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Brain Function

The human brain is an extraordinary and complex creation that provides the power to think, speak, plan, reason and dream. But this miraculous organ also performs incredible tasks that include controlling body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate and breathing. The brain accepts a flood of information from our senses to handle physical motion and allows us to experience emotions, fantasize and strategize about our future.

The brain is about the size of a small head of cauliflower, weighs around 3 pounds (1.4 kilograms) and contains a staggering one hundred billion nerve cells (neurons).  The complexity of these cells is mind-boggling as each neuron can also make contact with thousands or even tens of thousands of other nerve cells. Our brain forms a million new connections every second. And because no two brains are alike, the pattern and strength of the connections are constantly changing.  Within these connections memories are stored and our personalities shaped, as some patterns of brain activity is reinforced and others lost as we live and grow.

The brain also has other cells that outnumber neurons ten times over called glial cells. Glial cells amplify signals and are thought to be as important as neurons for mental calculations.

The neurons communicate in multiple ways. Signals pass between cells by the release and capture of neurotransmitters and other chemicals (Dopamine, Acetylcholine, Noradrenalin, Serotonin, GABA, Endorphins, Glutamate).  Some chemicals work in the synapse (junction between neurons), while others are used more widely and affect whole regions of the brain.

These neurochemicals are so essential to our health that deficiencies are linked to various diseases. For example, a loss of Dopamine leads to Parkinson’s disease, but can also increase susceptibility to addiction because Dopamine assists in sensations of reward and pleasure. A decline of Acetylcholine is characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease and low Serotonin may be linked to depression or mood disorders.

The brain cells need twice the energy than any other cell of the body. Neurons are always in a state of metabolic activity, and even while we sleep they are at work repairing and rebuilding structural components. They manufacture enzymes and neurotransmitters that must be transported to the ends of the nerve branches. But the most demanding of the energy reserves are the bioelectric signals that are responsible for communication throughout the nervous system. This nerve transmission consumes 10% of the body’s energy.

Every person is born with approximately the same number of brain cells and these cells grow and reach maximum size at about age six.  A newborn’s brain triples in size in the first year of life. Because physical activity stimulates brain growth, a child who is on a physical development program will have greater brain capacity than a child who is sedentary.

To manufacture the natural chemicals and neurotransmitters to provide a balanced body and mind, the brain needs the right kinds and amounts of raw materials. Without these building blocks one or more of the neurotransmitter chemicals become deficient. The body cannot make many of the nutritional requirements the brain needs to function. This is especially true for infants and young children in the early phase of brain development, but the need cannot be overstated at all stages of life. How well we nourish our brain can affect our mood, energy level, memory and cognitive function.

The Basics to Feeding and Protecting the Brain

1. Hydration (Water) – The brain is 85% water and depends on water to function optimally. Symptoms of dehydration include confusion, poor balance, memory impairment and insomnia. In response to the water shortage, the brain activates and stores histamine, which directs water to areas where it is needed for survival. When histamine comes across pain-sensing nerves in the body, it causes strong and continual pain.

Water deficiency in the brain cuts down its energy supply and depresses many vital functions. With low brain energy, we are unable to meet the daily demands that may cause lethargy, stress and depression. The body also experiences a “fight or flight” situation that releases powerful hormones, including adrenalin, endorphins and cortisone, which increase anxiety and adrenal stress.

The elderly are prone to dehydration as the thirst sensation diminishes with age. But even slight dehydration of the brain can raise stress hormones and cause a host of poor mental symptoms.  Children today are drinking less water while consuming soft drinks that further dehydrate their body and brain.

2. Fats – While many fats are bad for our brain, there are some we simply cannot live without. Omega-3 fatty acids are called ‘essential’ because they cannot be manufactured by our body and must be obtained through diet.  They are found in foods including walnuts, some fruits, vegetables and coldwater fish such as herring, mackerel and anchovies.  Omega 3 fatty acids are also available in supplement form.

Omega-3 fatty acids play a vital role in the membrane health of every cell in our body and encourage the production of chemicals that help control inflammation in the joints, bloodstream and in the tissues.

DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) is the most abundant fat in the brain and a loss in DHA concentrations in brain cell membranes is also linked to a decline in structural and functional integrity. Therefore obtaining Omega-3s high in DHA is critical for brain health and optimum cognitive function. Most Omega-3 supplements are high in EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) but low in DHA. So learn to examine labels carefully.

The modern diet has created extreme challenges for our health. The human brain has developed over thousands of years and yet during the past few decades the types of fat most people consume have undergone processing techniques that altered this basic building block.  Trans fatty acids found in margarine, fast foods and partially hydrogenated oil disrupt the communication in the brain. Trans fats are mostly man made and rather than encouraging healthy cells, they do the opposite and weaken the brain’s architecture.

3.  Amino Acids – The amino acids derived from proteins are the building blocks of the brain’s network. Amino Acids are the building blocks of proteins and the body breaks down dietary protein to approximately 50,000 different proteins required for neurotransmitters, chromosomes, hormones and enzymes. Complete proteins (fish, meat, fowl, eggs, cheese and yogurt) contain ample amounts of all eight essential amino acids. Grains, legumes, seeds and nuts are incomplete proteins because they provide only a portion of the essential amino acids. But combining complimentary proteins such as rice with beans produces a complete protein.

Tryptophan and Tyrosine are both derived from protein and cross the blood-brain barrier in the same pathway. But Tryptophan has a calming effect whereas Tyrosine causes alertness and energy.

High carbohydrate foods (complex carbs) also increase Tryptophan, which is the precursor for Serotonin that promotes sleep and pleasure. For anyone struggling with sleep issues, high carbohydrate foods may be more appropriate for the evening meal.   Many proteins increase Tyrosine and produce energy, which makes protein a good choice for morning and midday meals.

4.  Glucose – Glucose is a form of sugar that fuels the furnace responsible for brainpower. This sugar is obtained from the starches and sugars from grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables. Dairy products are also high in carbohydrates.

Refined sugar and carbohydrates can actually deprive your brain of glucose, and in turn deplete its energy stores. This can result in diminished concentration, memory and cognitive function.

The brain needs twice the energy of any other body cell. Complex carbohydrates are time-released forms of sugar that breakdown slowly, releasing glucose into the bloodstream over a period of time.  Refined sugars are void of any nutrients, and in order for the body to digest the sugar it must use stores of proteins, vitamins and minerals. Additionally, the brain is very sensitive and reacts rapidly to quick chemical changes.  This sudden increase in sugar causes the body to respond by using stores of calcium to neutralize the attack.

Healthy carbohydrates are naturally occurring sugars that the body transforms into slow-release energy sources for the brain.  Brain cells cannot store glucose like the muscles and liver, so complex carbohydrates provide the sustained release necessary to maintain brain energy.

5. Antioxidants – Antioxidants from foods help maintain the oxygen balance in the brain and combat free radicals, which are highly reactive molecules that can damage cell surfaces, alter DNA or completely kill the cell. These unstable molecules seek to pair up with a partner by stealing the electron from healthy cells, which in turn causes cell damage and creates another free radical. A chain reaction of free radical damage can occur. Antioxidants sacrifice themselves to protect the body by donating their electron and stopping this chain reaction.

Fruits and vegetables are rich in antioxidants, but the highest ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity) values are found in:  Cherries, Blueberries, Blackberries, Strawberries, Raspberries, Plums, Oranges, Grapes, Raisins, Kale, Spinach, Brussels Sprouts, Alfalfa Sprouts, Broccoli, Beets, Red Bell Peppers, Onions, Corn and Eggplant.

Antioxidant levels diminish with age, leaving the aging brain an easy target for oxidative damage.  So the importance of ingesting ample antioxidants through diet and supplements cannot be overstated.

Diet plays a primary role in the way our brain functions. The brain is a thinking organ that learns, grows and continually adapts. Even in old age the brain can grow new neurons. Take the necessary steps to protect this vital organ – your life depends on it.


*While great care has been taken in organizing and presenting the material throughout this website, please note that it is provided for informational purposes only and should not be taken as Medical Advice.

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