Cognitive Function and Brain Health

You know what they say – you are what you eat – and your brain is exactly that. Your brain thrives on nutrients such as omega 3, tryptophan, B vitamins and magnesium. So, it’s essential that we include these food sources in our diet and ensure that we are absorbing the nutrients during digestion.

First things first – we simply cannot have a healthy functioning brain without nurturing the second brain that is housed in our gut!

Gut health and the Second Brain

Gut flora or gut microbiota refers to the microorganisms that live in the digestive tracts of humans [1].

Serotonin is the mood hormone. It regulates sleep, appetite and mood, and 95% of it is produced in the gut. Therefore, our gut produces the hormone that regulates our emotions, and that’s why it’s now referred to as the second brain [2, 4].

Ever had a gut feeling? Now there’s science to back that feeling! It has been established that a complex communication network exists between the gut microbiome and the central nervous system [10].

If we feel anxious, our appetite can be suppressed or increased, our gastrointestinal organs can constrict, and we’re not able to optimally digest food. Furthermore, an imbalance in the gut microbiome can lead to a chronic inflammatory state and increase the risk of developing brain disease [2].

Fibre

So, what do we need to feed this wonderful gut microbiota in order to have optimal digestion and optimal brain function? We need fibre, diversity in fibre and LOTS of it. Why diversity? There are over 100,000 strains of bacteria in your gut and they all require different forms of nutrients to feed them [1].

Great sources of fibre all come from plants like fruits, vegetables, legumes and wholegrains [11]. Our gut microbiomes also love probiotic and prebiotic rich foods. These contain good bacteria which help populate our gut microbiome.

Probiotic foods include sauerkraut, yoghurt, kombucha and all those super trendy foods that have been fermented. Prebiotic foods stimulate the growth of bacteria found in probiotic rich foods [2]. These include legumes, sweet potato, onions, garlic and bananas.

Vitamins, Minerals and Nutrients

Omega 3

An essential fatty acid found in oily fish like salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, and seeds and nuts such as flaxseed, chia, and walnuts, and plant oils like extra virgin olive oil [11].

The brain is made up of up to 60% fat – it loves fat, particularly omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Omega 3 acts on the cell membranes within the brain and regulates signalling pathways. It has been found to reduce inflammation, as well as shortening the duration of the inflammatory process [3].

The anti-inflammatory effects of omega 3 may explain its ability to ameliorate cognitive decline in the elderly, as well as in Alzheimer’s disease, and improve cognition in traumatic brain injury. It is also successfully used for the treatment of mood disorders [3].

Nutritionist tip: Australian diets are often lower in omega 3 and higher in omega 6. Foods higher in omega 6 have been associated with pro-inflammatory effects – aim for an omega 6 to omega 3 ratio from 1:1 to 4:1 [9]. To do this include omega 3 rich foods, and limit saturated fats like cooking oils, processed meats and deep-fried foods.

Tryptophan

An amino acid found in lean chicken, turkey, tuna, snapper, lean cuts of red meat, tofu, tempeh, whole milk, pumpkin seeds, oats and eggs [11].

Maintaining tryptophan levels is essential as it acts as a cofactor or ‘tool’ to produce serotonin [5, 6]. Significant decreases or increases in optimal levels of tryptophan will significantly disrupt normal behaviour and brain function. Studies show that decreased tryptophan increases depression, irritability, anxiety and aggression, while more tryptophan induces drowsiness and decreases pain sensitivity [5].

The recommended daily intake of tryptophan was suggested as 4 mg/kg body weight for adult humans as essential for optimal brain function [9]. For example, 100 g of lean chicken breast contains 404 mg of tryptophan which is 144% of the recommended daily intake [11].

B Vitamins

Found in clams, tuna, crab, salmon, white fish, lean chicken, lean red meat, soy products, dark leafy greens, dairy products and eggs [11].

The B-vitamins comprise a group of eight water soluble vitamins that perform many functions – energy production, DNA repair, and the synthesis of numerous neurochemicals required for hormone production [7].  

Vitamins B6, B12, and folate are commonly acknowledged as cofactors or ‘tools’ for serotonin and melatonin production, relating B vitamin status with mood [7]. The recommended intake of B vitamins varies individually, however a diet rich in these foods is essential for your brain to flourish and secrete those happy hormones.

