Jellyfish don’t have one; neither do starfish nor sponges.
But moving slightly further along our evolutionary timeline of animal ancestors, nowadays we find brains in every living multicellular organism in the animal kingdom.
And, seeing that we are celebrating Brain Awareness week here in New Zealand, we thought it may be a good idea to dedicate a blog to foods and nutrients that have profound effects on the most complex organ in our body.
Our Amazing Brain
The largest part of our brain, the cerebral cortex, is home to about 30 billion neuronal cells. All of these neurons are related in clusters that have diverse connections to one another. Every time you form a memory, new neuronal connections are established.
The other type of cell in the brain is the glial cell. The main function of glial cells is to support and bind neuronal cells. What sets neurons apart from glial cells is that neurons can send signals to one another. These signals are sent along axons (part of the cell that connects neurons) via electrochemical pulses called action potentials. These pulses travel along axons at speeds of up to 100 m per second which isn't quite the speed of light (multiply that by 3 000 000) but it’s getting there.
Ends of axons are called synapses and once the electrochemical signal reaches the synapse, it stimulates the production of various neurotransmitters (e.g. serotonin, norepinephrin, dopamine) that travel across the synapse to another axon, where the chemical ‘message’ gets processed and redirected to another neuron.
The brain is super active, it uses nearly 20% of all the oxygen transported through the body by red blood cells. It is always working and never really goes to ‘sleep’, controlling heart rate, smooth muscle movement and breathing among other tasks – all whilst we are slumbering away in dream land.
The link between nutrition and brain functionality is increasingly being confirmed by scientific evidence. The way our gut affects our brain directly is being clinically investigated; one theory states that certain hormones from the small intestine are able to cross the blood brain barrier and enter the brain, hereby influencing brain function and cognitive ability positively and vice versa, certain brain enzymes can have an effect on our gut by modulating its metabolic activity.
So let’s take a closer look at how the nutrients we consume affect our brain.
Mopping up free radicals with Vitamins C, E and Lycopene
Researchers have discovered that many neurodegenerative diseases are linked to high levels of oxidative stress in the brain and so vitamin C has a potential therapeutic role in preventing this. Vegetables exceptionally high in vitamin C are capsicum and kale – fruits, are strawberries and kiwi (which sit just above oranges and lemons in per gram amounts).
Vitamin C is also responsible for the reduction of certain metal ions in the brain (particularly iron and copper) which can do damage if levels exceed a certain threshold. Vitamin C is also crucial for the regeneration of vitamin E.
Vitamin E is one of the predominant vitamins that aid in protecting the body from free radical damage. It is an antioxidant that has been associated in numerous clinical trials with preventing the neurological degeneration associated with aging. Tofu, spinach, nuts (almonds highest), olives, asparagus and sunflower seeds are all high in vitamin E.
Tomatoes are high in lycopene, another natural antioxidant which may protect our brain from oxidative stress. Watermelons and papaya fruit also contain lycopene.
Cleaning the Brain with B Vitamins
Vitamin B 12 (also known as cobalamin) is a crucial vitamin required for everything from DNA synthesis to red blood cell formation and overall functioning of the central nervous system, in particular the brain. It is also a major factor in converting fatty acids into energy when glucose levels are low. Several international studies have linked decreases in B 12 to the actual shrinking of the brain as well decreased performance in memory recall and several cognitive tests such as associative learning and visual spatial skills, particularly in elderly people.
On top of all this, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently released study findings that showed howparticulalry vitamins B 12 and B 9 (folate) are involved in the synthesis of various neurotransmitters in the brain.
The B-vitamins, in particular B12, B6 (pyridoxine) and B9 (folic acid or folate), are known to reduce levels of homocysteine in the blood by converting homocysteine to methionine where B12 acts as a co factor for the enzyme methionine synthase. Several studies have shown that high levels of homocysteine are associated with decreased brain activity, cognitive impairment and dementia.
These same studies showed that blood concentrations of homocysteine can be lowered by the dietary administration of B vitamins.
Many B vitamins are found naturally in citrus fruits, leafy vegetables, yeast and legumes (peas, lentils and beans) and liver. Many B vitamins are known to stimulate the production of neurotransmitters. Vitamins B1, B3, B6 and B9 are all involved in the conversion of serotonin from tryptophan, its natural precursor. Vitamin B6 in particular is important for the production of dopamine and norepinephrin.
