The U.S. ran an anti-drug campaign in the eighties and nineties that compared our brains to eggs: they can be mercilessly fried, or smashed violently around the kitchen if we expose them to toxic substances. While communicating the desire to protect individuals and families from decisions to pursue chemical assault, these ads failed to warn us about the neurological impact of molecules in a more common source: the food we consume every day. Instead of echoing the online hype about harmful artificial additives in modern food products, this article will focus on micronutrients that promote brain health, based on recent scientific evidence.
B vitamins help synthesize the neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin, and melatonin. If the brain does not have enough of these molecules, our mood, emotions and sleep may be compromised. Research shows that folate and other B vitamins can help prevent age-related cognitive decline and dementia. Physician case reports of mania and obsessive compulsive disorder point to Vitamin B12 deficiency as a primary or secondary condition. B vitamin supplements can also treat and reduce symptoms of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression and anxiety. Find B vitamins in both animal and vegetable sources, including greens, beets, orange juice, yeast, and many nuts and beans.
Iron improves overall brain function, focus and mood. Anemia or iron deficiency is correlated with many types of impairments in both adults and children, including effects on memory and learning, motor coordination, emotions and social engagement. Scientists have been uncovering the ways iron impacts dopamine pathways and enzyme activity in the brain for only a few decades. Food sources of iron include beans, peas, dark green leafy vegetables, dried fruit, fortified cereals and pastas, and a variety of meat and seafood.
This mineral supplement has been shown to improve mood for people who suffer from depression. While not always an alternative for medication, magnesium provides support for essential functions throughout the body, including how we manage stress and anxiety. Muscle relaxation and cellular energy production both depend on the presence of magnesium. Food sources of magnesium include whole grains, beans, leafy green vegetables and nuts.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
How does a polyunsaturated fat molecule contribute to learning, memory, and personality? Research supports the idea that omega-3 fatty acids influence brain plasticity, or how our brains adapt and physically change over time. Cell membranes need omega-3s to regulate signaling and other protein and gene activity. A 2017 study shows how omega-3 fatty acids might support gray matter structure in the frontoparietal cortex of the brain. Deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids can lead to depression, attention-deficit disorder, and other cognitive effects. Salmon, sardines, walnuts, and seeds like hemp and flax are all good sources of omega-3s.
A quick search on PubMed reveals that clinicians and scientists have been studying vitamin D in correlation with Alzheimer’s, dementia, migraine headache, depression, acute stroke and cognitive performance. With so many associated risks, it is important to recognize the role of vitamin D in both brain and cardiovascular health. Eat eggs, meat and seafood or fortified foods like cereals, tofu, nut milks and orange juice for healthy doses of vitamin D, or go outside without sunscreen for ten minutes and let your skin manufacture it for you!
This essential trace element may help protect memory, alertness and mood. Impairment in cognitive performance has been observed in both children and adults with zinc deficiency, including those who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. Zinc is important for protein synthesis, enzyme activity, immune system function and many developmental processes. Get zinc in beans, nuts, whole grains, fortified cereals, eggs, meat, and seafood, especially oysters.
Specific diseases are discussed here not to scare readers, but to illustrate the importance of micronutrients for improving brain function! Scientists may be more likely to receive funding if they show that their work is relevant to a common disease area, so just because some research articles link micronutrient deficiency to a particular condition, that does not exclude less significant health effects such as minor mood disruption. This article is not intended to diagnose or treat any medical condition, but to report what current science is saying about nutrition and brain health. Genetics also plays a role in how well some of us absorb and process vitamins and minerals, so not everyone needs the same amount of these micronutrients. Physicians, nutritionists, registered dietitians and other certified health specialists may be more qualified to recommend personalized supplement doses and dietary sources. Herbal medicine is a growing area of science that will be exciting to follow, too: a 2016 research study suggests benefits of cinnamon for Alzheimer’s disease. Consider all these micronutrients and naturally-occurring substances if you want to enjoy a healthy mind for years to come!
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