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Dossier: Healthy eating

Food for the brain

What we eat has a huge impact on our brain health. A balanced diet creates a good foundation, but certain foods are particularly important when it comes to boosting brain power.

Text: Julie Freudiger; photo: Sanitas

The human brain is fascinating. It contains around 100 billion neurons, with each neuron including between 10,000 and 20,000 synapses. And although it only makes up around 2% of our bodyweight, it requires around 20% of our energy. And what exactly does this important control room need to function properly?

Our diet is proven to have a significant impact on the brain’s health and performance. Eating healthily – focusing on including a lot of fresh vegetables, complex carbohydrates, healthy fatty acids, protein and sufficient liquids – creates the perfect foundation for boosting brain performance. And with a little extra know-how, you can reap additional benefits.

The brain obtains energy mainly from glucose (sugar), which comes from carbohydrates. As our brain can’t store energy, it requires a constant supply. This should mainly come from complex wholegrain products, because they cause blood sugar levels to rise only slowly. This constant release of glucose helps you concentrate for longer. Wholegrain products also contain important B vitamins.

B vitamins are key to good mental health. Vitamin B deficiency has an impact on our body and mind, because these vitamins change the way we think and feel. As a rule, a balanced diet covers our vitamin B requirements. Whole grains and vegetables are good sources of vitamin B1, B3, B5 and B6, for example. Vitamin B9, also know as folic acid, is found primarily in spinach and leafy green vegetables, while B12 is found in animal proteins such as eggs or fish. Therefore, people who follow a vegan diet should take this vitamin as a dietary supplement.

Omega-3 and omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids are essential for life. They help build up nerve cell membranes, help brain cells to multiply and protect nerve cells. They therefore have a significant influence on perception and memory.

Omega-3 and omega-6 deficiency has a harmful impact on the brain and can cause fatigue, depression or difficulty concentrating. Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, herring and sardines. They are also found in linseed and rapeseed oil, soya, pumpkin seeds, linseeds and hempseeds. Omega-6 fatty acids can be found, for example, in sesame, walnuts and evening primrose oil.

You should eat plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit every day, because in addition to numerous vitamins, they also contain a certain type of phytochemicals known as antioxidants. These have an anti-inflammatory effect and protect brain cells from gradual destruction by oxygen free radicals. Oxygen free radicals are harmful oxygen compounds that play a central role in the ageing process.

Antioxidants help the body to neutralise these free radicals. The most important antioxidants include vitamin E, which can be found in almonds and linseeds, and vitamin C (citrus fruits, berries, vegetables) and A, which comes from beta-carotene (carrots, sweet potatoes, eggs, cabbage). Apples, purple berries and fruits, grapes and grapefruit, green tea and red win (no more than one glass a day) keep the brain fit and younger for longer.

Broccoli is the superstar when it comes to antioxidants. It provides a lot of vitamin C and folic acid (B9), as well as high concentrations of phytochemicals, which have a particularly high anti-inflammatory effect. Studies show that broccoli promotes the formation of new nerve cells and maybe even reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s.

It’s also a good idea to eat leafy green spinach or cabbage regularly, because these vegetables contain nutrients that can, among other things, improve concentration and memory (such as vitamin K, lutein, folic acid and beta carotene). Leafy green vegetables also contain magnesium, which is important for enzymes in the body in order, for example, to repair cells and slow the ageing process.

Blackberries, strawberries, raspberries and, above all, blueberries contain a lot of essential nutrients. Blueberries in particular are considered a secret superfood and they have a positive effect on brain health and performance: In fact, blueberries have the highest antioxidant capacity of all the popular fruits. The active substances they contain are deposited in the brain in the long term and can increase cognitive abilities.

Studies have shown that they improve short-term memory and motor activity and help slow brain ageing. These powerful little berries also stimulate the formation of neurons and have an anti-inflammatory effect. 

Turmeric has been considered an important superfood for a while now, because this little yellow root contains a high level of phytochemicals, which help stimulate cell regeneration. Turmeric also has a strong anti-inflammatory effect, and slows the growth of cancer cells.

Studies show that the risk of memory loss in old age as well as Alzheimer’s disease decreases with the consumption of turmeric.  Since the body absorbs curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, poorly, it is recommended that you combine it with piperine (found in pepper) and oil or lecithin (found in soya). 

Nuts are rich in healthy and essential unsaturated fatty acids such as omega-3 They have been shown to improve brain performance, thus increasing concentration and memory. Kein Wunder, besteht «Studentenfutter» nebst Rosinen vor allem aus Nüssen. Nuts also contain a lot of vitamin E, which means they have an antioxidant effect.