When we eat, sometimes we eat because a steaming pizza and hearty salad would go perfect with that action flick we just brought home, or because those chocolate cupcakes have been whispering to us all afternoon. Sometimes we eat to build a healthy body — consuming all tiers of the pyramid in each meal. But how often do we eat with our brain's health in mind?
The bottom line: Your brain needs fuel, especially in the morning to break the overnight fast. Your brain gets energy from glucose, a blood sugar converted from carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates, such as whole grain bread, legumes, quinoa, brown rice and oats, provide the most direct conversion, says Spokane dietitian Craig Hunt.
"Your insulin is released into your blood, attaches to the free glucose and takes that up to your brain, and your brain says, 'I feel much better,'" Hunt says. "It's kind of like the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde syndrome. If you ask a group of people, 'Do you know anybody that if they don't eat they get a little grumpy or irritable?' you'll see several heads acknowledge that."
About four hours after eating, your blood sugar drops, the cerebral cortex loses glucose and one side effect is irritability, says Hunt. To combat that, eat meals regularly without skipping — especially breakfast — and combine complex carbohydrates with slow-burning foods such as lean meat and vegetables.
"Synergistically, your lean proteins, your fibrous vegetables, your good fats, give you better blood sugar regulation," he says.
Try a breakfast like one Hunt ate recently: half of a bagel with smoked salmon and avocado. For lunch, a sandwich on whole grain bread with lean meat and spinach is a healthy choice. Stir-fry, one of Hunt's favorite dinner dishes, fits the brain-boosting criteria. Cook brown rice with a few fibrous vegetables like asparagus or cauliflower, use olive or sesame oil and add tempeh or marinated lean beef.
Avoid overconsumption of refined carbohydrates because too much sugar can actually leave the brain glucose-deprived. In general, overeating — no matter what food — can mess with your mind.
Studies show that when people overeat, their cognitive functioning declines, says Spokane psychiatrist Dr. Michael Reznicek.
"It's been shown that being overweight not only affects insulin resistance, causing diabetes, but also cognitively people aren't as sharp either," he says.
Eating foods that contribute to a healthy mind can look largely like eating a healthy, balanced diet in general, but a few nuances show that certain habits and nutrients can boost brain health.
"The gist of it is whatever is good for health is usually good for mental health, too," says Reznicek. But a couple of nutrients seem to help, he adds.
One group of nutrients with some of the strongest evidence for benefiting the brain are omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s — found in foods like wild salmon, mackerel, walnuts and kiwi — are important for nerve cell growth in the brain, says Reznicek.
A revolution has occurred in neuroscience over the past 20 years. In the '80s, doctors believed your brain developed until about you were about 7 years old; that was then the brain you would have for the rest of your life, he says.
"We now know the brain is like a muscle, and that the brain is constantly changing throughout the lifespan," he says.
It's called neuroplasticity.
"This is why omega-3 fatty acids are important," Reznicek says. "Because they really do help with the growth of the brain and they appear to help with memory. It also appears that they help with protecting against depression and dementia, things like that."
People with diets high in omega-3 tend to have less mental illness, he says. But as is the case with many studies, correlation does not equal causation. It could be that people who consume more omega-3 take better care of themselves, says Reznicek.
Other nutrients have been shown to benefit the brain, such as B vitamins, which are important for memory, and proteins, which support the production of brain neurotransmitters like serotonin.
Recent studies also show that active agents in yogurt can reduce anxiety and fear, according to a Psychology Today article titled "The Psychobiotic Revolution." Ted Dinan, a psychiatrist at the University of Cork in Ireland, recently coined the term "psychobiotics" to describe the gut bacteria some researchers say could be used to treat anxiety and depression. Though they're not yet set to hit the market, psychobiotics can also be found in fermented foods like kefir and sauerkraut.
What you eat is an important part of mental health, but Reznicek says it should go hand in hand with challenging and exercising your mind.
"Eat a balanced diet, find your passions in life, and your brain is going to grow and you'll maximize its potential," Reznicek says. ♦
Other brain-healthy foods:
Celery contains a nutrient that may help prevent plaque buildup in the brain that can lead to Alzheimer's.
White tea has theanine, an amino acid, which can increase brain wave activity.
Clams are a good source of vitamin B12.
Elderberries contain a flavonoid important for brain health and help reduce harmful inflammation in cells.
Pecans are high in omega-3 fatty acids.
Beets have natural nitrates that can increase blood flow to the brain.