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If you could look inside your brain, you’d find six trillion cells and a biological computer far more complex than anything ever created by Apple, Intel, or Microsoft. It grows, learns from experience, and adapts to new information.
There’s one other fact about the brain that’s pretty amazing: its structure and biochemistry depends on nutrition. After all, nutrients provide the biochemical building blocks of everything physical in the body. The production of new brain cells, called neurogenesis, lies at the heart of brain development. Vitamins A, C, and E, and the B-vitamin folic acid are essential for neurogenesis, or for turning generic stem cells into full-fledged functioning neurons. Growing research suggests that vitamin D may also be important to the brain as well.
Low levels of these and other nutrients during infancy can set the stage for problems later in life, just like a lack of nurturing and social interaction. For example, deficiencies of folic acid and vitamin B12 during childhood increase the risk of poor learning and mood disorders later in life
Incredible as it might sound, 60 percent of the brain consists of fat or fat-containing compounds. Essential fatty acids (EFAs) and phospholipids are among the most important dietary sources of healthy brain fats. They are needed for developing brains, and are important for thinking, memory, and balanced moods in adulthood.
Our moods—whether we’re feeling up or down—are regulated in large part by the activity of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters also play important roles in memory and other cognitive processes.
TLC for Younger Brains
Talk with the parents of young children and you’ll find that a common concern is their kids’ attention span and ability to learn. The brain is particularly sensitive to poor nutrition, and the first signs of nutritional deficiencies or imbalances may appear as mood and behavioral changes.
Feelings of sadness - Sometimes feeling blue has an obvious cause, such as grief, which can lead to profound changes in brain chemistry, other times the reasons may not be so obvious. Seasonal Affective Disorder—the wintertime blues—may be related to low levels of vitamin D during the shorter days of autumn and winter.
Nutrition Tips: Taking a high-potency B-complex supplement can often brighten moods.
• The herb St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) has been shown to help maintain healthy moods. 13 14 15 16 17 18
• A recent study in the Journal of Nutrition found that high-dose vitamin D supplements led to significant reductions in feelings of sadness. 19
Apprehension and Tension - Stress generates feelings of anxiousness and tension. Consuming large amounts of caffeine in coffee, tea, energy drinks, and soft drinks can amplify those feelings. Caffeine increases the body’s production of adrenaline and other stimulating neurotransmitters.
Nutrition Tips: The B-complex vitamins can often reduce feelings of stress; they have been considered anti-stress vitamins since the 1940s.
• The omega-3 fish oils (1 to 3 grams daily) and L-theanine (Suntheanine® specifically, 100 to 200 mg daily) are helpful as well.
Impulse Control - The addictive nature of personal technologies—email, texting, and tweets—have encouraged new types of distractions and impulsive-control disorders in children, teens, and adults. People on cell phones drive slowly and walk erratically, and who hasn’t noticed the annoying blue lights of cell phones in movie theaters?
Nutrition Tips: One of several different supplements can ease impulse-control problems. The omega-3 fish oils (1 to 3 grams daily) combined with gamma-linolenic acid (a plant oil, 100 to 200 mg daily) can be very helpful.
• L-theanine (Suntheanine® specifically, 100 to 200 mg daily), GABA (500 mg daily), and N-acetylcysteine (1,200 to 1,800 mg daily) will likely help as well.
Irritability, Anger, and Aggressiveness - Some people go through life with a perpetual chip on their shoulders, and often, their anger is directed at people and situations unrelated to the actual source of the emotional turmoil. Blood-sugar fluctuations, toxic metal exposures, and nutritional deficiencies and imbalances can set the stage for anger and aggressiveness. Researchers at the Pfeiffer Treatment Center in Warrenville, Illinois, found that the majority of patients with intense angry outbursts had abnormally high levels of copper relative to zinc.
Nutrition Tips: Two types of supplements can often help.
• One is a high-potency B-complex (or high-potency multivitamin) supplement.
• The other is omega-3 fish oils. • It’s also important to adopt a high-protein, low-carb, low-sugar diet.
Mood Swings - All of us have encountered people we might have described as moody or mercurial. One moment they can be pleasant, the next dark and brooding. Moods often track with blood glucose levels, and low blood sugar triggers feelings of hunger, impatience, and irritability.
Nutrition Tips: A diet relatively high in quality protein and low in starchy and sugary foods usually stabilizes blood sugar levels.
• High-carbohydrate and high-sugar diets deplete vitamin B1, so extra amounts (e.g., 50 to 100 mg daily) of this vitamin, combined with a high-potency Bcomplex supplement, might be helpful.20
• Chromium (500 to 1,000 mcg daily) and biotin supplements (1,000 to 5,000 mcg daily) can improve blood sugar levels as well.
Memory problems - Although occasional forgetfulness is not a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease, it can be worrisome. At the very least, it may interfere with our performance at school or work and undermine our self-confidence. It helps to remain mindful of and focused on specific tasks to reduce the effect of distractions.
Nutrition Tips: Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), one of the key omega-3 fats, can sharpen memory. 21 22
• So can the B-vitamin choline, although lecithin granules may provide a greater benefit because they also contain hefty amounts of phosphatidylcholine and phosphatidylserine.
• Gingko biloba supplements can also help memory (follow label directions).
• In addition, supplements of coenzyme Q10 (100 to 200 mg daily) and acetyl-L-carnitine (500 to 2,000 mg daily) may enhance memory.
Age-related cognitive impairment - In most cases, age-related cognitive impairment takes decades to develop, so prevention is paramount.
Nutrition Tips: Several studies have found that vitamin B12 deficiency can mimic the symptoms of age-related cognitive impairment. In these cases, replenishing vitamin B12 will restore normal cognitive function.23 24 25 26
• Other B-complex vitamins will likely be helpful in combination with vitamin B12. People who consume a lot of omega-3 fish oils throughout their lives have a lower risk of developing age-related cognitive impairment.
• The long-term use of beta-carotene supplement may help maintain cognitive function during aging, according to a study by researchers at Harvard University.27
• Some research as shown that phosphatidylserine can reverse age-related memory loss. 28 29
• While the breakdown of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter involved in memory processing and learning, is normal and necessary in a healthy brain, Alzheimer’s patients tend to have very low levels, and inhibiting its breakdown helps to compensate for these low levels. Huperzine A may improve symptoms of age-related cognitive decline, largely by inhibiting acetylcholinesterase, the enzyme that breaks down acetylcholine. The most effective dose appears to be 400 micrograms per day. 30 31 32