Every thought and movement we make is controlled by our brain. It is like the human body’s headquarters. In this article, we delve into everything you need to know about the brain and what it does, why it’s important to nurture and keep it healthy, and what food and brain supplements work best for a sharp mind.
Basics about the brain
The grey matter anatomy
Among the brain’s most basic functions is to convert signals it receives from our five senses. The brain makes sense of what we taste, touch, smell, see and hear, providing guidance on how we should behave accordingly depending on sensory and environmental stimuli.
But in reality, the brain does so much more for us than just interpreting stimuli. The brain has three segments: the hindbrain, forebrain, and midbrain. Each segment fulfills a unique function.
The hindbrain includes the spinal cord, brain stem and a chunk of tissue called the cerebellum. Together, these oversee two involuntary, yet critical, bodily functions: breathing and keeping our heart pumping. The cerebellum in particular is what allows us to perform coordinated movement—such as when we walk, use a computer, or dance—and learn new actions, like when we perform a new sport or try out any other novel physical activity that requires us to remember steps needed to perform it.
When you move up the brainstem, you find the midbrain. The midbrain controls reflex reactions, plays a role in eye movements, and is in charge of helping us carry out voluntary, deliberate actions.
Finally, there's the forebrain, the largest and most developed segment of the brain. It’s mostly made up of the cerebrum where memories are stored, and where the abilities to plan and rationalise, make judgments and decisions, and act on these thoughts are anchored. The cerebrum is further divided into two halves, which you might already know as the brain's two hemispheres. The left and right hemisphere communicate with each other through nerve fibres found in the space between them. The left hemisphere forms the ability to form words, while the right develops abstract reasoning.
Within the brain are several other structures which themselves have specialised functions.
For instance, the hypothalamus, a small pearl-sized structure, is what wakes us up in the morning. It’s the tiny part of our brain that you can thank for releasing adrenaline during high-pressure situations such as when we have school exams or job interviews. The hippocampus, meanwhile, organises memories into long-term storage and fetches them when needed and the thalamus relays signals from the senses to and from the spinal cord and cerebrum. On the smallest scale, the brain is composed of cells called neurons.
Given this snapshot of the anatomy of the brain, you can see how complex the organ is. It can become susceptible to illness if not taken care of, including over 600 neurological diseases and disorders (1).
When we talk about brain health or making sure we maintain healthy brain functioning, we mean taking care of all of the brain’s structures, from the largest to the smallest, and from the most simple to the most sophisticated. By doing so, we essentially take care of our whole body that depends on a healthy brain to be well and essentially, to stay alive.
The importance of brain food
Research has found that feeding habits have always been closely connected to the advancement of human civilisation, and in turn the evolution of the brain as we now understand it.
Even in non-human animals, the way food is obtained and how energy is expended by the brain gives rise to the development of advanced cognitive skills needed to push a species forward. The study used the example of wildebeest, a herd animal, that travelled miles to feed in the savannah: this habit would need “complex navigational, defensive and cognitive conducts for survival”. It further illustrated that if an animal ate a poisonous food, its brain would learn and remember to avoid that taste; while if it ate a particularly pleasant food, its brain would in a similar way, associate it to the brain’s reward center (2).
More modern studies conducted in recent years have suggested that consumption of brain food rich in certain nutrients would nurture cognitive function and processes in humans. In contrast, foods high in saturated fats have become known for diminishing molecular substrates that help in cognitive processing and adding to the risk of neurological malfunction (2).
Eating more brain food
What a grocery list of brain food looks like
According to nutritionists, a balanced diet made up of fruits, vegetables and whole grains is the best kind of brain food. As for including protein in brain food, fish and plant sources are preferred, while healthy fats such as olive oil are unanimously recommended over saturated fats. As a rule of thumb, it’s even been said that each meal, or at least one meal in your day, should have all the colours of the rainbow represented. While our plates look extra vibrant, this isn’t actually for aesthetic reasons; colourful meals signify the presence of different minerals, vitamins, and other good-for-the-brain nutrients that your body will be happy to absorb and utilise.
