The key chemicals needed for a healthy brain
Want to know what is in these tasty, yet incredibly healthy foods (be careful with the desserts though!) to make them healthy for the brain? It relates to the chemicals in the food known as nutrients. Let us take a closer look at the chemicals found in these foods considered important to the brain.
Almost 80 per cent of the brain is made up of fats of which the most abundant is an Omega-3 substance known as DHA. DHA and the complete range of other Omega-3 fats (e.g. EPA) are considered by many health experts as vital for the development of a healthy brain as they enhance nerve signals and cell communication. Omega-3 fats are normally found in fish (e.g. sardines, anchovies, salmon, mackerel and tuna), and plant foods such as soybeans, canola oil, linseeds, walnuts and green vegetables.
You should remember that not everyone will support this view. For example, Professor Toms Sanders of Kings College in London who has studied Omega-3 fats for 30 years is not entirely convinced Omega-3 will improve brain power and reduce heart attacks by thinning the blood and therefore lowering heart disease and strokes from blood clots. Other factors seem to complicate the health benefits of Omega-3. However, most other experts believe it does have healthy properties.
For example, there is a study suggesting people who eat the most fish (Japanese people) have the lowest numbers of people suffering depression compared to people who ate the least fish (as observed in people living in South Africa). And in one documented case of a highly depressed individual whose brain was shown to be smaller than average, supplying Omega-3 in his diet had actually solved the depression and increased brain size in a period of 9 months.
Also, Dr Cathy Williams of Bristols University made a study into pregnant women eating fish. Mothers who ate fish tended to produce offsprings with better developed vision, can speak more words, and have better concentration and reading skills at an earlier age than those offsprings who were born from mothers who didn't eat fish.
Of course, care must be taken not to think Omega-3 is the miracle pill for solving all diseases and health problems (and to create little Einstein's in the world from all our procreation activities). Omega-3 is just one important chemical in any good and healthy diet. In reality, you need a range of different nutrients from different food types to get the maximum benefit for the brain and body. And remember, Omega-3 does not have to come from fish. Some plants such as pumpkin seeds and soybeans (e.g. tofu) contain small amounts of Omega-3, together with other useful nutrients.
NOTE 1: Being a vegetarian can also reduce blood clots that would otherwise normally cause heart diseases. The same reduction can also be achieved with Omega-3 fatty acids. Thus being a vegatarian can have its benefits in terms of maintaining good mental and physical health for life, especially when the brain is already fully developed. It is only when we are younger do we need slightly more Omega-3 to help build a healthier brain. Thus finding more potent sources of Omega-3 (such as fish) can help significantly in this specific situation. And when we are older, nutrient intake may be reduced, so a wider range of food sources may be required to maintain good mental and physical health.
NOTE 2: How much of these healthy fats should we consume? Very good question. Children with developing minds need to consume adequate amounts of Omega-3 fatty acids, and slightly less as we get older (although technically it should not kill you if you did eat more fish, but please take note of some of the problems associated with eating too much fish to be discussed later in this page). On the other hand, there are other fats in existence and these do need to be controlled. The fats we definitely need to consume the least amount are of the saturated and trans fats (1) variety. Look for low fat foods usually containing no more than 2 grams of fat per 100 grams of the food, and have absolutely no saturated or trans fats as possible (although a small amount should not kill you). The average amount is around 4 grams of fat per 100 grams.
NOTE 3: If relying on commercial food manufacturers to provide low fat food, take considerable care when consuming their products. What is described as low fat foods may, in fact, have extra sugar to make them taste sweeter and more likely to be consumed in order for the manufacturers to make a profit. Look at the ingredients list and make sure the sugar levels are very low. Calories per serving should reflect this, and the ingredients list should show either no sugar or sugar (fructose, glucose, palm sugar, erc) at the end of the list to suggest the amount of sugar is minimal.
