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Eight Nutrients for a Healthier Brain

By Laura Kunces, Ph.D. , 10/12/18, 1:30PM MDT


Over time, as the body starts to age, a healthy, well-functioning brain will have a major impact on quality of life

You go to the doctor to get your body checked out, but when was the last time you had your brain health checked out? When we think about nutrition, we often focus on weight and appearance or on preventing disease. But it’s time to spend some time thinking about our brains, because the brain will ultimately be the barometer of your health as you age. Over time, as the body starts to age, a healthy, well-functioning brain will have a major impact on quality of life. Here are eight nutrients you should be consuming, all of which can have a positive impact on brain health.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Sixty (60%) percent of your brain is made up of fat cells. Omega-3 fatty acids make up part of the outer membrane of brain cells, which is where nerve signals pass, making omega-3 fatty acids essential for a well-functioning central nervous system. Omega-3 fatty acids have also been shown to help maintain the body’s normal inflammatory response and protect against age-related cognitive decline.

Research shows a Mediterranean-style diet, centered around vegetables and sources of omega-3 and mono-unsaturated fatty acids, helps fight conditions associated with the aging brain, such as cognitive decline.*1  

Try to consume 250-500 mg each day of combined DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids if you’re a healthy adult. The best fish sources are fatty fish, such as salmon, cod, or sardines.  Vegetarian options include flaxseed or flax oil, chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, and algal oil.

Although yogurt is probably the most recognized dietary source of probiotics, they are in a variety of foods, including kefir, raw sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi, kombucha, raw apple cider vinegar, and traditional Greek olives. Probiotics are beneficial strains of bacteria or yeast that help balance the microbes in the digestive tract and maintain normal levels of inflammation throughout the body.

In addition to benefitting digestive health, probiotics also have a positive impact on immune function and they play an integral role in mood, mental health, and cognition. A 2015 research review suggests the gut microbiota play a significant early role through the gut-brain axis in how the brain develops, functions, and behaves.*2

Consistent daily intake of probiotics can help the gut maintain healthy composition and function while communicating and interacting with the brain.

B Vitamins
The B vitamins can have a beneficial influence on mood and mental performance. Maintaining an adequate B-vitamin level in your blood through diet and supplementation can help maintain normal blood levels of the amino acid homocysteine, which is associated with some chronic health conditions when it’s elevated.

Research has shown B-vitamin supplementation can slow processes associated with cognitive decline through the gut-brain axis.*3 A three-year supplementation of oral folic acid in older adults improved memory and information processing *4 – functions that are sensitive to aging.

Age, gender, and genetics impact an individuals’ recommended intake amount of the various B vitamins, so be sure to consume what you need. Foods that contain a variety of B vitamins include beans, whole grains, fish, dairy products, poultry, eggs, and avocados.

Betaine, also called trimethylglycine, supports methylation by helping the body produce SAMe. SAMe is a compound involved in neurotransmitter synthesis and supporting the brain’s antioxidant defenses.

Through SAMe, betaine also supports the synthesis of serotonin and dopamine, aiding against depression and neurodegenerative conditions. There is also evidence that betaine plays a role in maintaining healthy homocysteine levels in the brain – an amino acid associated with adverse mental health when elevated.

Betaine can be synthesized from choline or consumed in foods such as wheat, shellfish, and spinach. Betaine supports healthy mood.*5

Herbs, spices, teas, chocolate, and berries contain potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds, broadly categorized as polyphenols, which promote brain and heart health. Polyphenolic compounds have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body and brain and possibly lower the risk of developing age-related neurodegenerative diseases. There are many subgroups of polyphenolic compounds. Two of these are anthocyanins and flavonoids.

Anthocyanins, a subgroup of polyphenolic compounds found in blue and purple foods such as berries, can lower oxidative stress, which helps decrease inflammation and promotes brain health.

Dietary flavonoids are the largest and most studied group of phytochemicals and might reverse age-related decline in cognition by increasing neural connections and improving blood flow to the brain. Sources of polyphenolic compounds in foods are grapes, including wine, berries (blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, and acai berries), peanuts, soy products, cinnamon, hot peppers, cocoa, coffee, and both green and black tea.

