Our mood, learning ability and memory are all affected by the type and quality of foods we eat.
Our brain is composed of the nutritients found in our diet:
Brain Boosting DHAs - These healthy brain fats help to enhance learning, memory, brain growth and development. Include DHA-rich fish (such as salmon, tuna, sardines, trout, herring, halibut and mackerel) at least three times a week.
Your body can also make DHA from the Omega-3 fat found in flaxseed oil and unsalted nuts and seeds - add to breakfast cereals or salads.
‘Feel good” Neurotransmitters - did you know that certain foods can influence your mood by altering the level of brain chemicals (neurotransmitters), such as serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine?
Dopamine and norepinephrine affect our brain process that control movement, emotional response and the ability to experience pleasure and pain. These neurotransmitters also make us more alert, excitable and talkative and help us concentrate. Dopamine and norepinephrine levels are increased by consuming protein-rich foods (such as fish, lean meat, poultry, legumes, tofu, nuts, seeds and eggs).
Serotonin on the other hand is our ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter, helping us to stay calm and happy. It helps reduce anxiety and relieves feelings of sadness and depression. Serotonin levels are affected by our hormones; this is one of the reasons why women can have big mood swing during their menstrual cycle and the menopause.
Serotonin is manufactured in the body using the amino acid tryptophan (which is an amino acids that the body cannot synthesise itself). This amino acid is also needed to produce melatonin, which is vital for sleep. Low serotonin levels are linked to depression, anxiety, insomnia and fatigue, therefore it is important to provide your body with food containing tryptophan (such as turkey, chicken, beef, fish, brown rice,eggs, cheese, nuts and bananas). Eating complex carbohydrates with these tryptophan-rich foods will help increase its absorption and enhance the production of serotonin (for example eat a turkey and salad granary sandwich or salmon with brown rice and vegetables).
Balanced Blood Sugars - complex carbohydrates provide the body with a slow and steady supply of glucose which won’t cause a sharp rise in blood sugar levels or spike in insulin. By eating foods that remain as close to their natural state as possible (such as foods that are unprocessed and unrefined and don’t contain added sugar, salt or fats) will result in more constant energy levels, reduced sugar cravings and a more balanced mood.
Don’t forget your 5 a day! Every meal should contain an abundance of fresh vegetables, fruit or salads. These contain key vitamins and minerals which are important not only for the functioning of your whole body but also for your brain to help perform vital tasks.
Certain B Vitamins such as B5, B12 and folic acid (found in leafy greens) support the healthy function of the nervous system ( the brain, spinal cord and the nerves), vitamin C (such as kiwi, blackcurrant, red peppers and citrus fruits) has been linked to protect against age-related brain degeneration. Red and purple fruits such as blueberries contain antioxidants called anthocyanins, which are effective in improving or delaying short term memory loss. Zinc is also vital for enhancing memory and thinking skills and the best source can be found in pumpkin seed which also are full of stress-busting magnesium.
As well as what you eat, it is also important when you eat. Eating regular meals will help you maintain steady energy levels. In particular, you should try to always eat breakfast as this will help your concentration and mental performance throughout the day.
And of course, don't forget to stay hydrated!
Nutrition for brain power!
(This blog first appeared in a slighty different form in a letter to parents of pupils at Taunton School, one of the UK's leading Independent schools, preparing for GCSE exams in 2016).
The brain needs a regular supply of fuel, just like the rest of your body. You can't run a finely tuned racing car without putting in the right fuel. It's the same for your brain. This finely tuned 'computer' needs the best and most appropriate foods or fuel to help you think optimally, for you to achieve the best 'thinking performance' you can.
The key is to eat regular meals focusing on good quality protein sources such as chicken, fish, lean meat, eggs, pulses and dairy products, alongside complex slow-release carbohydrates e.g. wholewheat pasta and bread, and plenty of vegetables.
Start the day with a good breakfast
The old adage, 'breakfast is the most important meal of the day' seems to play out in relation to academic performance (Kimber. C.P BSc Dissertation 2014). Children should always eat breakfast to ensure sustained energy for their mind, body and starting the day in good spirit.
Eating porridge or soaked oats (bircher) can be an excellent way to feed the brain to prepare for the day ahead and can be prepared the night before - see recipe below. Add fruit to porridge as a natural sweetener, such as berries (strawberries, raspberries, blueberries) or stewed apples plus some nuts and seeds for boosting brain power. Alternatives would be a slice of wholegrain toast topped with scrambled eggs and smoked salmon or mashed avocado on toast taking no more than 10 minutes to prepare.
Easy Bircher (serves 2)
Snacks – mid morning and mid afternoon
To keep your child sustained throughout the day and support memory and mood, add a couple of protein-based snacks in small containers into their school bag - oatcakes with peanut butter (or other nut butters), raw carrots, cucumber and peppers with hummus or a small pot of cashews (or almonds) mixed with pumpkin seeds and dried cranberries.
Lunch and dinners
Lunch should include protein, complex carbohydrates and fat as well as vegetables/salad:
Protein is needed for brain function. It is involved in helping the 100 billion brain cells communicate with each other telling you how to think, move, sleep, get up, remember and focus. When you eat a protein rich food, it is broken up in the stomach into individual amino acids, these are then reformed to make the chemicals needed to send messages between the brain cells. Good quality proteins are: eggs, grass fed and organic meat, chicken, fish, lentils, pulses, peas, chickpeas, beans, avocado, nuts and seeds.
The solid matter of the human brain is nearly 60% fat! It is well documented that the omega-3 fats are needed for healthy brain function – these are found in oily fish (salmon, trout, mackerel and sardines) so aim to eat at least two to three times a week. If you are vegetarian then flaxseeds, walnuts and pumpkin seeds include omega-3 fats that are essential for brain health.
Lunch/dinner ideas: Salmon with new potatoes and steamed broccoli or chicken/vegetable curry, brown basmati rice and crispy chickpeas, wholegrain pasta with pesto made with walnuts, basil, rocket and olive oil served with a salad. Packed lunches don't need to be constained to sandwiches; cold pasta is a great alternative in the lunch box with a small salad.
Eat a rainbow plate!
Colourful fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants and have a protective effect on the brain as well as being more attractive on the plate! Try to include apples, pears, berries, citrus fruits, broccoli, beetroot, sweet potatoes, carrots, herbs and spices into your daily eating.
Vitamins for the brain
Children should avoid fizzy drinks as these affect their blood sugar levels - whilst giving a short-term buzz it will be followed by an energy dip so definitely not good for sustained concentration!
And finally, remember to keep your child hydrated– ideally they should drink about eight glasses a day (equivalent 1.5 – 2 litres).
Did you know that by the time you feel thirsty you are most likely to be already dehydrated!
Colourful water bottles are now readily availble with filters and infusers so you can always add some fruit, slices of cucumber or herbs, such as mint, to give water a natural flavouring.
Get the new academic year off to a good start - feed your child's brain!
N.B. Water bottles should be BPA-free (a growing body of research links the chemical Bisphenol-A, found in many plastics, to higher risks of disease ( Rochester 2013).
Rochester JR (2013) Bisphenol-A & Human Health: A review of the literature Reproductive Toxicology http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.reprotex.2013.08.008