Leafy greens and vegetables especially dark green ones like kale, spinach, and broccoli contain nutrients beneficial to the brain3. They’re packed with things like vitamin K (promotes strong bones, healthy blood vessels and maintains psychomotor behaviour and cognition (5)); lutein (linked to improving cognitive abilities in the realms of language, learning, and memory (6)); folate (needed for the formation of neurotransmitters, without which mood disorders are more likely to develop (7)); and beta-carotene (protects you against mental decline (8)).
Meanwhile, several varieties of fatty ang oily fish are abundant sources of omega-3 fatty acids and unsaturated fats, which are related to lower blood levels of beta-amyloid, a protein that contributes to cognitive decline.
Berries, on the other hand, have been singled out from other fruits due to their high content of flavonoids which not only give them their colour, but have been observed to improve memory. Nuts and seeds are a good source of Omega 3 fatty acids and powerful antioxidants, which are must have brain foods (40). The walnut has also been discovered to improve cognitive function as it contains alpha-linoleic acid, a type of omega-3 fatty acid, associated with lower blood pressure and healthy arteries. Generally, food that is good for the heart and blood vessels are good brain food as well.
How to adjust diets to include more brain food
Medical experts have also supported what is called the MIND diet, a blend of two previously existing diets: DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) and the Mediterranean diet9.
DASH is a research-based diet that highlights fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat dairy products, fish, poultry, beans, nuts, and healthy plant oils (10).
The Mediterranean diet, so named for the region whose cooking styles and flavours it adopts, is also plant-based with a focus on healthy fats and moderation in consumption of red meat, sweet and wine (11). Dark chocolate loaded with cacao flavonoids is an antioxidant known to encourage neuron and blood vessel growth in parts of the brain involved in memory and learning (40). Research shows that Blueberries with their Anthocyanin dyes, are known for their contribution towards improved cognitive ability, neurogenesis and growing brain cells (42). Other antioxidants and free radical scavengers are turmeric, broccoli, and green tea (41).
The hybrid diet has been shown to delay brain ageing by a whopping 7.5 years and reduce the risk of age or stress-related cognitive decline (9).
Taking brain supplements
The general rule of brain supplements
Supplements that support brain health are an increasingly popular addition of Vitable customers and Australians in general. Their convenience as well as the option to customise your supplement packs to contain only the minerals and vitamins you need for your brain health are what make it so easy.
However, even with the existence of quality brain supplements, the best way to feed your body brain food is still with a proper diet. Supplementation becomes an alternative if, for any reason, you’re unable to get the brain food you need from actual food sources.
Those with lifestyle or dietary restrictions, for instance, can benefit the most from brain supplements. Additionally, if you find it difficult to add variety and healthier components to your daily meals, or simply want to ensure that you receive sufficient amounts of specific nutrients, supplementation may be right for you as well.
Brain supplements to consider
Here are some supplements you can consider to be part of your healthy and well-rounded diet to support brain health:
This mineral makes its way to our body as brain food from a healthy diet. It’s not naturally found or produced in the body, so to make sure you get enough of it, you can get it from food sources like oysters, beans, nuts, whole grains, and poultry, or through supplements (12, 13). Getting enough zinc every day means you’re able to support brain function adequately.
Just like zinc, iron is a key mineral that makes up much of brain food but isn’t produced by the body. Due to this, our bodies require high iron in our diets. Those with healthy levels of iron usually have diets consisting of lean meat, seafood, poultry, beans, lentils, spinach, nuts and dried fruits (15). Iron comes from varied food sources, but often, it also comes in the form of supplements.
*Iron should only be taken if prescribed by your doctor.
