What we eat influences our cognitive function, emotions, and overall mood. Scientists are elucidating the pathways between diet and behavior, but with the constant deluge of information on brain nutrition, it’s hard for coaches to point their clients in the right direction when it comes to an optimal diet. One day the headlines might proclaim that coffee can stave off dementia, but the next, a new study links the added sugar to cancer. How can coaches separate the wheat from the chaff and give their clients accurate advice on brain nutrition to support optimal cognitive function and emotional health? Getting back to basics, here we’ll discuss some of the basics on nutrition and the brain that anyone interested in the neuroscience of coaching should know.
Feeding the Brain
The brain only accounts for about 2% of our total body weight, but uses up 20% of the total fuel we consume. The brain runs on glucose – and demands it constantly. This power hog even uses fuel when you are asleep to perform important repair jobs. The brain requires proteins and fats to build connections between neurons and to build the fatty myelinated sheaths insulating our electrically-conductive neurons.
Our diets also determine what kind of bacteria thrive in our gut – known as the microbiomes. Our microbiomes affect our brain function via the large numbers of neurons and direct pathways to central nervous system in the intestines. In addition, most of our body’s supply of the neurotransmitter serotonin is produced in the gut.
The kind of fuel you eat makes all of the difference. Unsurprisingly, a whole-foods, balanced diet will promote mental fitness and keep the brain protected from decline. If you, or your clients, are suffering from mental fogginess or mild mood disorders, make sure your nutritional foundations are sturdy with a whole-foods diet, which will supply you with all of the nutrients you need for a healthy brain.
But you may be wondering – once you have a balanced diet, can supplementation with a particular foods or vitamins help boost moods and mental acuity even further? What nutrients or foods are particularly important for brain function?
Healthy Brain Food
If there’s a deficiency in a key nutrient during a development stage, particularly in utero or early childhood, serious consequences can occur. For example, folate (found in leafy greens like spinach, orange juice, and yeast) is needed for neural tube closure during development. Pregnant women deficient in folate have a higher risk of having anencephalic babies, who are born without a developed brain. Today, many foods are fortified in folate to avoid such devastating developmental issues.
The field of nutritional psychiatry is also uncovering new insights into how our diets and the consumption of specific ‘brain foods’ dynamically affect our moods throughout the lifespan. For example, in addition to key roles in development, folate is also known to reduce the effects of depression and preserve cognitive function as we age. Key foods and nutrients to pay attention to include:
Complex carbs: Unlike processed carbs high in sugar, whole-grain sources of carbohydrates like brown rice are broken down slowly to provide the brain with a steady source of energy – preventing the familiar energy spikes and crashes that come with a diet of processed foods.
Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids: Our body doesn’t do a great job of producing the omega-3 fatty acid DHA, so we are largely dependent on diet to get adequate amounts of this important fatty acid. Along with EPA and LA, DHA are building blocks of the cell membrane, and can make neuronal membranes at the synapse more fluid, promoting the healthy flow of neurotransmitters between neurons. Optimal levels of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids can also reduce inflammation in the brain. While increasing intake of these ‘good’ fats, it is also important to limit intake of ‘bad’ fats such as saturated and trans fats in junk foods.
Vitamin D: Vitamin D is synthesized in the skin cells following exposure to UV rays from sunlight. Research shows that there is a link between Vitamin D deficiency and depression. Supplementation in the form of a vitamin D pill or use of a sunlight lamp can reduce depressive symptoms. Tests for vitamin D deficiency are commonly done for patients suffering from depression. Vitamin D may also protect against age-related cognitive decline.
Flavonoids: Berries, other fruits, cocoa, beans, and Ginkgo Biloba are all great source of flavonoids. Flavonoids have been shown to boost learning and memory and to prevent age-related cognitive decline. These are also found in coffee, beer, and wine – but consumption of these in moderation is key, as alcohol in even limited amounts has been linked to cancer.