Learning Lab

Tiny Chemicals for Big Brain Power

By Amy Brann

The food we eat provides our brain with the nutrients and energy that it requires to stay healthy, be emotionally resilient and have clear mental focus. Often when we talk about a “healthy” diet, we focus on the levels of fat or carbohydrates (i.e. sugar) in the foods we are eating. And whilst these are important for maintaining the right energy balance, it is the finer details of what we are eating which is equally important to the brain. In other words, the vitamin and mineral content of your food. But why do we also need these micronutrients? And why is it especially important that we make sure we include them in our diet?

A chemical powerhouse.

Your brain is a chemical powerhouse. It has the ability to take the food that you eat, and convert it into the chemical building blocks that it needs to initiate the neural processes which in turn generate the thoughts, feelings and actions that you perform every minute of the day.

Maintaining the right chemical balance in your brain, and making sure all the crucial components are present, allows you to stay mentally sharp, to be at the top of your game and to cope with the many challenges of the day.

Importantly, although your brain has a remarkable capacity to generate many of the necessary chemicals it needs to function efficiently, these particular micronutrients can only be taken in through your diet. In other words, if you don’t eat the foods which contain them, then your brain has a gap in its chemical balance. A missing link which can negatively impact your brain power potential.

Here are examples of some of the essential vitamins and minerals needed by your brain (there are many others!).

Vitamin C for quick thinking and neuroprotectionvitamin C

Although most often associated with classical disorders such as scurvy, vitamin C is completely essential for your brain. Studies have shown that vitamin C has a critical protective role in the brain through its antioxidant properties. It also supports the creation of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and noradrenaline and promotes the formation of a substance called “myelin” which is necessary to insulate the neurons (like the coating on an electrical wire) so that they can more rapidly send messages from one brain region to another.

B vitamins for enhanced brain power and clear focused thinking

There are several types of B vitamins, one of which is Thiamine, otherwise known as B1. Vitamin B1 (and several other B vitamins) supports the generation of the brain’s master energy chemical – a molecule called ATP. It is also necessary for the creation of many of the major brain chemicals including neurotransmitters and steroids and therefore plays contributes to cognitive processes such as attention. Furthermore, when you don’t have enough vitamin B1, then it can cause mental confusion and, in extreme cases, delirium.

Other B vitamins such as B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B6, B9 (folate) and B12 are similarly essential for brain health. They also provide the chemical support necessary for the creation of your brain’s major (and minor) neurotransmitters (e.g. dopamine, serotonin, noradrenaline). So when you don’t have enough of them, you can end up with a neurochemical imbalance in your brain, which in turn has a negative effect on your ability to think efficiently and have good emotional resilience. For example, low levels of folate have been associated with an increased likelihood of low mood, and in more extreme cases, depression.

Selenium for neuroprotection and enhanced memoryselenium

Although you might not often consider how much selenium is in your food, it is a chemical which is completely vital to your brain. In fact, your brain gets priority access to the available selenium, above all other tissues in your body. Selenium has an essential antioxidant role in the brain and therefore helps to prevent degeneration of your brain cells (e.g. in areas important for memory). It also contributes to the actual firing of your neurons and therefore has a direct impact on your ability to learn, remember and pay attention.

Check out the small print

These days food labels often draw your attention to the sugar and fat content of the product. But with many of us increasingly living in a dietary era of highly-processed foods rather than fresh produce, we should remember that there is much more to food than just calories.

And that the true nutritious content of your breakfast, lunch and dinner often comes from the array of tiny vitamins and minerals which may (or may not) be found within each mouthful.

Each one is a hidden gem and is essential for maintaining a fit and healthy brain and creating a mental powerhouse for focused, resilient and sustainable thinking.

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