Brain health is all the rage these days. And many people are thinking about the many ways to properly nourish their brain.
We need so many nutrients: vitamins, minerals, probiotics, essential fats and so on. It’s easy to get lost, so much so that it can be frustrating trying to figure out which nutrients you really need.
So what are the most important nutrients for brain and mental health?
What nutrients can help newborns develop their brains, improve our mood and reduce the risk of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease?
1. Omega 3
Omega 3 is a type of essential fat often considered the most important nutrient for brain health.
If you take away the weight of water, the brain is 60% fat. If you don’t want your body to be too lean, you don’t want your brain to be too lean either! It needs fat! In fact, 25% of the fat in the brain is made up of omega-3s, specifically those called DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).
Omega 3s perform many functions in the brain, including helping nerve cells isolate their electrical signals, stabilize their membranes and reduce inflammation.
Omega 3s are essential for brain development in babies. Getting enough omega 3 during pregnancy can help increase the intelligence of the newborn and reduce the risk of behavioral problems.
There is a lower tendency to depression in people who regularly consume omega 3 or who have high blood levels of omega 3. In addition, several studies show that people with a tendency to depression or anxiety, or who are subject to mood swings, who start taking omega 3 supplements see a reduction in some of their symptoms.
Finally, with regard to the decline in mental faculties that accompanies aging, studies have also shown that people who consume more omega 3 have a lower risk of suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
HOW CAN I GET ENOUGH OMEGA 3?
Two servings of oily fish per week are enough to get the recommended amount of omega-3s, including DHA. This can be fish such as wild salmon, sablefish, halibut or trout, or small fish such as anchovies, mackerel and sardines.
If you are taking supplements, most people only need 0.5 grams (500 mg) of fish oil a day to get the minimum recommended amount.
2. Vitamin D
Vitamin D is another important nutrient that the brain loves.
Vitamin D is considered a neuroprotective (helps protect neurons) and neurotrophic (stimulates neuron growth) agent. Vitamin D receptors are found in certain areas of the brain that play a role in depression, so if vitamin D and depression are in the same parts of the brain, it is safe to assume that vitamin D is likely to play an important role!
Adequate vitamin D intake during pregnancy is believed to play an important role in the baby’s brain development, cognitive function and psychological function. Children born to mothers with low vitamin D levels, for example, are at increased risk of developing schizophrenia later in life.
In adults, low vitamin D levels have been associated with multiple sclerosis, depression, cognitive impairment and Parkinson’s disease.
HOW TO GET ENOUGH VITAMIN D?
The skin makes vitamin D when exposed to sunlight; however, there are a multitude of factors that go into calculating the amount of exposure needed to make enough vitamin D (to name a few: location, season, annoyance, clothing, etc.). On the other hand, one does not necessarily want to increase the risk of skin cancer to address a vitamin D deficiency.
Vitamin D occurs naturally in some foods, such as fatty fish, liver and egg yolks. It is also added to some products such as milk, orange juice, cereals and yogurt, but not always. It is therefore necessary to read the label of each product to know if it contains it.
When it comes to vitamin D, supplements can be a good idea.
Ideally, ask your health care provider to test your blood for vitamin D and recommend a specific dose.
In the absence of a blood test, the safest way to take vitamin D supplements is to follow label directions, making sure never to exceed the 10,000 IU daily dose unless prescribed by your health care provider.
3. Vitamin B
The B vitamin family includes several essential vitamins (B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9 and B12) that are particularly important for brain health. In fact, vitamin B deficiency is the leading cause of neurological disorders and disabilities worldwide.
B vitamins are so important to the brain that each of them is actively transported across the blood-brain barrier. Think of all the energy expended by the body to get these beautiful B vitamins into the brain. In fact, many of these vitamins are found in much higher concentrations in the brain than in the blood. I guess they just love what’s going on up there!
