Do you ever wake up after a solid night's sleep still feeling sluggish and slow to respond? How about in the afternoons, do you start to feel your energy waning and it become increasing more difficult to concentrate on whatever task the task is at hand? If your answer is yes, then you aren't alone. It is very common for people's energy levels and mental stamina to have peaks and valleys throughout the day, or the week.
The common problem is that we tend to reach for caffeine or sugary foods to give us the jolt we need to get our levels back up. In reality this will only perpetuate the issue further, causing us to have a short-lived high before we inevitably crash a hour or so later. The ultimate goal here is to learn how to be aware and manage our own physical and mental energy levels so we are on a more even keel through the day, and therefore can maintain a steadier level of focus and energy on the things we need to accomplish. The big question is how can we do that in a healthy way? Well today we will focus on the fuel that we give to our brain. When we feed it the right combo of nutrient-dense foods, our gut and brain begin to work in harmony and keep us feeling lighter, focused, and energized.
How the Brain Is Affected By What We Eat
What we eat affects our brain not only in the short term, but also in the long term. Studies are beginning to link food to our cognitive activity each day, as well as linking it with increasing or diminishing risks for mental disorders, such as Alzheimer's disease. Just as your stomach, muscles, and heart feed on the nutrients that food supplies, so does the brain. The brain controls almost everything we do and when it takes in chemicals it can have an effect on how it works, both positively and negatively. Even more reason for us to focus on fueling our brain properly to keep it sharp and healthy longer.
Diet, exercise and sleep have the potential to alter our brain health, mental function and even our genetic make-up for future generations.... meaning what you eat today could benefit your grandchildren! This raises the exciting possibility that changes in diet are a viable strategy for enhancing cognitive abilities, protecting the brain from damage, and counteracting the effects of aging.
Below is a breakdown of the main fuels our brain needs, and how it breaks them down to function at an optimal level:
- Glucose: The brain draws nearly all its energy from glucose. Like a car in need of gas, if you don't pump it full of fats and sugars (which are converted to glucose) it doesn't run. While candy is high in glucose, it merely gives you a quick high which is inevitably followed by a crash. It's better to fuel your brain with foods that slowly release carbohydrates, which are then converted to glucose, such as whole wheat bread with peanut butter.
- Omega Fatty Acids: Specifically, polyunsaturated fatty acids, aka omega-3 and omega-6. These help strengthen the synapses in your brain related to memory and mood. Dietary deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids in humans has been associated with increased risk of several mental disorders, including: depression, attention-deficit disorder, dyslexia, dementia, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
- Amino Acids: Amino acids come from protein-rich foods and help connect the neurotransmitters which are essential for keeping your brain sharp. These neurotransmitters include: dopamine for proper immune and nervous system function. Norepinephrine for alertness and concentration. Serotonin for mood, sleep, memory, and learning. Acetylcholine for storage and recall of memory.
- Antioxidants: Antioxidants, like you find in tea or vegetables, help regulate the oxidative stress that destroys brain cells. The stress is caused when your body is converting glucose to energy and extra oxygen is created called free radicals. Antioxidants block them so your brain doesn't have to work as hard.
- Folic acid: found in various foods, including spinach, orange juice and yeast. Adequate levels of folic acid are essential for brain function, and folate deficiency can lead to neurological disorders such as depression and cognitive impairment. Folate supplementation, either by itself or in conjunction with other B vitamins, has been shown to be effective in preventing cognitive decline and dementia during aging and enhancing the effects of antidepressants.
Junk food and fast food, on the other hand have been shown to negatively affect the brain's synapses. Several molecules related to learning and memory are adversely affected by unhealthy and heavily processed diets; therefore it is best to avoid them as much as possible.
The Ultimate Brain Foods
Lets get down to what you want to know....what specific foods do I need to eat to ensure a healthy brain and longevity?
- Great Sources of Glucose
- Whole Wheat bread
- Honey/ Agave Nectar (in small amounts)
- Great sources of Omega 3 Fatty Acids
- Fresh Tuna
- Nut butters
- Kiwi fruit
- Flaxseed oil or Walnut oil
- Great Sources of Amino Acids
- Lean meat
- Yogurt (not the kind full of sugar)
- Great Sources of Antioxidants
- A wide variety of teas
- Any dark leafy greens
- Plants and fruits have developed mechanisms to deal with stresses in the environment. Because of sunlight, smog, and temperature they have developed antioxidant or anti-inflammatory capabilities. When we ingest them they are protective in our bodies as well....neat right!?
- Great Sources of Folic Acid
- Citrus fruits (Ex: grapefruit, strawberries, oranges, papaya, raspberries)
- Lentils, beans and peas
Optimal Eating Habits For Your Brain
- Eat slowly and intentionally throughout the day to regulate glucose levels: It turns out that too much of a good thing is just as bad as under doing it. The brain operates best with about 25 grams of glucose in the blood stream, which is about what you'll find in a banana. 5 smalls meals per day is ideal for your brain, rather than 2 or 3 big big meals that leave you crashing or ready for a nap. On the flip side, skipping meals is very counter-productive for your cognitive function as well.
- Lower your overall glycemic index: Not everyone has the luxury of grazing casually on food all day long, but you still want to moderate your glucose level. You can do so by lowering your glycemic index. The glycemic index is a number that shows how foods affect glucose level in your bloodstream. Foods with a low glycemic index release glucose slowly into the bloodstream so as not to overwhelm your brain. The problem is that a lot of these foods interact with each other so it's difficult to pinpoint what exactly works and what doesn't. For instance, if you eat protein with some whole wheat bread the glucose is released gradually over time, but if you eat bread by itself it causes a slight spike in glucose level then drops quickly. This takes some trial and error in listening to your body to learn what fuel it likes best.
- Get energized on amino acids: Two amino acids, tryptophan and tyrosine, can get through the blood-brain barrier. Tryptophan, as we all know from Thanksgiving turkey, has a calming, sleep-inducing effect. Tyrosine, however makes you feel energized. When the body breaks down protein it creates amino acids to help itself (and the brain) function. Fish, meat, eggs, cheese and yogurt are all great sources of this, and working in one of these elements into each meal is a good way to ensure your brain gets what it needs throughout the day.
Time to get Brainy
Enjoy picking some of these food favorites and working them into your daily, or weekly, diet and see if you notice a difference!
Health is Wealth
*** For more info on this topic you can reference some great books and articles I used as research this topic:
The Brain Maker, by David Perlmutter