8 Nutritional Strategies To Increase Your Brain Power

by | Updated May 3, 2022 | Brain Health

For optimal brain health and mental acuity, optimal nutrition is essential. The best diets are not only beneficial to the entire body, they look good and taste good! This blog examines the effects of food on brain health.

How Are Your Connections?

Synapses are microscopic points of communication between nerve cells that are heavily involved in memory, learning, habit formation, and the development of talent and character. A neural circuit is composed of neurons and their synapses. Our lifestyle choices substantially impact synapses and their neural circuits. For example: Recurrent use of a particular neural circuit for learning (such as learning a musical instrument) increases the size, number, and efficiency of the involved synapses. Repeated use of a brain circuit results in easier and faster learning and therefore practice, when done correctly, indeed makes performance perfect.

Non-use, however, causes atrophy of the synapses that will eventually be manifested in slower reaction times and less rapid processing of information in the under-active areas of the brain. In other words, disuse of a neural circuit causes the synapses in that particular circuit to atrophy which diminishes the capacity to learn. These two features are known as synaptic plasticity. As we learn, new connections of synaptic networks are either being formed or strengthened. In this article, we will describe eight nutritional strategies that improve synaptic and brain plasticity.

BDNF, Habits, and Brain Health

Brain-derived nerve growth factor (BDNF) is a protein that acts as a “fertilizer” to synapses. Not only that, BDNF protects brain cells and, in certain key areas of the brain, helps to regenerate brain cells. The abundant presence of BDNF predicts the ease of learning. When it is in short supply, learning is more difficult. BDNF also exerts anti-depressive actions. Scientific evidence now suggests that brain-derived nerve growth factor and its precursor are decreased in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Depressed individuals often have a low BDNF level. BDNF is also reduced in chronic or acute stress, especially if a deficiency exists in the hippocampi. This area, embedded in the temporal lobes, is important for storing memories and retrieving them, learning, and mood regulation.

BDNF is more than a brain cell fertilizer; it also helps to control food intake and appetite as well as lipid and glucose metabolism. BDNF also exerts anti-depressive actions. BDNF deficiency has been observed in obesity, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and vascular diseases. By the way, these four conditions significantly increase the risk for cognitive decline and dementia. The first three are associated with shrinkage of key areas in the brain.

Enjoy a Plant-Based Diet and Skip the Typical Western Diet

A review found “robust evidence for short- to-moderate-term beneficial effects of plant-based diets versus conventional diets (duration ≤ 24 months) on weight status, energy, metabolism, and systemic inflammation in healthy participants, obese, and type-2 diabetes patients.”1 Both obesity and depression increase the risk of dementia.

Unfortunately, the Western diet reduces BDNF and encourages inflammation inside the brain. Specifically, overeating and a diet high in saturated fat and sugar decreases brain-derived nerve growth factor. It even starts in the mother’s womb. A diet excessive in saturated fats during pregnancy significantly reduces the raw material necessary to produce BDNF and several other growth factors necessary for the developing brain. This highly saturated fat diet is associated with learning deficits in the offspring. Other data suggest that saturated fat, hydrogenated fat, and cholesterol can profoundly impair memory and may cause detrimental changes to the biochemistry and structure of the hippocampus.

Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet

Plant proteins have zero cholesterol and are generally low in saturated fats; therefore, it is beneficial to get your protein from plant sources rather than animal foods. Healthy blood vessels are essential for a healthy brain. Even one meal high in saturated fats can impair one’s ability to concentrate.(Kiecolt-Glaser, Janice K et al., Afternoon distraction: a high-saturated-fat meal and endotoxemia impact postmeal attention in a randomized crossover trial. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2020; https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/111/6/1150/5835679)) Animal studies reveal that even certain saturated fats from plant sources, such as palmitic acid from palm, increase brain inflammation and susceptibility to depressive-like symptoms.2

Better Gut Microflora

The gut influences the brain and even your mood through several different mechanisms. One such way is the gut microflora. Friendly gut bacteria generate anti-inflammatory compounds that protect from chronic diseases that negatively impact brain function. In contrast, unfriendly bacteria produce pro-inflammatory compounds that encourage chronic illness and brain dysfunction. Saturated fats from animal products decrease friendly gut bacteria populations while increasing populations of unfavorable gut microflora.3

A well-balanced, vegetarian or vegan diet, chiefly consisting of whole plant foods, effectively promotes a diverse ecosystem of beneficial bacteria to support both gut microbiome and overall health.4

One important caveat here: Vitamin B-12 is important for any protein synthesis to occur in the brain. Deficiency or even a low normal level of this vitamin can lead to serious mental decline and even psychiatric problems. Since it is very rare to find vitamin B-12 in any measurable amounts in plant foods, vegetarians must be sure to get it either from fortified food or through supplementation.

