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Feeding your brain

Your brain is composed of over 100 billion brain cells, otherwise known as ‘neurons.’ Each neuron can communicate with other neurons via synapses. Messages travel from neuron to neuron with the aid of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. You may have heard of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and adrenaline, but there are hundreds of others.

When a large enough amount of a neurotransmitter builds up at a synapse (junction) between neurons, the neuron fires and creates a ripple effect. This is what takes place when you get a joke…or don’t get a joke. This complex neurological machinery ultimately determines how you feel…and it’s made out of food!

It has been only 200 years since scientists began to understand how the brain functions. Only now are we starting to unravel how it really works. Your brain accounts for 2% of your body weight, but it burns 20% of your daily energy (kilojoule) expenditure. Your brain is like a super computer, processing tonnes of info, most of it without you knowing.

You’ve heard the old adage, ‘we only use 10% of our brains’, but in reality, maybe it’s more that we are only consciously aware of about 10% of what our brain is doing.

Feeding minds

The body of evidence suggests that in many cases, the Western Diet makes us fat and predisposed to the most common causes of death. What is often overlooked, is the impact diet has on the brain’s structure and function.

In many ways, your brain is like a car, sucking up fuel as it is available. But unlike a car, your brain’s functioning is dependent upon on what fuel you eat. Just like the liver, heart and kidneys, the brain is acutely sensitive to what you eat and drink. It’s not surprising that the evidence is stacking up in favour of eating a wide variety of veggies, fruits, wholegrains, legumes, nuts and seeds, dairy, lean meat and oily fish to reduce mood swings and in some cases treat depression and anxiety.

Mood tankers

Our food supply has been saturated by processed foods, many of which contain high amounts of refined carbohydrate and saturated fat. In fact, if all processed carbohydrates were removed from supermarket shelves, you would only need about 20% of the current shelf space to fit what remains. Below are two of the most common mood tankers:

Mood tanker #1 -- Sugar and refined carbohydrates

All plants are composed of sugars, we know these as complex carbohydrates. The opposite of these are simple sugars, where the plant has been refined and processed to create things like rice, pasta, bread and fruit juice.

There is some evidence that high consumption of refined carbohydrates lead to a smaller hippocampus and amygdala - regions of the brain that regulate mood, memory, anxiety.

Mood tanker #2 -- Fat

Becausehe ‘dry weight’ of your brain is composed of about 60% fat, the fats you eat directly affect the structure and function of your brain, and ultimately your mood. We know that high consumption of saturated and trans-fats make our brain cells less flexible, impairing brain function, and even a worsening of symptoms of mood disorders, such as depression. By contrast, consumption of polyunsaturated fats, such as omega 3 fatty acids, have been found to reduce risk.

Essential nutrients for happiness

Iron (e.g. red meat, fish poultry, eggs, legumes, dried fruits) – An essential player in the creation of mood-regulating neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. Iron also plays a part in brain cell energy production

Omega 3 fatty acids (salmon, mackerel, sardines, tuna, lean red meat, almonds, flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, soybeans) – These essential fats are required by every cell in your body. Diets high in omega 3 may prevent depression, obesity, cancer, heart disease

Vitamin B12 (meat, fish, poultry, milk, cheese, eggs, fortified cereals) – Without this nutrient, you can’t make healthy brain cells. Low B12 causes irritability, depression and cognitive decline

Vitamin E (leafy green vegetables, wholegrains, egg yolks, nuts, seeds, vegetable oils) – An important antioxidant that protects the structure of the brain cells, particularly the omega 3 fatty acids, from attack by free radicals.

Folate (Fortified grains, leafy green vegetables, legumes, seeds) – Required for DNA synthesis and therefore important in new brain cell formation. Inadequate folate intake can lead to mental confusion, weakness, fatigue, irritability and depression

Magnesium (nuts, legumes, wholegrains, leafy green vegetables, seafood, chocolate, cocoa) -- The science is a little hazy regarding the link between brain health and magnesium. Several hypotheses associate a lack of magnesium with depression due to the presence of this mineral in several enzymes, hormones, and neurotransmitters

Of course, these nutrients and foods are part of a healthy diet. And when you eat a healthy diet, your body (and your brain) will reap the benefits.

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