In recent years, neuroscientists have discovered much about the development of the brain. We know that physical affection and experiences can leave their mark on the brain. We know that a balanced diet, regular exercise, and good quality sleep can increase mental abilities at all ages and stages of life. We also know that certain environmental conditions can have a huge impact on alertness, motivation and mood, which in turn affects the ability to think.
The brain is utterly amazing and although we don’t know all its secrets yet, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that food has a direct impact on its development.
Food for thought
The brain is an extremely busy chemical factory, which requires energy for more than one million chemical reactions every second. For these chemical reactions to take place, the brain requires essential vitamins and minerals obtained through the diet.
At least ten different B vitamins help in the formation of important chemical substances that carry information from one brain cell to the other. Brain cells need to be kept in good condition and B vitamins are essential for their maintenance.
B1 (thiamine), found in pork, yeast, cereals, and sunflower seeds, is essential for brain and muscle cell functioning. Low levels can slow down thinking, attention and concentration.
B5 (pantothenic acid), found in meat, whole-grain cereals, green vegetables, and eggs is critical for the metabolism of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Deficiency can result in irritability, tiredness and apathy.
B9 (folic acid), found in fruit and vegetables, is especially important during periods of cell division and growth. Folic acid deficiency during pregnancy is best known for its effect on the developing embryo, notably neural tube defects which result in malformation of the spine (spina bifida) and the brain (anencephaly)
Folic acid deficiency symptoms include fatigue, poor memory, headaches, irritability, confusion and difficulty in focusing. The symptoms are often subtle, which makes B9 deficiency difficult to diagnose. If untreated, the condition may result in anaemia which increases intensity of the symptoms.
B12 (cobalamin), found in meat, fish, milk, and eggs, is vital for the formation of red blood cells and cell division. Deficiency can lead to tiredness, memory loss, depression and poor resistance to infection. Prolonged deficiency can lead to nerve degeneration and irreversible damage to the brain.
Neural efficiency depends on the consumption of the essential fatty acids omega-3 and omega-6. Omega-3 is found in oily fish, nuts, and flaxseeds, and is a vital component of the insulating fatty myelin sheath that covers the brain and nerve cells. Low levels can slow down electrochemical signalling between the brain cells and affect the ability to think clearly and retain information.
Saturated factory-produced hydrogenated vegetable oils (trans-fats) found mainly in fast foods and processed foods such as biscuits, icing, crisps, and luncheon meat can form thick, hard plague deposits that clog arteries and reduce oxygen flow to the muscles, heart, and brain. It is extremely hard for the body to break them down. Trans-fats also deprive the brain of the omega-3 and omega-6 that it needs to work efficiently.
The secret of dark chocolate
Dark chocolate has been promoted as a medication and as a brain stimulant for thousands of years. Eating a small bar of dark chocolate daily can improve blood and oxygen flow to the brain which speeds up thinking and memory recall.
Dark chocolate contains epicatechin, one of a group of chemicals known as flavonoids vital to health. Dark chocolate has ten times the level of flavonoids found in blueberries, strawberries and spinach, and twice the number found in red wine.
Flavonoids dilate blood vessels through the production of nitric oxide which protect against heart disease, stroke and diabetes. They are also antioxidants, which mop up oxygen radicals that can damage brain cells and promote the growth of certain cancers.
Watering the brain
Water lubricates the joints, regulates metabolism and body temperature, moves food through the intestinal tract and makes up 82% of the blood. Water plays a key role in the prevention of disease and other ailments that can affect learning, memory and overall health.
Babies and young children are much more likely to become dehydrated than adults because they lose fluid more quickly. The key is to recognise the danger signs early and to offer fluids straight away. Symptoms of dehydration in babies may include dry nappies, a sunken soft spot on the front of the head (fontanel) and inconsolable crying. Constipation, dark urine, sunken eyes, lethargy and no tears when crying, are common signs in children.
Dr Lin Day