Eat Only for Strength

Consumption of excess calories reduces synaptic plasticity and increases the vulnerability of brain cells to free radical damage.5 Wise calorie restriction (if one is obese) and fasting for short periods stimulate the production of proteins that enhance the growth, size, and efficiency of synapses. Plus, wise calorie restriction promotes the brain’s capacity for self-repair. Of course, it is essential that we get adequate vitamins and minerals, complex carbohydrates, essential fats, and protein. Malnutrition also damages the brain.

Benefits of Regular Meals & Time Restricted Eating

A regular meal pattern, including breakfast consumption, consuming a higher proportion of energy (calories) early in the day, reduced meal frequency (i.e., 2–3 meals/day), and regular fasting periods may provide physiological benefits such as reducing inflammation and improving the many facets of the body’s circadian rhythms. Furthermore, these strategies improve the body’s ability to remove damaged cellular components and replenish them with newer ones.6

In one study, some participants had an eating time window of more than ten hours and some had an eating time window restricted to less than ten hours (in other words,they fasted for 14 hours). After adjusting for potential confounding factors, individuals adherent to fasting for 14 hours a day were less likely to have a cognitive impairment than those with no eating time restrictions, if they ate breakfast.7

Eat More Fruit, Especially Blueberries

Flavonoid-rich foods have been shown to reverse age-related cognitive deficits in memory and learning in both animals and humans. Substantial experimental data have established that berry supplementation enhances nerve cell function and survival and improves age-related cognitive impairment in animals. For example, a human study found that one or more servings a week of blueberries and two or more of strawberries are associated with slower rates of cognitive decline on six cognitive tests. 8

In a double-blind, cross-over designed study, blueberry powder improved executive function and memory in children—faster and more accurate recall and better focus and concentration.9

Anthocyanins in blueberries and strawberries also may offer protection from diabetes and hypertension, two risk factor for cognitive decline.10 Regular consumption of blueberries is associated with improved thinking, reduced risk for heart disease, and inflammation. Commercial juicing and canning blueberries lower polyphenol levels by 22 to 81 percent and reduce the anthocyanins by 10 to 21%. Grapes, like blueberries, contain resveratrol, a phytochemical that increases antioxidant protection and reduces inflammation in the hippocampi.

Don’t Forget Your Leafy Vegetables

One study measured cognitive performance of more than 13,000 participants through tests administered every four years. Women who consumed the most cruciferous vegetables declined slower compared with women who ate the least servings of cruciferous veggies. Women who ate the most green leafy vegetables also experienced slower decline than women who consumed the least amount of leafy greens.

The consumption of green leafy vegetables is linked to slower cognitive decline in a linear fashion. According to one study, the rate of decline among those who consumed 1–2 servings per day was the equivalent of being eleven years younger compared with those who rarely or never consumed green leafy vegetables.11

Get Your Omega-3 Fats

The fatty acids protect from free radical damage and inflammation and afford some brain cell protection even in the aged, damaged, and AD brain. Omega-3 fats are important to nurture healthy synaptic connections. Omega-3 deficiency in the womb, while the infant is nursing, or during childhood, decreases BDNF. This decrease reduces brain plasticity and compromises cognitive performance during adulthood. It leaves us more vulnerable to neurological and psychiatric disorders. For adults, omega-3 fats are necessary for the creation of new synapses and brain cells in the hippocampus. Studies using old animals suggest that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation reverses age-related changes and maintains learning memory performance.

Long-term fatty acids (EPA and DHA) are found in cold water fish. Algae also provides DHA which is the omega-3 fat especially important for brain health. Unfortunately, mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are among the common toxins in seafood and hang around for years. Since the food chain concentrates these and other pollutants in a process known as biomagnification, we cannot recommend fish as food. The higher the fish is on the food chain, the greater the accumulation of toxins in their fatty tissues. However, flaxseed, walnuts, and spinach provide the omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid. Under normal conditions, this can be converted into EPA and then DHA inside the body.

