Eating well is good for the brain. So, if you have exams looming, or you simply want to sharpen your wits, read on.
Many foods have been shown to improve mental acuity, boost memory, lift mood, help with concentration, and stave off the dreaded dementia as you age.
Conversely – and this should not come as a bolt out of the blue – research also provides evidence that eating junk foods not only makes you fat, it also shrinks your hippocampus, that part of the brain which is thought to be important for learning, memory and mental health.
Researchers at Deakin University and the Australian National University (ANU) have found that older Australians with unhealthy diets have smaller hippocampi, while older people with healthier diets have larger hippocampi.
Explaining her findings on the Deakin University website, Associate Professor, Felice Jacka, lead author of the study and researcher with Deakin University’s IMPACT Strategic Research Centre in Geelong, said that as the negative impact of unhealthy foods on the waistline of the population grows, so does the evidence suggesting that our brain health is also affected.
“It is becoming even clearer that diet is critically important to mental as well as physical health throughout life,” Associate Professor Jacka said.
“We’ve known for some time that components of diet, both healthy and unhealthy, have a rapid impact on aspects of the brain that affect hippocampal size and function, but up until now these studies have only been done in rats and mice. This is the first study to show that this also appears to be the case for humans.”
The results of the study, published in December 2015 in the international journal BMC Medicine, suggest that older adults who eat more unhealthy foods, such as sugary drinks, salty snacks and processed meats, have smaller hippocampi, while older adults who eat more nutrient-rich foods, such as vegetables, fruit and fish, have larger hippocampi. Gender, levels of physical activity, smoking, education and depression were taken into account during the study.
Professor Jacka said,”mental disorders account for the leading cause of disability worldwide, while rates of dementia are increasing as the population ages,” she said.
“However, it also points to the importance of diet for brain health in other age groups. As the hippocampus is critical to learning and memory throughout life, as well as being a key part of the brain involved in mental health, this study underscores the importance of good nutrition for children, adolescents and adults of all ages,” she said.
Your brain weighs only about 3lbs but it uses about 20 per cent of your daily calorie intake. What you eat must, therefore, affect brain function.
Among the foods now being recommended as ‘brain foods’ are walnuts, 13g of which daily can significantly improve cognition. Pumpkin seeds do the same job.
It appears that the humble blueberry improves memory, balance and co-ordination and a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience found an extract of blueberries eaten daily led to a reversal of nerve cell damage in rats.
Pure fish oil is full of omega-3 fatty acids, which are vital for a healthy diet, and are good for the heart too. If you can’t stomach fish oil, eat lots of oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, kippers etc.
While avocados are high in calories, they also contain healthy unsaturated fats, which help to keep brain cell membranes flexible, protect nerve cells in the brain and lead to a healthy blood flow and lower blood pressure.
Broccoli, rich in Vitamin K and Choline, can improve memory. It also contains folic acid, a lack of which can lead to depression and in the long term, Alzheimer’s disease.
Even dark chocolate has been found to improve blood flow to the brain, so don’t feel guilty about eating it occasionally.
Tomatoes contain lypocene, a powerful anti-oxidant which helps to protect against free radical damage to cells, significant in the development of dementia.
Wholegrains provide glucose for the brain to give us energy and their low GI (Glycemic Index) status, keeps us mentally alert.
Vitamins also increase mental agility, B6, B12 and folic acid all keep homocysteine in check, an amino acid linked to strokes, cognitive impairment and dementia, while green leafy vegetables, asparagus, olives, seeds, eggs and brown rice, all help to prevent cognitive decline.
The old saying, “you are what you eat” is turning out to be true, but there’s no one miracle food and a brain boost can’t happen overnight. Even so, regularly eating brain-boosting food will help you function at your personal best. So, get munching!