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Articles >> Food & Nutrition >> Nutrition >> The Care and Feeding of Your Brain

The Care and Feeding of Your Brain

Protect your memory and enhance concentration, for a sharp mind today and tomorrow.

Forgot where you left your car keys again? Help is on the way.If you can remember to eat brain-healthy foods and choose the right supplements to

support your brain, you'll be a step closer to staving off age-related memory decline.

It's a fish story

So what, exactly, is a diet fit for a mastermind? For that answer, we turn to the sea. Perhaps the most outstanding single brain booster is DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), a member of the omega-3 essential fatty acid family found primarily in seaweed, algae, and cold-water fatty fish, such as wild salmon, tuna, lake trout, sardines, mackerel, herring, and anchovies. The other omega-3 relatives are EPA (Eicosapentaenoic Acid) and ALA (Alphalinolenic Acid). All three are vital to health, but according to recent research, DHA is the rock star of the trio for maintaining optimal brain function.

Although almonds, walnuts, and DHA-enriched eggs also contain small amounts of DHA, fish is, by far, the best and most reliable source. A recent study from Chicago's Rush Medical Center found eating fish just once a week cut odds of Alzheimer's by an amazing 60 percent. Numerous other studies recommend two-to-three servings per week of fish high in DHA.

However, if you are concerned about toxicity in fish (tuna, for example, is often high in mercury), or live in a land-locked state where fresh fish isn't plentiful, consider fish oil capsules with DHA. Look for a brand, such as Nordic Naturals, that is pharmaceutical grade, molecularly distilled for purity, and contains a natural preservative such as vitamin E and/or rosemary oil. The National Institute of Health recommends 650 mg. of combined DHA/EPA per day.

Ward off brain drain: Load up on antioxidants

Brain health is affected by what we eat over time. A brain-healthy diet should be low in refined sugars, processed foods, saturated and trans fats, and include ample amounts of whole grains, nuts, legumes, and, of course, whole fruits and vegetables.

The antioxidant power of fruits and vegetables are critical to a strong brain. Antioxidants serve as housekeepers in the body and the brain, cleaning up free radicals, unstable particles that damage healthy cells. Free radicals contribute to oxidation in the body, similar to the rust in a pipe. Antioxidants help prevent memory loss and keep the communication pathway between brain cells strong by scrubbing off existing rust and preventing more from accumulating.

To keep memory problems at bay, many experts put antioxidant vitamins E and C at the top of the list. A 2005 study in the Archives of Neurology found that in a group of 2,889 adults over the age of 65, those with the highest vitamin E intake had the lowest rate of cognitive decline. Another study in 2004, with a group of almost 5,000 adults, discovered that the combination of vitamins E and C together provided significant protection against Alzheimer's.

The ideal way to obtain your vitamins is from whole foods. The substances in whole foods work synergistically to increase antioxidant activity and provide fiber along with other nutrients you can't get from pills alone.

Where to get your 'E'

Excellent food sources of vitamin E include wheat germ oil, raw sunflower seeds, olives, papaya, and dry-roasted almonds. The mango fruit and oils such as safflower and corn, along with dark leafy greens such as mustard, turnip, spinach, and collard greens also provide vitamin E. Certain prepared foods, such as dry cereal, may be fortified with vitamin E, check labels. Many people, particularly the elderly, don't obtain enough vitamin E from diet alone. The DRI (dietary reference intake) for adults is a minimum of 15 mg. per day, with a therapeutic range of 100-2,000 mg. Consult your healthcare practitioner regarding therapeutic dosages.

Don't forget your 'C'

Although almost all fruits and veggies contain some vitamin C, the top foods include the tropical papaya, red bell peppers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, fresh strawberries and other berries, oranges and other citrus fruits, cantaloupe, kiwi, cauliflower, and kale.

A word to the wise on vitamin C foods: This water-soluble vitamin is highly sensitive to air, water, and temperature. Simply blanching or steaming your food for a short time, or the freezing and thawing of frozen foods, for example, can create a 25 percent loss of vitamin C.  By eating your vitamin C-rich foods fresh and raw, or cooking them as lightly as possible, you'll preserve more of this delicate vitamin.

Studies are mixed on the value of high doses of vitamin C, and again, whole foods are always preferred. The DRI for vitamin C is 75-90 mg. per day for adults, with a therapeutic range (consult with your healthcare practitioner) of 250-25,000 mg.

Fitting in the 'B's'

In addition to vitamins A and C, the B vitamins are vital to normal brain and nerve function. Evidence suggests that low blood levels of B vitamins, such as B1, B6, B12, and folic acid (or folate), may be linked to cognitive impairment. In particular, vegans and the elderly are at high risk for vitamin B deficiency.

A few of the top B vitamins include:

Vitamin B1 (thiamine), essential for healthy brain and nerve cells. Thiamine is found naturally in whole grains and is added to enriched grain products such as bread, rice, pasta, and some cereals. Pork is also a good source of thiamine.

Vitamin B12 (cyanocobalamin), helps maintain a healthy nervous system and can only be obtained through animal products or supplements. Eggs, meat, fish, poultry, and dairy products all contain B12.

Folic Acid (folate) is essential for metabolism of long-chain fatty acids in the brain. A study in the July 2004 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition evaluated 228 subjects. Those with the lowest blood levels of folate had three times the risk for mild cognitive impairment, and the risk of dementia increased almost fourfold. Folate is especially important for pregnant women, since low levels increase the risk of neural tube defects in newborns. Foods rich in folate include calf's liver, Romaine lettuce, spinach, beets, asparagus, bananas, oranges and orange juice, fortified cereals, lentils and beans, lemons, strawberries, and cantaloupe.

Last, but not least: the humble berry

Berries, which were mentioned earlier as a good source of vitamin C, contain such powerful antioxidants that they deserve their very own nutrition Oscar (see sidebar). One particular standout is the blueberry. In certain studies, researchers have found that blueberries help protect the brain from oxidative stress and may reduce the effects of age-related conditions such as Alzheimer's disease or dementia. Studies also show that diets rich in blueberries significantly improve both the learning capacity and motor skills of aging animals, making them mentally equivalent to much younger ones.

Don't just think about it, it's a smart idea to add these brain foods to your grocery list now. You'll be one step closer to improving your overall health, and boosting your thinking power, creativity, learning ability, and memory while helping ward off age-related mental decline.

Foods highest in antioxidants, in order, per serving

Blackberries
Walnuts
Strawberries
Artichokes, prepared
Cranberries
Coffee
Raspberries
Pecans
Blueberries
Cloves, ground
Grape juice
Chocolate, baking, unsweetened
Cranberry juice
Cherries, sour
Wine, red

(Source: American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, July 2006)

By Vonalda Utterback

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