2005
- “Vitamins: Fundamental Aspects in Nutrition and Health”; G. Combs; 2008