Considering the enormous increase in emotional, learning and immune system disorders in our population today, one can't help but wonder what effect this widespread nutritional deficiency is having on the breakdown in people's health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most frequent complaint resulting in doctor visits is fatigue – either mental or physical. Some feel that this reflects the old saying, "You are what you eat."
The Concept of Eating for Brain Power
It is often thought that fatigue and a decline in mental alertness are the result of inadequate nutrients and oxygen in the brain, thus, leading to a decrease in brain function. For optimal mental functioning, the brain – like any other organ – has certain basic requirements.
"The neurons in the brains are like all other cells in the body, requiring delivery of nutrients and oxygen, as well as removal of waste," says Diane Roberts Stoler, a licensed psychologist and author of Coping With Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (Avery Penguin Putnam, 1998). "Adequate nutrition is a major consideration for mental function. The brain is a relatively small organ, but it's a hungry one – the brain typically eats up about a quarter of the energy produced by the body. As such, it's exquisitely sensitive to nutrient deficiencies."
Foods That Help You Think
There are many foods that are actually a great source of vitamins, minerals, nutrients or antioxidants that all help with brain function, thinking process, cognitive function and concentration. However, trying to decipher which are the best sources can be like finding a needle in a haystack.
"With so many choices and so many different reports, finding the right food source for brain health can often be a trying chore," says Dr. Earl Mindell, pharmacist, nutritionist and author of Dr. Earl Mindell's What You Should Know About Natural Health for Women (McGraw Hill, 1996). "From my research, studies and experience, I've found that many common foods still seem to be the best sources."
According to Dr. Mindell, finding the best sources of food for brain health is as simple as walking to your own kitchen. "I like the saying 'Keep it simple,'" he says. "For example, egg yolks are a good source of phosphatidyl choline, as are soybeans, cabbage, peanuts and cauliflower. Vitamin B12 is found in meat, fish, eggs and poultry and is essential as a brain vitamin. Gingko biloba in tea form or as a supplement helps with concentration. Another example is magnesium-rich foods, such as wheat bran, whole grains, leafy green vegetables, milk, meat, beans, bananas, apricots, dry mustard, curry powder and cocoa, which can prevent many of the problems that lead to impaired mental function."
Stoler says that one of the easiest ways to remember which foods are best for brain health is to remember to be colorful. And for those of you with a sweet tooth, don't worry. Stoler says there are many good properties for brain health in dark chocolate as well. "If you remember to add lots of color to your diet you'll be doing well when it comes to foods healthy for brain function," she says. "Proteins include legumes, nuts, fish, beef, chicken and eggs. Fruits such as melons and berries – especially strawberries and/or blueberries – are a great source of 'brain food,' as are green, orange and red vegetables. Of course soy foods should be added to the diet. And good news for chocolate lovers: Dark chocolate is a great source of brain food, in moderation of course."
Avoiding Refined Carbohydrates on Exam Day
According to Dr. Mindell, you should avoid refined carbohydrates every day, but especially when you have to concentrate. They will cause the body to secrete insulin, which can make you lethargic and hinder your concentration.
Just as there are many examples of foods that are good for you, and in essence, good for brain health, there are sources that hurt cognition, brain function and the ability to concentrate. "Many of the foods people rely on to help 'keep them going' are actually hurting them," says Stoler. "Examples of foods that are not so good for brain power, concentration, etc., and some alternatives include MSG (monosodium glutamate), alcohol, saturated fat, hydrogenated vegetable oils, trans fatty acids, sugar (processed carbohydrates) and salt. Avoid these foods and beverages for a better memory and better concentration."
Alternatives to the "Think Before" Foods
There are alternatives. Instead of reaching for a soda or a candy bar for a quick pick-me-up or a beer after work to unwind, Stoler says you may want to check into some healthy alternatives.
"As previously stated, many of the things we eat to try to keep us going actually are what is slowing us down – physically and mentally," says Stoler. "Some great alternatives are hard boiled eggs, raw vegetables, milkshakes made with soy milk, peanuts, an apple, orange, banana, grapes or even a few squares of dark chocolate."
Supplements for Brain Power
The benefits of nutritional supplements traditionally have been confined to the fringes of acceptability. But recent research supports the claims that nutrients, especially vitamins, can protect against a host of ills ranging from birth defects and cataracts to heart disease and cancer. Even more provocative to people are the glimmerings that vitamins can stave off the normal ravages of aging and decreased brain function.
"Supplements can be taken for improved memory and better concentration," says Stoler. "The best known and proven include choline, folic acid, L-Carnitine, pantothenic acid (vitamin B5), phosphatidyl serine, B1, B12 and zinc. In addition, some herbs to consider include bacopa extract, club moss (Huperzine A), gingko biloba and vinpocetine. If you have any questions regarding when, how much, where, etc., in regards to any of these supplements, talk to your doctor. He or she will be able to help you find the right supplement for you that will include one that won't interfere with any meds you may currently be taking."
Old wives' tales about the miracle powers of vitamins abound. Well, it's turning out that a lot of the old wives' tales are true. Although people didn't understand how or why certain foods, such as fish, are good for the brain, these ideas became part of our common wisdom. But the latest research has demonstrated that vitamins can, in fact, increase brain power.
"Mom's stories about brain food do have a basis in fact," says Stoler. "Fish, for example, is packed with compounds that help promote optimal mental functioning. The problem is, the most concentrated sources of brain nutrients are found in foods that most Americans have reduced or eliminated from their daily diets, like red meats, organ meats and eggs. I guess we can say that we are finding the answers and results by going back to the beginning."