The 8 Most Important Brain Nutrients
Here at Pathfinders, we are all about the brain. We think it is the most powerful and interesting organ in the body. And like our bodies, it needs nutrients to survive and thrive. In this first part of the Brain Nutrient series, we will discuss the main nutrients that help brain function and whose absence makes things more difficult than they should.
In the next part of this series, we will discuss the foods that provide essential brain nutrition.
There are many nutrients that help the brain do all the amazing things we rely on it to do. Deficiencies in these nutrients may cause cognitive deficiencies and make disorders like ADHD and Dyslexia more debilitating.
Today, we will introduce the 8 most important nutrients that are essential for brain health and key to cognitive growth.
Glucose is the main source of energy all of our bodies’ cells use to survive and thrive. Our brain uses the most energy of all our organs, and so requires plenty of glucose to function properly. If our brain does not get enough energy, it becomes difficult for it to send and receive messages, causing deficits in attention, memory, and learning. Not all forms of glucose are created equal, however. Refined and simple sugars cause blood sugar to spike rapidly and drop just as fast, which in turn, lowers the level of serotonin in the brain. According to research, low levels of serotonin have been linked to anxiety and depression. Complex carbohydrates – found in whole grains, vegetables, and beans – provide a steady source of glucose for our bodies and brains and do not adversely affect serotonin levels.
Collections of amino acids construct proteins and are the main component of neurotransmitters, like the aforementioned serotonin, which allow our brains to send and receive messages. The body cannot produce its own amino acids, and so must get them from the foods we eat. In part two of this series, we’ll discuss the sources, both animal, and vegetable, for some of these essential amino acids. For now, though, remember our protein is only as good as its source. The healthiest proteins come from organic sources that are not treated with antibiotics, hormones or pesticides.
There is a link between low-fat/low-cholesterol diets and depression and suicide. Low-fat diets alter the levels of serotonin in the brain, which as we discussed, may lead to anxiety and depression. Now that you know fats are an essential part of a healthy brain’s diet, which fats are the healthiest? Unsaturated fats – both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated – are much healthier for the body as they tend to lower levels of “bad” cholesterol (LDL) and raise the levels of “good” cholesterol (HDL). Trans fats are the ones to avoid. They affect our cholesterol transversely of unsaturated fats, harming our cardiac health over time. Many of us are familiar with omega-3 fatty acids, which are polyunsaturated fats. We’ll discuss more sources of these good fats in part two of this brain nutrient series.
The B vitamins affect our mood and stress tolerance. Vitamin B12 is especially important for proper brain function. Vitamin B12 is one of the more common vitamins in which you can be deficient. This deficiency most often occurs in adults forty-and-older and have been linked to dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and depression. B12 is mostly found in animal products, but there are alternative sources and supplements to help boost this vitamin’s level in our bodies.
Magnesium is involved in hundreds of processes in the body and is one of the more commonly deficient minerals. Specifically, magnesium helps the body convert glucose into energy, interacts with mood and appetite, and aids in many cognitive functions, including attention and memory. Fortunately, there are various delicious sources of magnesium that might be an easy addition to our diet.
Many people do not obtain enough Vitamin D from sun exposure or dietary sources. As little as 15 minutes of sun exposure, over 25% of our bodies, can give us all of the Vitamin D we need in a day. This vitamin is important in producing neurotransmitters – like serotonin – in the brain. There are two interesting facts to keep in mind regarding Vitamin D. First, the Vitamin D found in cow’s milk has been linked to heart disease. We’ll discuss some healthier dietary sources later. Second, in order for Vitamin D to be properly absorbed, our bodies must first have the proper levels of magnesium. Everything is interconnected!
One of the basic supplies, a Pathfinders’ student will find at their desk, is a bottle of water. Hydrating throughout a Pathfinders session, and most importantly their day will help their brain send and receive messages more easily. Many of us are chronically dehydrated, which can affect our energy, memory, and attention. Perhaps this is because we’re not sure how much water we need to be drinking. There are various factors that contribute to dehydration, but an easy guide to finding out is by using our weight.
Divide your weight in pounds by two and you will discover the number of ounces of water you should be consuming each day. Drinking enough water is an easy way to take care of our brains!
Oxygen is one of the most basic necessities for our brain because it would quickly die without oxygen. One of the things, we at Pathfinders encourage our students to do, is take deep breaths. Breathing from the diaphragm especially helps introduce more oxygen to the body and brain. An upright posture increases our lung capacity and makes these deep breaths easier to do. Taking a few deep breaths is key to many of our brain breaks and is a simple addition to our daily life. Exercise is very important as it helps oxygen circulate throughout our bodies and brains. Adding even a few extra minutes of walking into our day can give our brain a big boost.
We hope that this post has provided a brief introduction to brain nutrition. Until part two of this series, we urge everyone to boost their brains with more Vitamin D, oxygen, and water. Next time, we will discuss the tasty ways we all can add glucose, amino acids, unsaturated fats, magnesium and Vitamin B12 to our brain-healthy diets.
- Stordy, B. Jacquelin., and Malcolm J. Nicholl. The LCP Solution: The Remarkable Nutritional Treatment for ADHD, Dyslexia, and Dyspraxia. Ballantine Books, 2000.