The Connection Between Nutrition and Our Brain

Feeding our bodies with leafy greens and lean protein does more than just help our waistline: it gives our brains a boost and contributes to academic success for our kids.

For most of us, though, thinking about nutrition and the brain is anything but interesting. In fact, it can be downright frustrating. The conventional wisdom about what makes for the best brain fuel seems to change with every new article we read, and we are reminded of all the ways we fall short of providing a healthy diet for our family.

However, once we understand a little bit about how the brain uses food, nutrition’s relationship to academic success, and which foods offer the greatest impact for our family’s brain health, nutrition talk can be almost, well, … compelling.

How Our Brains Use Food

Our brain facilitates the ongoing process of building and pruning neural pathways that control our learning, thinking, feeling, and our general sense of well-being. As we learn, the brain’s dense network of cells known as neurons are constantly seeking other neurons to connect with, connecting past experiences and prior knowledge to the new information coming in. To increase efficiency, our brains must also prune away old connections that are no longer useful. All of this is fueled by what we put into our bodies.

Our brain requires certain foods to be able to manufacture some key neurotransmitters, those chemical messengers that help this neuron-to-neuron communication take place. These neurotransmitters determine how primed we are for learning and directly impact our mood and behavior. A diet lacking in these nutrients can lead to mental and neurological disorders.

Since the brain is vulnerable to attack from environmental toxins that find their way into our bodies, as well as from naturally formed toxins developed within our bodies, it needs protection. What is the brain’s primary form of defense? Antioxidants from food. Studies have repeatedly shown that those who have low antioxidant intake suffer from increased illness and disease.

The Impact of Diet on Academic Success

There are many factors contributing to a child’s success in the classroom. Diet can either help or hinder a child’s progress.

Refined sugar has long been touted as a classroom teacher’s enemy. Sugar causes short-term bursts of energy followed by fidgeting, difficulty maintaining focus, potential headaches, and drowsiness. If a child eats a sugar-laden breakfast, they reach peak drowsiness around mid-morning, often during their most taxing classes. As sugar levels rise in the bloodstream, the pancreas releases insulin, which sends sugar into our cells in hopes of keeping our blood sugar stable. The more sugar ingested, the more insulin released, and the drowsier we get.

Sugar is not the only culprit associated with negative brain function. Trans fats and saturated fats have led to 1 in 10 teens and kids having high cholesterol. These bad fats push aside the good fats and get in the way of oxygen flow to the brain, as well as waste flow away from the brain. Reduced oxygen flow to the brain can be dangerous.

There are promising studies that suggest by increasing good fats and micronutrients children who struggle with ADD, Dyslexia and Dyspraxia can be especially helped through diet.

Children who had an increase of Omega 3 fatty acids performed better in reading, spelling, and had fewer behavioral problems according to Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, a UCLA professor of neurosurgery and physiological science. A deficiency in Omega 3s has been linked to depression, dyslexia and dyspraxia.

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Some studies point to zinc as an important player in attention deficit disorder, with some children benefitting from supplementing their diet with zinc sulfate. While studies like these show promise that changes in diet can positively impact learning for different types of struggling students, any type of supplementation should be discussed with your child’s doctor.

The 5 Categories of Brain Food

Carbohydrates

Carbs are the foundational fuel behind powering the brain. Limiting refined sugars and increasing complex sugars found in whole grains keeps our body’s insulin response lower, thereby reducing that mid-morning or mid-afternoon drowsiness. Refined sugars do more harm than just causing energy dips. They are the reason many are estimating that when this generation of children reaches adulthood, 44 percent or more will be obese and many will acquire Type 2 Diabetes.

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Good fat

Known as polyunsaturated fats, these good fats not only provide energy, but keep brain membranes flexible and able to send and receive information. The best fats come from foods that are rich in omega 3 oils. At the top of the list are:

  • Mackerel
  • Herring
  • Sardines
  • Fresh (not canned) tuna
  • Anchovy
  • Salmon
  • Trout
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Flaxseed
  • Broccoli
  • Kale
  • Spinach
Protein

Protein provides the building blocks for neurons and cell-to-cell communication.

  • Tyrosine found in avocados, almonds, bananas, and meat make up dopamine, an essential amino acid linked to motivation.
  • Tryptophan – most commonly linked to turkey, but also found in milk – produces serotonin. We know that higher levels of this amino acid contribute to a favorable sense of well-being.
  • Choosing healthy proteins – those that are not fried, flavored with chemicals and dyes, or injected with hormones – offer our brains protection from cell damage and better cell-to-cell communication.
Micronutrients

Our brains require small amounts of these nutrients to be at their best. Micronutrients aid in the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin and GABA, both of which contribute to mental and neurological health.

  • B vitamins found in dark leafy greens and whole grains are linked to concentration and focus.
  • Zinc, found in seeds, nuts, and red meats, helps with the repairing of cells, processing short and long term memory, and creating brain efficiency through pruning old neural pathways.
  • Calcium is commonly found in foods like milk, yogurt, spinach, kale, white beans, salmon, and trout. Calcium plays an important role in cleaning the brain of harmful substances that have found their way into our system.
  • Phytonutrients. These act as antioxidants, fighting off free radicals and protecting memory function. Phytonutrients are found in colorful fruits and vegetables.
Water

Dehydration is an enemy to optimal brain function. Studies have shown that by the time we feel thirsty, we may have lost up to 2 percent body weight and 10 percent cognitive decline. Children are especially prone to dehydration and, once dehydrated, they begin to avoid activities requiring energy. If kids can keep water bottles on their desk during the school day, they are far more likely to reach the recommended 8 glasses per day.

The Bottom Line

Setting up kids for success at school and setting up yourself for a healthy brain for years to come does not have to be complicated or a source of frustration. A few simple additions to the family diet can pay great dividends. Experts suggest eating fish twice per week, serving lots of cut-up colorful veggies, reaching for water before thirst strikes, and consider a quality omega 3 fish oil supplement.

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References

Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2011 Oct;50(10):991-1000. doi: 10.1016/j.jaac.2011.06.008. Epub 2011 Aug 12. Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation for the treatment of children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptomatology: systematic review and meta-analysis. Bloch MH1, Qawasmi A. – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21961774

“Action Plan for Managing Dyslexia/Dyspraxia.” Action Plan for Managing Dyslexia/dyspraxia. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Oct. 2014.

Freudenrich, Ph.D. Craig, and Robynne Boyd. “How Your Brain Works.” HowStuffWorks. HowStuffWorks.com, n.d. Web. 09 Oct. 2014.

Konikowska K, Regulska-Ilow B, Rózańska D. The influence of components of diet on the symptoms of ADHD in children. Rocz Panstw Zakl Hig. 2012;63(2):127-34. Review. PubMed PMID: 22928358

McKnelly, Christine. “Why Are Trans Fats Bad For Kids?” SF Gate. Demand Media, n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2014.

Norman, Philippa, M.D., M.P.H. “Feeding the Brain for Academic Success: How Nutrition and Hydration Boost Learning.” — Healthy Brain. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Oct. 2014.

Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry. 2004 Jan;28(1):181-90. Double-blind, placebo-controlled study of zinc sulfate in the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14687872

Wolpert, Stuart, and Mark Wheeler. “Food as Brain Medicine – UCLA Magazine.” UCLA Magazine. N.p., 09 July 2008. Web. 11 Oct. 2014.