Boosting Brain Power

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Concentration problems, depression and memory decline have become modern day malady’s. There are many theories surrounding this phenomenon, and we don’t know for sure what the causes are. In today’s world we are so bombarded with stimuli and stress that concentration becomes a challenge and depression a symptom. In addition, we eat too much processed foods, not enough wholegrains, fruit and vegetables

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and our ratio of good to bad fats is too low. Modern day pressures, combined with lifestyle issues are probably the major contributing factors to modern day brain related disorders. But if we choose the right brain boosting foods, we can boost our brain power significantly.



Depression and anxiety related disorders are on the rise. Deficit Disorder (ADD) is now also being recognised as a disorder that presents in both children and adults. In adults, ADD can cause feelings of restlessness, extreme procrastination, disorganisation and trouble making decisions or meeting deadlines. While diagnosable ADD may not be as common, generalised problems with holding attention are. Whatever the case, certain nutrients can help boost attention and mood and improve overall brain function. The following guide will help you to choose the right brain foods to boost your brain power.


The Glucose Connection


In-between our brains and our blood is a very selective set of membranes called the blood brain barrier. Glucose (the smallest unit of carbohydrate metabolism) is the only source of energy that can cross the barrier and feed our brains (ketones can also cross the blood brain barrier but this only happens during times of starvation or carbohydrate restriction). Therefore, by creating a steady flow of glucose into our blood stream, we feed the brain with a sustainable source of energy for all-day alertness. Choosing foods with a low glycemic index (GI), like wholegrain seeds breads, bran cereals, barley, quinoa, rolled oats and brown rice as well as fresh fruits and vegetables helps supply the steady stream of glucose that the body needs. High GI foods, like regular white, brown and wholewheat breads, sugary breakfast cereals, sweets and pastries will cause glucose levels to spike, which means a short spike in concentration and then a crash down, where concentration can lapse and fatigue sets in. Some people can balance their blood sugar levels better than others, but for the most part; choosing low GI over high GI foods will make a big difference.


Fats: getting the balance right


The brain is more than 60% fat and the myelin sheath that coats all our

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nerves is 74% fat, so it makes sense that we need fat in the diet for optimum brain function. Fats also play a crucial role as messengers. They regulate key aspects of the immune system, blood circulation, inflammation, memory and mood. The problem with our fatty acid intakes is that we tend to get too much omega 6 fatty acids (found in vegetables oils, margarines and baked goods for example) and too little omega 3 fatty acids (found in fish oils, walnuts and flaxseeds for example). Too much omega 6 in relation to omega 3 can cause inflammation and brain ageing, while omega 3’s are anti-inflammatory and have been shown to boost brainpower. To boost brainpower include at least 3 servings of fatty fish per week (e.g. salmon, mackerel, trout, pilchards and sardines) or take a supplement. Use omega 9 oils (like avocado and olive oil) instead of omega 6 oils (like sunflower). Nuts and seeds, and especially walnuts and flaxseeds are also great brain boosting foods.




The Power of Protein


Every thought and emotion we have in controlled through signals transmitted via chemicals called neurotransmitters, which are specialised brain chemicals or messengers. These neurotransmitters are made from amino acids, which we get from protein foods. A lack of protein in the diet could therefore impact on our neurotransmitter production. There are 22 amino acids in total, 8 of which are essential i.e. they cannot be manufactured in the body and must be obtained from the diet. Meat, chicken, fish, eggs, dairy, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds are all sources of these essential aminos.


B Power


The B complex vitamins in particular are very important for brain function. Most neurotransmitters require B vitamins during the manufacturing process. Stress and a busy lifestyle quickly deplete our B stores making it important to eat a balanced diet rich that includes sources of B vitamins like meat, fish, chicken, dairy, beans, green vegetables and wholegrains.


Think Zinc


The mineral zinc also plays quite a large role in brain function and neurotransmitter production. Good sources include liver, beef, lamb, fish, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, yogurt and peas.


The Alcohol connection


Too much alcohol literally damages the brain. It interferes with normal communication signals and leads to memory loss, which can become chronic in regular, heavy drinkers. Alcohol also interferes with our fatty acid metabolism in the brain and is a general neurotoxin.



The 3 Key Neurotransmitters


Acetylcholine. This neurotransmitter excites the neurons and is the main neurotransmitter responsible for cognition and memory. Foods that boost its production are high including egg yolks, soya, peanuts, wheat germ, liver, meat, fish (especially fatty fish), milk, cheese, broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower. These foods contain a substance called phosphatidyl choline, which is a precursor for acetylcholine. It is also found in lecithin, a supplement available in health food stores which comes in granules or powder form that is derived from eggs or soya. Another substance, known called dimethylaminoethanol or DMAE (found in sardines and salmon) is a precursor for choline.


Dopamine, This neurotransmitter is involved in attention and learning, movement and emotional arousal. All protein foods help to boost dopamine levels. The amino acid phenylalanine is used in particular to make dopamine and is found in a wide range of animal and vegetable protein sources.


Serotonin. This neurotransmitter is involved in mood, sleep, appetite and sensitivity. It also activates the pleasure centre of the brain. Depression is often the result of a serotonin deficiency. Foods that boost serotonin include protein foods rich in the amino acid tryptophan, the precursor for serotonin production. Food sources of tryptophan include red meat, dairy products, nuts, seeds, bananas, soybeans and soy products, tuna, shellfish, and turkey. Starchy food, like pastas, breads and other grains also help boost serotonin levels.





Brain Boosting Meal Plan Example





Rolled oats, mixed berries, low fat plain yogurt, chopped walnuts OR

Low GI bread with poached eggs and spinach




Apples and pumpkin seeds, OR

Wholegrain oat-bran muffin




Chicken, barley and avocado salad OR

Salmon fishcakes with green salad and coleslaw




Sardines on rye toast OR

Fruit salad and yogurt




Lentil and broccoli bake with a green salad OR

Fillet steak, stir-fry vegetables and brown rice

Author: Ashleigh Caradas

* A copy of this article also appeared in Business Day Health News


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