Healthy Nerves and Nerve Growth with Vitamin D
We all know how important vitamin D is for bone health and that it promotes calcium absorption in the gut and elsewhere, but one major revelation of the last years was the discovery that there are vitamin D receptors throughout the brain and central nervous system.
Furthermore, researchers at British academic institutions (Manchester and Cambridge University) revealed results from two large-scale clinical studies that were conducted in over 5000 people. These trials showed how cognitive function was improved in people with optimum vitamin D levels and was reduced in those with lower vitamin D levels. The scientists believe this is due to vitamin D regulating those key enzymes responsible for the production of neurotransmitters vital for effective communication in the brain.
The findings from both of these trials also indicated that vitamin D may promote nerve growth.
Enhancing Brain function with Vitamins C and K
As well as being an antioxidant, vitamin C also appears to play an important role in the synthesis of norepinephrine. Norepinephrine is the neurotransmitter that regulates mood, attention span and overall brain function. The Linus Pauling Institute has discovered that a deficiency in vitamin C can result in a decrease in norepinephrine which ultimately affects other functions of the brain.
Vitamin K has been shown to enhance cognitive function and improve brainpower especially in old age. Foods high in vitamin K are broccoli, brussels sprout, spring onions, leafy vegetables (most notably kale but lettuce also has its fair share) and asparagus.
Amazingly, many dried herbs (such as thyme, basil, parsley and oregano) boast the highest (per 100g) amount of vitamin K of any food source.
Increased Energy through Grains
Our brains need energy to work properly. The brain, like every other organ in the body, obtains this energy through glucose and fatty acids being metabolised to yield the energy donating molecule ATP during the citric acid cycle. Our brain’s capability to focus and concentrate comes from a steady supply of glucose in the blood stream.
One of the most healthy and efficient ways to keeping the brain mentally sharp is by supplying it with glucose through consuming whole grain food such as bread, cereal and pasta – preferably gluten-free!
The best forms of gluten-free whole grains are qinoa, buckwheat, amaranth and millet. All of which are available in New Zealand.
Improving Memory with Blueberries, Sage and Fish
Clinical trials at several different research institutions have shown that blueberries are effective at delaying age-related memory loss and even improving memory in those who consumed them.
Blueberries contain polyphenolic compounds known as anthocyanins and these have been associated with increased neuronal signalling in the brain as well as improving the body’s use of glucose. All these benefits are believed to be linked to improved memory and decreased degeneration of neurons.
Studies have also echoed these findings in children, where it was found that cognitive function increased in those children who ate blueberries over a period of time – particular improvements were witnessed in memory recall and certain aspects of attention.
Sage appears to improve memory and most studies to date have investigated sage as an essential oil, but it never hurts to try adding some to salads or soups. Sage is yummy!
Omega 3 fatty acids have been linked to improved memory in the elderly. So stock up on oily fish.
More functional Brains with Omega 3
Research has revealed that people who have more omega 3 in their system have larger, more functional brains and improved memory. This is a scientific fact. In context, our brains have around 100 billion neurons; the total mass of these neurons is comprised of approximately 8% omega 3 fatty acids.
So, our brains are literally dependent on omega 3.
These polyunsaturated fatty acids are important for a healthy brain, in that they support the structure of brain cells, decrease the damage done by inflammation and oxidisation in the brain and also increase the production of important neurotransmitters (such as serotonin, our happy molecule).
Happiness through Omega 3
In 2007, researchers released findings from a landmark study in the elderly which found that those who consumed omega 3 supplements had larger brain volumes and increased grey matter – grey matter being that part of our brain that pretty much does everything; including controlling our muscles, interpreting sensory information, storing memories, making us think, talk and have emotions.
But possibly the greatest finding of all was that the researchers noticed that omega 3 increased cellular development in those parts of the brain associated with happiness!
The American inventor (of the light bulb among other things) Thomas Edison, once famously remarked that “the sole function of the body is to carry the brain around” – of course this was partially tongue in cheek but he may have been alluding to the fact that the food we put into our bodies has a direct effect on the way our brains operate. In that sense, the quote really does ring true, if you really think about it.
Happy Brain Awareness week everyone! Let’s all eat to our brain’s content.
by Christopher von Roy BSc, MSc, DCP Immunology
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