Of course, super foods do not exist. It is not one or a few types of nutrients that bring about healthy reactions in your brain. The only way to reach a positive effect on cognitive functions are long-term habits of healthy eating.
The views on which kind of foods are good for our bodies and which ones can cause damage are worlds apart. The ideas about what you should and what you should not eat change radically in the course of time.
In the past, milk appeared an indispensable part of our diet. Nowadays, there is a growing body of opinion that milk actually isn’t so healthy, with the exception of mother’s milk. Whereas sweetener seemed to be the solution to avoid the use of sugar with all its calories, it is now clear that certain sweeteners play an obvious role in the development of cancer.
In recent times, we have gained a lot of knowledge about the influence of food on our body. All over the world, investigations are taking place into the effects of certain nutrients, targeted specifically towards prevention of diseases.
As the interest in healthy diets grows, this results in frequent media coverage of another ‘wonder’ food which you definitely have to put on your menu in order to stay healthy. Just as often, after a while you don’t hear anything anymore about that specific type of fruit or vegetable or the effects don’t turn out to be so fantastic in future research.
I’ll list some of the more established research results of the influence of certain foods on your body and brain.
Omega-3 fatty acids are indispensable for a well-functioning brain. They have impressive anti-inflammatory power. Fatty fish like herring, mackerel, sardines, salmon, and anchovy are important sources of the polyunsaturated fatty acids DHA and EPA, just like walnuts. These polyunsaturated fatty acids are critical components of neuronal cell membranes.
A deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids deteriorates communication between neurons and can lead to a diminished ability to concentrate and to forgetfulness. There even may exist a link between omega-3 fatty acids deficiency and depression, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer disease.
Our diets generally contain too much omega-6 fatty acids from vegetable oils. Whereas omega-3 fatty acids counteract inflammation, a surplus of omega-6 fatty acids on the other hand may actually cause inflammation.
Healthy fats can also be found in among others olive oil, sunflower seeds and avocados. And if you eat nuts, preferably walnuts, three times a week, your chances of dying from cancer and cardiovascular disease diminish substantially.
Essentially, all fruits and vegetables hold antioxidants, molecules that are indispensable to deactivate the excess radicals in our body. These radicals may damage cells. Very good sources of antioxidants are apples and berries. This goes also for broccoli, spinach, potatoes, oranges, and radish. Celery and green peppers contain the substance luteolin, also an antioxidant and good at fighting infections in the brain.
Experiments have shown certain foods can directly affect communication between neurons in the brain. A specific group of chemical substances called polyphenols is involved in this process. More than 4000 polyphenolic compounds have been discovered so far in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and grains. They have beneficial effects on infections, allergies, and even cancer, as well as being antioxidants.
Blueberries have become famous in this aspect. They exert a very positive effect on the brain. Recently, scientists discovered blueberries may also play a role in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. They can effectively modulate levels of neurotransmitters, the chemical substances that bring messages from one neuron to the other, within the brain.
Dark chocolate also contains polyphenolic compounds, more specifically substances called flavonoids. They counteract deposits of fatty substances in blood vessels and thus improve blood flow. This has a positive outcome on learning and memory functions of the brain.
The people from the Kuna tribe in Panama are bulk consumers of cacao. Their tropical islands paradise is crammed with cacao trees. Research among the Kuna showed they suffer substantially less cardiovascular disease and cancer than usual.
Unfortunately, the flavonoids disintegrate when boiling for the production of chocolate. Very little flavonoids are left for instance in a bar of milk chocolate. If you don’t feel like chewing raw cacao beans, it’s best to choose dark chocolate to get the most flavonoids. This dark chocolate must contain a high content of real cacao, preferably at least 80 percent.
Resveratrol is the name of the polyphenol found in the skin of red grapes. To a certain degree, resveratrol will end up in red wine. Hence the recommendation to drink one glass of red wine every day. Reasonable alcohol intake (one glass a day for women and two glasses a day for men at most) has shown another benefit. It has a relaxing effect on blood vessels, which results in improved cerebral blood flow.
Chronic heavy alcohol ingestion on the other hand has a devastating effect on the brain. It makes neurones shrink and particularly the functioning of the hippocampus, the brain’s memory center, is severely disturbed by it. Excessive alcohol use may also increase the risk of brain haemorrhage. In the end, it may lead to dementia.
Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can have serious consequences for the development of the child in the womb. It is for example one of the most frequent causes of mental handicaps at birth in the western world.
Older adults have to be extra careful with regards to their alcohol intake. They have a declining ability to metabolise alcohol and have less water in their body to dilute the alcohol. This makes the alcohol act more rapidly and more intensely in the older brain.
A cup of coffee every now and then may also contribute to a better functioning brain. Caffeine stimulates the brain by blocking chemicals that normally inhibit or slow activity of neurons. It suppresses fatigue or drowsiness and increases feelings of alertness.
One to three cups of coffee a day can improve work performance. Higher doses can produce agitation, headaches, nervousness, and a decreased ability to concentrate.
Curcumin is the active yellow component of the spice turmeric, popular in Indian cuisine. It has a long history of use in Asian traditional medicines and attracted attention because of its apparent role in the prevention of dementia. India has the lowest rate of Alzheimer disease in the world.
Research is ongoing, but curcumin has been found to clearly have a positive effect on the clearance of plaques, clots of waste from cell metabolism within the brain, which are one of the characteristics of dementia. It appears curcumin increases levels of a protective substance in the brain, called BDNF. This substance is involved in the clearance of plaques.
You don’t have to go to the Indian takeaway every day, but spicing up your food with some curry frequently is not only really tasty, but is very useful as well!
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