Currently, recommended intakes do not exist for non-essential bioactive constituents in foods, but most health-care professionals agree a daily intake is necessary to maintain optimal levels in your system.

Creatine is made by the body in the brain, kidneys, pancreas, and liver, and it’s naturally found in meats, dairy products, and nuts. The brain requires 20 percent of the body’s energy even though it only accounts for two percent of the body’s mass. Creatine is involved in energy metabolism and plays a role in brain function and development.

Creatine is an essential regulator of energy levels and plays a critical role in a range of cognitive functions, including learning, memory, attention, speech, and language, and possibly emotion.*6 Research has found creatine supplementation is associated with reduced mental fatigue during simple, repetitive mathematical calculations and increased oxygen flow through the brain.*7

Your age, health, activity level, overall diet, and desired physical activity will dictate what creatine protocol to follow, but generally, 1-5 grams a day provides mental and physical benefits.

Caffeine, when consumed in excessive amounts, can be harmful to your whole system; but in moderate amounts, caffeine can have beneficial effects on brain health. In other words, depending on its use, caffeine can be used as a drug or a nutrient. We recommend caffeine for its benefits as a nutrient.

Research has found that moderate caffeine intake is related to decreased suicide thoughts.*8 Other research has found moderate caffeine/coffee intake is associated with a reduced risk of dementia or delayed onset of Alzheimer’s disease.*9

Caffeine is found naturally in cocoa beans, coffee, and teas, but the amount varies by source. A regular cup of coffee contains about 95 milligrams of caffeine. Upward of 400 milligrams of caffeine daily has been found to be a healthy limit for most adults.

The body is composed mostly of water, and maintaining optimal hydration is essential for physical and cognitive performance. Water is an essential nutrient because we require water in amounts that exceed our body’s ability to produce it. Proper hydration helps you think clearly, increase productivity, reduce stress, and regulate appetite.

Recommendations for water intake depend on a variety of factors, such as your environment and your activity level. As a general rule, drink at least one-half of your body weight in ounces of water or other naturally non-caloric beverages daily. So if you weigh 180 pounds, then aim for at least 90 ounces of water a day. Drinks that help maintain hydration and electrolyte balance include water, unsweetened coffee and tea.

1. Psaltopoulou T, Sergentanis T, Panagiotakos D, et al. Mediterranean diet, stroke, cognitive impairment, and depression: A meta-analysis. Ann Neurol 2013;74(4):580-591.
2. Kelly J, Kennedy P, Cryan J, et al. Breaking down the barriers: the gut microbiome, intestinal permeability and stress-related psychiatric disorders. Front Cell Neurosci 2015;9:392.
3. Douaud G, Refsum H, de Jager CA, et al. Preventing Alzheimer’s disease-related gray matter atrophy by B-vitamin treatment. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 2013;110(23):9523-9528.
4. Durga J, van Boxtel M, Schouten E, et al. Effect of 3-year folic acid supplementation on cognitive function in older adults in the FACIT trial: a randomised, double blind, controlled trial. Lancet 2007;369(9557):208-216.
5. Surtees R, Bowron A, Leonard J. Cerebrospinal fluid and plasma total homocysteine and related metabolites in children with cystathionine beta-synthase deficiency: the effect of treatment. Pediatr Res 1997;42(5):577-582.
6. Allen P. Creatine metabolism and psychiatric disorders: Does creatine supplementation have therapeutic value? Neurosci Biobehav Rev 2012;36(5):1442-1462.
7. Watanabe A, Kato N, Kato T. Effects of creatine on mental fatigue and cerebral hemoglobin oxygenation. Neurosci Res 2002;42(4):279-285.
8. Lucas M, O’Reilly E, Pan A, et al. Coffee, caffeine, and risk of completed suicide: results from three prospective cohorts of American adults. World J Biol Psychiatry 2014;15(5):377-386.
9. Eskelinen M, Kivipelto M. Caffeine as a protective factor in dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. J Alzheimers Dis 2010;20 Suppl 1:S167-S174.

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