By Magdy Badran:
Deficiencies of nutrients that affect brain development and function have been estimated to shift the world’s IQ potential negatively by at least 10 points. Children given more ‘fast food’ meals will grow up to have a lower IQ than those regularly given freshly cooked meals.
Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency, affecting 2 billion people and 30% of pregnant women and their offspring.
Although anaemia is the most obvious clinical manifestation of iron deficiency, the neurobehavioral effects are the ones of greatest concern because they persist long after treatment with iron and resolution of anaemia.
Early life iron deficiency affects at least 3 major neurobehavioral domains, including speed of processing, affect, and learning and memory, the latter being particularly prominent. The learning and memory deficits occur while the infants are iron deficient and persist despite iron repletion. Many human studies have demonstrated the negative effects of iron deficiency on behaviours that include learning and memory, and affective and social behaviour. In adults, iron deficiency increases fatigue, affects physical work performance, and impairs cognitive function.
Foods rich in iron include red meat, poultry, seafood, legumes, dark green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, dried fruit, such as raisins and apricots and iron-fortified cereals.
Vitamin C acts as a reducing agent to facilitate iron absorption from the GI tract and to enable its mobilization from storage. The vitamin C and iron combine to form an iron chelate complex, which increases the solubility of iron in the small intestine, resulting in increased uptake across the mucus membranes of the duodenum. For this reason, the vitamin C must be consumed at the same time as the iron in order to be effective. Simultaneous consumption of 25-100 mg of vitamin C has been shown to increase the absorption of nonheme iron by four-fold.
In addition, vitamin C is also thought to counteract the effects of dietary phytates and tannins, which are known inhibitors of iron absorption. Phytates, found in grains, legumes, nuts, and rice, can decrease the absorption of iron by up to 50 percent. Tannins are found in wine, chocolate, teas, and coffee.
For brain cells to communicate effectively with each other, they require chemicals called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters facilitate the communication of nerve impulses from one neuron to another body cell or neurons. Neurotransmitters are made from amino acids found in protein foods e.g., meat, fish and cheese. Vitamins and minerals are needed to convert ordinary amino acids into neurotransmitters.
More than 100 neurotransmitters have been identified in the body. The three key neurotransmitters are Acetylcholine, Dopamine and Serotonin. Acetylcholine excites other neurons and is responsible for memory. Rich foods for Acetylcholine include: egg yolks, peanuts, wheat germ, liver, meat, fish, milk, cheese and vegetables especially broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower. Dopamine excites and is involved in monitoring the memory, movement, attention and learning. Dopamine rich foods are meat, milk products, fish, beans, nuts and soy products.
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid needed for general growth and development, and creating serotonin in the body. Serotonin is a chemical messenger usually involved in arousal and sleep ,mood, appetite and feelings of pleasure. It acts as a mood stabilizer and it boosts the mood. Serotonin rich foods are carbohydrates which enhance the absorption of tryptophan, which is converted into serotonin in the brain. High tryptophan foods include nuts, seeds, cheese, fish, oats, beans, lentils and eggs.
Grains, fruits and vegetables are key sources of carbohydrates. Digestion causes the breakdown of carbohydrates into glucose which is the brain primary source of energy .Low glucose levels may cause mental confusion, dizziness and if severe, convulsions and loss of consciousness.
The best vitamins for the brain are folic acid, vitamin B12 vitamin B6 and vitamin C. Raw fruits and vegetables, especially orange juice and spinach, are the best sources of folic acid. Vitamin B12 best sources are eggs, cheese, milk, yogurt, beef and poultry.
Getting enough vitamin B6 may help ward off depression. Studies showed an association between cognitive decline and low levels of vitamin B6 and other B vitamins. One observational study linked higher levels of vitamin B6 with better performance on memory tests. Additionally, poor memory was linked to low levels of the vitamin. Because vitamin B-6 is needed to manufacture oxygen-carrying haemoglobin, low levels could cause you to feel tired and inattentive. Low concentrations of the vitamin were associated with poor attention and executive function. Executive function means the ability to use sound judgment. Vitamin B6 deficiency can cause confusion. Getting enough B6 may help clear your mind, increase your attention, eliminate confusion and allow you to focus and get your work done. Richest food sources for vitamin B6 are bell peppers, turnip greens and spinach.
Vitamin C, is a water soluble vitamin that the human body does not have the ability to make on its own. Vitamin C is a highly effective anti-oxidant that increases mental agility. Best sources of vitamin C are broccoli , guava , bell pepper , strawberries , oranges , lemon and cauliflower . Broccoli is also a great source of vitamin K, which enhances cognitive function and improve memory .
Vitamin E might prevent poor memory. Nuts are a great source of vitamin E along with leafy green vegetables, seeds, eggs, rice and whole grains.
The brain cells are covered by the myelin sheath which is composed of approximately 75% fat. Fats play a crucial role as messengers. Omega 3 fatty acids are essential to the optimum performance of the brain. Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats in food that are essential for health. There are three main types, eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid are found mostly in oily fish, such as mackerel and salmon. Alpha-linolenic acid is found mostly in some green vegetables (such as Brussels sprouts and spinach), vegetable oils (such as canola or soybean), nuts (such as walnuts), and seeds (such as flaxseeds and pumpkin seeds).
Omega-3 fats perform a number of jobs, especially building cell membranes throughout the body and the brain. They can have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects as well, which means they might promote healthier brain cells and less deterioration of the brain. Lack of omega-3 fats can lead to depression, poor memory, low intelligence quotient and learning disabilities.
Minerals are critical to mental functioning and performance. As far as minerals are concerned, sodium, potassium and calcium are important in the thinking process and they facilitate the transmission of messages.
Calcium is the number one essential mineral for healthy brain functioning. It plays a central role as a nerve cell messenger. It also regulates neurotransmission and controls nerve excitability. Magnesium and manganese are needed for brain energy. Magnesium and calcium need to be both in ideal amounts in the body to prevent excitability of the nervous system. A deficiency of either one can lead to neurological problems. Magnesium-rich foods are dark chocolate, avocados, nuts, legumes , seeds , whole grains , banana and leafy greens . Calcium-rich foods are: cheese , yogurt , milk , sardines and dark leafy greens .
Manganese is important in the formation and functioning of the superoxide dismutase antioxidant, which can help reduce damage to your cells. Manganese may help with brain function by protecting the brain from damage caused by free radicals and by improving cognitive function. Manganese is essential for thyroxine production and proper thyroid health and functioning. Manganese rich foods include oats, green leafy vegetables , nuts and soybeans .
Zinc is one of the most prevalent essential elements found in the brain. It is particularly high in the hippocampus. Zinc deficiency is associated with different neurological and psychological impairments; it affects attention, focus and child’s ability to concentrate. The brain neurons communicate with each other through the release of neurotransmitters between the synapses. These synapses rely on zinc for the proper function. Zinc also modulates the creation and metabolism of neurotransmitters. Foods high in zinc are pumpkin seeds, whole grains, beef, legumes , nuts , oysters, crab and shrimp.