Can the food we eat help keep our brains healthy?

We all know that food is necessary to live, but can the food we eat actively help keep us healthy? Can it help fight the effects of depression? Modern science seems to indicate that eating certain foodstuffs at promote brain health and stave off damage.

FOOD AND IT’S EFFECTS ON BRAIN HEALTH FUNCTION AND DEPRESSION

Food has long been associated with health and our ancestors had witches or medicine men who would ‘prescribe’ teas, pastes and other herbal based medicines way before they had doctors. The Greeks and the Romans were fanatical in some of their ideas of how different diets and foodstuffs could improve their thinking or physical abilities. A popular theory of medicine that originated in the time of the Greeks and persisted in some way right up until the 17th century; was that the body contained 4 major fluids called ‘humors’. The basis of humors and health was that in order for a  person to remain healthy all four must be kept in balance. There were the melancholic black bile, choleric yellow bile, sanguine blood and phlegmatic phlegm; each of them were associated with different parts of the body, emotions and seasons, and each had an opposite. The theory was based on the premise that every illness could be attributed to an imbalance in one or more of these fluids. For example, if someone had a cold then the treatment might involve consuming something with a warming effect such as a chili. The idea that every illness was associated with an imbalance of these humors persisted right through the Renaissance and well into the 17th century when medicine began to focus a bit more on science, e.g. the invention of the microscope allowed doctors to study illnesses in greater detail.

Modern societies were perhaps more concerned with achieving a certain body type or shape but the medical world has been studying the diets of people for centuries. Historians made copious notes of the differences between rich and poor everyday diets, with considerable time being dedicated to the elaborate feasts that the rich would have. The first and second world wars heralded an unprecedented time of rationing for much of Europe and lead to considerable efforts in educating home cooks on how to get the most out of the very little food they had. The British government had an entire department dedicated to research and development of recipes that would look and taste good; as well as provide the necessary vitamins and minerals while using the very sparse rations provided to households. Fast forward a few decades and science and medicine focuses now on the physiological effects of foodstuffs and the mechanisms of how the body processes each component. 

In recent years a growing body of research has focused on the effects of foods on the health and function of brains. It is almost common knowledge that oily fish is good for your brain, that leafy greens are good for your brain, that eating nuts is good for memory, that avocado is good for…well everything. But why are they good for our brain? And can we protect and improve our own brains by merely adding in certain foods to our diets?

Fat

The brain is up to 60% fat, this means that in order to function optimally our diets have to include fats. Obviously this does not mean eating greasy fatty foods everyday, so what does it mean?

First off, there are different kinds of fat, and while previous diet advice demonized fat and recommended reducing it considerably; recent evidence suggests that ‘good fats’ are necessary for good health and should be consumed regularly. Bad fats include saturated fats and trans fats. Good fats include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, and consumption of these can lower the risk of heart disease and stroke, prevent abnormal heart rhythms and lower blood pressure. Monounsaturated fats have also been found to have a more positive effect on cognition than saturated. 

As we age our brains begin to lose plasticity, that is your neural pathways start to deteriorate and our brains lose the ability to make new ones. This can lead to depression, anxiety, memory problems and vin some cases Alzheimer’s or dementia. So it would make sense for us to start taking care of our brains as much as we seem to take care of our bodies. 

Our brains also release hormones and endorphins all day everyday, these chemicals control pretty much everything in our body from growing hair, whether we retain the calories we eat or store them to whether we feel sad. A growing number of professionals have begun to focus on whether the food we eat can have an effect on our moods, and whether they can alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression.

"Brain Food"

  • Oily fish: large source of omega-3s which are used by the brain to build nerve cells and are essential for learning and memory. Not consuming enough omega-3s has also been linked to incidences of depression 
  • Coffee: people who drink coffee seem to be less likely to develop Alzheimer’s , Parkinson’s, dementia and Type-2 diabetes. Coffee contains small amounts of essential nutrients such as zinc, magnesium and riboflavin, it also has a more obvious stimulatory effect on the brain, resulting in enhanced concentration.
  • Berries: these are chock full of anti-oxidants which help reduce and repair the damage caused by oxidation in the brain. They also have anti-inflammatory effects on the brain which can help to prevent ageing effects
  • Nuts and seeds: not only are they good sources of omega-3 they also provide excellent sources of anti-oxidants as well as vitamin E; all of which help protect the brain from the effects of ageing and oxidative stress.
  • Avocado: not only a trendy food the avocado is high in monosaturated fats which contribute to low blood pressure and high blood flow, meaning a healthy blood flow to the brain to keep it working optimally. They are high in oleic acid which can help memory function, and are good sources of fibre, potassium, vitamins b6 and C and folate which has mood boating effects.

Quick facts

So if you want to begin taking an active interest in maintaining your brain health for the future start adding in :

  • Nuts ( e.g. walnuts, peanuts, Brazil ): maybe keep a tin in your bag or on your desk for the midmorning or afternoon munchies 
  • Oily fish (e.g. salmon, herring, tuna, trout): try a bbq, or baking a piece in a foil parcel and baking  
  • Leafy greens (e.g. kale, spinach, bok choy): try adding them into your salad with an oil based dressing, or maybe try making kale chips!
  • Oil (e.g. olive, flaxseed, coconut): try making your own dressings for salads or meat dishes; try olive oil, cider vinegar, lemon juice, salt and pepper- so simple and will keep in the fridge!
  • Avocado: the ever popular smashed avo on toast is a great way to start the day, and with wholegrain bread gives a good dose of fibre too; you could drizzle over your favourite oil for an extra boost!
  • Berries: combine with granola and yoghurt for a quick breakfast, put as a topping for porridge, take a tub for a for afternoon snack or even add them to a salad 
  • Coffee: provided you don’t  personally feel any negative impact of drinking coffee you can now stop feeling guilty about your morning pick me up

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