Your brain is kind of a big deal. As “command centre” for the body, it controls and regulates everything you do – from walking to talking, blinking to thinking, keeping your heart beating and your lungs breathing.
A healthy diet has long been known to help reduce risk of diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer, but what about the role of diet in keeping our brains healthy?
Let’s take a look at some of the key nutrients that support brain health, and the foods and drinks that can keep your brain working in peak condition.
The human brain is around 75% water, therefore it stands to reason that staying well hydrated is really important. Even mild dehydration can impair brain function, causing difficulties with concentration, memory and fatigue. Unsweetened, non-caffeinated drinks such as water, herbal teas or fruit-infused water are the best choice, but tea and coffee also count towards your daily fluid intake – just make sure you also consume some non-caffeinated drinks too. How much you should drink each day varies from person to person, but around 2 litres is a good rule of thumb.
If you were to remove all the water from your brain, the remaining “dry weight” would be about 60% fat. The fats we eat are incorporated into the membranes of the cells that make up our brain and nervous system. But as important as ensuring we include some fats in our diets, is ensuring we choose the right types of fat that support good brain health. Most important is omega-3 which is known as an essential fatty acid because we can only obtain it via food. Many people will know that omega-3 can be found in oily fish such as mackerel, sardines and salmon, but nuts and seeds such as walnuts, flaxseeds and chia seeds are also excellent sources of this essential nutrient. Aim for 1-2 tbsp seeds or a small handful of walnuts each day.
Our brains are incredibly energy hungry. Despite only representing 2% of our weight, our brains use an astonishing 20% of our energy. This means we needs to keep our brains well fuelled if we want to avoid low energy and problems with thinking, concentration and memory. Carbohydrates are our bodies’ preferred energy source, however not all carbohydrates are created equal. Refined carbohydrates such as those found in white bread, pasta, white rice, breakfast cereals or sugary sweets and treats have been stripped of their fibre and nutrients. This means they digest very quickly, causing a rapid boost in energy followed a while later by an energy slump, hunger, irritability and poor concentration.
Whole carbohydrates contain more fibre and nutrients than refined carbohydrates. This means they digest more slowly and help keep our energy levels steady, helping our brains to function better. Good examples of whole carbohydrates include wholemeal bread, pasta and rice, porridge oats, fruits and vegetables (keep the skins on potatoes!) and beans.
Antioxidants are molecules which protect cells in the body against damage. They are really important in keeping our bodies, and brains, healthy. The richest source of antioxidants are brightly coloured fruits and vegetables, especially berries and leafy greens such as spinach and kale. Coffee and green tea also contain a high concentration of antioxidants, and you will probably be pleased to hear that dark chocolate contains high levels of flavonoids which have been positively linked to memory. A great reason to treat yourself to a daily square of brain-boosting chocolate!
As well eating a balanced diet, staying physically active is one of the best ways we can look after our brain health. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, delivering oxygen and essential nutrients, and stimulating the growth of new brain cells. What type of exercise is best? Well pretty much anything that increases your heart rate, makes you feel slightly out of breath, and that you enjoy! The CSP have some great ideas for incorporating regular activity into your life when you’ve got a long-term health condition.
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