Water and Protein/Amino acids
Over 35 per cent of the brain is made up of water and protein/amino acids. These two chemical types help to maintain the shape and structure of nerve cells, store various other vital chemicals for use in generating healthy electrical impulses inside a nerve cell, create neurotransmitters when transmitting signals between nerve cells, repair nerve cell damage where possible, and generally keep them healthy and functioning properly in the brain. Of all the amino acids used in the brain, the most important is tryptophan. Tryptophan is the chemical for building serotonin, a neurotransmitter. Without serotonin in the brain, you will suffer from depression, regular anxiety, lack of concentration, less alertness, and memory difficulties. As for water, this is found everywhere (even it it means desalinating the oceans for the fresh and clean water we need). Protein can be found in all animal and dairy foods; and some plant materials such as chia seeds (a nutrient dense seed containing things like Omega 3, protein and antioxidants), quinoa, lupin flour, soya beans and chick peas. How much protein should you consume per day? When the protein needs of the rest of the body is included, you should consume approximately 1 gram for each kilogram of body weight. So if you weigh 70 kilograms, you should have 70 to 75 grams of protein.
NOTE FOR VEGETARIANS: It is possible to acquire all the essential amino acids needed to build proteins from plant-based products. Whilst the body can produce a certain number of amino acids on its own, there are some amino acids that we cannot produce ourselves and need to be obtained from external sources. We call these the essential amino acids. In terms of a complete source of all the amino acids we need, quinoa is an exceptional food in this regard. Apart from being packed with numerous vitamins (including folate for building DNA and various other health benefits) and minerals (including iron for carrying oxygen around the body for energy, magnesium for the proper functioning and growth of cells, and manganese and calcium for healthy bones and nerve cells), it is one of the few sources of complete amino acids you can get and especially in plant-based form (the other being soy beans). Quinoa also contains no gluten, making it ideal for people intolerant to gluten (i.e., coeliacs), and is often grown free from chemicals as the plant itself produces a natural insecticide called saponin (this is the chemical that gives quinoa its bitter taste, but can be easily removed if the quinoa is soaked, and rinsed well, before use). And if that is not enough, it is also a great source of fibre for a healthy gastrointestinal tract. One could almost say quinoa is perhaps the great food for the gods! Use quinoa in place of rice, cous cous or polenta (the latter food is possible using the white quinoa grounded to a fine flour consistency).
NOTE ABOUT PROTEIN: This is an essential nutrient for repairing body tissues. Even the healthiest person can easily tear muscles, and even suddenly collapse from a heart attack if the protein levels are too low. When it comes to healthy and strong blood vessels (and so minimise the risk of strokes), not only do you need protein to keep these vessels intact and strong, but also to control blood pressure to within a normal range (which can be achieved by reducing salt intake).
The bad boy in our foods when it comes to reducing weight, is actually a vital nutrient for the brain. You need a certain amount of blood glucose as a source of energy for running the brain (as well as the rest of the body). This translates mentally into enhanced memory and concentration levels and help boost attention span and problem-solving ability. Glucose is primarily obtained from raw sugar, pasta and rice (all forms of carbohydrates, it is just some are more digestible than others). But don't consume too much carbohydrates or you'll notice a weight gain and extra fat building up in certain parts of your body. If you do notice this happens to you, consume less carbohydrates or choose carbohydrates that are more difficult to absorb in the body (also known as foods with low glycimic (GI) index). Low GI foods usually have more fibre such as wholemeal pasta.
An essential ingredient in the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin. It is also used in the development of the central nervous system. Sources of Vitamin B6 include whole grains, vegetables, lean meats and nuts.
Vitamin B12 is said to help prevent DNA damage. It also helps your body to turn food into energy and without enough of it will make you feel listless and fatigued. Vegetarians are more likely to experience deficiency in this vitamin because it is found mostly in meat products.
Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine): Useful for people who present themselves with a great deal of irritability, and those who have marked pre-menstrual symptoms and/or motion sickness. Too much of this vitamin can cause tingling in your hands or feet. If this is the case, discontinue use.
Vitamin B1 (Thiamin) is useful for people who suffer circulation problems, anxiety, night terrors, and tingling in the extremities. Consume enough to improve moods and exhibit faster reaction times in your nerves (certainly not more than 50mg if you believe you have a deficiency in this vitamin).
In general, a broad-range vitamin B-complex supplement helps to develop a healthy nervous system, including the brain.
An important ingredient needed in other parts of the body when it comes to healthy cell division and to reduce genome damage in DNA (i.e. slow the ageing process (3)). In the brain, folate helps in cognitive performance, particularly in relation to attention span and memory. All green leafy vegetables (spinach, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage and lettuce), oranges, bananas, avocadoes, wholemeal bread, eggs, yeast extract and peanuts are good sources for folate.
