Brain Foods Week 1
“I can’t control everything in my life, but I can control what I put in my body.” - Anonymous
Growing up, you might have heard your mom tell you to eat your carrots so you don’t get bad eyesight, drink your milk to grow strong and tall, or that you have to finish your fruits and veggies to get dessert. Most of us have grown up knowing that certain foods may be better for us than others, but not many people know why. Believe it or not, our nagging moms were right about fruits and vegetables and there is actually science and research out there to defend them. Whether we choose to eat them at not, the idea that at least fruits and vegetables are important has become common knowledge. But now, there is a ton of research on how foods specifically influence our brains – including cognitive functioning, attention, memory, and brain aging. For the next four weeks, I will cover four of the most important nutrients for our brains: Omega-3 fats, vitamin E, choline, and flavonoids.
The first is my favorite and the one I tell people about most often: Omega-3 fats. Omega-3s are fatty acids that make up the cell membrane and are especially beneficial in our brains when it comes to making synapses, or the connections between neurons. Not only do these fatty acids affect our brain health and mental health, but they are essential for our hearts. When you eat a diet that includes Omega-3 fats, you are essentially giving your entire body a boost.
To begin, they play an important role in how our brain makes connections (synapses) between neurons, thus affecting our memory and learning abilities. These nutrients can be especially important for developing brains, when the levels of learning are the highest. As I explained last week, when we are taking in new information or working with old material in a new way, our brain is fundamentally making connections between relevant neurons. A diet that includes omega-3s can help our brains do a better job and can enhance our memory by influencing the strength of connections as they are made. In fact, there are several studies out there showing that kids who are deficient in these fatty acids may perform worse in school compared to others at their same level who are regularly getting Omega-3s. Some studies have gone as far as discussing how Omega-3 levels may also influence ADHD levels in kids. I will add that scientists have not officially proven the connection between ADHD and Omega-3 levels, so I cannot say this is a known fact, but there are lots of studies out there showing a relationship. If you find this interesting, I urge you to do some research yourself – you will be amazed at what is out there.
Beyond learning, Omega-3s are influential throughout the rest of your body by decreasing levels of inflammation. This is especially beneficial when it comes to reducing the risk of strokes or heart diseases because these nutrients decrease blood clotting by preventing the build-up of plaque. Not only this, but Omega-3s can help lower blood pressure and increase levels of good cholesterol in the body.
Finally, there are tons of correlations out there between Omega-3 levels and mental health. In general, a diet rich in these fatty acids is associated with lower risk for depression and mood swings. For the aging brain, Omega-3s can help prevent various diseases that affect memory, particularly Alzheimers. As I mentioned earlier, we need this nutrient to help young, developing brains make strong connections, thus influencing memory. But that doesn’t mean adults can go without Omega-3s – they are essential for increasing blood flow in the brain and preventing cognitive decline, aka build-up of amyloid found in brains with Alzheimers. Adults, too, are constantly learning, so Omega-3s will always be critical for memory and cognitive functioning no matter someone’s age.
“Okay, so I get that I need to eat Omega-3s. But where do I find them??”
If I wanted to get even more complicated, I could explain the various types of Omega-3s and which foods are best for each of them. But for our purposes, this is all too complicated. What you need to know is that the best source of Omega-3s comes from fatty fish like salmon. This is by far the greatest source of Omega-3s so if you can, I would highly recommend including this in your regular diet. If you are not a fish person and would rather find another source, foods such as walnuts, chia seeds, or flaxseeds are good options. However, the type of Omega-3 found in these plant-based sources is not as strong or efficient for the brain as fish. And the same goes for taking a fish oil supplement – you may be getting Omega-3s in your body, but lots of research out there discusses how nothing can replace the best source, which is fatty fish.
So whether you are young and working to increase the rate of everyday learning and brain development, studying for a test and hoping to increase memory, wanting to influence your heart health, hoping to decrease the risk of Alzheimer’s, or looking to improve mental health, I hope you’ve gathered that Omega-3s might be a great place to start. Everyone, of all ages, can benefit from them, so eat your salmon and encourage your friends to do the same!
Stick around for the next few weeks on some other quality brain nutrients and where to find them. After that, I will go into topics some of you all have requested such as how desserts affect us holistically, preventing (to the best of our abilities) cognitive decline, benefits of breakfast, … the list goes on. See you next Monday.
Betsy Blitch, 2/24/20