“I’ll never forget you, Jack,” said Rose in the movie Titanic while apparently hogging the plank of wood after the shipwreck.
Eighty-three years later, Rose had not forgotten him. Even if she had, the reason could have had more to do with her diet than with her heart. As a South Korean study involving school students suggests, there probably is a relationship between nutrition, cognition and memory.
We commonly hear the phrase `We are what we eat’. As Ishi Khosla, Delhi-based clinical nutritionist, points out, “There is research to suggest that our mental health is coming from the gut, and it’s not only eating food for memory but also resetting the gut microbiome.”
Our daily nutrition plays an important role in protecting the brain, whilst keeping it active and our memories strong.
Memories are like notes collected on our lives, a kind of biography. In some ways they define who we are and keep alive facets of our lives. Our brain resembles a tropical forest, in that it can grow and create connections; and memory can be continuously enhanced depending on how well we sustain it.
That is why memory loss, due to health conditions like dementia or ageing, poses both mental and physical challenges. It flags the importance of maintaining the health and agility of our brain.
Happiest Health spoke with Bengaluru’s veteran paediatrician, Dr Shamanthakamani Narendran, who at 91 keeps herself active with yoga, and regularly updates her digital ken, among others. She shares a glimpse of her childhood: of growing up eating ghee and butter unrestricted and as a norm be it in meals, after school or music classes.
Highlighting the importance of brain plasticity, she says, “Memory, creativity and stamina work on the nervous system, forming both short-term and long-term memories.”
These are some of the ways a nutrient-rich diet protects and revitalises the brain
Antioxidation and anti-inflammation: Free radicals or reactive oxygen species (ROS) are harmful; unstable molecules in our cells damage brain cells or structures inside them.
This is where antioxidants come in: to neutralise the free radicals and prevent oxidative stress to the brain.
Neurogenesis: Fat molecules play an important role in maintaining brain functions: they contribute to myelin sheath, a protective jacket around neurons, and ensure smooth transmission of neuron signals.
Neurotransmission: Brain cells pass information to each other through important chemical messengers or neurotransmitters – serotonin, dopamine and epinephrine, among others. The neurotransmitters are made up of amino acids, the basic units of a protein. The brain needs the right kind of proteins in food to get the amino acids it requires.
Prevention of wear and tear and protein accumulation: Aggregation or clumping of tau proteins can damage memory as in the case of Alzheimer’s disease; hinder brain functioning; and cause decay of nerve cells. Molecules derived from natural food sources like vitamins and minerals prevent these outcomes.
Here are the main players in our diet that ensure healthy metabolism, a healthy brain and a healthy memory.
The omega family: Omega-3 fatty acids are a family of unsaturated healthy fats, which are one of the most powerful brain foods. (source) As a component of cell membrane structure omega-3 fats contribute to healthy cellular growth and synaptic plasticity.
They are present in plant-based sources like avocado, flaxseeds and walnuts; and in high oil content fishes like sardines, tuna, salmon and herring. They work best in synergy with other dietary supplements. (source) As a component of cell membrane structure omega-3 fats contribute to healthy cellular growth and synaptic plasticity.
Eat your greens: Spinach, kale, broccoli, and cabbage are great sources of Vitamin K, folate and beta-carotene – all of which work as both neurotransmitter precursors and antioxidants. This study gives a glimpse into the effect of leafy vegetables in preventing cognitive decline.
On what kind of food is the best, Dr Narendran says, “Most importantly everything we ate as children was fresh. It was fresh greens from the gardens, pudina [mint] and spinach from the backyard, and palyas (sauteed and spiced vegetables) as staples at home.”
`Cure’cumin: The active component of turmeric – curcumin – is an established anti-inflammatory agent and antioxidant. Studies show it to be a calming agent in people affected by Alzheimer’s disease who suffer inflammation caused by clumps formed between neurons.
Dark chocolate: Cocoa contains molecules called flavonoids that have powerful antioxidant properties. It prevents any rogue radical ions that can disturb healthy processes. A well cited paper elucidates how cocoa can help with hippocampal memory and improved blood supply to the brain.
Get nutty: Along with a plethora of minerals, nuts are a great source of unsaturated fatty acids. A review in 2010 detailed how different nuts contribute to nutrition. For example, almonds are a great source of Vitamin E and acetylcholine, walnuts are rich in omega-3 fatty acids; and peanuts are a good source of HDL or high-density lipoproteins that slow down amyloid plaque formation.
Though not nuts, pumpkin seeds that we relish in a good bowl of oats contain magnesium, zinc and iron supplements that improve connectivity among neurons.
Berry berry good: `The darker, the better’ is true not only for chocolate. Blueberries, blackberries and strawberries are also powerhouses of flavonoids. A review details how different berries, frozen or fresh, have different biological properties that promote antioxidation and anti-inflammation of neurons.
Caffeine: Coffee, the popular pick-me-up beverage, has also been found to help with long-term memory. A meta study done on all available literature relevant to coffee consumption concluded that the caffeine not only stimulates the mind, but it also has neuroprotective functions that can prevent Alzheimer’s disease.
Wholesome grain: High sugar intake and its consecutive sugar overdose can wear and tear brain cells. This can reduce brain plasticity over time. Whole grains, which have a slow sugar release, are the healthiest sustained source of sugar for the brain. Oats (steel cut), barley, and millets are the most preferred whole grains.
Herbs: Bacopa (brahmi), Convolvulus (shankhapushpi or aloe weed) are among herbs traditionally used to boost memory. As antioxidants they both aid and protect brain function. (source)
Chuck those habits
Along with taking the right foods, it is important to avoid some wrong habits that can cause memory loss. Khosla reminds us, “There is no magic bullet. One needs to have a holistic approach, avoiding sugar, processed foods, toxic fat, medication, and cutting down on carbs.” They lead to oxidation of cells and build-up of unhealthy proteins that hinder healthy brain function.
Among common causes of memory loss are also excessive smoking and consumption of alcohol, stress, depression, and unhealthy sleep patterns.
It can never be emphasised enough that food plays a powerful role in our overall health. A planned, balanced, and sustainable diet is the best bet for our long-term physical and mental wellbeing.
Along with physical activity and mental care, it forms the triad of healthy living. Our dietary requirements change through our lifetime. No single food source can be helpful. “Our parents taught us the difference between nutrition and food. Nutrition was more than just single foods. No one food can be helpful,” Dr Narendran corroborates.
Memory is the diary we all carry about with us. ― Oscar Wilde.