The best brain nutrients you need to be eatingLeesa Klich, M.Sc, R.H.N.; Science Writer, NeuroTrition
March 13, 2017
Brain health is big these days. And helping your noggin with nutrition is on many people’s … minds.
There are so many nutrients that you need: vitamins, minerals, probiotics, and essential fats, just to name a few. It is confusing, and can be downright frustrating to know what you actually need.
So, which ones are the most important for brain and mental health? Which nutrients can help with brain development of infants, improve moods, and reduce risk of dementia like Alzheimer’s?
There are five real “winners” here, based on what the science is saying, and these five always make it onto our NeuroTrition Rx for building happy, healthy brains.
Let’s unpack some of the research and go over some of the amazing brainy benefits of (drum roll, please) omega-3s, vitamin D, B vitamins, magnesium, and probiotics.
Omega-3s are a type of essential fat that is arguably the most important nutrient for brain health.
If you take away the water weight, your brain is 60% fat. You don’t want a skinny body, and you definitely don’t want a skinny brain—so you need fat! And 25% of this fat are omega-3s, in particular the omega-3 called “DHA” (docosahexaenoic acid).
Omega-3s have many functions in the brain, for example they help nerve cells insulate their electrical signals, stabilize their membranes, and reduce inflammation.
Omega-3s are critical for baby’s brain development. Getting enough omega-3s during pregnancy can help improve the infant’s intelligence and reduce the risk of behavioural problems.
People who regularly eat and/or have higher blood levels of omega-3s are less likely to be depressed. And several studies have shown that when people with mood swings, depression, or anxiety start taking omega-3 supplements, some of their symptoms improve.
And in terms of age-related mental decline, studies also show that people with higher omega-3 intakes have a lower risk of Alzheimer’s.
How do you get enough omega-3?
You can get the recommended amount of omega-3s, including DHA, from eating two servings of fatty fish each week. This means fish like wild salmon, black cod, halibut, trout and the little ones like anchovy, mackerel and sardine.
In terms of supplements, as little as 0.5 grams (500 mg) of fish oil each day is enough for most people to get the minimum recommended levels.
Vitamin D is another important brain nutrient we love to love.
Vitamin D is thought to be neuroprotective (help protect nerve cells), and neurotrophic (help nerve cells grow). And there are vitamin D receptors in areas of the brain involved with depression—meaning vitamin D and depression live in the same parts of the brain, so there’s a chance for vitamin D to help!
Prenatal vitamin D status is thought to play an important role in brain development, cognitive function, and psychological function of the baby. For example, children born of mothers with low levels of vitamin D have a higher risk of developing schizophrenia later in life.
In adults, low levels of vitamin D have been associated with multiple sclerosis, depression, cognitive impairment, and Parkinson’s Disease.
How do you get enough vitamin D?
Your skin makes vitamin D when it’s exposed to the sun and there are many factors that can affect how much sunshine you need to make enough vitamin D (think: location, season, clouds, clothing, etc.). However, you don’t necessarily want to trade a vitamin D deficiency for potential skin cancer concerns.
Vitamin D is naturally found in a few foods such as fatty fish, liver, and egg yolks. It is also added to certain foods such as milk, some orange juices, breakfast cereals, and yogurt; but, you need to check your labels to find out if yours have it.
When it comes to vitamin D, supplementation may be a good way to go.
Ideally, your health care provider would test your blood for levels of vitamin D and make a recommendation specific for you.
However, if you don’t have a blood test, the safest way to take the vitamin D supplements is to use them as directed on the label. And never take more than 10,000 IU/day, unless specifically told to by your healthcare provider.
There are several essential B vitamins (B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9, B12), and they’re particularly important for brain health. In fact, B vitamin deficiency is a leading cause of neurological impairment and disability throughout the world.
The B vitamins are so important for the brain that each one is actively transported across the blood brain-barrier. This means that your body spends energy to pull all those beautiful B vitamins into your brain. In fact, many of these vitamins are found in the brain in much higher concentrations than in the blood—so we think they love hanging out in your noggin!
The B vitamins work together and sometimes work with enzymes, which results in many roles in brain function. These include working as antioxidants, helping neurons maintain their structure and function, helping the brain to produce energy (which your brain needs a lot of, especially a stressed brain which is like an energy sponge), and are necessary for production of essential neurochemicals as well.
