Important Energy Sources for the Brain

Your brain is the most crucial organ in your body, as it controls all of the movements and functions in the rest of your body. While eating a healthy, balanced diet is key to overall good health, your brain derives nutrition and energy from specific foods, primarily carbohydrates, but also from fatty acids, which provide fuel in the form of ketones.

Carbohydrates are the primary energy source for your brain. Credit: wenht/iStock/Getty Images

Carbohydrates and the Brain

The main function of carbohydrates in your diet is to provide energy and fuel to your body, especially your brain. Carbohydrates break down into glucose in your body, which is then used as energy. Complex carbohydrates are carbs that break down more slowly in your system, providing a more gradual energy source than simple carbohydrates, which can cause spikes to your blood sugar and energy levels. Complex carbohydrates include fiber-filled fare like legumes, starchy vegetables and whole grains. Between 40 and 60 percent of your daily intake of calories needs to be from carbs, ideally fiber-rich sources of carbohydrates.

Glycogen and the Brain

When your body produces too much glucose, it is stored in your liver and muscles as glycogen, where it can be used later on to provide energy for your body as well as your brain. Recent research on the role of glycogen as an energy source for your brain found that it not only provides necessary fuel, but that glycogen is crucial for communication activity inside the brain, as well as for maintaining memory function, providing necessary energy at a subcellular level. Researchers publishing their findings in a 2012 issue of "Frontiers of Neuroenergetics" also found that glycogen was also important for healthy general brain function.

Ketones for the Brain

Ketones are water-soluble elements that are created when fatty acids are broken down. Your body turns to fatty acids as an energy source for its activities, including for brain energy, when you body does not have enough glucose, either from diet or in storage. When your body is low on glucose, but glycogen stores are not fully depleted, ketones are broken down primarily to fuel your brain function, as your other organs and muscles can be fueled through stored glucose.

Importance of Protein

While protein does not provide energy directly to your brain, your brain needs it to create the necessary pathways for healthy brain function. All proteins, whether plant or animal based, contain amino acids, which your brain uses to produce neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters are crucial for brain function as they allow the individual cells in your brain to communicate and network. While most Americans get enough protein in their diet, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends a mix of animal and plant-based proteins, as well as eating seafood twice a week. The recommended intake is 5 to 6 1/2 ounces per day for an average diet.

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