Food for Thought: Brain vs. Brawn?

It’s all we read about at the moment, every new article telling us how to reach our peak performance but what about the engine that drives us? Not your heart, your brain. This month Rochez O’Grady provides nutritional advice for keeping your mind sharp.

Our brain, comparatively larger than other species (although sometimes I have my doubts), is made up of 100 billion nerve cells called neurons. These essentially collect and communicate using electrochemical signals, and for them to converse with each other they use neurotransmitters, which are chemicals made from amino acids – the building blocks of protein foods.

They allow messages to be carried between neurons which influence mood, thinking and sleep patterns. The connections continuously change and rewire as specific vitamins and minerals are used in this process.

As we age our lights become dimmer and this is because of the neuron’s ability to communicate is reduced. Now we all want to stay bright and bushy tailed for as long as we can so here’s a few tips on keeping that good ol’ brain fit:

1.     Carbohydrates:

Carbohydrates, yes I said it, the dreaded C-word. The brain’s only fuel is glucose – this means that the 120g it guzzles up daily needs to be given consistently so eating every 3 hours helps to keep your glucose levels steady (eating small amounts regularly).

Sometimes you can experience symptoms such as light-headedness or dizziness and this can be a result of a glucose dip – which your brain feels. Speaking of which, how does your brain feel something? As glucose levels drop, there is a decreased level of dopamine, which is used to increase focus and concentration. Subsequently, an increase in levels of serotonin and adenosine also causes fatigue.

Glucose is the building block of carbohydrates so another benefit of eating carbs during training is that it lowers blood levels of your stress hormone, cortisol. Insulin is released as a result of glucose entering the body, which lowers the levels of ammonia in the brain and blood. Ammonia impairs muscle metabolism and is toxic to the brain.

 2.      Water

A no brainer really. The majority of our bodies and blood is water, and blood delivers nutrients to the brain. Try to drink 8 glasses of water a day; no one wants to shrivel up into a prune.

 3.      Omega 3s

The essential fatty acid, omega 3s, “essential”, meaning our body can’t make it so we need to get it from food. A big part of our brain sheath is made of fats. This healthy fat helps your brain to have effective conversing, reduces inflammation and boosts your immune system.

Not getting enough omega 3s has been associated with depression and other brain disorders. The best sources of these amazing fats are found in fatty fish, such as sardines, pilchards, herring, mackerel, trout and salmon. We should be aiming to eat those twice a week. Give it a try, a tin of sardines, once you get past the smell and look, it is delicious. If not, an omega 3 supplement will do. For those that don’t eat fish, walnuts contain the high amount of omega 3s too.

 4.      Antioxidants

They sound really healthy, but what are they? The most important brain fuel is oxygen. So much so that it manages to use up half of our total oxygen intake. A by-product of oxygen use are free radicals, which play a role in the deterioration of our mind and body. They cause us to age in all senses of the word.

You might have guessed it already but antioxidants are nutrients that can deactivate or slow down this effect. Sources of antioxidants are vitamins A, E and C and these are found in almost all fruit and vegetables. At least half your plate at lunch and dinner needs to be filled with salad and/or vegetables.

Phytochemicals are another form of antioxidants; great sources are fruit, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. A few examples of powerful sources include blueberries, blackberries, cranberries, raspberries, broccoli, oranges, red grapes, red bell peppers and kiwis.

 5.      B vitamins

Vitamin B12 prevents degeneration of nerves, brain tissue and the spinal cord. Animal foods are great sources such as milk, cheese, yoghurt and poultry. Try a supplement if you’re a dairy-phobe.

Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) helps to convert tryptophan into serotonin, which is our happy hormone. So try including chicken, fish, whole grains, nuts and legumes into your diet to ensure you’re getting enough B6. Folic Acid is needed to metabolise fatty acids in the brain. Green leafy vegetables, dried peas and beans will help boost your folic acid intake.

Knowledge is power, so feed your brain with the right stuff.

Sus the Essentials:

The three vital neurotransmitters are: dopamine, acetylcholine and serotonin.

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