Brain health is on everyone’s mind at some point in their life. After all, the brain is the central command station of the entire body, controlling everything from our thoughts, memory, speech, moods, and the function of nearly every organ system. The brain never stops working; putting in a 24/7 shift for its entire life. The brain is also one of the greatest medical challenges, offering one enigma after another. Despite the puzzles and intricacies of cognitive and mental health, one thing remains agreed upon – the importance of preserving the health of this vital organ.
Nutrition is often overlooked for its role in preserving brain health until it is too late to realize that years of poor dietary habits have finally left their mark, as evidenced by changes in cognition and mental ability.
Nutrition in Early Neurodevelopment
Beginning in infancy, the brain is highly sensitive to its nutritional input. In fact, much of the brain’s developmental and operational trajectory is established before 3 years of age. No single nutrient can assure a long healthy cognitive future, but some nutrients are key players. For example, protein restriction early in life has been linked to smaller brains with reduced RNA and DNA contents, fewer neurons, simpler dendritic and synaptic head architecture, and reduced concentrations of neurotransmitters and growth factors. The significant role of dietary fats in neurodevelopment is logical considering the fact that the neurological system is primary fatty tissues. Long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids during gestation, lactation, and early childhood have been extensively studied and associated with childhood cognition and attention. They are critical for neurogenesis and neuronal migration, membrane fatty acid composition and fluidity, synaptogenesis, and the function of the monoaminergic, cholinergic, and GABA-ergic neurotransmitter systems. The micronutrients iron, zinc, and iodine have a significant impact on intellectual, executive, and motor function, as well as learning, attention, memory, and mood. In our effort to maximize brain health and ensure a positive trajectory for much of the population, we must begin with considering the nutritional input during the initial years of life since these are the most formative years, cognitively speaking.
Nutrition and Mid-Life Psychiatry
It is no secret that psychiatric health is becoming more prominent at earlier ages as we witness increasing numbers of teenagers and young adults relying on antidepressants and anxiolytic drugs. Nutrition is one component of these sometimes-debilitating conditions that we fail to consider. According to a review in Clinical Psychological Science, “Both cross-sectional and longitudinal studies have shown that the more one eats a Western or highly processed diet, the more one is at risk for developing psychiatric symptoms such as depression and anxiety. Conversely, the more one eats a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, high in healthy fats, nuts, and fish, and low in processed food (a Mediterranean-style diet), the more one is protected from developing a mental disorder.” Researchers even acknowledge that poor dietary patterns often precede psychiatric symptoms, indicating some degree of causality. Most of the body’s supply of serotonin is produced in the gastrointestinal tract and strongly modulates vagal communication in the gut-brain axis. This link is also implicated in studies that show probiotic therapy influences levels of anxiety, depression, perceived stress, and one’s mental outlook. Nutrition is vital for maintaining healthy neurotransmitter levels during mid-life when psychiatric symptoms can flood in and take control of life.
Nutrition and Alzheimer’s disease
The requirement for good nutrition in maintaining brain health and cognition continues into late adulthood. Cognitive disorders are a serious problem for the aging population. Some age-related cognitive decline and impairment is linked to micronutrient deficiencies such as the B-vitamin family. Alzheimer’s disease is one of the most common cognitive concerns for the elderly and although most research has focused on genetics, more recent discoveries are linking this form of dementia to nutrition and giving it the nickname, “type-3-diabetes,” as various shared biochemical features exist between diabetes mellitus and Alzheimer’s disease. Insulin has now been discovered to be involved in the formation of the neurofibrillary tangles and amyloid plaques that characterize Alzheimer’s disease. So rather than consider this an unfortunate gift of predisposed genetics and age, it could be that our high-sugar, high-carbohydrate dietary preferences are the silent benefactors behind Alzheimer’s disease.
As we are reminded of the high position our brain plays in the quality of life we experience, let us be more mindful of the foundational elements that foster the development and function of this extraordinary organ. It’s not an element we can abandon at any point in our lifetime. Nutrition truly plays key roles in brain health from cradle to grave.