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June 24, 2024

Brain Food: A conversation between neurology and nutrition about cognitive functioning

IU Health Arnett Hospital

Brain Food: A conversation between neurology and nutrition about cognitive functioning

June is Brain Health Awareness Month and as the focus shifts to caring for our brains, consider how nutrition can play a role. Research has proven that there is a relationship between nutrition indicators and cognitive functioning. Jason Chaney, a nurse practitioner at IU Health Arnett Neurology, and registered dietitian Carrie Anderson explain the connection between neurology and nutrition.

How nutrients affect brain function

Nutrients from food supply energy to the brain, helping brain cells stay healthy. Some nutrients have the ability to shield against oxidative stress or reduce inflammation. Others aid in the synthesis of neurotransmitters or lessen plaque in the brain. It is important to get a sufficient intake of antioxidants, vitamins and healthy fats that contain these nutrients to maintain quality memory and regulate mood.

Although nutrition can play a big part in brain health, Anderson and Chaney also stipulate that it is important to maintain other aspects of health for good brain function such as refraining from smoking, getting good rest, staying physically active and lowering stress levels.

Reducing brain inflammation through nutrition

Neuroinflammation is the inflammation of brain tissue, which causes a higher risk for cognitive decline and age-related cognitive impairment. Anderson explains that inflammation from nutrition comes from eating foods that your body can’t use.

She says, “Inflammation in our bodies happens all the time, but eating foods that aren’t healthy for you causes chronic inflammation and over time, it causes the body to always be on high alert. That’s when the chronic inflammation can cause autoimmune diseases. The body can’t be in fight or flight all the time.”

Inflammatory agents—such as those found in processed foods—can alter bacteria in the gut and can trigger the immune system, leading to chronic inflammation. The good news is that anti-inflammatory foods can help prevent inflammation.

Anderson says, “By having more foods that are high in antioxidants, you are putting out the fire by decreasing inflammation in your body.”

She suggests people “eat the rainbow” with colored vegetables. She also says that fiber is important in boosting the immune system and has anti-inflammatory properties.

The Mediterranean diet follows these principles and is good for freeing the body of inflammation. It incorporates olive oil, limited consumption of red meat, and whole grains. Turmeric and ginger are also popular ingredients with anti-inflammatory benefits.

Antioxidants and oxidative stress

Unstable molecules (called free radicals) in the body can be neutralized by antioxidants. If the balance between antioxidants and free radicals is off, oxidative stress can cause damage to cells, alter proteins in the brain and speed up the process of dementia.

Anderson puts the process into simpler terms. “If you leave anything metal out all winter and spring, what happens to that piece of metal? It rusts or it oxidizes. If you were to coat that metal with oil it would protect it and it wouldn’t oxidize. When you think of antioxidizing when you eat those foods, they help protect your cells from being destroyed from outside elements.”

Chaney suggests berries to relieve oxidative stress. Antioxidants in berries have been found to accumulate in the brain and help with communication between brain cells. Other foods with an abundance of antioxidants include dark chocolate and green tea.

Nutrients to support brain health

Ensuring a diet rich in certain vitamins and nutrients can also help keep the brain healthy, especially:

  • Choline: regulates mood and memory (good sources: eggs, kidney beans, quinoa, almonds)
  • Vitamin B: anti-inflammatory and maintains neurotransmitter balance (good sources: chicken, spinach, salmon, fortified cereal)
  • Vitamin K: regulates nervous system (good sources: broccoli, leafy greens, cashews, edamame, pumpkin)
  • Omega-3 fatty acids: slows cognitive decline (good sources: fish, avocado, flaxseeds, chia)

Chaney shares that mood is a big factor when it comes to brain health. Long-term anxiety and depression can contribute to memory problems and brain fog.

Looking for an easy way to get more of these mood- and health-boosting nutrients? Anderson recommends trying microgreens because they pack many helpful nutrients into small quantities.