Nutrition and the Mind
Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet is not only essential for the body, but for the mind as well. The brain requires plenty of nutrition to function properly. Nutritional deficiencies are certainly not always the cause of problems with the brain or mental fatigue — there are numerous diseases and conditions that can deteriorate brain health. They can however be a contributing factor to problems such as poor memory, a lack of concentration and even dementia.
Whether a lack of certain vitamins has already caused problems or not, it is always important to keep the vitality of your brain in mind. This is particularly true as the body ages and mental function appears to decline for some people. Coincidentally or not, nutrient stores deplete during aging and the body has more trouble absorbing nutrients, especially the B vitamins, which are very important for brain health. Make sure food sources of the following vitamins are a part of your diet and protect your brain over the years.
Vitamin B1, also known as thiamin, is the first of the team of nutrients known as the B complex of vitamins. In sufficient amounts it can improve cognitive function, a deficiency can cause brain disorders. Thiamin becomes thiamin diphosphate in the brain where it plays a role in enzyme activity for brain glucose metabolism. A deficiency of this nutrient is associated with a loss of neurons in certain areas of the brain. Thiamin not only improves learning capacity but it enhances circulation and is necessary for energy and growth. It also is an antioxidant, protecting cells from the damaging effects of aging, alcohol consumption and smoking.
Excellent food sources of thiamin include egg yolks, brown rice, legumes, peanuts, chicken and whole grains. Regularly eating a variety of grains and legumes and having eggs once or twice a week is a great way to make sure you are getting enough thiamin in your diet.
Also known as vitamin B3, niacin is an important nutrient for circulation and for the nervous system. It boosts cerebral circulation and helps to enhance memory. Niacin can be found in eggs, whole wheat products, milk, peanuts, potatoes, tomatoes, dandelion greens, dates and corn flour.
While this vitamin is beneficial for the brain and for overall well-being it is important to be careful if taking supplements. When taken alone (as opposed to a B complex supplement) be sure not to exceed 100 milligrams a day. Also, avoid if you have high blood pressure, liver disease or gout.
Vitamin B6, or pyridoxine, is another nutrient that may help to improve memory and that is important for brain health. It is necessary for both brain function and for the nervous system. Vitamin B6 helps with the production of several neurotransmitters as well as serotonin and
norepinephrine, which both effect mood.
Mild deficiencies may occur in children, the elderly and people who take certain medications. Vitamin B6 is found in many foods. Excellent sources include carrots, peas, eggs, sunflower seeds, spinach, chicken and fish.
The cobalamins, collectively known as vitamin B12, are essential for the growth and protection of the nervous system. Of all nutrients this one is one of the most important to prevent mental deterioration as the body ages and it may help to regenerate damaged nerves, making it useful in the treatment of serious neurological diseases. Vitamin B12 is also important for cell formation and longevity, digestion and red blood cell formation.
People who do consume meat and dairy products usually do not have trouble getting enough vitamin B12, although deficiencies due to poor absorption are relatively common amongst the elderly. Aside from meat and milk, mackerel, herring, eggs, brewer’s yeast and sea vegetables supply the body with this B vitamin.
Vitamin C and E
Good circulation to the brain is a fundamental component of optimal brain functioning. Both vitamin C and E improve cerebral circulation, increasing the flow of oxygen and nutrient-rich blood to the brain. They also act as protective antioxidants. Getting plenty of antioxidants in your diet helps to enhance brain energy and neutralize the damaging effects of free radicals on cells.
Eating lots of fruits and vegetables is the way to include vitamins C and E in your diet. Be sure to include green leafy vegetables, berries, citrus fruits, sweet peppers and avocados. While vitamin C is found in many fruits and vegetables from plums to asparagus, vitamin E is primarily found in dark greens. Other food sources include nuts, seeds and whole grains.
A Balanced Diet vs. Supplements
Eating a well-balanced diet that is rich in fresh foods is important for getting enough of these vitamins for brain health throughout your life. Depending on food sources first is important as nutrients are more readily absorbed from food and they are often more potent when consumed with the myriad antioxidants, enzymes, amino acids, fatty acids and other nutrients that whole foods provide.
Supplements are a secondary option. For people who may be concerned about nutritional deficiencies or simply to ensure adequate nutrition as the body ages or has to deal with other stressors such as heavy physical activity or the use of medications, adding supplements to a healthy diet may be helpful. Always talk to your doctor before taking supplements, especially if you have a medical condition, are pregnant or are taking any prescription drugs.
Butterworth, Roger F. “Thiamin deficiency and brain disorders.” (Nutrition Research Reviews, 2003).
Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine). University of Maryland Medical Center. https://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/vitamin-b6-000337.htm
Balch, Phyllis A. “Prescription for Nutritional Healing.” Fourth Edition (Penguin Books, 2006).
Page, Linda. “Healthy Healing: A Guide to Self-Healing for Everyone, 11th Edition” (Traditional Wisdom, 2003).
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