The evolution of modern science has solidified the hypothesis of food-brain connection. Be it something as apparent as our swinging moods, or slow erosion of cognitive functions as we age, multiple studies hint this could be connected to our diet and lifestyle.
With age, our motor functions slow down along with the ability to perceive and process information and so do the responses. However, the degree to which this happens varies from one person to another.
Mugdha Pradhan, functional nutritionist and TEDx speaker from Pune, says, “It is not the calories but the foods that contribute to them that really matter.” She says that just trying to monitor energy intake is not really the best way to look at how food interacts, we should also look at the ratio of these micronutrients.
There is evidence enough to believe different nutrients impact the healthy functioning of our brain. However, it is also important to eat at the right time in the right amounts.
Spontaneous supply of energy fuels cognition
Energy in the form of glucose is the sole source of food for the brain. The brain metabolises glucose to ATP (adenosine triphosphate, a compound which is broken down for energy), which provides energy for everything under the skull. Our body, therefore, needs a constant supply of this elixir to keep functioning at its best.
A cohort study published in Life Metabolism by Oxford Academic states that taking meals on time governs our circadian rhythm (the sleep cycle), which in turn affects our cognitive function, especially in middle-aged and older adults. Scientists say, skipping breakfast is associated with faster decline of cognitive functioning, especially in people above 55.
“Carbohydrates are often demonised by saying that carbs are bad. But glucose, the simplest carbohydrate, helps keep our brain running. Therefore, carbohydrates are important for good brain health,” according to Pradhan. Raw organic honey, vegetables and whole fruits are all good carbs that we must consume, he adds.
The traditional Okinawa diet involves higher carb (85 per cent) and lower protein (9 per cent). Higher carbohydrates equate to higher complex fibre and lower protein. A study published in Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences in 2015, found that this kind of diet has profound effects on the hippocampus of the brain as compared to fasting or low-calorie diets.
The hippocampus is where all neuro-degenerative diseases such as dementia set in initially. A low-protein high-carbohydrate diet promotes hippocampus health against age-related onset of cognitive decline.
Antioxidants to the rescue
Free radicals have been found to have the worst effects on the neurons in our brain. These notorious free radicals tend to promote the build-up of tau protein which is a biomarker in Alzheimer’s Disease.
Antioxidant balance in our body counteracts harmful free radicals. Antioxidants such as carotenoids, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, zinc and selenium are all potent fighters against free radicals. To get these elements into our system, we need not look further than our own kitchen.
The Mediterranean diet is proven to be adequate in all the micro-nutrients to deflect the build-up of free radicals in our system. It is also proven to promote better cognition. Olive oils, whole fruits such as berries, grapes, pomegranates, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and fish are rich sources of antioxidants.
Flavours of flavonoids
Flavonoids are red and yellow-coloured pigments that are found in berries, onions, green leafy vegetables, citrus fruits, ajwain (carom seeds), and the like. These antioxidants, by virtue of their proton donating tendency, scavenge free radicals, thereby, preventing inflammation and loss of memory.
Flavonoids are widely accepted for their anti-inflammatory and therapeutic properties. A 2020 study, published in the Iranian Journal of Basic Medical Sciences, indicate that these compounds promote the growth of neurons that reduce age-related cognitive decline.
For tea and coffee lovers
Coffee, like tea, is packed with several bioactive compounds. Research suggests caffeine, considered as the only active compound in coffee, is complemented by a set of other bioactive compounds to deliver these results. This study published in 2021 in the open access journal, Frontiers Media, attributes the neuro-protective properties of coffee to its potential to reduce the risk of developing dementia over time.
However, Pradhan warns, “One must not become dependent on a stimulant such as tea and coffee to function.”
Omega 3 Fatty Acid
The DHA (docosahexaenoic acid are omega-3 fatty acids) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acids are omega-3 fatty acids) are both necessary for the maintenance of our brain health. A 2021 study published in the peer-reviewed journal, Brain and Behaviour, suggests omega- 3 fatty acids play a vital role to beat age-related cognitive decline by maintaining the integrity of the blood-brain barrier.
In other words, omega- 3 helps clean up the cobwebs in our brain specifically the ones associated with memory and interaction, as mentioned in the study. Some natural sources of omega- 3 are sea foods, soyabeans, flax seeds, chia seeds and pumpkin seeds.
However, one must not indulge in keto for brain health, according to Pradhan. “Your body can run on ketosis in the absence of carbohydrates by burning fat for fuel and then use ketones for energy, but you are naturally programmed to run on carbohydrates. Ketosis is not our natural state of being. That is only an adaptation mechanism,” she says.
Fast facts on brain foods
- Eat your eggs. Choline in eggs is associated with improved cognitive functioning in older adults
- Indulge in animal protein and sea foods such as fish, crabs, and prawns, that are low in mercury. They are reliable sources of omega- 3 fatty acids
- Ghee, butter, and coconut oil must be included in the diet for our brain to rely upon a healthy source of dietary fats
- No one micro or macro nutrient is a magic formula. Eating a balanced diet could help decrease the chances of a faster cognitive decline