Brain Food and Brain Function
Like every other system in the body, the brain needs good food. It uses 20 to 25 percent of the total energy a person consumes, and the better you feed the brain, the better it works. While most of this section is devoted to the nutritional principles that help children’s brains learn and behave, these same principles affect how adults think, learn, and feel. Looking at the science behind brain foods, it’s conclusive that everyone in the family benefits from good brain food.
Better eating builds better brains
There is a pecking order among the organs of the body. The most vital organs get first pick of the available nutrients in the bloodstream. Since a malfunctioning brain can take the rest of the body down with it, the brain gets VIP status when the body distributes nutrients.
Here’s the science behind brain foods:
The brain is composed of trillions of nerve cells, called neurons. Thought, memory, actions, and many brain functions you’re not even aware of depend on speed-of-light interactions of one cell with another. From each nerve cell tiny feelers called axons and dendrites reach out to connect with similar branches on other cells. The system looks kind of like a map of the interstate highway system, with many roadways connecting different cities. To facilitate the transmission of signals across the gap from one cell to the other, chemicals called neurotransmitters act like biological bridges.
Nutrition affects the brain in three ways:
- The cell itself needs proper nutrition to carry on its functions just like any other cell in the body.
- The myelin sheath covers the axon of the cell like insulation covering electrical wires. It speeds transmission of electrical signals along the axoms, the “wires” of the brain. Deficiencies of nutrients that compose myelin, such as essential fatty acids, delay nerve-impulse transmission.
- The neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, carry messages from one cell to the other and affect mood as well as thoughts and actions. Some of the nutrients in the food we eat become part of the neurotransmitters that help us think. Neurotransmitters are probably the biological explanation for the food-mood connection.
Each one of these three parts needs specific nutrients to enable the whole circuit to function properly. If any of these areas are deficient in nutrients, the circuit, like a defective electrical wire, misfires.
NUTRITIP: BRAIN FOOD BREAKFASTS
(See 10 Balanced Breakfasts)
A nutriperk in yogurt could theoretically improve school performance by perking up the brain. Yogurt is relatively high in the amino acid tyrosine (a neurostimulant) and low in the amino acid tryptophan (a neurosedative). Add yogurt to other brain foods, such as flax oil (for brain-building fatty acids) and soy foods (for protein and blood-sugar stabilization), and you have three synergistic foods that form the basic ingredients for our “School-Ade” recipe. I have personally felt the effects of this nutriperk by drinking a smoothie with these three basic ingredients each morning before I go to work.
Because fiber steadies the absorption of carbohydrates and therefore contributes to a steadier blood sugar, we suggest using rich sources of fiber, such as flaxseed meal (i.e., ground flax seeds, containing both the oil and fiber), although flax oil has a more palatable consistency than flaxseed meal. For additional fiber if you don’t mind an even grainier texture, add 1 tbsp. or more of oat bran.
Dr. Sears, or Dr. Bill as his “little patients” call him, has been advising busy parents on how to raise healthier families for over 40 years. He received his medical training at Harvard Medical School’s Children’s Hospital in Boston and The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, the world’s largest children’s hospital, where he was associate ward chief of the newborn intensive care unit before serving as the chief of pediatrics at Toronto Western Hospital, a teaching hospital of the University of Toronto. He has served as a professor of pediatrics at the University of Toronto, University of South Carolina, University of Southern California School of Medicine, and University of California: Irvine. As a father of 8 children, he coached Little League sports for 20 years, and together with his wife Martha has written more than 40 best-selling books and countless articles on nutrition, parenting, and healthy aging. He serves as a health consultant for magazines, TV, radio and other media, and his AskDrSears.com website is one of the most popular health and parenting sites. Dr. Sears has appeared on over 100 television programs, including 20/20, Good Morning America, Oprah, Today, The View, and Dr. Phil, and was featured on the cover of TIME Magazine in May 2012. He is noted for his science-made-simple-and-fun approach to family health.