Your brain works better if you eat good food
I have already posted a series of articles about how exercise boosts your brainpower. Now I will begin posting articles about how good food boosts your brainpower and will talk about different foods, supplements, and timing of meals and how they affect your brainpower, so put down that bag of Cheetos and get ready to learn something new!
In order for your brain to work it needs three things:
- Materials for communication
- Materials for construction and maintenance
Let’s look at all three of these critical pieces and how the food you eat impacts each one.
Your car uses oxygen and gasoline for fuel, but I don’t recommend trying to get your brain to run on gasoline! Instead, you should try oxygen and a sugar called glucose. How do you get these? Well, obviously you get oxygen from the air you breathe, and provided you have continuous access to air you don’t have to worry about this one; however, as I wrote about in my post about Exercise Boosts Your Brainpower: Vascularization, people who exercise develop a more efficient oxygen-delivery system to their neurons because they have a higher density of blood vessels in their brain. This implies that if an avid exerciser and a couch potato are sitting together in the same room, the exerciser’s brain cells are getting more oxygen, thereby generating more energy and power. For those of you car guys and girls, this would be like the difference between a naturally-aspirated engine and a turbo or supercharged engine. The supercharged engine forces more air into the cylinder, the spark plug ignites, and BOOM, the oxygen and gasoline explode with more power than the naturally-aspirated engine. Does your brain have a supercharger? Yup, it’s called exercise.
The other fuel component is glucose, a sugar, which comes from the food or beverages you consume. Essentially everything you eat has some form of glucose in it that your body extracts when you digest your food. But most foods also contain other sugars, like fructose, that do not have the same beneficial effects of glucose. In fact, while glucose has been linked to increased brainpower, fructose has been linked to diabetes, insulin resistance, high cholesterol, heart disease, and many other chronic illnesses.
The reason glucose is a superior sugar is because it is released into your bloodstream, allowed to flow throughout your entire body, taken into your cells by insulin and then converted directly into usable energy. For those of you cell biology pros – glucose is shunted right into glycolysis to begin generating ATP, your body’s primary energy source. This is why your brain uses glucose exclusively for energy. Fructose, on the other hand, is primarily absorbed by your intestines and sent straight to the liver where it is stored as fat. Sounds delightful, huh? Fructose does not supply the brain with energy directly like glucose does; instead, it first has to become fat and then can be converted into usable energy, a process that takes hours. Healthy, natural foods contain a balanced mix of glucose and fructose, so you don’t have to worry about your brain’s energy supply. But, I want you to remember that next time you consume something with high-fructose corn syrup it goes straight to your liver and becomes fat. That’s not much of a brainpower boost, but it will boost your body mass index.
2. Materials for communication
Pretend you’re stranded on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. You can’t go anywhere, you’re basically stuck where you are, just like your neurons. So how do you try to communicate with the outside world? You send out bottles filled with messages! That’s precisely how your neurons talk to each other – they send out little bottles filled with different messages (neurotransmitters) that tell the neurons around it what to do.
When you sit down at night to watch the Discovery Channel and your favorite animal comes on TV, a certain neuron will recognize your favorite animal and start sending out bottles saying “It’s a rhinoceros! It’s a rhinoceros!” And then you start jumping around your living room yelling “It’s a rhinoceros! It’s a rhinoceros!” See how it works now?
If you were on that island in the Pacific without any bottles could you communicate with the outside world? No. Can your brain cells communicate with each other if they don’t have any neurotransmitters? No.
How does your brain get neurotransmitters? From the food you eat. The food you eat is extremely important to your brainpower and your brain’s health. Foods are not created equal – some foods are nutritious, meaning they provide your body with the nutrients and energy it needs, and others are not. Just like a bottle must be molded from glass, your body converts the food you eat into neurotransmitters. But if you don’t have the glass necessary to make the bottle, you can’t make the bottle. This is why what you eat is incredibly important – your body can’t make the energy and neurotransmitters it needs without the right starting materials, and a quarter pounder with cheese doesn’t provide the same starting materials as a plate of steamed vegetables.
