Posted on 26 November 2021
The brain is the most energy-hungry organ in our bodies, utilising about 20% of the body’s total energy intake. Outside of fasting, the brain runs almost exclusively on glucose (sugar), but maintaining healthy brain function is about more than just providing an adequate amount of fuel. In order to survive, remain healthy, and send the very electrical impulses that allow you to understand the words you are reading right now, the neurons within your brain require a range of specific nutrients. Here is our list of 7 nutrients to ensure your brain has what it needs to perform at maximum capacity and to minimise the risk of neurological disease.
Disclaimer: you should not take supplements or make major changes to your diet without first consulting with a doctor, especially if you have chronic health conditions.
Glutamine is an amino acid, one of the building blocks used by cells to build proteins. There is evidence to suggest that supplementing with glutamine can offset the negative effects on cognition of high altitude and low oxygen. Why should you care about this if you aren’t planning on climbing any mountains? Some studies have estimated that in some countries, over 50% of adults aged 30-69 may suffer from mild to severe sleep apnoea. Sleep apnoea is a condition in which breathing stops and starts during sleep.This can result in increased inflammation due to a decrease in blood oxygen. For this reason, sleep apnoea has been linked with an increased risk of dementia and other chronic diseases. Glutamine appears to improve cognition and protect the brain in low oxygen conditions by reducing inflammation. So far these effects have mainly been studied at high altitudes and more clinical trials are needed to confirm its effects for certain in other conditions.
Dietary glutamine is found in protein-rich foods including eggs, meat and dairy products, and in some vegetables such as spinach and cabbage.
Anthocyanins are a type of flavonoid, a group of plant compounds with antioxidant effects. Anthocyanins are also the pigments responsible for rich blue, purple and red colourings in many fruits. Evidence suggests that they can protect the brain against functional decline and neurodegenerative disease, either by reducing inflammation in the brain or through direct effects on the neurons themselves. For example, blueberry extract has been found to reduce DNA damage and improve verbal learning and memory in elderly people.
Dietary anthocyanins can be found primarily in dark-skinned berries like blueberries, blackberries and blackcurrants.
When you hear the word creatine, you might initially think of muscle tissue. Creatine is indeed very important in muscle tissue, where it is used to store energy to power muscle contraction. However, studies suggest that creatine can play a similar role in the brain to allow neurons to maintain higher levels of electrical activity, and that supplementation can improve short-term memory and reasoning. Creatine may also enhance frontal cortex circuits that connect to areas involved in mood regulation, though benefits for depression are not yet well established.
Dietary creatine is mainly found in meat. It is possible to get creatine from milk and some berries but quantities are very small.
Electrolytes are minerals that carry electrical charges and are responsible for all electrical activity within the brain. By pumping charged sodium and potassium ions across their membranes, neurons are able to maintain a constant electrical charge, and it is through changes in this electrical charge that they are able to send signals over long distances. Although it’s very difficult to disrupt these electrical signals by not consuming enough electrolytes, brain function can be impacted in other ways. Electrolyte balance can impact some neurotransmitter systems and also affects cardiac health, which has a significant impact on brain function. Studies also suggest that sufficient levels of dehydration can affect cognition and mood.
Choline is a nutrient needed to make acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that has the ability to enhance the electrical activity in some sets of neurons and reduce electrical activities in others. A cluster of neurons called the nucleus basales acts as a kind of ‘conductor’ of brain activity by releasing acetylcholine in order to ‘highlight’ different areas of the brain and increase their activity. This is thought to be involved in concentration and alertness. Areas of hindbrain that make ACh are also involved in general levels of alertness. This makes choline an essential dietary component for attention and alertness, and this is why many Alzheimers treatments aim to increase the levels of acetylcholine.
Egg yolks are excellent sources of choline, as is meat, fish and dairy products. Some fruits, vegetables and grains also contain lower levels of choline.
All human cells, including neurons, have their cellular organs and DNA enclosed within a double-layered membrane, which is primarily composed of fat-like molecules called phospholipids. This is what allows neurons to create electrical charges by separating electrically charged particles on either side of the membrane. One of the main types phospholipid contained within this cell membrane is phosphatidylserine. Aside from being a structural component of the membrane, phosphatidylserine is required for signals that support neuron survival and development, and also plays an important role in neurotransmitter release, making it an important nutrient for brain function. In line with this, multiple studies have found supplementation with 300mg of phosphatidyl serine per day to reduce cognitive decline and improve cognition by a small but statistically significant amount.
Phosphatidylserine is abundant in meat, fish and to some extent in cabbage.
As mentioned in the previous entry, the membranes of neurons are made up of fat-like molecules called phospholipids. The fatty acid building blocks of these molecules come from essential fatty acids, including omega 6 and omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Most of us consume enough omega 6, but many do not consume enough omega 3 fatty acids in their diets. There are two main types of omega 3 fatty acid: EPA and DHA. They each have different functions and consuming at least some of both is likely to be beneficial. Studies suggest that supplementation with EPA omega 3s can have beneficial effects on wellbeing and can allow lower levels of antidepressants to be used, but 1-3g/day also appears to be beneficial for cognitive function more broadly. While there is some controversy on the matter, the bulk of the evidence suggests that they support cardiovascular health as well, which is also important for brain function.
The best dietary sources of omega 3s are fish such as mackerel, sardines, and salmon. Omega 3s can also be obtained from plant based foods but in lower quantities.
And there you have it, 7 nutrients that will support your neurons and help your brain to remain healthy into old age. It might seem like a lot, but many of these nutrients are common to the same foods, so it shouldn’t be too hard to modify your diet to fit most of them in. For those who can’t or who simply aren’t fans of fish and blueberries, you can always make up what is missing through supplementation.
The Possible Importance of Glutamine Supplementation to Mood and Cognition in Hypoxia from High Altitude: https://dx.doi.org/10.3390%2Fnu12123627
Estimation of the global prevalence and burden of obstructive sleep apnoea: a literature-based analysis: https://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(19)30198-5
Anthocyanins Potentially Contribute to Defense against Alzheimer’s Disease: https://dx.doi.org/10.3390%2Fmolecules24234255
Effects of creatine supplementation on cognitive function of healthy individuals: A systematic review of randomized controlled trials: https://dx.doi.org/10.1016%2Fj.exger.2018.04.013
Nutrients For Brain Health & Performance | Huberman Lab Podcast #42: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E7W4OQfJWdw
Effects of hydration status on cognitive performance and mood: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0007114513004455
Long-chain omega-3 fatty acid serum concentrations across life stages in the USA: an analysis of NHANES 2011–2012: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2020-043301