BRAIN FOOD

Neuro-nu­tri­tion – eat­ing for your brain – is the lat­est plate-based plan gain­ing mo­men­tum

Women's Health (UK) - - CONTENTS - KATE WILLS words COLIN BEAGLEY photo ma­nip­u­la­tion

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.

GOOD EGGS

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.

RAD­I­CAL THINK­ING

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.

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