The brain is the human body's biggest energy guzzler. The organ responsible for regulating all physical and cognitive processes only accounts for about 2 percent of the body's weight, yet utilizes 25 percent of its fuel supply. To function at peak efficiency, the brain needs constant infusions of vitamins and minerals from blood. When its nutritional needs aren't being met, the signals flashing between neurons may slow down; the membranes that protect brain cells from damage may deteriorate; and the result may be decline in both physical capability and mental acuity.
The eight B vitamins, collectively known as B-complex, are water-soluble, meaning that the body can't store them so the supply to the bloodstream must be replenished daily. The brain needs these vitamins to metabolize fuel -- glucose -- and regulate levels of homocysteine. Elevated levels of this amino acid are linked to cardiovascular disease and, according to a 2002 study conducted by Boston University and Tufts University, high homocysteine also poses a "very significant risk factor" for Alzheimer's disease and dementia. The most important B vitamins are folate and B6, both found in many grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, and B12, which occurs naturally in animal products such as fish, poultry, meat, eggs and dairy foods.
Vitamins C and E
Neurotransmitters are chemicals released by nerve cells that allow impulses to be conveyed to other neurons. Vitamin C is both a potent antioxidant and crucial for the creation of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, which affects emotions, learning, sleeping and dreaming. All fruits and vegetables contain vitamin C, but green peppers, citrus fruits, leafy greens and strawberries are among the richest sources. According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, vitamin E, another antioxidant, protects cell membranes and may guard against neurodegenerative diseases. Many types of nuts, vegetable oils and whole grains are excellent dietary sources.
Much of the research done by neuroscientist Frank Miskevich of Texas A & M University has focused on the critical role calcium plays in brain chemistry, especially during its dynamic interaction with proteins inside and around neurons. This process creates "signaling pathways" that activate genes and "change the proteins that the cell is making," Miskevich says, which changes the characteristics of the cell itself. Calcium signaling also influences the development of neural stem cells with the potential to grow into any kind of brain cell. By strengthening connections between neurons, calcium also boosts the stability of the brain's internal wiring. Dairy foods are rich in calcium.
Iron, Copper and Zinc
According to the Linus Pauling Institute, iron, a component of hundreds of proteins and enzymes, is essential for the development of certain kinds of brain cells. Zinc also has important functions in brain cell metabolism and deficiencies may impair learning, memory and ability to concentrate. A study examining copper and brain function published in September 2006 in "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences" found that the mineral had a previously unappreciated importance in learning and memory. "We've found that copper modulates very critical events within the central nervous system that influence how well we think," said senior author Jonathan Gitlin, a pediatrics professor at Washington University's School of Medicine.
- Linus Pauling Institute: Micronutrients and Cognitive Function Summary
- Harvard School of Public Health: The Nutrition Source -- Three of the B Vitamins
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Vitamin C -- Food Sources
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Optimizing Your Diet --Best Foods for Specific Vitamins
- Medill Reports Chicago; "Diet and Lifestyle Important Factors in Alzheimer's, Specialists Say"; Maria Bouseli; May 19, 2011