March 16th sees the beginning of Brain Awareness Week, a global campaign to increase awareness of the benefits of brain research. In the UK, we are living longer. This means that more and more people will be affected by diminished brain function and neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. Taking measures to age-proof your brain has never been more important. Read on to discover the 3 most important brain nutrients.
More than half of your brain is made of fat. The most important fat to ‘feed’ your brain is DHA, a type of omega-3 fatty acid. DHA helps to keep the membrane of each brain cell flexible, so that it can function and communicate quickly and efficiently (1).
If your diet is heavy in saturated fats and trans fats from processed foods, on the other hand, then these types of fats will be used in your brain cells, making then rigid and slow to communicate.
Good sources of DHA include low-mercury oily fish such as wild-caught Atlantic salmon, fresh water trout, herring, anchovies and sardines. If you don’t eat these foods regularly then you may benefit from a regular fish oil supplement, or a vegan omega-3 supplement containing DHA.
Every time a cell makes energy, it produces damaging waste substances called free radicals. These substances have a tendency to bind with other healthy cells, causing damage called oxidation. In this way, our organs and tissues, including the brain, are constantly under attack.
When free radicals attack your brain, they can prevent the brain from producing energy, which in turn causes fatigue, and can even affect memory, mood and coordination (2).
A systematic review published just last year found evidence for the benefit of antioxidant nutrients in the prevention of cognitive decline. The strongest evidence was in support of the antioxidant mineral selenium as well as vitamins C, E and carotenes (3). These antioxidants were found to slow age-related decline in cognition, attention and psychomotor speed (the ability to coordinate fast thinking with doing something quickly, for example in driving a car
or following a conversation).
There is growing evidence that B Vitamins – in particular folic acid, and vitamins B6 and B12 – play a critical role in protecting the brain from the effects of ageing. B vitamins help to protect the brain by lowering levels of homocysteine, a naturally occurring amino acid that is ‘neurotoxic, and therefore linked to damage in the brain. In studies, levels of homocysteine in the blood have been linked with memory problems and difficulty processing information, as well as age-related cognitive decline and diseases such as Alzheimer’s (4).
A recent randomised controlled trial of 260 elderly people found that a daily B-vitamin supplement reduced levels of homocysteine by 30%, and improved test scores in both cognition and memory (5).
Folic acid and vitamin B6 are present in leafy green, beans, nuts and seeds, while B12 is present in fish, milk, eggs and meat. Unfortunately our
absorption of Vitamin B12 becomes less efficient as we age, and so for some people a supplement may be a sensible measure.
Brain function can in fact start declining as early as age 45, a condition labelled ‘age related cognitive decline.’ (6). By looking after our health and nutrient status in middle age, we can ‘age-proof’ our brain to help ensure a sharp mind and independent lifestyle in later years.
Cole GM, Frautschy SA. DHA may prevent age-related dementia. J Nutr. 2010 Apr;140(4):869-74.
Poon HF et al (2004) Free radicals and brain aging. Clin Geriatr Med. 20(2):329-59
Rafnsson SB et al (2013) Antioxidant nutrients and age-related cognitive decline: a systematic review of population-based cohort studies. Eur J Nutr 52(6): 1553-67
Sachdev (2005) Homocysteine and brain atrophy. 29(7):1152-61
de Jager et al (2011) Cognitive and clinical outcomes of homocysteine-lowering B-vitamin treatment in milkd cognitice impairment: a randomised controlled trial. Int J Geriat Psych. 26(6):592-600
Singh-Manous A et al (2012) Timing of onset of cognitive decline: results from Whitehall II prospective cohort study. British Medical Journal. 344:d7622