Food to protect your brain

Part two of the best defense for your brain.

How often are you about to say something when it just slips your mind? Or as you look at a book, have you found yourself reading the same line over and over again as your mind wanders onto something else?

There are many reasons your brain may be functioning at less than its peak performance at any one time– fatigue or a lack of sleep, dehydration, too much alcohol or even a lack of fuel. But keeping your brain sharp over time requires a little food for thought.

While various supplements have failed to live up to the promise of  protecting your cognitive function,  scientists have found that maintaining your smarts can be linked to what you put on your plate.  It’s not only looking at brain power in terms of  cognitive function like memory but also at issues like balance and coordination.

Here are a couple of powerful protectors of brain functioning:

•    Blueberries
The late James Joseph, Ph.D., a scientist who conducted research at the Jean Mayer Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging  at  Boston’s Tufts University  was one of the pioneers in this area who spent almost four decades investigating how to preserve brain function. And much of his research over the past number of years focussed on blueberries and their effect on a variety of brain activities that occur at a very basic level – the neurons.

Neurons, the foundation of the body’s nervous system, communicate with each other and as Dr. Joseph liked to say, that in the brain, they were like an old married couple. And sometimes, they didn’t communicate well with each other and sent out inflammatory signals. And inflammation, in any kind of conversation, can be damaging. In the brain, inflammatory signals can lead to losses in short term memory as well as a loss of balance and coordination.

On the other hand, some neurons, particularly younger neurons, send out protective signals. Antioxidants, like those found in blueberries, promote this action.  Dr. Joseph’s research showed that blueberries enhanced the neuron’s protective signalling while minimizing the inflammatory action.

Blueberries are packed with colourful compounds or pigments called anthocyanins and proanthocyanidins. As both wild and cultivated blueberries contain an assortment of these compounds, get your fill of both varieties. But don’t just enjoy them during the summer. Go for fresh, in season, and frozen all year long.

•    Salmon and other cold water fatty fish

Fish truly is brain food – right through the life cycle from pregnancy to old age. Research has shown that higher consumption of fatty fish like salmon, sardines and mackerel is linked to a lower risk of cognitive decline. While it’s true that when fish replaces meat at meals artery-clogging saturated fat counts drop, it seems that fish offers a defence against cognitive decline due to its omega-3 content.

These fats may protect arteries by both reducing the levels of triglycerides, a fat in the blood which can be deposited in arteries and through their powerful anti-inflammatory action.

But it may be only in a preventative role that fish with its omega-3 fats can keep mental function sharp. Swedish researchers tested fish oil capsules on subjects with both mild and advanced Alzheimer’s disease.  And while they offered benefit for those with very  mild Alzheimer’s, they didn’t do so in  those with the more advanced disease.  The speculation is that the anti-inflammatory effects of fish oils on the brain are only effective before there are any signs of Alzheimer’s.

Look for part 3 in this series next week.

Do you seek out foods that offer protection for your brain? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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Categories: Your Questions Answered

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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