Neuro-nutrition – eating for your brain – is the latest plate-based plan gaining momentum
Can you really eat yourself smart? The science says yes
We all like to think we got the brains in the family. Still bringing up that test mark you got in year 10 French? Oui. Make a point of letting everyone know when you get a question right on University Challenge? Affirmative. But if you feel in need of a boost upstairs, clever cuisine could be key. Eating for the brain – or neuro-nutrition, to give it its proper moniker – is a new area of interest for researchers keen to get to the bottom of the mind/food connection, which is precisely why you’ll be seeing a mountain of books on the subject hit the shelves this winter. Consider this advance notice to start stocking your store cupboard for a supercharged cerebrum. Neuro-nutrition is a growing field of research that looks into the ways in which food affects how we humans think, feel and age. ‘The brain consumes an immense amount of energy in comparison with the rest of your body – around 25% of total energy expenditure,’ says Dr Caroline Leaf, a cognitive neuroscientist and author of Think & Eat Yourself Smart (£11.99, Baker Books). ‘Therefore, it makes sense that the transfer of energy from the foods you eat to neurons in the brain has a big impact, not only on its function, but on how you behave. Clearly, there are huge implications to this – not only regarding what we feed growing minds in school, but what you put on your plate every day.’ So can you actually eat yourself clever? Let’s talk about fat for a minute, and how good it is as fuel for your brain cells. ‘The brain is your fattiest organ, at around 60% fat,’ says Dr Leaf. ‘Omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAS), found in foods like oily fish, kiwis and walnuts, are the building blocks of brain cells and are integral to how fast a signal travels between them.’ It’s why stringing a sentence together becomes difficult when you’re a few days into a low-fat diet. ‘Oily fish is an exceptional source of a particular omega-3 that is critical for brain function – docosahexaenoic acid (DHA),’
adds Dr Leaf. ‘In fact, low levels of DHA have even been linked with depression, premature brain ageing and Alzheimer’s.’ Not only is omega-3 vital to your brain’s health, upping your intake can improve your focus, too. One study* found that school children given an omega-3 supplement performed better at reading and spelling than those who were given a placebo. If you want to stay alert in 4pm meetings, take note: according to Dr Leaf, eating more omega-3-rich foods like herring, salmon and mackerel can boost your attention span within just a few days.
But brain food goes beyond omega-3s to ‘intelligent fats’ – aka phospholipids. ‘Keeping the brain’s structure in good condition is key to improving memory, cognition, focus and concentration,’ explains food psychologist Dr Christy Fergusson. ‘Phospholipids help to develop the cell walls of neurons so that they can regulate nutrients coming in and waste going out, and also support signal-transmitting chemicals, known as neurotransmitters.’ Sign us up. ‘Lecithin and choline are phospholipids that are found in sunflower seeds, egg yolks and peanuts. Eggs are a particularly good source because they also contain citicoline, which increases blood flow to the brain.’ According to Dr Fergusson, we should be eating between two and six eggs a week for optimum brain health. And egg-white omelettes won’t cut it – you need to be eating the yolk as well. ‘Egg yolk is one of the richest sources of choline,’ says Dr Fergusson. ‘As well as being a phospholipid, choline helps produce the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is needed to pass messages from the brain to your nerves and muscles.’
HUNGRY HUNGRY HIPPOCAMPUS
Boost existing brain cells – done. Now to create new ones. Until recently, it was just the stuff of science fiction, but scientists now know that we can create new neurons. And doing so will do more than boost your cognitive function. Producing new neurons can also improve your mood and your memory capacity and hinder the mental decline associated with ageing. ‘There’s a growing body of research indicating that consuming certain foods and avoiding others might allow the brain to stop degenerating and maybe even grow new cells (neurogenesis) as we grow older,’ explains Dr Gary Wenk, neuroscientist and author of Your Brain On Food. ‘There’s some interesting new research into neurogenesis in mice, which suggests that what we eat and when we eat it might be crucial to new neuron growth. In general, it seems that restricting your maximum calorie intake (2,000 a day for women) by 20-30% and practising intermittent fasting (switching between periods of eating and fasting) can encourage neurogenesis. We don’t know exactly why yet, but we think it has to do with ghrelin – the hunger hormone – and how it interacts with the brain.’ A recent study by Swansea University found that mice injected with ghrelin improved their mental ability by 40% and made 30% more brain cell connections. Don’t start calorie cutting for a brain boost, though – restricting calories by 20% means consuming around 1,600 for a woman. ‘New brain cells can take a few weeks to start working, so people shouldn’t expect fasting to produce immediate effects on their brainpower,’ warns Dr Wenk.
You may feel you’re too young to be worrying about brain ageing, but neuro-nutrition can help future-proof your brain for later life. ‘Anti-inflammatory foods high in flavonoids are crucial to protect the brain from the effects of free radicals and stop cells from dying,’ explains Dr Wenk. ‘Flavonoids protect neurons in the hippocampus, induce blood flow to this area of the brain and also play a role in improvements in numerous cognitive skills, including memory, learning and decisionmaking,’ says Dr Wenk. Look for cinnamon and turmeric, or brightly coloured fruit, like raspberries and blueberries – and (oh, happy day) red wine and dark chocolate are filled with flavonoids too. While you need a wide variety of vitamins and minerals to keep your synapses firing, it’s those magical B vitamins (think B for brain) you need to eat to prevent cognitive decline. A study from the University of Oxford confirmed that folic acid and vitamins B6 and B12 work together to reduce brain atrophy, improve brain function, and dramatically reduce
The number of grams of brain mass you lose every year after the age of 20. Don’t worry, though, the average brain weighs around 1.4kg – just make sure to look after what you have left. Now, pass the berries.