This carotenoid is a strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent, produced by a number of freshwater and marine microorganisms, fungi, bacteria, yeast and microalgae. You can increase your intake of things like seaweed, prawn, crab, and salmon to get more of this brain food. However, seafood might be hard to come by for some or might not please your palate, which means that astaxanthin supplements could be worth considering.
This herb has been used as a tonic in the Indian Ayurvedic system of medicine as well as in Chinese herbal remedies for centuries. As an adaptogenic herb, it’s essentially consumed for its restorative and rejuvenating properties. Ashwagandha is widely used for its ability to support memory recall.
Ashwagandha is taken as a tea, in powder form to add to different dishes.
Magnesium helps the brain in a very important way: by maintaining cognitive function, thus ensuring that the brain continues to fulfill all its responsibilities day in and day out. For example, an animal study showed that increased magnesium protected brain capacities for learning and memory (25).
Magnesium as brain food is consumed through lots of plant-based foods. Readily available dark green leafy vegetables, nuts and legumes, and whole wheats all are magnesium-dense choices. If you’re not one to fuel up on veggies on the daily, magnesium brain supplements can be an option to take alongside your meals.
Vitamin B complex is actually composed of eight water-soluble B vitamins which perform interconnected roles that benefit brain health. Together, these B vitamins maintain brain health and also support nervous system health.
Specifically, thiamin (B1) maintains cell membrane structure including that of neurons; riboflavin (B2) is needed for the metabolism of fatty acids in brain lipids; biotin (B7) protects you from a host of neurological ailments; and vitamin B6 influences the rate at which neurotransmitters are synthesised (26).
This compound is the acetylated derivative of L-carnitine which delivers long chain fatty acids to the mitochondria for breakdown into fuel. It helps with the brain’s synaptic activity, also known as the transfer of information from one neuron to another. This supports the proper functioning of our central nervous system (29). In this way, it supports nervous system health and maintains brain function.
Eat more animal meat to get more of this brain food through your diet. Generally, the redder the meat, the more of this brain food you’ll get. Or, if you’d rather keep your consumption of meat at a minimum or don’t eat meat at all, it may be a good idea to consider adding this to your pack of brain supplements.
Cobalamin, as vitamin B12 is also called, supports brain health through mechanisms which may prevent nerve damage (30). It also maintains brain function given evidence linking low levels of B12 to neurocognitive disorders. Treatment with B12 and folate in patients with mild cognitive impairment could delay brain atrophy (31).
Even though you might have never considered vitamin C as brain food, it’s likely that you've already been taking it as a regular supplement. It does more than just boost immunity; it’s a brain food that you can get more of with increased consumption of citrus fruits, and it’s important for brain health because of how it helps the synthesis of neurotransmitters and maintains brain function (32).
Ginkgo and Brahmi have been historically thought of as brain tonics to enhance brain health. Those who subscribe to traditional Indian and Chinese systems of medicine may be familiar with these herbal remedies, as they’ve likely taken them as teas or used them as healthy flavouring agents to a variety of dishes (35). They’re definitely best enjoyed when you can taste them in their natural forms, but if preparation of these herbs as beverages or ingredients sounds like too much hassle for you, brain supplements containing them are your best bet.
Fish oil brain supplements are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, but you can also consume them naturally if you adjust your diet to include more mackerel, salmon or tuna, as well as nuts and seed (36). The collective benefits of a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids enhanced by brain supplements include support of nervous system health, as well as maintenance of brain function and health (38).
Eating brain foods goes a long way to keeping your brain healthy, to increase your nutrient intake and support your brain further, consider a multivitamin subscription from Vitable. These personalised vitamin packs from Australia give you the nutrients you need not just for brain health, but for other health aspects too. Make use of our nationwide vitamin delivery service when you sign up for the best vitamin packs in Australia.
Find out more about other areas that the above supplements can help you with:
*Always read the label. Follow the directions for use. If symptoms persist, talk to your health professional. Vitamin and/or mineral supplements should not replace a balanced diet.
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