Many of the neurotransmitters your brain uses are derived from amino acids. There are 20 different amino acids; your body can synthesize 11 of them from scratch, but 9 of them it cannot. These 9 amino acids are called “essential amino acids” (I’m sure you’ve heard that term before) because you have to get them from the foods you eat, otherwise, well, you’ll get sick and possibly even die. Not getting the essential amino acids will certainly take a toll on your brainpower. Again, healthy, natural foods contain an abundance of these essential amino acids, but highly-processed foods often do not.
Your neurons also require various ions like sodium, potassium and chlorine to fire properly, but these are usually abundant in your diet, especially if you like salt.
3. Materials for construction and maintenance
Your brain is not a static object, in fact, quite the opposite; it is constantly building new connections, rewiring old ones, shoring up frequently-used pathways and breaking down connections that are unimportant or rarely used. It is kind of like you have a whole bunch of engineers and tiny little men in hard hats constantly running around your brain trying to make it run more efficiently. And these guys need construction materials! They need lumber, nails, electrical wire, caulk, and cement!
Okay, not literally, but they do need amino acids, carbohydrates, minerals, vitamins, and fatty acids. Many of the materials your brain needs cannot be synthesized from scratch so they must be acquired through your diet. Just like there are essential amino acids, there are essential vitamins, minerals, and oils, meaning if you don’t get them through your diet, your brain won’t function properly because those tiny little guys building and fixing things in your brain might have to swap out nails for a glue stick. Oh man.
What do you think all the cells in your body are made of? Where do you think all the energy, neurotransmitters, and materials come from to build new cells and make new connections? Ultimately, from the food you eat. I want you to read that line again: From the food you eat. You’ve all heard that line “You are what you eat”, and it is literally true. All 10 trillion cells in your body, including the 100 billion neurons in your brain were built from the food you ate.
Now think about what you’ve eaten in the past week. Where do you think that quarter pounder with cheese, large fries and Diet Coke went? It’s all over you now: your brain took some of the fats from the burger and tried to build some new brain cells from it, some of the proteins in the cheeseburger are now trying to help your brain cells fire in the form of neurotransmitters. But they might have been slowed down by all the trans fats and grease in the fries. I sure am glad you ordered a Diet Coke instead of a regular Coke. I’m sure you can feel the difference.
Funny, huh? You think I’m kidding, but I’m not! If you’ve been eating bad food a while you can probably feel that your body isn’t running as well as it should, maybe your brain gets tired easily and you can’t focus very well.
The good news is that most of your cells and virtually of the cell parts are replaced over time because your body is constantly getting rid of old, broken pieces and synthesizing new replacement cells and parts. For example, your stomach lining is completely replaced approximately every 5 days, your liver is replaced about once a year, and your red blood cells every 4 months. Pretty much your entire body is replaced at least every 10 years.
An exception, however, are your brain cells because replacing them could potentially mean losing all the information that they were storing. But even though your brain cells themselves are not entirely replaced, the neurotransmitters they use and even most of their cell parts, like the lipids in the membrane and proteins are constantly being replaced. But back to cars again: if you start eating healthy food now, you might not be able to replace the entire frame of the car, but you can sand off all the rust, put a fresh coat of paint on, tune up the suspension, and replace that tiny inline four cylinder engine with a supercharged big-block V8! In the words of Tim Taylor from Home Improvement: “All it needs is a little more power!”
In future posts I will be writing about what foods to eat and which ones to avoid, but for now just use common sense to decide what’s healthy and what’s not. I don’t really need to tell you, you know already. A general piece of advice if you want to boost your brainpower: avoid the middle of the store with all the boxed, canned, and frozen foods, and go for all the fresh fruits and vegetables.
So here’s the take-home message:
Your brain requires oxygen, glucose, neurotransmitters and materials for building new connections and renovating old ones. All of these things come from your diet and not all foods and beverages are good sources of glucose and essential amino acids, minerals, vitamins and oils. So choose wisely what you put in your belly, because your brain is counting on it!