Do not underestimate the benefits of iron for a healthy body and brain. A useful metal in its own right, it is an element that will deliver vital oxygen to the brain and body through the innumerable numbers of blood cells moving through your blood vessels. A lack of iron in your diet (often seen in men who choose to eat only fish and no red meats while exercising regularly, or for women who naturally lose some blood during the menstrual cycle) will lead to feelings of lethargy in your body (you will often struggle to find enough energy to get through your normal exercises even if you consume some sugar, you will sweat more profusely than usual, and heart rate will go up higher than normal to help pump a greater volume of blood around the body just to get enough oxygen it needs through the remaining iron in the blood), as well as reduced mental performance such as poor concentration, reduced attention span, and shortened memory abilities. If all the iron is extracted from a health adult human being, you could make a nail out of it. Anything less and you will definitely feel the disadvantages. Best sources of iron are lean meats (especially the dark reddish variety), liver, legumes (beans including bean sprouts, and lentils), and green vegetables (broccoli, spinach, kale and silverbeet).
NOTE 1: To absorb iron efficiently in the body, you need to consume vitamin-C-rich foods such as tomatoes, oranges, capsicum, bean sprouts and fresh fruit salad. If nothing else, try drinking a glass of "blood orange" juice (the darker variety of orange juice). Not only does it contain loads of anti-oxidants, but the vitamin C levels are particularly rich. (2)
NOTE 2: You can buy iron supplements from your chemist or health food store if you prefer not to consume red meats. However, take care you don't consume too much Vitamin C which is often included with the iron supplement. Too much Vitamin C can be poisonous to the body. There is also evidence that too much iron in the blood can cause another problem relating to the brain according to this article (original link from here).
NOTE 3: Red meats often contain too much fat as the animals tend to be caged or live a sedentary lifestyle. Animals that have total free range and can move around a lot have the lowest fat content and the highest protein and iron levels. Those animals that exercise a lot have the lowest fat content. For example, kangaroo is too difficult to be kept in a pen and often move around a lot, resulting in a quality of meat that is the lowest fat and the highest protein and iron levels of any meat type.
NOTE 4: Still prefer meat for your source of nutrients? Things may change as the cost to raise animal livestock for meat is great and the environmental impacts are heavy. Efforts are being made to grow in the lab animal protein without the nerves and fat, and won't taste any different from eating beef. However, the ultimate aim for humans is to eventually move away from animals altogether as a source of protein and iron to more plant-based foods. The future of humanity is to avoid harming animals. Plant-based foods is much better. And with adequate and proper long-term testing of genetically-modified plants, the nutrients in plants can be increased and contain virtually all the nutrients our bodies would ever need.
NOTE 5: For future space travellers reaching the stars, reducing the mass of the body will be seen as critical. Because of how the special theory of relativity by Einstein works in order to reach high speeds to cover the immense distances between the stars, food will be simplified to the essential nutrients (to minimise the mass of the spacecraft and give travellers what they need to stay alive). These nutrients will be absorbed through the skin through patches placed on certain parts of the body. Ultimately, this means that the digestive system for humans will eventually be by-passed entirely in the not too distant future. And for some travellers, the removal of the digestive system altogether will help to lower the body mass even further, thereby allowing them to travel faster and reach their destination in a quicker time frame.
Another mineral considered important in the development of the brain. A lack of iodine in your diet has been observed by scientists to cause learning difficulties for individuals as the brain finds it harder to grow and develop properly. It would appear iodine somehow triggers crucial processes in the body and brain such as the release of growth hormones necessary for healthy brain functioning.
You need iodine from the moment you are conceived until you die. Fortunately much of the iodine is available in most soils of which a fair proportion is absorbed by plants and animals. However, in high altitude countries (e.g. Tibet and parts of China), melted snow can leech out this mineral from the soil.
If you live in an area low in iodine, consider purchasing iodised salt and sprinkle a little in your foods. But not too much. You only need a maximum of 1 teaspoon of iodine spread out over your entire lifetime.
Alternative sources of iodine include fresh fish and milk (if the dairy industry uses iodine to clean equipment instead of chlorine).
25 February 2006
At present, iodine is not added to other foods as far as we can tell except for iodised salt. The only other way to get iodine is to consume fresh, organic vegetables and meats from areas where the iodine levels in the soil are adequate. The latter approach is better if you are worried about the health problems in consuming too much salt.
