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Food for thought: Why feeding your brain properly is a smart thing to do

By CLAUDIA BERMUDEZ-HYUN, The Philippine STAR Published May 03, 2022 5:00 am

Have you ever walked into your kitchen to get something then walked out again trying to remember what it was you were there to do? Grabbing your phone to make an urgent call, then forgetting whom it was you needed to contact? Or, worst yet, drawing a blank on the name of one of your “titas” while trying to introduce her to your friends? We all have the occasional “senior moments” and memory lapses, which can occur at any given age and might have little to do with any type of brain damage, but recent studies are now showing that the brain begins to lose sharpness of memory and reasoning power not from age 60, as previously thought, but from as early as 45, according to healthline.com.

What can we do to help keep our brains healthier longer?

When our diet is loaded with pro-inflammatory foods, we may be up to three times more likely to experience memory loss, issues with language, problem-solving and other thinking skills.

We often associate consuming healthy food with our weight and waistline, but what we eat has a crucial impact on our mental health. There is a very strong connection between the stomach and the brain through the vagus nerve, an essential part of the brain–gut axis, which can explain why stress triggers anxiety in our mind and “butterflies” in our stomach.

Roughly the size of two clenched fists, the brain does not only keep your heart pumping and your lungs breathing, but this vital organ also allows you to think, move and feel. Although it only accounts for two percent of our weight, it consumes 20 percent of our body’s energy. That is 10 times more than the rest of the body, requiring a constant supply of energy to function, meaning whatever we consume and expose it to has a huge impact on its proper performance.

When our diet is loaded with pro-inflammatory foods, we may be up to three times more likely to experience memory loss, issues with language, problem-solving and other thinking skills. A healthy lifestyle is linked to more years without signs of Alzheimer’s disease, according to research published in the British Medical Journal, and research continues to demonstrate how powerful a good dietary practice may be in maintaining proper brain function.

With all that research established, here are a few scientifically tested foods that will aid to boost and protect our brain, keeping it alert and in fine fettle.

Omega-3: Research suggests that people who eat fish regularly tend to have more gray matter in their brains. It may slow age-related mental decline and prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s. 

Fatty fish. This is usually at the top of the brain food list. Research suggests that people who eat fish regularly tend to have more grey matter in their brains, may have slower age-related mental decline and could avoid the early onset of Alzheimer’s. High and rich Omega-3 fatty acids build brain and nerve cells, which are essential for memory and learning. Fish high in these oils include: salmon, trout, tuna, herring and sardines. A high-quality supplement is also an option.

Nuts. A new study has found that eating nuts on a regular basis strengthens brainwave frequencies associated with cognition, healing, learning, memory and other key brain functions. Almonds and macadamia nuts help improve memory, pistachio nut oil preserves fatty acids and prevents inflammation, but walnuts are the top nut for brain health, having a high concentration of DHA, a type of Omega-3 fatty acid. 

Antioxidants act against oxidative stress and inflammation contributing to neurodegenerative and brain aging

Berries. These fleshy and delicate fruits are packed with antioxidant molecules called flavonoids that protect cells from damage, can delay brain aging and improve memory. “Antioxidants act against oxidative stress and inflammation contributing to neurodegenerative and brain aging,” according to webmd.com.

Deeply-colored berries such as blueberries, blackberries, chockberries, elderberries and raspberries fall under this category.

A daily serving of leafy greens, such as spinach or broccoli, could keep our brains younger longer.

Broccoli. This cruciferous vegetable, high on the list of super foods, with a high content of antioxidants, vitamin K and other nutritional compounds, may help protect the brain against premature aging. A recent report suggests that a daily serving of leafy greens, such as spinach or broccoli, could keep our brains younger longer.

Green tea contains components such as L-thiamine, polyphenols and antioxidants that are known to protect the brain from mental decline.

Green tea. Known for boosting brain function, alertness, performance, memory and focus, it contains components such as L-thiamine, polyphenols and antioxidants that are known to protect the brain from mental decline and reduce the risk of Parkinson’s and other progressive brain diseases caused by gradual damage to brain cells. Furthermore, healthline.com links green tea compounds to a reduced risk of cancer.

Caffeine and antioxidants link chocolate and cocoa powder to memory enhancement.

Dark chocolate. Powerful doses of brain boosters such as flavonoids, caffeine and antioxidants link chocolate and cocoa powder to memory enhancement, age-related mental decline and improved memory.

Coffee. Caffeine has a number of beneficial effects that include improved mood by igniting “happy” neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, and increased alertness.

Turmeric eases depression, helps brain cells to grow and improves memory in people suffering from Alzheimer’s.

