THE IMPORTANCE OF DIET FOR YOUR BRAIN HEALTH & STUDY PERFORMANCEArticle Date | 30 January, 2023
By Fatma Hazal Sari, Lecturer in Health & Social Science, LSST Elephant and Castle Campus
Living a fast-paced life in a busy city, working and studying at the same time, trying to make time for our families, and showing up for our other commitments - no wonder we frequently find ourselves fatigued, not being able to focus. Fortunately, with some simple non-medicinal interventions, these symptoms can be improved.
The importance of your diet for your brain performance cannot be emphasized strongly enough, as science has confirmed that certain nutrients can boost your memory, help you learn, focus, and stay motivated. There are specific foods and ingredients that have well-deserved reputations as “brain foods”, which you should aim to include in your diet regularly. The idea that some foods may improve brain function may sound exaggerated until you realize that certain nutrients can:
➣ Boost blood flow to the brain
➣ Facilitate the formation of new brain cells (neurons)
➣ Restore damaged brain cells
➣ Aid communication between brain cells
➣ Prevent aging-related brain cell damage
➣ Improve symptoms of mood disorders, including depression and anxiety
Below is a detailed guide on what to eat and drink so that you can improve your brain health and performance in the long run, and have better cognitive performance in your studies and all other areas of your life.
1-Increase your intake of Omega-3 rich foods & supplements
Did you know that 60% of the human brain is made up of fats, and half of this is comprised of the specific types of fats called the “Omega-3 fatty acids”? Omega-3 fatty acids are the building blocks of all your brain cells. Hence, when we talk about brain foods, foods that contain Omega-3’s come at the top of the list. These fats are vital for maintaining optimal brain function throughout life.
Here’s another interesting fact you probably didn’t know: In ancient times, the human diet had a 1:1 ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fats. Today, however, for an average person on the typical Western diet, the Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio is as high as 15:1. Modern diets heavily favor omega-6 rich foods including processed foods, fast foods, and vegetable oils (corn, safflower, canola, and cottonseed). But why is this so bad? Well, because Omega-6 fats are pro-inflammatory, whereas Omega-3’s are anti-inflammatory. This means that Omega-6 dominance puts the body, especially the brain, in an inflamed state. The age-old saying “You are what you eat” becomes a reality in this situation. In persons consuming a lot of Omega-6’s (and not enough Omega-3’s); the Omega-3 fats that make up the brain cells become replaced with Omega-6 fats. As a result of this change in the composition of their brain cells, they are more likely to experience learning difficulties and memory loss (Sinclair, 2007).
Further, low Omega-3 levels in the body is significantly correlated to reduced brain size in the elderly, indicating accelerated brain aging (Tan, 2012). This means that, just by consuming more Omega-3 rich foods, we can protect ourselves from aging-related brain damage.
Top foods with the highest quality Omega-3’s include:
➣ Fatty fish (must be wild-caught, not farm-raised): Salmon, sardines, mackerel, tuna, trout, herring.
➣ Other seafood and sea vegetables: Shrimp, lobster, all other shellfish (oysters, mussels, crabs, squid, oysters, scallops), seaweed (algae), nori.
➣ Grass-fed beef,
➣ Free-range chicken,
➣ Egg yolks.
Making these foods staples in your diet will help you experience great improvement in your mental performance. Additionally, you can significantly benefit from supplementing with a good quality fish oil. Fish oil has long been linked to improvements in mental health and memory, and protection from dementia thanks to its abundant Omega-3 content (Cole et al., 2009). Invest in your health by making use of this natural remedy that will benefit you in so many ways, and has absolutely no side effects!
2-Increase your intake of antioxidants
I am sure you heard the term “antioxidants”, and that you should get plenty of them, but do you know what they actually are?
Many lifestyle and environmental factors including stress, high blood sugar levels, constant intake of processed foods (such as sugar, white flour, and vegetable oils), alcohol, and smoking cause an increase in the release of harmful substances in the body called “free radicals”. The excessive release of these compounds which are known to speed up the aging process by damaging cells and DNA is known as oxidation.
Antioxidants are compounds that deter the process of oxidation, therefore preventing cell damage. Our cells, including brain cells, have built-in defense mechanisms (antioxidants) to fight off this process of oxidation. However, the body’s ability to counteract the damaging effects through its own antioxidants may not make up for the unhealthy lifestyles most of us live. This is why we must opt for consuming as many antioxidants as possible through our diets - particularly with fruits, vegetables, and vitamins E and C.
Foods well known for their high antioxidant content include:
➣ Blueberries: High in minerals and antioxidants despite being low in calories.
➣ Dark chocolate: This cannot only increase blood flow to the brain but also reduce inflammation. The higher the cocoa content, the more antioxidants the chocolate contains.
➣ Green leafy vegetables: Such as kale, Swiss chard, watercress, and spinach are high in antioxidants and other protective nutrients for the brain3
3-Make use of anti-inflammatory herbs and spices
High inflammation is one of the leading health issues which interferes with physical and mental performance. The adverse effects of chronic and prolonged inflammation in the brain range from difficulty with concentrating to constant tiredness, and joint and body aches. Interestingly, the foods you consume significantly influence the inflammation levels in your body. While unhealthy food ingredients, namely sugar, white flour, and vegetable oils can increase inflammation; the below-listed herbs and spices help to reduce inflammation within the body, and deserve a place on your plate:
Garlic: Garlic has countless benefits; from immunity-boosting effects to anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties (Arreola, 2015). Garlic may easily be incorporated into a variety of dishes and salads; so make use of this valuable natural remedy as often as you can.
Sage: Known to protect the brain from oxidation, enhance brain function, and improve memory by reducing inflammation in the brain (Lopresti, 2017); sage can be brewed into tea, used as a spice, or alternatively taken as a supplement.
Turmeric: Used as a remedy for centuries to heal wounds, infections, colds, and liver disease thanks to its potent anti-inflammatory effects, turmeric is one of the strongest natural anti-inflammatories.
Rosemary: Rosemary not only tastes good in dishes, but it also helps prevent neurodegeneration by protecting the brain against free radicals (Burnham Institute for Medical Research, 2007).
Ginseng: A popular herbal remedy, ginseng not only exhibits anti-inflammatory activities but can boost learning and memory function (Kim et al., 2021). You can consume it as a tea, add its roots to recipes such as soups or stir-fries, or alternatively, you can take a ginseng extract supplement.
Ginkgo biloba is a herb with strong anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activities. When taken as a supplement, gingko biloba is effective for enhancing memory, minimizing age-related cognitive decline, and battling symptoms of dementia (Yang et al., 2016).
Green tea: Linked to improvements in alertness, performance, memory, and focus; green tea has also been found to help reduce inflammation in the brain (Dietz & Dekker, 2017).
There is a lot that we can do to protect our brain from age-related cognitive decline, keep our alertness and memory sharp at any age, and be on top of our studies. In this blog, we covered what foods we must consume more for maximum brain performance. Another nutrition blog on foods and ingredients that we must avoid or minimise in order to improve our cognitive abilities/study performance will be coming up soon.
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Burnham Institute for Medical Research. (2007). Rosemary Chicken Protects Your Brain From Free Radicals. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 15, 2022 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/10/071030102210.htm
Cole, G. M., Ma, Q. L., & Frautschy, S. A. (2009). Omega-3 fatty acids and dementia. Prostaglandins, leukotrienes, and essential fatty acids, 81(2-3), 213–221. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.plefa.2009.05.015
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