Please note: Certain factors, such as high intakes of saturated or trans fatty acids, insufficient calorie energy or protein intake, elevated cholesterol, alcohol, and zinc deficiency can interfere with this conversion process. There may also be conversion problems for individuals consuming a vegetarian diet, are obese, have metabolic syndrome, or other metabolic disorders. These individuals might be benefited by a DHA supplement derived from algae. As with any supplement, discuss with your pharmacist before taking it lest there be an interaction between the medicines you are using.

Go Easy on the Salt

Animal model studies show that a high salt diet encourages free radical damage in the hippocampi and enhances cognitive impairment.

Watch Your Supplements

Iron, zinc, and copper are all needed by the body but excessive amounts of them damage brain cells. Iron is needed for the oxygen-carrying protein in red blood cells known as hemoglobin. Here is the point. Studies show that individuals in whom the hemoglobin is either too low or too high have more rapid cognitive decline The safest hemoglobin appears to be around 13.7 grams per decimeter. Don’t take an iron supplement unless you are low in iron as diagnosed by a health-care provider who has performed the necessary blood work. Remember copper might leach out into your tap water if your home has a copper pipes. An investment in a good water filter helps.

Conclusion: As important as dietary factors are to the brain, BDNF activity, the health of the hippocampi, and other lifestyle factors also substantially impact the brain. We will explore these in future articles.

Sources

  1. Medawar, Evelyn et al. “The effects of plant-based diets on the body and the brain: a systematic review.” Translational psychiatry vol. 9,1 226. 12 Sep. 2019 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6742661/
  2. Melo, Helen M et al. “Diet-Derived Fatty Acids, Brain Inflammation, and Mental Health.” Frontiers in neuroscience vol. 13 265. 26 Mar. 2019, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnins.2019.00265/full
  3. Tomova, Aleksandra et al. “The Effects of Vegetarian and Vegan Diets on Gut Microbiota.” Frontiers in nutrition vol. 6 47. 17 Apr. 2019. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnut.2019.00047/full
  4. Tomova, Aleksandra et al. “The Effects of Vegetarian and Vegan Diets on Gut Microbiota.” Frontiers in nutrition vol. 6 47. 17 Apr. 2019. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnut.2019.00047/full
  5. Gómez-Pinilla et al. Brain foods: the effects of nutrients on brain function. Nature Reviews
    Neuroscience, 2008; 9 (7): 568
  6. Paoli, Antonio, et al. “The Influence of Meal Frequency and Timing on Health in Humans: The Role of Fasting.” Nutrients vol. 11,4 719. 28 Mar. 2019, doi:10.3390/nu11040719
  7. Currenti, Walter, et al. “Association between Time-Restricted Feeding and Cognitive Status in Older Italian Adults.” Nutrients vol. 13,1 191. 9 Jan. 2021, doi:10.3390/nu13010191
  8. Devore, Elizabeth E et al. “Dietary intakes of berries and flavonoids in relation to cognitive decline.” Annals of neurology vol. 72,1 (2012): 135-43. doi:10.1002/ana.23594
  9. Whyte AR. Cognitive effects following acute wild blueberry supplementation in 7- to 10-year-old children. Eur J Nutr. 2016 Sep;55(6):2151-62. doi: 10.1007/s00394-015-1029-4
  10. Kalt, W., et al, Recent Research on the Health Benefits of Blueberries and Their Anthocyanins, Advances in Nutrition, Volume 11, Issue 2, March 2020, Pages 224–236, https://doi.org/10.1093/advances/nmz065
  11. Morris, Martha Clare et al. “Nutrients and bioactives in green leafy vegetables and cognitive decline: Prospective study.” Neurology vol. 90,3 (2018): e214-e222. doi:10.1212/WNL.0000000000004815
© 2022, Wildwood Sanitarium. All rights reserved.

Disclaimer: The information in this article is educational and general in nature. Neither Wildwood Lifestyle Center, its entities, nor author intend this article as a substitute for medical diagnosis, counsel, or treatment by a qualified health professional.

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