How balanced is your mood, how consistent is your energy, how sharp is your mind? And could it be that what you eat might have anything to do with that? We live in exceptionally challenging times. Some of us are rising to the challenge but most of us are struggling to keep up. Tiredness, anxiety, stress and even depression are common complaints.
The mind and body are intricately connected and there is mounting evidence that you can change how you think and even feel by changing what you put into your mouth. Of course, improving our mental health isn’t only about nutrition. Improving our mood and concentration can be successfully achieved with good nutrition and psychological support, including a calm home, being in a respectful environment, stress management and counselling, amongst other things.
It may surprise you that you can boost your memory and concentration at any age. Our brain, composed of a highly complex network of neurons, is made from what we eat. Thinking is a pattern of activity across this network. The activity, or messengers, are neurotransmitters, which are made from and directly affected by what we eat. When we learn, we actually change the wiring of the brain. When we think, we change the activity of neurotransmitters. This logic has led to numerous studies to find out whether optimized nutrition can improve the function of the brain and nervous system and help with concentration, memory and even increase IQ.
We now know that there are certain nutrients that can boost brain performance. Here’s what you need to know about them.
1. BALANCE YOUR GLUCOSE – IT’S FUEL FOR THE BRAIN
Glucose is the most important nutrient for the brain and nervous system. It is the fuel they run on. Our brain consumes more glucose than any other organ in the body, and on a sedentary day the brain can consume up to 40% of all carbohydrates you eat! If there’s an imbalance in the supply of glucose you might experience fatigue, irritability, dizziness, poor concentration and forgetfulness. But not all carbo- hydrates are going to give you the desired concentration or memory spike. All forms of concentrated sugar – white sugar, brown sugar, honey, glucose, and foods that contain them such as cookies, cakes, and sweets are “fast-releasing “– they cause a rapid increase in blood sugar levels. The more you eat them, the more you’re unable to maintain a balanced blood sugar level. Whenever we experience blood sugar issues, our brain suffers. It can lead to anxiety, irritability and yes, problems with concentration and memory.
Additionally, these foods are devoid of vitamins and minerals, which as we’ll see later are vital for the proper function of the brain. For an improved brain function, focus on foods with a low Glycemic Index and complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, legumes, fresh fruits and vegetables and avoid simple carbohydrates, such as refined, white and overcooked foods.
2. ESSENTIAL FATS – TO KEEP YOUR BRAIN “WELL OILED”
The brain is composed of 60% fat, if you take out all water. This fatty tissue needs replenishing, but it’s important to know which fats will feed your brain the best. Focus on getting healthy Omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA and EPA. Not only do they help with brain perfor- mance, but they can reduce inflammation, maintain water balance and help make prostaglandins – extremely active hormone–like substances. You will find omega-3s in plant foods, such as flax seeds, walnuts and pumpkin seeds, and the long-chain DHA and EPA in fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, sardines and algae. Minimize your intake of fried food, processed food and saturated fat from meat and dairy.
3. PHOSPHOLIPIDS – FOR MEMORY BOOST
Phospholipids are the fats that act as an insulating agent, helping make the myelin sheathes that wrap around all nerves and so support a smooth run for the sig- nals in the brain. Not only do phospholipids enhance your mood, mind and mental performance, they also protect against age-related memory decline. There are two kinds of phospholipids – phosphatidylcholine and phosphatidylserine. The richest sources of phospholipids in the average diet are egg yolks and organ meats.
4. PROTEINS – IMPROVE BRAIN COMMUNICATION
Amino acids – the building blocks of protein improve the way our brain talks. The words the brain uses to send messages from one cell to another are called neurotransmitters, and the letters they are built from are amino acids. These neurotransmitters are made directly from amino acids taken into the body from food. To ensure you’re having an optimal serving of protein make sure you eat two to three servings of quality protein per day and make sure you include vegetarian protein sources, such as beans, lentils, seeds, nuts, quinoa and tofu.
5. INTELLIGENT NUTRIENTS – THE BRAIN’S BEST FRIENDS
Micronutrients play many roles in the body, but they also help turn glucose into energy, amino acids into neurotransmitters, and simple essential fats into more complex fats like DHA and prostaglandins. They help build and rebuild the brain and nervous system and keep everything running smoothly. They are your brain’s best friends.
The B-complex group of vitamins are vital for mental health. Deficiency in these nutrients will affect how you think and feel. You’ll find them in whole grains, many vegetables, leafy greens, nuts and seeds, meat, fish and eggs. Getting enough calcium and magnesium will help you relax and unwind, whereas a lack of these minerals might make you nervous, irritable, and aggressive. Make sure you get enough magnesium by eating plenty of leafy greens, sesame, sunflower and pumpkin seeds. Lastly, zinc is a critical nutrient for mental health, but unfortunately many are deficient in this nutrient. Zinc deficiency is associated with depression, anxiety and eating disorders. It is found in seeds, nuts, wheat germ, meat and fish. Oysters are the richest source of this mineral.