B vitamins work together, and sometimes with enzymes, to perform several roles in brain function. They serve as antioxidants, help neurons maintain their structure and function, help the brain produce energy (which it sorely needs, especially when stress turns it into an energy sponge), and are also necessary for the production of essential neurochemicals.
Chronic deficiency of several B vitamins has been associated with depression, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), certain psychiatric conditions, and neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
In particular, low levels of B12 are associated with some symptoms of mental disorders, microcephaly, lack of energy, exhaustion and memory deficits.
Interestingly, some of the benefits of B vitamins for brain health seem to be a result of collaboration with omega 3. A real team effort! So there is no doubt about the importance of getting enough of these two essential nutrients for the brain.
HOW TO GET ENOUGH B VITAMINS?
B vitamins, with the exception of vitamin B12, are all plant-based. Leafy vegetables, other vegetables and fruits are excellent sources. In addition, eating animal products (from animals that have eaten these plants) provides some B vitamins. And don’t forget that some foods are fortified with B vitamins, which is another reason to read labels.
Vitamin B12 is found in meat, fish, eggs and seaweed.
B vitamins are available as supplements, individually or grouped in what is called the B complex.
However, vitamin B12 is not necessarily part of these complexes. For this reason, it may be important to take B12 supplements, especially if you do not consume animal products.
Magnesium is an essential mineral that the body uses in over 600 functions, such as energy production, nerve function and blood pressure, to name a few.
Magnesium deficiency has been linked to several brain conditions, including migraine, depression, Alzheimer’s disease and stroke.
Magnesium helps neurons in many ways, including helping to control the flow of calcium in and out of the brain. Magnesium deficiency can cause damage to neurons.
Increased magnesium intake can help prevent migraines and reduce their symptoms, but also, according to some studies, improve mood. This is probably why it is often referred to as the “anti-anxiety” mineral.
HOW TO GET ENOUGH MAGNESIUM?
Magnesium loves to lodge in the blood of plants, better known as chlorophyll. So it stands to reason that the best sources are green (naturally green, of course, like dark green leafy vegetables). Nuts and beans are also rich in magnesium.
There are many types of magnesium supplements, including magnesium glycinate, magnesium citrate, magnesium sulfate, magnesium chloride and magnesium oxide. If you need a magnesium supplement, we recommend choosing a form that ends in “ate” (glycinate and citrate are our favorites). This is because they are more easily absorbed and cause less digestive upset.
You may have heard about the new studies that link the gut to the brain, revealing the immense potential for optimizing brain health that we can tap into by choosing our foods and supplements well.
Probiotics are the health-promoting microbes that live in the gut. Probiotics are what turn milk into yogurt and cabbage into sauerkraut. Plus, they’re great for overall health, including brain health!
Several studies have noted a reduction in pessimistic thoughts and moodiness in healthy subjects after a few weeks of consuming probiotic foods or supplements. In other studies, probiotic supplements have helped improve symptoms of anxiety, depression and stress in healthy subjects. A study conducted on patients diagnosed with depression also found that taking probiotic supplements reduced symptoms.
In addition to providing relief to those suffering from depression and low mood, studies show that probiotic supplements can reduce some symptoms of multiple sclerosis.
This science is absolutely fascinating, as it suggests that one day we may be able to promote mental health by addressing gut health issues. What an exciting prospect!
HOW TO GET ENOUGH PROBIOTICS?
If you want to eat probiotics, you can find them in yogurt, sauerkraut (and other fermented vegetables), miso, tempeh and sourdough bread; if you prefer to drink them, choose kefir or kombucha.
There are a wide variety of probiotic supplements on the market. Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium have been the most widely studied for their health and brain benefits.
We recommend that you choose a supplement that has at least 10 billion active cultures, from at least 10 strains, and is refrigerated (if not, it must have an excellent gastro-resistant coating!) It is also suggested that you choose a supplement that has been third-party verified, meaning that a party other than the manufacturer, after testing, has determined that it is a quality product!