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How Nutrition Affects Your Brain

Can certain foods or nutrients make you smarter or help you think better?

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS,
April 18, 2011
Episode #135

A Nutrition Diva fan recently asked a question about how nutrition affects the brain and I thought this would make a great topic.  Laura wants to know whether certain foods or nutrients “are important for good brain function, particularly for memory and critical thinking.” 

How Nutrition Affects Your Brain

Your brain is a nutrition hog; it needs a lot of different nutrients in order to develop and function properly. Nutrients like choline (which is found in egg yolks, liver, and wheat germ) and DHA (an omega-3 fatty acid found in fish and breast milk) are particularly important for proper brain development early in life.

Throughout life, you need tyrosine —which is found in protein foods—and vitamin C to produce the neurotransmitters that carry signals between brain cells.  Antioxidants and essential fatty acids also help to protect your brain cells from everyday damage and age-related decline.

Healthy Brain Function and Nutrition

Your brain is also an expensive date in terms of energy.  Of all the energy it takes to power your body’s many functions and activities, your brain sucks up about 20%. B vitamins and iron are critical for the cellular energy metabolism that keeps the lights on up there.  In other words, healthy brain function and development require overall good nutrition.  Conversely, serious nutrient deficiencies can definitely impair your cognitive abilities.

Can Certain Foods Help You Think Better?

Improving your general nutrition status can have some modest effects—especially if your nutrition status is not that great to start out with.

But I don’t think that’s really what Laura is asking. Let’s assume that you already have a reasonably healthy diet and you aren’t suffering from any serious nutrient deficiencies. Are there foods or nutrients that could actually help you think better or more clearly? Can extra nutrition make you smarter or more focused? 

So far, experiments testing the ability of various nutritional supplements to improve things like attention, memory, reasoning, and problem solving in humans have been inconclusive. (See for example this summary of the research on nutrients and cognitive function from the Linus Pauling Micronutrient Information Center.)

Can Certain Foods Make You Smarter?

In general, it seems that improving your general nutrition status can have some modest effects—especially if your nutrition status is not that great to start out with. And a healthy diet does seem to delay or protect against age-related cognitive decline. But, as cool as it would be, we haven’t yet found foods or nutrients that take your logical thinking or problem-solving abilities to a higher level. 

What to Eat for Good Brain Health

Although we haven’t discovered any foods that make you smarter, making good choices can definitely set you up for success with your cognitive tasks. Here are my tips for optimizing your mental function.

1.  Eat a healthy diet.  In order to be sure your brain has all the nutrients it needs to work properly, eat a wide variety of whole foods, including some good sources of protein, lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, fish, and other sources of healthy fats. Just follow the advice in this podcast or in my book, Secrets for a Healthy Diet, and you’ll be fine.

Read a sample chapter of my new book here.

2.  Don’t think on an empty stomach.  Studies in school children consistently show that kids who eat breakfast are better able to focus and learn. Although the effects aren’t quite as dramatic in adults, you’re probably not going to get your best work done with a rumbling stomach.  That doesn’t mean you have to eat constantly throughout the day. In fact, occasionally going a bit longer between meals could actually improve brain health over the long haul.  But if you’re going to be putting in a long day of mental effort, you might want to avoid going more than four or five hours between meals. Alternatively, the best time to turn your attention to a challenging problem might be right after a small or moderate-sized meal.

Related Content: How Often Should You Eat?

3. Avoid large meals and foods high in sugar. After the initial sugar buzz, big doses of sugar tend to have a sedating or dulling effect on mental function.  Very large meals can have the same effect. Instead, fuel your peak performance with a moderately-sized meal emphasizing protein and slow-burning carbs like whole grains and legumes. 

Related Content: Why is Sugar Bad?

4. Consider judicious use of caffeine.  Although it doesn’t make you more intelligent, a little caffeine—such as the amount in a cup of coffee or a couple of cups of tea—can increase your alertness and mental function for several hours. Don’t overdo it, of course, and avoid caffeine late in the day so that it doesn’t keep you from falling asleep.

Related content: Benefits of Caffeine

5. Don’t skimp on sleep or exercise.  That’s not technically a nutrition tip, I realize, but regular sleep and exercise work hand in hand with good nutrition to support healthy brain function. 

See the Resources below for links to more information on the links between diet, nutrition, sleep, exercise, and mental function.

Keep in Touch

If you have a nutrition question or suggestion for a future show topic send an email to nutrition@quickanddirtytips.com. You can also post comments and questions on my Nutrition Diva Facebook Page.   If you’ve sent me a question, be sure to sign up for my free weekly newsletter because that’s where I answer a lot of those questions.

Have a great week and remember to eat something good for me!

RESOURCES: 

Micronutrients and Cognitive Function (LPI Oregon State)

Effect of Fasting on the Brain (Health.com)

Diet and Academic performance (AskDrSears.com)

Sleep Deprivation and Cognitive Ability  (Johns Hopkins University)

Exercise and Brain Function  (Science Daily)