Deficiencies in vitamins B2 or B12 can cause mental confusion, neuropathy and dementia. Less well-known is the fact that nerve impulses and other critical functions in the brain can be impacted by deficiencies in magnesium, zinc or fatty acids. Deficiencies in certain minerals or vitamins, or toxicity as seen in mercury, lead and cadmium poisoning, can actually cause decreased mental functioning.
We need a balanced diet in order to possess optimal mental health, in terms of cognitive abilities; enjoy protection from oxidative damage; and counteract the effects of aging. Some of the best foods to eat daily for brain power and health are those containing omega-3 fatty acids and those rich in tryptophan, tyrosine, methionine, antioxidants and folate.
Research indicates that omega-3 fatty acids can increase memory and protect against disorders such as depression, schizophrenia and dementia. Omega-3 fatty acid deficiency has been associated with an increased risk of attention deficit disorder, dyslexia, dementia, depression and bipolar disorder. Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in cold-water fish, walnuts, flax and other foods. If you are going to take a supplement, make sure the manufacturing date is less than six months ago, and store the supplements in a dark, refrigerated bottle.
Foods high in the amino acids tryptophan, tyrosine and methionine are among the best to eat for brain health.
Tryptophan is metabolized into serotonin, the feel-good chemical. High levels of brain serotonin are associated with increased feelings of peace and well-being, better sleep and increased cognitive abilities. Foods rich in tryptophan include whole grains, turkey, milk, nuts, eggs and fish.
Tyrosine is an amino acid that promotes memory, drive, ambition and mental alertness. Tyrosine has also shown beneficial effects in the treatment of depression. Tyrosine converts to dopamine, which converts into adrenaline and norepinephrine. With adequate amounts of adrenaline, you feel a sense of purpose, pleasure and gratification. Foods rich in tyrosine include spirulina, spinach, turkey and cottage cheese.
Methionine is an essential amino acid required for growth in infants and proper nitrogen balance in adults. It functions to increase immunity, enhance mood and improve outlook. If your methionine levels are low, you may experience seizures, spasticity, Parkinson’s, depression and some forms of osteoporosis. Methionine in supplement form has been effective in the treatment of bipolar depressive disorder. Foods rich in methionine include fish, eggs, cottage cheese, peanuts and sesame seeds.
Environmental toxins can damage cell membranes and make the body more susceptible to diseases such as cancer, heart disease, arthritis, cataracts, mood disorders and allergies. The brain is highly susceptible to oxidative damage. Cell damage increases with age, as it compounds daily. Antioxidants protect the body against cell membrane damage. Antioxidants include vitamins C, E and A; the minerals zinc and selenium; and other nutrients such as CoQ10 and alpha lipoic acid.
Vitamin C plays a role in fighting stress and is found in nearly all fruits and vegetables. It’s also one of the antioxidants that fights free radicals shown to cause cancer. Raw nuts or nut butters are a good source of vitamin E, as well as calcium, magnesium, zinc and vitamin B2. Vitamin E fights free radicals associated with stress; in particular, those that cause heart disease.
Other antioxidants, such as glutathione, CoQ10 and phosphatidylserine, are also helpful as supplements.
Folate has been shown to be effective in preventing cognitive decline and dementia during aging and enhancing the effects of antidepressants. For example, results of a recent, randomized clinical trial indicate three years of folate supplementation can help reduce age-related decline in cognitive function. Adequate levels of folate are essential for brain function, and folate deficiency can lead to neurological disorders such as depression and cognitive impairment.
Take folate — not folic acid — for the highest bioavailability and benefits. Folate is found in foods including spinach, orange juice and yeast.
A Fit Brain = Brain Power
In addition to a healthy diet, you also need to exercise — not only your body, but your brain. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine supports the theory that mentally demanding activities can help reduce your risk of dementia. Mental stimulation can come from playing games such as Scrabble, backgammon and chess; playing a musical instrument; or doing crossword puzzles.
About the Author
Erin Zimniewicz Williams, C.N., L.M.P., is the owner of EZ Balance in Redmond, Washington. She is a certified nutritionist and licensed massage therapist, as well as a yoga and Pilates instructor.