We are learning more and more in the field of brain health and brain food, and food that supports brain health and function is of great interest. Dr Libby explains some of the most essential nutrients for a healthy young brain, including the importance of fatty acids.
The human brain starts to develop three weeks after conception. At this time the first connections between neurons are made in the brain. These connections form rapidly from birth until 18 years. New connections continue to be made throughout adulthood, but at a slower rate.
what are some of the most important nutrients for a growing brain?
Many people take supplements such as a nootropic to promote good brain health and this is a good thing to do, but you can also find natural supplements in foods and liquids in which you eat every day. Water is one of the most vital substances for the brain. The neurons in the brain are housed in cells surrounded by fluid. This fluid increases connectivity between the neurons and removes waste from the cells in the brain. Avoiding dehydration is important because as little as a 2% loss in body water is enough to cause a 10% decline in brain function. Therefore ensuring children have access to their own water bottle throughout the day is a great way to ensure they don’t become dehydrated.
Carbohydrates are an essential source of energy for the brain. But rather than a big dose of quick release carbohydrates (such as a processed breakfast cereal), it is best to fuel the body and the brain with slow release carbohydrates. Carbohydrates such as brown rice, sweet potato and wholegrain porridges break down slowly, providing the brain with glucose over a sustained period of time, rather than all at once.
When the body receives a large dose of simple carbohydrates (such as those from refined flours, sugar-filled cereals, energy drinks, or biscuits), it produces a large amount of insulin to remove the sugar from the bloodstream. Insulin causes the brain to feel sleepy, draining us of our energy and ability to concentrate. It also interferes with appetite regulation.
Vitamins and minerals are vital for optimal brain health and function. B vitamins play a key roll in producing energy for the brain, keeping us alert and help to maintain connectivity between brain cells. Load up on B vitamin rich green leafy vegetables, seeds, and brown rice. Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant, it helps to protect the cells in the brain by cleaning up free radicals that can damage the precious brain cells.
Zinc is vital for repair in the body. Zinc supports cell repair and renewal in the brain, and is essential for the formation of long and short term memories. Zinc can be attained in the diet through nuts, seeds, red meat, and oysters ? if your child can swallow them!
Calcium is another mineral important for brain function as it helps maintain the electrical environment in the brain, which enables the neurons to send signals.
Fatty acids are the most vital nutrients for healthy brain development and maintenance. 60% of the brain is fat, so it makes sense that we would need fatty acids in the diet to support its growth and function. The majority of the brain is made up of polyunsaturated fats such as omega 3 and 6 fatty acids. The most important of these fatty acids is Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega 3 fatty acid.
Unborn and newborn babies do not have the ability to convert other fatty acids into DHA, so they rely on the maternal diet for adequate supply. DHA fatty acids are essential for brain, nervous system and eye development. Numerous studies have shown positive effects associated with high DHA intake during pregnancy, childhood and later life. Studies show babies born from mothers who were supplemented with DHA show better cognitive development and visual function, as well as improved long and short term memory. High DHA intake in children and adults has found similar results with improvements in cognitive function, improved memory and concentration.
There are three types of omega 3 fats: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and EPA eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). The body cannot synthesise ALA fatty acids, so the body must obtain these fats through the diet; however the body can make DHA and EPA from ALA. The majority of research shows the EPA and DHA are highly beneficial fats for many aspects of health.
ALA fatty acids are found primarily in plant foods. Flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts are well known for their ALA content. Eat these raw or soaked or use in smoothies, or in salads.
EPA is another omega 3 fat which is used by the body to make DHA, as well as being a precursor for the production of essential substances for heart and vascular health. EPA fatty acids are usually found alongside DHA fatty acids in fish and seaweed. DHA fatty acids are found in oily fish like salmon, sardines, tuna; as well as algae.
Supplements can be a great way to get more EPA and DHA fatty acids into your diet. However, not all supplements are created equal. Fish oil supplements are expensive to make, so you get what you pay for. When looking for fish oil supplements, seek out those that smell fresh when you open the bottle. The supplements need to smell like fresh fish, with almost no odour.
Many fish oil supplements will say ?Mercury Tested’ or ?Mercury Free.’ Mercury and other heavy metals can be found in fish and can build up in the human body and become toxic, so it is important to choose a mercury free brand of fish oil. Note that ?Mercury tested’ simply means it has been tested; it may still contain mercury.
A diet high in plant food such as leafy greens, nuts, seeds, as well as fish and pasture-fed meat will provide you with adequate amounts of omega 3 acids to allow the brain to do its critical and wonderful work. It can be a good idea to look into taking a high quality supplement to support the brain during pregnancy or growth spurts.
Dr Libby Weaver (BHSc (N&D) (Hons) PhD) is Australasia’s superstar of all things health and nutrition, combining many years of experience, learning and clinical practise to her holistic approach to health. For more information and Real Food ideas, visit www.drlibby.com