The best nutrients for brain health (and how to get them)
There are so many nutrients that you need for overall health. Vitamins, minerals, probiotics, and essential fats, just to name a few.
But which ones are the most important for your brain?
Which nutrients can help with brain development of infants, improve moods, and reduce risk of dementias like Alzheimer’s?
Yes, of course you need an array of nutrients! But, there are five real brain health “winners” here.
Let’s go over the brain boosting benefits of omega-3s, vitamin D, B vitamins, magnesium, and probiotics.
Omega-3s are a type of essential fat. They are arguably the most important nutrients for brain health.
If you take away the water weight, your brain is 60% fat. And 25% of this fat are omega-3s; in particular the omega-3 called “DHA” (docosahexaenoic acid).
Omega-3s have many functions in the brain, for example they help nerve cells insulate their electrical signals, stabilize their membranes, and reduce inflammation.
Omega-3s are critical for baby’s brain development. Getting enough omega-3s during pregnancy can help improve baby’s intelligence and reduce the risk of behavioural problems.
People who regularly eat and/or have higher blood levels of omega-3s are less likely to be depressed. And several studies have shown that when people with mood swings, depression, or anxiety start taking omega-3 supplements, some of their symptoms improve.
In terms of age-related mental decline, studies also show that people with higher omega-3 intakes have a lower risk of Alzheimer’s.
OK - They’re great for brain health, but how do I get enough omega-3s?
You can get the recommended amount of omega-3s, including DHA, from eating two servings of fatty fish each week.
Simple! Have a wild salmon steak and a shimp stir fry one week. Then have some smoked mackerel and baked cod another week.
In terms of supplements, as little as 0.5 grams (500 mg) of fish oil each day is enough for most people to get the minimum recommended levels. Many fish oil supplements come in 1 g (1,000 mg) doses, and that may be just fine on a daily basis (check your labels to make sure).
Vitamin D is another vitally important brain nutrient.
Vitamin D is both neuroprotective (protects nerve cells) and neurotrophic (help nerve cells grow). And there are vitamin D receptors in areas of the brain involved with depression.
Prenatal vitamin D status is thought to play an important role in brain development, cognitive function (ability to think), and psychological function. For example, children born of mothers with low blood levels of vitamin D have a higher risk of developing schizophrenia later in life.
In adults, low blood levels of vitamin D have been associated with multiple sclerosis, depression, and cognitive impairment, including Parkinson’s Disease.
How can I get enough vitamin D?
Your skin makes vitamin D when it’s exposed to the sun. There are many factors that can affect how much sunshine you need to make enough vitamin D, for example location, season, clouds, clothing, etc.. However, you don’t necessarily want to trade a vitamin D deficiency for potential skin cancer concerns.
Vitamin D is naturally found in a few foods such as fatty fish, liver, and egg yolks. It is also added to certain foods such as milk, some orange juices, breakfast cereals, and yogurt; so check your labels to find out if yours have it.
When it comes to vitamin D, supplementation may be a good way to go.
Ideally, your health care provider would test your blood for levels of vitamin D and recommend a certain amount.
However, if you don’t have a blood test, the safest way to take the vitamin D supplements is to use them as directed on the label. And never take more than 10,000IU/day, unless specifically told to by your health care provider.
There are several essential B vitamins (B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9, B12), and they’re particularly important for brain health. In fact, B vitamin deficiency is a leading cause of neurological impairment and disability throughout the world!
The B vitamins are so important for brain health that each one is actively transported across the blood brain-barrier. This means that your body spends energy to pull those B vitamins into the brain. And many of these vitamins are found in the brain in much higher concentrations than in the blood.
The B vitamins work together and sometimes work with enzymes. They have many roles in brain function. These include as antioxidants, helping the neurons (nerve cells) maintain their structure and function, helping the brain to produce energy (which your brain needs a lot of). B vitamins are also necessary for production of essential neurochemicals as well.
Chronic low levels of several B vitamins are associated with depression, ALS (amyotropic lateral sclerosis), some psychiatric conditions, as well as neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
And low levels of B12 in particular are associated with some symptoms of mental disorders, smaller brain size, and poor memory.
In fact, some of the benefits of B vitamins on brain health seem to work with omega-3s. So make sure you get enough of both.
You can get B vitamins, except B12, from plants. Leafy greens, fruits, and vegetables are great sources. And by eating animal products (who ate those plants), you are also getting some B vitamins. Not to mention that some foods have B vitamins added to them, so check your labels.
Vitamin B12 is found in meat, fish, eggs, and algae.
B vitamins can be found individually or in supplements as a complex (B complex). Some of those complexes may not include vitamin B12, so again, check your labels. You may need to take B12 supplements separately, especially if you avoid animal products.
Magnesium is an essential mineral used by the body for over 600 functions. Functions like: energy production, nerve function, and blood pressure.
Magnesium deficiency has been associated with a number of brain diseases, including migraine headaches, depression, Alzheimer’s, and stroke.
One of the ways that magnesium helps neurons is that it helps to control the flow of calcium into and out of those cells. If there isn’t enough magnesium, this can lead to nerve cell damage.
Getting more magnesium has been shown to help improve moods, and can help to prevent migraines and reduce their symptoms.
The foods highest in magnesium include spinach, nuts, legumes, and potatoes.
In terms of supplements, magnesium is available in many formats including magnesium citrate, magnesium sulfate, magnesium chloride, and magnesium oxide. If you do need a magnesium supplement, I recommend the forms without oxide because they’re more easily absorbed and cause less digestive disturbances.
You may have heard new research about the gut-brain connection, and this has great potential to help us use foods and supplements for optimal brain health.
You have friendly health-promoting microbes that live in your gut. Probiotics, on the other hand, are similar microbes that you can eat and supplement with. They’re what turn milk into yogurt, and cabbage into sauerkraut. They’re great for your gut health, and brain health as well.
Several studies show that after a few weeks of ingesting probiotic foods or supplements, healthy people’s negative thoughts and sad moods reduce. Several other studies show that taking probiotic supplements helped improve symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress in otherwise healthy people. In one study, people diagnosed with depression took probiotic supplements and their symptoms improved as well.
Studies also show a reduction in some symptoms of multiple sclerosis after supplementing with probiotics.
There are a wide variety of probiotic supplements available for sale.
Overall, there are several key nutrients for optimal brain health. They are omega-3s, vitamin D, B-vitamins, magnesium, and probiotics.
They have wide-ranging brainy benefits from helping baby’s brains develop, to improving moods, to reducing symptoms of depression and multiple sclerosis, to reducing risk of dementias like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Many of them work together, and it’s important to get enough of each of them every day.
Overall, I recommend a variety of nutrient-dense, minimally-processed foods to meet your daily needs, but sometimes a supplement may help.
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