Taking Care of Our Brains

BY
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19 Feb 2019
Health

We all know by now the profound impact food consumption has on our health.  But when we think about food and health, we usually are thinking about our heart and circulatory system.  We all know that high consumption of healthy options and the reduction of poor quality processed foods can prevent heart disease and even reverse it.  But what role does our diet play in how our brain works?  Can a healthy diet help cognitive functioning, memory and our ability to pay attention?  Research of the last few years says, unequivocally, YES!

Multiple studies show that there are foods that boost different functions of the brain.  For instance, drinking green tea appears to be one of the healthiest drinks for enhancing mental processes. According to a study last year by Drs. Dietz and Dekker, green tea stimulates memory, focus and concentration.  It even seems to help reduce stress. 

Just like with our heart and immune system health, it’s the natural foods seen in traditional, non-western diets that seem to be good for the brain as well.  Nuts, seeds and olive oil are all good.  The main nutrients in these foods, oleic acid and polyphenols are integral to brain and they keep our central nervous system in good working order.  These foods are all anti-inflammatory and may even help prevent Alzheimer’s disease.  Nuts have vitamin E and B6 and are high in fiber.  A study from 2015 showed that those who eat walnuts demonstrated better memory and quicker reaction times than those who avoid walnuts.

Omega 3s fatty acids are important to all aspects of health.  Salmon, mackerel and herring all contain a lot of omega 3s.  This fatty acid activates nerve growth and as we said, it is an anti-inflammatory so is helps suppress inflammation in the nervous system.  This can also be taken by supplement but like any vitamin or supplement, it is best ingested with food.  For those who don’t want fish, walnuts and flax seed also contain omega 3s and so does olive oil.  Just be careful about overconsuming as some of these foods are very high in calories

By now this should come as no surprise.  Multiple studies have shown that high consumption of fruits and vegetables are crucial to maintaining a healthy mind and they slow brain aging too.  As we know, vegetables and fruits reduce the risk of atherosclerosis (plaque buildup in the arteries) and stroke.  That in and of itself prevents mental deterioration.  According to a study done in 2013 by Larsson, Virtamo and Wolk, vegetables improve cognitive functions such as verbal skills in the elderly. 

The following chart will give you a good idea as to which foods help with different aspects of brain nutrition.

Food

Active Ingredient

Brain Benefits

Oily fish (salmon, trout, mackerel, herring, sardines)

omega-3 fatty acids

prevents cognitive decay, decreases inflammation

Walnuts

omega-3 fatty acids

prevents cognitive decay, decreases inflammation

Hemp seeds

omega-3 fatty acids

prevents cognitive decay, decreases inflammation

Olive oil

oleic acid olecanthal (polyphenols)

decreases inflammation and

decreases amyloid deposits in the brain

Green leafy vegetables

lutein

improves verbal skills

Spinach

folate and B vitamins

improves mental capacities and memory,  reduces inflammation, enhances mental focus

Thyme

apigenin

enhances neuron growth in the brain

Chard

betalains

protects the brain from degradation

Broccoli

antioxidants and vitamin K

has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, improves memory

Cabbage and Brussels sprouts

antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin

protects the brain from degradation

Carrots

beta-carotene

improves memory

Pumpkin seeds

Zinc, magnesium, copper,

iron

  enhances nerve signaling

improves learning abilities and memory, improves regulation of nerve signals–normalizes cognitive abilities

Sunflower seeds

vitamin E

prevents cognitive decline, enhances memory

Asparagus

folate

prevents cognitive impairment, may ward off depression

Avocado

lutein

improves memory and cognitive skills

Peppers

luteolin

reduces inflammation

Beans

iron

normalizes cognitive abilities

Lentils

folate

prevents cognitive impairment

Black rice

anthocyanins

slows mental deterioration

Turmeric/curry spice

curcumin

slows cognitive decline

Berries

flavonoids

improves long- and short-term memory via activation of blood flow in the brain

Black currants

vitamin C

prevents cognitive decline

Grapes

resveratrol

enhances memory skills

Oranges

vitamin C

prevents cognitive decline

Tomatoes

lycopene and vitamin C

prevents cognitive decline

Green tea

caffeine, L-theanine and

epigallocatechin gallate

improves cognitive performance

Beets and beetroot juice

dietary nitrates and folate

stimulates blood supply in the brain,

improves physical and cognitive performance

Coffee

caffeine

improves cognitive performance

Dark chocolate

flavonoids

restricts or prevents age-mediated cognitive

decline and improves blood flow to the brain

Eggs

vitamins B6 and B12, folate,

and choline

improves memory and cognitive abilities

According to Dr. Konstantin Yakimchuk of both Harvard Medical School and Karolinsk in Stockholm, diet can influence brain function and cognitive abilities at any age.  She also cites studies that various healthy diets, such as the Mediterranean diet can prevent mental decline and dementia and can be protective against Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease as well.  As we know these diets are also protective against stroke and reduce the chances of having one by 46%. Eating any diet high in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and omega-3 foods is also suggested for people suffering from depression.  Evidence exists that depression is associated with inflammation in the nervous system so these type of diets help as they decrease the inflammation and the depressed individual may have some relief of their symptoms. 

Our food consumption literally effects every major function in our body.  By understanding how it influences brain health, we can, with Hashem’s help, ward off common diseases that can affect our brain function and keep our heads in good thinking and functioning order.  We all know that dementia and Alzheimer’s have been increasing.   Death rates from these diseases climbed 55% over the 15 years beginning from 1999.  But we can take steps to protect our brains just as we do our hearts and by doing so we will “add hours to your day, days to your year and years to your life.”

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.