By Allison Tannis BSc MSc RHN
Sharpen your pencils, kids; it’s back to school time. But, being “smart” is important for us older folks too. Every day we learn new things—like how to do long division, program a new phone, or make a frittata. Optimizing your ability to learn (and remember) is important for both kids and adults. So…don’t forget to fuel your brain.
The brain is an organ that needs proper fueling, just like your beating heart and contracting muscles. But, when was the last time you took a supplement or ate a particular food for your brain? As they say, “get with it” and start supplementing for better learning.
Ever heard of “brain food”? Certain foods are known for their ability to offer the brain nutrients that can boost its abilities. Fish oil is probably the most well-known brain food—just ask any university student who has eaten tuna during exam week. The oil in fish, particularly the fatty docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), improves brain function by enhancing brain cell structure, and thus its ability to function optimally. Really, it works!
There are piles of research papers about fish oil and the brain on my desk. There have been studies showing that rats fed low levels of fish oil have impaired smell and spatial learning abilities. Children whose moms took fish oil during pregnancy have better cognitive and language skills. Other studies have found that students given fish oil supplements suffer from lower signs of stress during exams. And, studies on aging adults have shown that fish oil can help improve cognitive functions in older folks too. The brain sure does eat this stuff up!
The Best Catch
Which fish is the best catch? Fatty fish contain more of these brain-enhancing oils: salmon, herring, mackerel and tuna. These are delicious ideas for tonight’s dinner, or try them in a salad or sandwich for lunch. And, don’t skip the anchovies and sardines on your pizza—these small fish are great sources of brain boosting DHA. Plus, small fish are sustainable (easy to cultivate), and contain fewer contaminants than large fish.
If this discussion of fishy foods is causing you to crinkle up your nose, go for a fish oil supplement. They are the easiest way to ensure your brain is getting its fill of fish oil. Choose a fish oil supplement with high quality standards that contains both DHA and EPA. EPA (another omega-3) is also reported in research studies to have beneficial effects on the brain.
Admit it, we all have them. As we age, those moments when our brain seems to hiccup seem to occur more frequently. Scientists call it aging-dependent cognitive decline and calcium may be involved. Key triggers involved in learning and memory are dependent on calcium. Scientists are discovering that signals in the brain that involve calcium start to dysregulate with age, resulting in cognitive decline. Calcium is also involved in bone strength and muscle contractions. Yes, you use calcium every time your heart beats... and every time you smile. Now you can include boosting brain power to the many health reasons for both young and old to take a calcium supplement.
Multivitamins and Your Brain
If Popeye was right and spinach makes you strong, then nutrient makes you smart? Research from developing countries shows an inadequate diet (particularly iron, iodine and vitamin A) has effects on cognitive development. Recent research on child brain development and attention deficit disorder has also put recent emphasis on the importance of “brain-nutrition”, particularly on omega-3 fatty acids. Rapid brain growth during childhood makes it vulnerable to inadequate nutrient intake, so a multivitamin that contains omega-3s can help ensure your little “picky eaters” are getting enough nutrients for their brains.
But proper nutrition including the use of a multivitamin is not just important for kids, it is also important in the maintenance of brain function as we age. Many observational studies have reported a beneficial association between cognitive function and nutrition in later life. Nutrients found in multivitamins are hoped to help prevent cognitive decline in adults.
Time’s up, pencils down! Boost your brain’s ability to learn and optimize memory with the help of a proper diet including omega-3 fatty acids (DHA, EPA), iron, iodine, vitamin A, calcium and other nutrients found in a quality multivitamin.
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Hamazaki T, et al. Anti-stress effects of DHA. Biofactors. 2000;13(1-4):41-5.
McNeill G, et al. Effect of multivitamin and multimineral supplementation on cognitive function in men and women age 65 years and over: a randomized controlled trial. Nutr J 2007 May 2;6:10.
Oliveira AM, and H. Bading. Calcium signaling in cognition and aging-dependent cognitive decline. Biofactors. 2011 May-Jun;37(3):168-74. doi: 10.1002/biof.148.
Sheaff Greiner, R. et al. Rats with low levels of brain docosahexaenoic acid show impaired performance in olfactory-based and spatial learning tasks Rats with low levels of brain docosahexaenoic acid show impaired performance in olfactory-based and spatial learning tasks. Lipids, 1999;34(1): S239-S243.
Stough C. et al. The effects of 90-day supplementation with the omega-3 essential fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) on cognitive function and visual acuity in a healthy aging population. Neurobiol Aging. 2012 Apr;33(4):824.e1-3