Turmeric. This yellow spice has a number of benefits for the brain as it is anti-inflammatory, which eases depression, helps brain cells to grow and improves memory in people suffering from Alzheimer’s. Its main component, curcumin, has been shown to “cross blood-brain barriers, directly entering the brain and benefiting its cells,” according to healthline.com. Turmeric also comes in a concentrated supplement form.

There are preventive measures to consider looking into, which involve cutting down on, or quitting altogether, some foods, drinks and habits:

Sugars have a high glycemic index, which basically means the body quickly digests these carbohydrates.

Cut down on refined carbs and sugars. Cakes, cereals, cookies, white rice and white bread have a high glycemic index, which basically means the body quickly digests these carbohydrates, spiking our sugar levels. We need to avoid the insulin roller coaster. The unrestricted abuse of this type of diet is associated with cognitive decline, reduced cognitive function and dementia. Brown rice and whole meal flour are options to consider.

Drink less alcohol. Too much alcohol alters the brain and results in memory deficits. It has neurotoxic effects on the brain. Binge drinking can eventually damage the hippocampus, which plays a vital role in memory. Be aware of your intake.

Stop smoking. This is literally a “no-brainer”: research shows that smokers have a thinner cerebral cortex than non-smokers, in other words, smoking destroys our grey matter. This is important because the cerebral cortex is a part of the brain that is crucial for thinking skills, including memory and learning, so thicker is better. Apart from addiction to nicotine, smoking increases your risk for other brain diseases. It’s all bad news at any health level. Find ways to give up this habit.

A simple blood test will allow you to assess your vitamin D levels and any deficiency can be easily treated with supplements.

Get your vitamin D tested. Low levels of vitamin D have been linked to a host of health issues, including a reduction in cognitive function and to a greater risk of developing dementia. A simple blood test will allow you to assess your vitamin D levels and any deficiency can be easily treated with supplements.

In addition to feeding it properly, our brain also needs its own type of exercise and mental training. Here are a few activities to engage in:

Learn a new skill. Learning is not only fun and interesting, but it may also help strengthen the connections in your brain. Consider learning a new language. Studies show that bilingualism contributes to better memory, improved visual-spatial skills, and higher levels of creativity. It is also known to delay the onset of age-related mental decline. Other skills could be learning to play a musical instrument, completing an online certificate on a subject of your choice or joining an art or tai-chi class. Become a student again. Anything new will do the trick.

Puzzles. Keep a puzzle going in a specific place in your home. Challenge your brain. Jigsaw puzzles group multiple cognitive abilities: visually trying to figure out how and where pieces fit is an entertaining way to exercise your brain.

Mah-jong is an inherently social game that brings people together and has been known to sharpen cognitive skills. 

Card games and mah-jong. Engaging in any type of card game can lead to greater volume in several regions of the brain. Try solitaire, bridge, gin rummy, poker. Mah-jong is an inherently social game that brings people together and has been known to sharpen your cognitive skills. Learn how to play, organize a weekly group and have fun.

New moves can increase your brain’s processing speed and memory. In other words, go crazy on the dance floor and your brain will thank you.

Dance your heart out. Beyond just movements and music, dancing offers many benefits for mental health and brain function. New dance moves can increase your brain’s processing speed and memory. In other words, go crazy on the dance floor and your brain will thank you. Take a salsa, hip-hop or ballroom class, go out with your friends or dance alone at home to your favorite tunes. 

Keeping physically and mentally active in middle age may be associated with a lower risk of developing dementia later, according to a study in the recent issue of Neurology.

Increase your exercise. It’s established that any type of cardiovascular exercise is beneficial for the brain and may help improve memory in people of all ages. Regular exercise in midlife is associated with a decreased risk of developing dementia years later. According to healthline.com, “People in their 60s can reduce their risk of Alzheimer’s by half,” so getting on that treadmill is not only about keeping your body fit, but about your brain staying sharp longer. 

Meditate. Daily meditation will calm your body and slow your breathing, thereby reducing stress and anxiety and helping to fine-tune your memory and increase your brain’s ability to process information. Remember that stress is closely connected to forgetfulness, concentration issues and memory lapses. Find a quiet spot, close your eyes, and spend five minutes meditating each day. That’s all it takes.

If you are further interested in brain and memory health, I recommend reading, or following, Dr. Daniel Amen and his book: Change Your Brain, Change Your Life. Also, listen to his Ted Talk titled “The Most Important Lessons From 83,000 Brain Scans.” It is very insightful and informative.

By incorporating proper nutrition, awareness and brain exercises into our daily lifestyle you will sharpen your cognitive skills, focus, memory, and ward off age-related brain diseases, allowing you to have a better quality of life in your golden years.

Keep in mind: “When your brain works right, you work right.”