Learning Lab

Food For Thought. Debunking the Myths.

By Amy Brann

You are what you eat.

It’s an age old saying that we hear time and time again.

How our personal dietary choices affect our health. Our heart. Our waistline. But let’s move slightly upwards in our anatomy for a moment. And instead focus on those precious three pounds or so of flesh between our ears. Our brain.

It’s probably not the first thing you think about when planning your evening meal – “What do I need to cook tonight to keep my brain performing well?”

But you should be.

As the control centre of your body, not to mention the seat of all your thoughts, emotions and actions, it is of course important. But more than that. It is also highly malleable. And that means your dietary choices can change the way your brain works. The way it learns. Helping it. Or hindering it.

What’s fact and what’s fiction?

We often hear the news that we should be eating plenty of fish oils. 5+ portions of fruit and vegetables every day. And don’t forget that ever growing list of must-eat “superfoods.” But why are we told to eat these foods? What is the science, and the truth, behind their benefits for your brain? What is fact? And what is more like fiction?

(BTW I’m not talking here about the more obvious alcohol, caffeine, sugar, etc. – the effect of these is a whole other ballgame).

Well, scientists are starting to understand a bit more about the link between our diet and our brain function. And revealing some interesting findings. Like the fact that the bacteria living in our gut can affect how we feel emotionally!

But we’ll get to that later. Let’s first start by looking at some of the specific foods that are suggested to alter how effectively the brain works.

Fish Oils

Fish oils are one of the most common foodstuffs that experts recommend eating because of their “brain benefits”. And there is definitely some truth here. This is because of some of the components of fish oils, such as the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), helps form the cell membrane (a bit like the cell’s skin) of “neurons” – the cells of the brain. It is therefore pretty safe to assume that if you don’t get enough of this fundamental “building block” then it might have some implications for your brain’s health.

And this is exactly what scientists have shown. Insufficient fatty acids of this type have been associated with a variety of mental disorders such as ADHD, dyslexia, and dementia, to name a few.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that if you don’t eat fish, then you are going to get dementia. It is always more complex than that. It is just that the brain is a bit inefficient at synthesizing DHA itself and so prefers to rely on sourcing it from what we eat.

And DHA doesn’t just help protect the brain against these types of disorders. It also enhances the way we learn. The way we lay down memories. Helping us do this better. This is because it facilitates a mechanism called “synaptic plasticity.” And synaptic plasticity is the brain’s mechanism for learning because it fine-tunes the connectivity between our brain cells.

So next time you are meal planning, think fish (or even better, Mackerel or Atlantic Salmon).

and Chia Seeds

But you also have to remember that there are different types of omega-3 fatty acids too (good news for those of you who don’t eat fish!) like alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) which comes from plants.

And it is these plant based ones which are found in foodstuffs like chia seeds – one of the latest superfood trends, as well as in nuts and soybeans. However, the ALA has first to be converted into DHA to make it more valuable to the brain. And this means it is, unfortunately, less effective compared to DHA-direct option from fish.

Blueberries and Ginkgo – should we be skeptical?

Flavanoids are found in cocoa, black tea and other “superfoods” like blueberries and Ginkgo biloba. Most of the evidence for the benefits of flavonoids (such as the fact they are antioxidants) has come from scientific studies carried out “in vitro” which means they were shown on a petri dish (or similar) in a lab, rather than within the more complex biology of a living organism.

But there is also some evidence suggesting that flavanoids such as “quercetin,” found in Ginkgo, can modulate how well rats and mice learn and remember. And because there are similarities in the way rodents and humans learn, it leads to the suggestion that a similar benefit may also be present in humans.

Folic Acid

Another area where the evidence is quite good is with folic acid. It is found in spinach, bread (in the yeast) and orange juice, foods that many of us eat every day.

Studies show that folic acid is important for the healthy development of the brain when we are young. It has also been found to have a neuro-protective effect when we get older – in some instances even slowing the cognitive decline associated with old age and dementia.

Do bananas improve your mood?

But there are also places where the evidence is more sketchy. Take the example of bananas improving your mood because they are rich in tryptophan, a building block of the mood-regulating neurotransmitter serotonin.

Here you find potentially more hype than truth. Because there is a fundamental flaw in the story. Tryptophan from your diet – in other words from those bananas – struggles to get into your brain (it has to pass through a rather selective “wall” called the blood-brain barrier). It can only do so when there is much more tryptophan versus all the other “amino acids” in the food we eat – something that very rarely happens unless you specifically manipulate (or unbalance) your diet.

And if it can’t get into the brain. It can’t be used to make the serotonin which is so important for regulating our mood. Not that this is any reason not to keep eating bananas. It just shows that you can’t believe everything you read when it comes to diet and your brain!

Cooking inspiration?

And of course, there is various other food which is good (or bad) for your brain. A more comprehensive table of them all can be found here if you have the time to look. Maybe even use it for inspiration for you next culinary undertaking!

Back to those friendly bacteria

So what about those gut bacteria? Those friendly critters that live inside us and are essential for the smooth running of our digestive system. What on earth do they have to do with brain performance?

Well, quite a lot actually.

Because these “good” bacteria help us extract extra energy from our food. Up to 10% of our calorific intake in fact. Not an insubstantial amount.

But more than that. They also help regulate the release of “leptin” and “insulin,” two chemicals (peptides to be specific) which are important for managing our weight, as well as controlling how hungry (or not) we feel.

What’s potentially even more interesting is that studies have also shown that getting the right “microbiome” balance in your gut (think probiotics) is an important way to regulate your mood. It is helping you feel less anxious. Less stressed. Happier.

Although most of this research has been carried out in our cousins the rodents, there is also some preliminary evidence to show this effect carries through to humans.

And they have shown how it works too. Namely that the mood-regulating effects are mediated through a connection between our digestive system, serotonin (mood) and “brain-derived neurotrophic factor” – a chemical which is essential for growing your brain cells.

So take care of those 1000 or so different species of bacteria (yes I know – so many!) which live inside your gut. They are most definitely your friends, not foes.

And take care of what you eat.

For the sake of your brain.

If you would like to find out other ways that you can enhance your brain potential, then please get in touch with us at Synaptic potential.

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