Magnesium

A mineral found in buckwheat, spinach, pumpkin seeds, lima beans, tuna, brown rice, oats, dark chocolate, avocado, yoghurt and bananas [11].

Similar to B vitamins and tryptophan, magnesium is also an essential tool to produce hormones for healthy brain function.

However, it works in a slightly different way. Magnesium is essential for regulation of muscle contraction by allowing for the exchange of energy [8]. Low levels of magnesium may result in an over production of nerve conductivity (message signalling), resulting in oxidative stress and cell degradation. This increased conductivity has been implicated in many neurological and psychiatric disorders [8]. Many studies have shown neuronal protection from treatment with magnesium, making it an ideal supplement to support cognitive function [4, 8].

1 cup of cooked buckwheat contains 94% of your recommended daily intake, while 1 cup of uncooked oats contains 66% and 28 g of pumpkin seeds contains 40% [11].

Supplementing

Include a diet rich in these nutrients and not only will your brain function optimally, it will also thrive! However, that’s not always possible, that’s why a supplement like Good Green Vitality, full of ingredients to support brain health, like vitamin B1, B2, B3, B5, B12 and magnesium, is a great way to ensure your adequate nutrition. It also includes many other nutrients essential for healthy brain function like zinc, copper, bioflavonoids, Co-enzyme Q10, vitamin A and E.

5 Key Takeaways

  • To optimise brain function we must consider the health of our second brain – the gut!
  • Fill up on fibre and include pro and prebiotic rich foods
  • Be conscious of your omega 3 to 6 ratio, aim for 1:1 to 4:1
  • Aim for a diet rich in food sources of tryptophan, B vitamins and magnesium
  • Consider supplementing to ensure you’re getting all of those healthy brain functioning nutrients

References

[1] Appleton J. (2018). The Gut-Brain Axis: Influence of Microbiota on Mood and Mental Health. Integrative medicine (Encinitas, Calif.), 17(4), 28–32.

[2] Banskota, S., Ghia, J. E., & Khan, W. I. (2019). Serotonin in the gut: Blessing or a curse. Biochimie, 161, 56–64. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biochi.2018.06.008

[3] Chianese, R., Coccurello, R., Viggiano, A., Scafuro, M., Fiore, M., Coppola, G., Operto, F. F., Fasano, S., Laye, S., Pierantoni, R., & Meccariello, R. (2018). Impact of Dietary Fats on Brain Functions. Current neuropharmacology, 16(7), 1059–1085. https://doi.org/10.2174/1570159X15666171017102547

[4] Fernstrom, J. (2005). Branched-Chain Amino Acids and Brain Function. The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 135, Issue 6, Pages 1539S–1546S, https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/135.6.1539S

[5] Friedman M. (2018). Analysis, Nutrition, and Health Benefits of Tryptophan. International journal of tryptophan research : IJTR, 11, 1178646918802282. doi:10.1177/1178646918802282

[6] Jenkins, T. A., Nguyen, J. C., Polglaze, K. E., & Bertrand, P. P. (2016). Influence of Tryptophan and Serotonin on Mood and Cognition with a Possible Role of the Gut-Brain Axis. Nutrients, 8(1), 56. doi:10.3390/nu8010056

[7] Kennedy D. O. (2016). B Vitamins and the Brain: Mechanisms, Dose and Efficacy–A Review. Nutrients, 8(2), 68. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu8020068

[8] Kirkland, A. E., Sarlo, G. L., & Holton, K. F. (2018). The Role of Magnesium in Neurological Disorders. Nutrients, 10(6), 730. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu10060730

[9] National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). (2021, February 17). Nutrient Reference Values. Retrieved March 28, 2019, from https://www.nrv.gov.au/home

[10] Strandwitz P. (2018). Neurotransmitter modulation by the gut microbiota. Brain research, 1693(Pt B), 128–133. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brainres.2018.03.015

[11] Whitbread, D. (2021, January 22). Top 10 foods highest in Tryptophan. Retrieved February 17, 2021, from https://www.myfooddata.com/articles/high-tryptophan-foods.php

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