NOTE: We cannot stress any more the fact that you should not consume too much salt. Excess salt has been known to cause unexpected heart attacks, high blood pressure and the potential for strokes. It should not be necessary for you to add salt if the food is already freshly grown and picked at the right time. The flavour of genuinely fresh food grown, picked and eaten should be there all on its own. Avoid relying on cans of food as manufacturers tend to put too much salt (if not sugar or both).
An important mineral for the regulation of impulses in your nervous system and for neurotransmitter production. Combine with magnesium to help absorb more calcium into the body and brain. However, be careful. Too much calcium (hypocalcinuria) can result in stupor.
Lowers blood pressure and regulates impulses in the nervous system and neurotransmitter production. Magnesium deficiency can cause anxiety and insomnia, The minerals gets rapidly depleted during periods of stress, hard work, hot weather, or fever. If you consume Vitamin B6, you will need to add magnesium as well.
Combine many different nutrients for the best way to develop a healthy and responsive nervous system and brain
Try a combination of vitamins and minerals that focus on nervous system and brain health. Essentially this means that you combine foods containing high levels of naturally produced vitamin B-complex, calcium, magnesium, manganese, zinc, omega-3 and folate. For healthy blood flow to the brain and adequate oxygen and energy, consume iron and some carbohydrates including protein, and exercise regularly and lightly for a healthy heart and cardiovascular system.
Try to obtain all these nutrients from natural sources. Only rely on vitamin pills containing extra nutrients you need if you know the nutrients are not readily available in the foods you eat (e.g., iodine, iron etc.).
Do not overload your body on any one or a number of nutrients
Great care must be taken not to overload your body with one or a few nutrients. Usually this is very hard to do when eating fresh foods, but it is remarkably easy to do should you rely on vitamins that come in capsules from the manufacturers. More vitamins does not necessarily equate to greater health. Whilst the body will only take up the nutrients it needs when they become available, anything more is usually excreted from the body through urine. Buying more vitamins will only put you in the Guinness Book of Records as having the most expensive urine on the planet. In the meantime, the body, in absorbing and processing the vitamins, can also struggle to remove them if they are in high concentrations.
To support this claim, some medical professionals have conducted studies into what happens when the body absorbs too much of a particular type of vitamin. Here are a few risks you should consider before taking vitamin supplements from the manufacturers:
- Too much Vitamin E, an antioxidant, can increase the risk of prostrate cancer.
- High risk of cardiovascular disease and kidney stones can occur if taking too much Vitamin D.
- Consuming too much beta-carotene the red-orange coloured antioxidant pigment found in plants and fruits and converted by the body into Vitamin A when it is needed from vitamin supplements has been found to create cancer (3). Consuming beta-carotene in natural foods at the right concentrations (i.e. much lower than taking a vitamin pill) can fight cancer.
- Omega 3 in excessive amounts can cause cardiovascular disease. Or more likely the real cause is due to the quality of the Omega 3 oils you receive from the companies. For example, companies that manufacture Omega 3 from crushed fish (mainly sardines) are generally exposed to too much oxygen, resulting in the production of too much oxidized lipids. This latter chemical is considered harmful to your cardiovascular system. Therefore, some supplements can be inferior to the original fresh food product.
In conclusion, taking small amounts of vitamins (if freshly produced) is safe, but never take large amounts of vitamins from pills thinking you will be healthier. The damage this can cause to your health cannot be underestimated and may be irreparable.
Only take vitamin or mineral pills if there is a known shortage in the nutrients from eating your food (you should talk to your doctor to confirm this). For everyone else, the best vitamin pills are the ones that come naturally in fresh and naturally grown foods. Avoid the artificial variety.
Do not rely on Valerian or some other herbal supplement (from Blackmores or other companies involved in this business), or other supplements containing green tea extracts (sometimes found in protein shakes). Anything put into a capsule by profit-motivated companies generally contain higher concentrations of certain herbal extracts to the point of being toxic to the liver. And since companies of these herbal supplements are not required to prove their products are safe, additional chemical compounds may get added, such as steroids, a little bit of arsenic or whatever. If the concentrations of these chemicals reach high enough levels, liver damage and ultimately death is the common outcome. Only eat fresh foods from vegetables and fruits to get the essential nutrients. Get some protein from truly natural plant-based products. A little carbohydrates and fat-soluble vitamins and minerals, and plenty of clean fresh water, and you should be fine.