Now… where was I? Oh yes. The brain. As I said in my brain post three weeks ago, it’s not just calories and energy required to fuel it – in fact, if that’s all that you relied on, your cognitive function would diminish, brain fog would ensue and overall brain mass would reduce. Seriously. The importance of a nutrient-rich diet cannot be overstated when it comes to a healthy body and mind, at which the brain is at the centre of. The myriad of reactions and interactions of nutrients in the brain is too involved for me to adequate write up here, and as you know, scientific scribe is not how I roll, so this is a very brief overview, combined with a bit of a vent (my favourite).
In order to convert the calories provided (either by glucose, fat or lactate) into ATP for the mitochondria to use (energy to be produced), riboflavin and niacinamide (B vitamins), Co-enzyme Q10 (not just good as part of a skin cream) and magnesium are required to enable reactions at various stages of the process. Antioxidants are also required to scavenge free radicals so they do not damage cellular tissue through oxidation. The B vitamins and amino acids are important as neurotransmitters to send messages from the brain to various parts of the body. Magnesium is like a super mineral – involved in over 300 processes in the body – it has a really important role in the brain, acting as a ‘guard at the gate’ if you like, blocking excess calcium and glutamate from entering the cells. Both of these can increase cellular damage due to their excitatory effects in the brain. Magnesium also exerts control over the hippocampus, preventing it from stimulating the release of adrenocorticotropic hormone, or ACTH. ATCH instructs our adrenal glands to pump out both cortisol and adrenaline in times of stress, and magnesium inhibits these hormones from entering the brain and causing additional cellular damage. Thank you, magnesium, you’re not just good for relieving constipation and regulating insulin sensitivity.
Vitamin D has a neuroprotective role, promoting their survival and reducing damage – hence its association with the preservation of cognitive function in the brain. It helps reduce inflammatory factors related to neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis and there is an association between vit D levels and depression – with receptors for the active form of Vitamin D found in the hippocampus.
Vitamins C and E are antioxidants, and clinical trials have shown that adults who supplement these two vitamins improve their cognitive function when compared to a placebo group. Iodine has been found to be particularly important in the development of the brain, and if a pregnant women has an insufficient intake of iodine, their baby may be born with a low birth weight, cognitive impairment and their physical development impaired. Sulfur is another component that contributes to antioxidant activity and acts as a neuroprotector in the brain.
Docohexanoic acid (DHA) is a long chain fatty acid that is found pre-formed in fatty fish such as salmon, sardines and mackerel. It may be the most studied nutrient with regards to the brain and is the most abundant omega 3 fat found in the cell membranes of the brain. Our body is not good at synthesising it and the conversion of it from plant-based sources such as alpha-linoleic acid is poor. It’s important for ensuring membrane fluidity, protects membrane integrity and is involved in the development of synapses. Indeed, archaelogists suggest one of the pertinent factors in humans having an encephalisation quotient as big as we do is largely due to early populations living close to the shore line and having access to marine life. Associations have been drawn between fish consumption and neurological function. In addition, in health older adults, more essential fats , vitamins and minerals present in bloodstream is associated with bigger brain, better cognitive test. Higher intake trans fats and processed food – smaller brains, lower cognitive function.
So when you do hear ‘a calorie is just a calorie’ as is often touted, particularly in the weight loss arena where the argument of a calorie restricted diet versus the nutrient-focused diet is often played out, you can see that this just isn’t true. A calorie restricted diet is often too restrictive, not only making fuel availability questionable at certain times, but not focusing on the right macronutrient calories – given that carbohydrate is much less calorie dense than fat. In addition, the focus on calories shifts attention away from the all important micronutrients I’ve listed above (among others) which are essential for brain functioning and (importantly) overall mood and wellbeing. No wonder those on a 1200 Calorie diet counted by adding up the numbers on the back of their cereal boxes, muesli bar wrappers and diet yoghurt containers don’t get the same feeling of calm and nourishment that comes when following a real food approach. The addition of nutrients to cereals by way of fortification doesn’t help – particularly if the delivery vehicle is a cereal that has additional gluten added to bump up the protein content (i.e. Special K; a topic deserving a blog post all on it’s own). Unfortunately when we consider all of the elements that promote and preserve brain health in light of what people are actually buying, then it doesn’t make for a pretty picture. Take this for example – the top 10 foods sold by volume in supermarkets in 2009. Bar the bananas, all foods on the list are nutrient devoid.
In NZ currently, we have children who are over-represented in both the low academic achievement rates and the lower socioeconomic sections – these are interlinked obviously. Further, these children tend to have a poorer diet – with less fibre, less calcium, less fruit, cheese and milk than their school-aged peers. As these foods are important contributors to the aforementioned nutrients above, is it any wonder that those most disruptive in class, less likely to achieve academically are less likely to finish high school? There are clear links between diet and hyperactivity, concentration, and even cognitive development – the available nutrients include those delivered from the mother prenatally. How are these children supposed to further themselves if they don’t have the right start in life.
Yes, in NZ we have the Fonterra breakfast in schools programme (Kickstart) – now funded and widely available to those less privileged in decile 1 schools. Is it better than nothing at all – yes? Are weetbix and milk the best we can do? I don’t think so. What about government funded school based gardens/kitchens? What about attention in the curriculum to teach children the fundamentals of good nutrition, perhaps through an integrated curriculum? Teach them the importance of it in an environment that supports it – not in one where all attention is pushed towards ‘energy out’ physical activity model. School Food and Beverage guidelines? Bring it. Much better than the voluntary system that is in place now in schools. All of these take time, resources, investment – the government has a $40 million healthy lifestyles initiative which looks at supporting communities to make healthier choices, which – if included the above – could be promising. However the first sentence on the website doesn’t fill me with much hope: “Encouraging families to live healthy lives – by making good food choices, being physically active, sustaining a healthy weight, not smoking and drinking alcohol only in moderation – is part of the Government’s approach to promoting good health.” Not because I don’t think the government should be doing this – but this is no different from what they’ve always said. People need more than encouragement – they need infrastructure to make it easier. Anyway, let’s see.