Snacks For Brainiacs
How a trip to the fridge can sharpen your mind... Wisdom often flowers in our later years, but brainpower starts to dim in middle age. Rather than blame the loss of swift thinking on genes or age, though, look at your diet. What you eat and how you live affect how well you think.
From each nerve cell — and the chemicals (neurotransmitters) that relay information between them — to the circulatory system carrying oxygen to the brain, your body depends on a constant supply of nutrients to function properly. As years pass, your mental functioning is affected long before you notice physical problems. Vague yet profound changes, such as cloudy thinking, mental fatigue, or impaired memory, can progress undetected.
Most people recognize that what they eat eventually affects their physical health, but the link between food and brain function is immediate. What you eat (or don’t eat) for breakfast, or whether you snack, affects how clearly you think and how well you recall information by midafternoon.
Skipping meals is a big mistake. Breakfast restocks dwindling glucose stores, the brain’s sole source of fuel. Keeping glucose levels in the optimal range enhances learning, memory, and thinking. Breakfast should be light and made up of complex carbohydrates and a little protein: a bowl of shredded wheat, nonfat milk, and a banana; or oatmeal topped with wheat germ and nonfat milk, served with orange juice.
Spread food intake into four to six light meals and snacks evenly distributed throughout the day. Avoid high-fat, "heavy" meals containing more than 1,000 calories, which divert the blood supply to the digestive tract and away from the brain, leaving you feeling sluggish and sleepy.
Foods loaded with antioxidants — vitamin C, vitamin E, beta carotene, and phytochemicals — help prevent premature aging of the brain and nervous system. Excellent antioxidant sources include green and red bell peppers, orange juice, grapefruit juice, carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach, apricots, wheat germ, and broccoli.
Minerals essential for clear thinking include iron, boron, and zinc. Iron helps transport oxygen to and within the brain’s cells and works closely with the nerve chemicals that regulate mental processes. Low intake of this trace mineral results in shortened attention span, lowered IQ, lack of motivation, inability to concentrate, and reduced work performance. Premenopausal women should include at least four, and men and post-menopausal women two to three iron-rich foods in the daily diet, including extra-lean meats, cooked dried beans and peas, dried apricots, and dark green leafy vegetables.
Boron is essential to mental functioning, hand-eye coordination, attention span, perception, and both short-term and long-term memory. Zinc deficiency hampers learning and memory. Low zinc intake is common in women, especially as they age. Include in your daily diet several zinc-rich foods, including wheat germ, yogurt, almonds, cooked dried beans and peas, and dark green leafy vegetables.
Choline, a nerve chemical that facilitates memory, is found in whole wheat bread, peanut butter, cauliflower, egg yolks, and leaf lettuce. B vitamins convert energy so the brain can use it, regulate neurotransmitters, and help maintain the insulating sheath around nerve cells that speeds communication between nerve cells. A deficiency of any B vitamin — B1, B2, B6, B12, or folic acid — can impair thinking, concentration, memory, reaction time, and mental clarity. Good B vitamin sources include nonfat milk and yogurt, wheat germ, bananas, seafood, and green peas.
Be careful with coffee. Caffeine and a related compound (theobromine) in tea stimulate the nervous system, sharpen your reaction time, and improve concentration, alertness, and short-term memory. But more than three five-ounce cups can give you jitters and muddle your thinking.
Cutting calories might boost brainpower or dumb you down, depending on how you cut. Paring down calorie intake while maintaining a nutrient-packed diet is the only dietary habit known to increase life span in every animal that has been tested. Paring calories also prevents age-related mental and memory decline.
But common sense tells us that any drastic calorie reduction will cut off the brain’s main fuel supply — carbohydrates. Starved nerves relay messages halfheartedly, so thinking and emotions suffer. Restricting calories also upsets the production of nerve chemicals, such as serotonin, that regulate appetite and mood. Hormones, medications, lack of sleep, and disease can undermine mental clarity. Legging estrogen levels in menopausal women can cloud thinking. Many commonly prescribed drugs, including antihypertensives and antidepressants, can slow memory. If you’re taking medications and notice changes in your mental abilities, ask your pharmacist or physician whether there could be a connection. Anything that disturbs sleep, from arthritis pain or prostate problems to worry or caffeine, can undermine mental functioning.
People who stay physically active maintain the highest level of cognitive function. Exercise increases blood flow, oxygen, and nutrients to the brain. It helps limit and nutrients to the brain. It helps limit stress hormone levels while increasing nerve chemicals such as norepinephrine.
Vitality often is the fuel that keeps a person thinking clearly. Those who read, travel, or expose themselves to new experiences at every age keep their minds active. They also live longer and are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. Our capacity to remember quantities of information declines somewhat as we age, but that has more to do with disuse than with age. The problem may not be that the mind fails as we grow older, but that we fail to keep our minds fully engaged.
Elizabeth Somer, Utne Reader