Imagine! If brain food were a user’s guide to a piece of electrical equipment like a computer, then early on there would be some advice on setting it up and looking after it. So, what about the brain? How you should you feed and care for it? There are two kinds of revolution taking place on today’s High Street. The first is the explosion of health and fitness centers and gyms, the growth of healthy, often organic food, and the carrying of water bottles as a lifestyle item. The second is the burgeoning empire of coffee shops and the ever-increasing amount of packaged food with high levels of sugar and salt.
While the first of these is obviously positive for your brain, the second can be unhelpful. You may be wondering if there is a magic, brain-friendly meal or diet that will enhance the way you use your brain. When Virginia Woolf wrote, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well if one has not dined well,” she was only roughly right, depending on what and when she was eating! Your mind, like the rest of your body, thrives on a balanced diet.
The three key principles with regard to food are,Hydration, Balance and the third is Little and often. The first principle is that, huma brain needs to be fully hydrated to function effectively. We need to drink several liters of water a day for our brain’s to work well, more if we are also eating food that is diureticShortage of water may cause our brains to work considerably below their capacity.
It is difficult to power up your mind if its circuitry lacks the water it needs to function effectively. A study by Trevor Brocklebank at Leeds University in the UK found that schoolchildren with the best results in class were those who drank up to eight glasses of water a day. Secondly, you need a balanced diet.
Not surprisingly, different foods have different effects. For example, proteins such as egg, fish, chicken, yoghurt, and pork contain the amino acid tyrosine. This is broken down to create two useful chemicals called neurotransmitters, norephrine and dopamine, which both promote alertness and the effective functioning of memory.
Also more complex carbohydrates such as vegetables, rice, and fruit, create amino acid tryptophan, which slows the brain down. Fats produce acetylchline, which, in reasonable amounts, is good for your memory and for the overall health of your neural networks. We tend to eat too much fat. We also eat too much sugary food.
Simple carbohydrates such as sugars give you a quick burst of energy, although, as those who take care how they combine their foods will know, it depends what you have with them as to exactly how they affect you. A popular form of sugar is chocolate. This also contains the chemical theobromine, which causes short-term arousal, possibly why it is commonly enjoyed after a late meal! Salts are essential to the healthy functioning of all cells.
Specifically, there needs to be a balance between sodium and potassium salts. However, most people eat too much sodium, typically in crisps and processed foods. Salty food, in its turn, produces the need to drink more water. Caffeine, taken from coffee or tea, is widely enjoyed the world over. It is a stimulant, producing an effect not unlike the release of cortisol when your adrenal gland is working strongly. The brain becomes alert over a short period, explaining why coffee helps to keep you awake at night.
Too much coffee, however, causes dizziness, headaches, and difficulty in concentrating. Coffee is also a diuretic, so for every cup you drink you need at least two of water. Alcohol is widely enjoyed and, in reasonable amounts, is a useful element of a balanced diet. It causes a loss of inhibitions and so, for some, enhances confidence and helps them to be more creative.
Alcohol is also a depressant and too much of it reduces the flow of blood to the front cortex area of your brain, so making you less effective as a thinker. In addition, it is a diuretic, as anyone who has drunk too much knows to their cost when they wake up the next morning.
Various additives commonly found in processed food affect the brain adversely. This is most pronounced when you are young: for example, there is ample research to connect additives with unhelpful levels of hyperactivity in school pupils, at an age when their brains are much more demanding of energy and must have good food and drink to create this.
We need a balanced diet of all the ingredients above. For many of us this means eating less fat, less salt, and less chocolate, and drinking less coffee, less tea, and less alcohol. For some of us it may mean reviewing the amount of protein we eat. And for most of us it means eating more fresh fruit and vegetables. The third principle is to eat little and often, what is sometimes describes as a “grazing” diet.
After a big meal, your stomach and digestive system are hungrily consuming oxygenated blood. This is why you tend to feel sleepy after a big meal: your brain is literally being denied enough blood to function at a high level of alertness.
Although grazing has unfortunate associations with snacking on chocolate and potato chips, if the basic ingredients are good it ensures consistent levels of energy through the day Most people find it helpful to have a good breakfast after not having eaten for many hours.