The Link Between Nutrition and Brain Health

Brains require high-grade fuel in order to function optimally, and any deviation from this ideal may have devastating repercussions.

Nutritional interventions during early life can have profound ramifications for future cognitive health throughout a lifetime. Macronutrient under-nutrition or deficiencies of essential nutrients such as proteins, iron, folic acid or fats may compromise brain development and cognitive abilities (4).

Poor Diet

Diet is essential in providing essential building blocks for neurotransmitters and has a tremendous effect on brain structure and function. An unhealthy diet consisting of excess fats and sugars may impede neuron formation, increase oxidative stress levels, and contribute to mental health disorders such as depression or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

Diets that are rich in essential nutrients while low in sodium can play an essential role in improving mental health, including providing essential building blocks for monoamine neurotransmitters, being anti-inflammatory, supporting BDNF production and creating an ideal microbiome environment. Popular examples include Mediterranean Diet, DASH Diet and MIND Diet as effective choices.

Just as an expensive car runs smoothly on premium fuel, so too does our brain need high-quality nutrition in order to function optimally. Communicating to patients about the importance of eating a well-balanced diet can be an easy, impactful way to promote mental wellness; additionally it can serve as an alternative non-pharmacological treatment for managing mental health symptoms (APA Monitor on Psychology sister e-newsletter July 2018)

High-Fat Diet

Over decades we were advised to avoid fats at all costs as they are harmful to our arteries, leading to the widespread availability of processed low fat food and adoption of high sugar diets resulting in obesity and overall poor health overall.

This study revealed that eating too many high fat diets was linked to an increased risk of dementia among middle age participants. Researchers analysed blood samples from 3,000 participants, correlating changes in cognitive function with changes in their fatty acid levels over time.

Mice fed a high fat diet exhibited decreased expression of the tight junction protein Occludin and decreased Blood-Brain Barrier integrity. This may be caused by altered vascular components or impaired endothelial cell function; possibly as a result of neurons failing to compensate for Occludin protein with extra neurons providing compensation.

Additionally, a high fat diet decreased expression of AMPK/mTOR/p70S6K pathway proteins, possibly related to their energy status: less activation of AMPK would likely decrease production while simultaneously inhibiting activation of mTOR.

Trans-Fats

Trans fats are synthetic, chemically altered fats produced artificially that do not act like natural fats in the body. They are prevalent in processed and fast food as well as salad dressings, chips, muffins and pie crusts purchased in stores, where they raise cholesterol levels while contributing to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, low birth rates and obesity; in addition, trans fats reduce omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid availability – essential components needed for brain functioning.

Beatrice Golomb, PhD was inspired to investigate the effect of trans fats on memory after previous studies showed chocolate could benefit memory. She conducted tests with 645 healthy men’s ability to recall words and discovered those with higher concentrations of serum elaidic acid produced from partial hydrogenation of vegetable oils remembered 11 fewer words out of 104 than those with lower trans fat levels – even after controlling for factors that might hinder recall such as age, depression or education.

Refined Sugars

Refined sugar can be found in many processed foods and is sometimes listed as the first ingredient. While refined sugar provides a quick boost of energy, its effects soon wear off leaving you feeling fatigued afterwards. Furthermore, sugar may contribute to serious health conditions including heart disease and diabetes.

Brain cells rely on glucose for survival, but too much can hamper cognitive abilities and impair cognition. An excessive sugar intake may also negatively influence specific neurotransmitters that control mood, behavior and memory – for example rats fed high-sugar diets performed worse on memory and learning tests than rats fed less sugary diets in one study.

Your body and brain need the fuel of whole, natural foods in order to function optimally. When selecting food items, take note of their nutritional label to limit how much fat, sodium, cholesterol, carbohydrates and added sugar you consume – these are known to be damaging factors to overall health. Instead, opt for a balanced diet consisting of fruits, vegetables and whole grains as part of an ideal daily regime.

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