For the longest time, nutrition researchers put their effort into understanding the relationship between food and common diseases of the body, especially heart disease. Over time, they discovered that a diet rich in animal food and fat led to problems with the circulatory system which could ultimately kill people.
Diseases of the brain were comparatively rare in the past, mostly because people tended not to live long enough to get them. But as life expectancies increased, brain disease also began to become more common, and that led researchers to wonder whether the food people eat played a role.
During that process, a lot was discovered about the relationship between the human brain and food. It’s a remarkable body of research, and it demonstrates just how little understanding the was of the relationship between nutrition and the brain.
Foods Can Boost Memory Function
Perhaps one of the most exciting relationships between food and the brain is the ability of some foods to boost memory function. Recently, researchers at the University of Maryland discovered that eating rosemary might actually improve memory performance. They took two groups of people and subjected them both to a memory test. One group got some powdered rosemary pills beforehand, while the other got a placebo. The group who ate the rosemary before the memory test did better when recalling information than the control. The researchers suggested, therefore, that rosemary might be able to improve cognitive performance.
ThoughtFoods believes that food may be able to improve cognitive ability too. The literature points to dozens of plant compounds which may be beneficial aside from rosemary. But perhaps the best advice is to stick to a wide range of different plant foods in the diet to maximise the unique benefits that each can offer.
Food And Oxidative Stress In The Brain
The reason nutrition science is so interesting is that foods can have almost opposite effects on the body. Some are healing, while others cause damage.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the brain. Oxidative stress, the damage that our bodies do to themselves when burning oxygen for fuel, can either be increased or reduced by the foods we eat. For instance, it is widely accepted that the phytochemicals from berries and mushrooms help to eliminate oxygen radicals at the cellular level in the human body, preventing damage.
The brain, a site of extreme oxidative stress, benefits enormously from these compounds. More than 25 per cent of all the energy available to the body is used by the brain which accounts for less than 5 per cent of its overall mass. People who get inadequate sleep or eat a fatty diet tend to have higher levels of oxidative stress in their brains, and this can lead to deficits in thinking over time. In the early stages, this may manifest as brain fog, but later on, it can develop into more severe conditions, such as dementia.
Some Foods Boost Serotonin
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter. It’s responsible for helping you to feel good. When the brain lacks serotonin, people can feel depressed. Antidepressants work by preventing the reuptake of serotonin, allowing it to stay in the brain for longer.
But what about food? Can it do anything to bolster serotonin levels?
It turns out that the quality and variety of bacteria in the gut affect the level of serotonin in the brain. Studies have shown that people with the right gut bacteria also tend to suffer from less depression and anxiety.
So what’s going on? The relationship isn’t entirely understood: it’s an emerging field of science. But researchers believe that feeding the good bacteria in the gut is one of the best things that people can do to boost serotonin. Probiotics can help. But more effective are all the probiotics found naturally in plant foods. Rather than swallowing the bacteria directly in pill form, it’s much better to provide them with the foods that allow them to thrive.
How do you do that? It’s simple: eat whole, intact foods. Take lentils, for instance. Your stomach will break down and absorb the nutrients from most of the lentils that you eat before they reach the lower bowel where most bacteria live. But some will remain relatively intact, providing a source of food for the bacteria in your gut to thrive. These bacteria will then start producing beneficial compounds, like butyrate, which help to improve mood and overall well-being.
Fermented foods, rare in the Western diet, may also help since these are both pre- and probiotic. Not only do they contain bacteria, but they also provide a food source for it too. Fermented foods are especially useful for recolonising gut bacteria after a course of antibiotics.
Sugary Drinks Damage Your Brain
It’s now well established that sugary drinks are a nightmare for the human body. With so many empty liquid calories in a single serving, sugary drinks are about as far as it is possible to get from the natural human diet.
But sugary drinks harm the brain too. Research shows that rats fed on high sugar diets have much higher brain inflammation and problems with their memory. Studies also show that drinking sugary drinks leads to impaired glucose tolerance and poor insulin metabolism by gumming up the cellular machinery. Other studies found that rats fed excess glucose developed secondary conditions, such as fatty liver and Alzheimer’s.
Refined carbohydrates are not much better. Studies show that foods like white bread and pasta reduce the memory capacity of children and adults and that they can also lead to problems in the hippocampus, an area of the brain responsible for regulating food intake.
Problems with the hippocampus can be serious. Once it can no longer provide reliable hunger cues, it forces people to overeat, leading to obesity and other complications. As such, keeping the brain healthy is essential.
The good news is that diet really can work wonders for the health of the brain. Not only can it improve mood and concentration when done correctly, but it can also prevent some of the most damaging diseases.