Food for thought: Is your brain missing something?

By Bonnie Berkowitz and Laura Stanton

Our brains need certain nutrients to keep us happy, focused and functioning at our best. But moderation is key, and gobbling more of a particular nutrient helps only if you’re making up for a deficiency, said neuroscience professor Gary Wenk, author of “Your Brain on Food: How Chemicals Control Your Thoughts and Feelings.” How do you know if you’re missing something? Wenk said you can make some educated guesses based on your age, sex and other characteristics. Here are some nutrients that affect brain health and examples of people who may need to add more of them to their diets.

 

Antioxidants

Who may need more?

What do they do? Antioxidants delay cognitive decline by neutralizing free radicals, byproducts of our oxygen-guzzling metabolism that damage cells by causing inflammation. People who exercise a lot tend to eat more and breathe more heavily, which results in more free radicals. Flavonoids, one type of antioxidant, improve blood flow to the brain and enhance its ability to form memories, especially in conjunction with exercise.

Foods that have them: Colorful vegetables and fruits, red wine, cocoa, calf and beef liver.

 

Caffeine

Who may need more?

What does it do? Caffeine seems to protect the brain, although scientists are not sure exactly how. A dose of five cups of coffee per day has been shown to dramatically reduce early Parkinson’s symptoms in many people (although once the disease has taken hold, it can make tremors worse). Dark chocolate, which contains caffeine and the mood-boosting neurotransmitter anandamide, also increases beneficial estrogen levels in men, post-menopausal women and women who are in the first few days of menstruation.

Foods that have it: Coffee, many kinds of tea, cocoa, many sodas, dark chocolate.

 

Omega-3 fatty acids

Who may need more?

What do they do? Omega-3s are anti-inflammatory and an important component of brain cell membranes. A deficiency has been linked to brain disorders such as depression. Correcting a deficiency can boost the brain’s plasticity, enhancing cognition and learning.

Foods that have them: Salmon, tuna and other fatty fish, plants such as flaxseed, walnuts and other nuts.

 

B vitamins

Who may need more?

What do they do? The brain needs folate (or folic acid) to keep the enzymes related to energy metabolism humming along. If a woman is deficient, additional folate may improve memory and ease depression. Studies indicate it may also help protect the brain from dementia.

Foods that have them: Fatty fish, mushrooms, fortified products, milk, soy milk, cereal grains, orange juice, spinach, yeast.

 

Curcumin

Who may need more?

What does it do? The anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin, which is found in the spice turmeric, seem to protect the brain against Alzheimer’s and possibly Parkinson’s disease. Turmeric has been used in Asian herbal remedies for centuries to treat inflammatory diseases such as arthritis. (Bonus: Curcumin is also a powerful antioxidant.)

Foods that have it: Curry and some mustards contain it, and turmeric can be added to many foods.

 

Tryptophan

Who may need more?

What does it do? The brain uses this amino acid to make seratonin, an essential mood-regulating neurotransmitter. The brain can’t store tryptophan, so you need to get a regular supply from protein in your diet. Novice vegetarians who skimp on protein often lack it and within a week can suffer symptoms such as anxiety, irritability and depression.

Foods that have it: Eggs, nuts, spinach, dairy, red meat, fish, poultry (although contrary to popular myth, turkey doesn’t contain all that much).

Source: The Washington Post

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