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Feeding your brain

Keeping your brain in good condition can be aided by a good diet, and natural supplements can play a role too. Hannah Dare from health store and café Organico in Bantry, Co Cork looks at both aspects of brain support

There is a growing understanding of the links between diet and brain health, and especially degenerative conditions such as dementia. With this in mind we all need to keep a close eye on our blood sugars, and make sure we don’t fall in to the pre-diabetic category, which could increase our risk of brain disorders as we age. Cholesterol is also important in maintaining brain health.

Best brain foods

Did you know up to 70 per cent of our brain is made of fat? Fat is very important for proper brain function, but it needs to be the right kind. We need to get enough omega 3-fatty acids because these are the essential building blocks of our brain and are important for learning and memory.

We should try to eat avocados regularly, as they contain high quantities of monounsaturated fatty acids, as well as seeds and nuts, oily fish, eggs and coconut oil.

Vitamins in fruit and vegetables are essential for our health. For example, eating sufficient amounts of vitamin C-rich foods can protect against age-related mental decline. Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that helps fight off the free radicals that can damage brain cells.

Blueberries contain flavanols, a type of flavonoid, that gives them antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects that reduce and repair cell damage. Anthocyanins found in red, blue and purple berries can protect brain cells from ageing.

Dark chocolate may also improve the function of your brain. One study of healthy volunteers showed that eating high-flavanol cocoa for five days improved blood flow to the brain. Cocoa may also significantly improve cognitive function in elderly people with mental impairment.

Green tea contains less caffeine than coffee ,but enough to produce an effect. It also contains the amino acid l-theanine, which can work synergistically with caffeine to improve brain function.

Turmeric is an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory herb that has positive effects on many body systems including the brain. Curcumin, an extract of turmeric, may be effective in delaying or even reversing many brain diseases and age-related decreases in brain function and can improve memory.

Best brain supplements

We always start by recommending omega-3 for the brain, as so many people find it hard to eat enough oily fish. One that is high in DHA is particularly good.

Then lecithin, which contains choline, which is a chemical your brain uses to communicate. Clinical research suggests that a diet rich in choline can lead to a sharper memory.

We would also always suggest a good vitamin B complex - vitamins B6, B9 and B12 are often linked with brain health. They can help break down homocysteine, high levels of which have been associated with a greater risk of dementia.

We do also recommend magnesium, because it is involved in healthy brain development, memory and learning.

Other brain supporting supplements include:

Vitamin D – for anyone whose mood is affected by the lack of sunlight.

Vitamin formulations that contain magnesium – aid in calming the body.

A combination of rhodiola, chamomile, vitamins and magnesium combined with a multi B complex – for help if you’re really run down.

Liquid formulations that contain superfoods such as wheat grass, barley grass and spirulina, B vitamins, minerals and some ginseng for energy.

The role of probiotics

Probiotics can do more than improve your gut health. They may also indirectly enhance your brain, and many of the major brands have launched probiotics for the brain.

If our microbes get out of balance, say because of food poisoning or antibiotics, they may not be able to do their jobs. That can lead to dysbiosis, leaky gut and inflammation. That, in turn, may be an underlying cause of depression and anxiety. So a good diet full of fermented foods will benefit your gut and in turn your brain.

The role of omega-3s

“Omega-3 fatty acid DHA, uridine and choline all contribute to brain health,” according to CORU registered dietitian Paula Mee. “The maintenance of normal brain function and the quality of our brain cells depends on the availability of healthy omega-3 fatty acids. DHA is the most abundant fatty acid in the brain, making up to 40% of its mass. Our bodies can’t make enough DHA so we have to either get it in the diet or supplement. Food sources of omega-3 fatty acids include oily fish like salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, walnuts, chia and flaxseeds.

“Choline is an essential constituent of cell membranes and influences the production of important neurotransmitters. However, choline uptake from the circulation into the brain decreases with age. This may result in increased destruction of brain cell membranes, in a bid to produce sufficient acetylcholine, an important neurotransmitter the brain uses in learning and memory processes. Food sources of choline include eggs, beef, fish, poultry; broccoli, potatoes, mushrooms; quinoa, rice, and wheat germ; nuts and seeds.

”Lastly, uridine is one of five nucleosides that are present in our body. It is an essential building block for RNA (ribonucleic acid), involved in coding, decoding, regulation and expression of our genes. Food sources of uridine include liver, oats, fish, baker’s yeast, mushrooms, broccoli, spinach, cauliflower and parsley.”

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