Chronic low levels of several B vitamins are associated with depression, ALS (amyotropic lateral sclerosis), some psychiatric conditions, as well as neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
And low levels of B12 in particular are associated with some symptoms of mental disorders, smaller brain size, low energy and fatigue, and poor memory.
Interestingly, some of the benefits of B vitamins on brain health seem to work with omega-3s, talk about teamwork, eh? So take home message: getting enough of both critical brain nutrients is important.
How do you get enough B vitamins?
Sources of B vitamins, except B12, are from plants. Leafy greens, fruits, and vegetables are great sources. And by eating animal products (who ate those plants), you are also getting some B vitamins. Not to mention that some foods have B vitamins added to them, so check your labels.
Vitamin B12 is found in meat, fish, eggs, and algae.
B vitamins can be found individually or in supplements as a complex, often called “B complex”.
Some of those complexes may not include vitamin B12, so taking B12 supplements may be important, especially if you avoid animal products.
Magnesium is an essential mineral used by the body for over 600 functions, like: energy production, nerve function, and blood pressure, just to name a few.
Magnesium deficiency has been associated with a number of brain conditions, including migraine headaches, depression, Alzheimer’s, and stroke.
One of the ways that magnesium helps nerve cells is that it helps to control the flow of calcium into and out of those neurons. If there isn’t enough magnesium, this can lead to nerve cell damage.
Getting more magnesium can help to prevent migraines and reduce their symptoms and has been shown to help improve moods. In fact, it is often lovingly called the “anti-anxiety” mineral.
How do you get enough magnesium?
Magnesium loves to live inside plant blood, which is chlorophyll. So, your best bets are going to be green foods (naturally green please, like dark leafy green vegetables). Other foods high in magnesium include nuts and beans.
In terms of supplements, magnesium is available in many formats including magnesium glycinate, magnesium citrate, magnesium sulfate, magnesium chloride, and magnesium oxide. If you do need a magnesium supplement, we recommend forms that end in “ate” (i.e. glycinate and citrate are our Favs) because they’re more easily absorbed and cause fewer digestive disturbances.
You may have heard new research about the gut-brain connection, and this has great potential to help us use foods and supplements for optimal brain health.
Probiotics are your friendly health-promoting microbes that live in your gut. They’re what turn milk into yogurt, and cabbage into sauerkraut; and they are great for your overall health, including brain health!
Several studies show that after a few weeks of ingesting probiotic foods or supplements, healthy people’s negative thoughts and sad moods reduce. Several other studies show that taking probiotic supplements helped improve symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress in otherwise healthy people. In one study, people diagnosed with depression took probiotic supplements and their symptoms reduced as well.
In addition to depression and moods, studies also show a reduction in some symptoms of multiple sclerosis after supplementing with probiotics.
This is absolutely fascinating science, as it’s suggesting that one day we might be able to help mental health by fixing gut health. What an amazing world that would be!
How do you get enough Probiotics?
Probiotics can be eaten in yogurt, sauerkraut (and other fermented veggies), miso, tempeh, and sourdough bread or you can drink them in kefir or kombucha.
There are a wide variety of probiotic supplements available for sale. The ones that have been studied the most for their health and brainy benefits are lactobacillus, and bifidobacterium.
We recommend looking for one that has at least 10 billion active cultures, has at least 10 strains, and is refrigerated (or it better have a really good enteric coating!). We also suggest you look for one that has been “third party tested,” which means someone outside of the company has tested it and says it’s a quality product!
Take home message
As you can see, nutritional neuroscience (the field of study that pairs nutrition with brain science) research is starting to paint quite the pretty picture about nutrients for brain and mental health. And it seems that, for now, omega-3s, vitamin D, B-vitamins, magnesium and probiotics are your brain’s best friends. With benefits.
We have seen that they have wide-ranging brainy benefits from helping baby’s brains develop, to improving moods, to reducing symptoms of migraines and multiple sclerosis, to reducing risk of dementias like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
We’ve also seen that many of them work together, and it’s important to get enough of each of them every day.
In a nutshell (pun intended), our NeuroTrition Rx includes a wide variety of nutrient-dense, minimally-processed whole foods to meet your daily brain nutrient needs, and these five key supplements. Your brain will thank you.
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