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Food for Thought: Exploring Nutritional Neuroscience

Get Your Brain Game On

During the summer many brains go on hiatus. But as soon as there are rumblings of back to school commercials, many experience an anxious flurry of thoughts around how they may help their kids achieve an academic edge. You may plan to ask them to study harder, spend less time in front of the TV, or log more hours at the library. But one of the best ways to boost their brainpower is by boosting your own!

Besides the fact that children learn by example, consider this: the more you are able to think ahead, schedule effectively, monitor and oversee your child’s progress, and - let’s face it - actually be any assistance with their 9th grade math, requires you to get your brain game on!


Nutritional edge

The first way to fire up your neural activity is through a good diet. Nutritional neuroscience is one of the hottest topics in medicine today and has literally become food for thought. There have been a lot of studies over the last few decades that demonstrate a strong correlation between nutrition and neurological function, cognition, and on brain-related conditions both psychiatric and psychological, including ADHD.

Carbohydrates, amino acids, fats, vitamins, antioxidants and essential fatty acids are all essential requirements for brain structure and function. Complex carbohydrates and vitamins fuel the brain, amino acids enable the brain’s internal communications, fats make up the structure of the brain, and antioxidants protect the brain. What we now know about food and nutrition, and how it can impact brain health was unimaginable only a few years ago.

Food choices we made - or our parents made for us - throughout our lives and in particular during pregnancy, lactation and early childhood appear to have direct and long-term consequences on our mood, intelligence and behaviour. But it doesn’t stop there. Our dietary choices throughout adulthood have a direct impact on our brain power. Eating more herbs and spices for example, can increase blood flow to the brain. With that comes oxygen. With oxygen comes brain power and memory. If our kids see us do that and get accustomed to unique flavours at an earlier age (think east Indian and Asian cultures), then they’re likely to emulate.

Eating the wrong foods can gum up the arteries that supply the brain with blood, nutrients and oxygen and the result can be the exact opposite. If you must indulge in that chocolate bar, don’t let your kids see you do it! Recent research suggests that our ever-expanding waistlines may be causing our brains to literally shrink. Inflammation and free radicals that ramp up in the body as a consequence of eating the wrong foods appear to play a role as underlying nutritional causes for depression, anxiety, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, migraine headaches, ADHD and a whole lot more.


Intelligence Quotient

Our brains are responsible for intelligence, memory, emotion, attention, consciousness - in fact, a whole lot of what we think of as ourselves. This also goes for a child’s self confidence. In this day and age of schoolyard and cyber bullying, little else is more important. In the face of this new research, we have to consider that slight deficiencies in certain nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids can influence all of these factors, while increasing our chances of depression and cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Clinical studies in prisons in the United States and the United Kingdom have shown decreased acts of violence among subjects who received fish oil and multivitamins in their diets and this was accompanied by improved test scores in those with learning disorders, and improved mood scores in those with depression. Not that you need another fish oil spiel, but this would seem to translate right over to the schoolyard and classroom. Many other studies, including one done in 2005, reported in the European Journal of Clinical Investigation, have shown that taking fish oil supplements improved cognitive functioning and mood scores in otherwise healthy people.

What is good for the heart is good for the brain. A heart-healthy and brain-healthy diet both manage oxidative stress - free radical generation - and inflammation. Dietary antioxidants from deeply coloured fruits and vegetables protect the blood vessel walls, and omega-3 essential fats dampen down the inflammation process that is known to promote heart disease. Beyond the critical “rainbow” of fruits and veggies, the brain also responds strongly to herbs.

Ginger and turmeric are the two big ones and are both potent antioxidants with marked anti-inflammatory properties. Both herbs also have anti-anxiety and anti-depressant properties and have been shown to enhance longevity. Cinnamon, oregano, thyme and coriander also have high antioxidant properties (sometimes termed oxygen radical absorbance capacity, or ORAC) and are highly neuro-protective. Dietary antioxidants are our most important line of cellular defence in the brain, just as they are throughout the body. Without that protection, free radicals will take their toll prematurely.


Washing it all down

So, how do you wash down a rainbow of fruit and vegetables and lip-smacking load of herbs and spices? As an adult, there is good evidence that moderate red wine consumption protects neurons and other brain cells against cerebral ischemia, macular degeneration, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. Ingredients in red wine - polyphenols, quercetin, catechins and resveratrol - have been shown to be protective against neurotoxicity. Specifically, a study done at McGill University provides evidence that moderate wine consumption may protect against certain neurological disorders, especially age-related neurodegenerative disorders such as memory loss and dementia.

The McGill team studied cultured cells of the hippocampus, an area of the brain responsible for memory that has been found to be severely affected by Alzheimer's disease and ischemia (poor blood flow) because it is particularly vulnerable to oxidative stress. The results clearly indicated that quercetin and resveratrol are able to protect and even inhibit the damaging effects produced by oxidative stress on the hippocampal neurons that were exposed to the toxicity of nitric oxide.

Enjoy a glass or two of red wine but the fermented fruit of the vine can be a double-edged sword unless it’s imbibed in moderation. I often recommend that if you don’t already consume alcohol, there’s no need to start. And according to an article in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, concord grape juice may also protect the aging brain. And while you may enjoy a bold glass of Cab, the grape juice is what you’re going to give the kids. The study found that seniors with mild age-related memory decline made fewer memory errors of a certain type, and had more activity in memory-related parts of the brain, after drinking grape juice regularly for four months. Concord grapes are deep blue to purple due to their high content of polyphenol pigments, the same pigments found in red wine.

The study included 21 people aged 68 and older, diagnosed with mild age-related memory decline and not meeting the criteria for dementia. They were randomly assigned to receive either 100 percent Concord grape juice or a placebo drink every day for 16 weeks. The total amount of juice consumed per day was determined by each person’s body weight. The participants underwent memory and mood testing at the beginning and end of the trial. In addition, brain imaging was performed during testing to see if there were differences in activation levels of regions of the brain involved in memory. The grape juice drinkers made fewer errors on memory tests at the end of the trial and had a higher degree of activation in parts of the right brain hemisphere where researchers believe memory retrieval occurs.

Consuming a “brain diet” to enhance your powers of cognition, to thwart brain disease, and to prevent memory loss is only one reason to eat a rainbow, consume spices and drink either wine or grape juice. There’s no harm in having better blood sugar control either, or maintaining a lower blood pressure, developing greater nerve cell protection, and generally enjoying a higher degree of immunity from disease.


Super Smart Supplements

When it comes to supplementing, there are a few brain-boosting supplements worth seriously considering.

Vinpocetine - a derivative of vincamine, is a vinca alkaloid isolated from the leaves of periwinkle (Vinca minor) plant. Vinpocetine is best known for its neuro-protective effects. It is traditionally used to maintain and improve brain health, cognition and memory. Many of the substances that can increase blood flow in the body cannot get past the blood brain barrier – the brains protective line of defense. Vinpocetine is an exception, and can therefore deliver more precious oxygen, glucose and nutrients to our brains. A study in 15 subjects found a two-week vinpocetine trial enhanced cerebral blood flow, and recent studies using Doppler ultrasound and near-infrared spectroscopy showed enhanced cerebral blood flow in subjects given a single infusion of vinpocetine


Ginkgo biloba - another well known “brain booster” - has been used medicinally for thousands of years and is one of the top selling herbs in North America. Ginkgo can lead to an increase of blood flow by inducing endothelium-dependent vasodilatory capacity - that is, it can increase the surface area of blood vessel walls - in healthy elderly people.  Other research has reported benefits of ginkgo biloba in patients with symptoms of a syndrome called “cerebral insufficiency.” This condition may include poor concentration, confusion, absentmindedness, decreased physical performance, fatigue, headache, dizziness, depression and anxiety. It is believed that cerebral insufficiency is caused by decreased blood flow to the brain due to clogged blood vessels.  Although not definitive, there is also promising early evidence favouring the use of ginkgo for memory enhancement in healthy subjects. At the right doses and under the right supervision, both supplements are safe for kids too!


Fish Oil - To sharpening yours and your kids noodle too, you may want to consider taking fish oils daily, eating a rainbow, removing the sugar but adding some spice, and supplementing with vinpocetine and ginkgo. Here’s to a successful school year!


Dr. Bryce Wylde is one of Canada's leading experts on natural medicine. He is the author of The Antioxdant Prescription and host of Wylde On Health on CP24. wyldeabouthealth.com