Hey bright spark — don’t forget your brain food

2013-07-18 00:00

JULY is Mental Health Awareness month, and today we take a look at the role nutrition plays in warding off mental disorders.

The type of diet we follow can have a dramatic influence on brain health and mental function. Eating well and exercising regularly can help to ward off depression, dementia and mood disorders, as well as enhance our memory and learning ability.

Specialised cells called neurons transmit information in the form of signals to and from the brain. They form an intricate network throughout the body and rely on accurately transferring signals to neighbouring neurons.

Spaces between the neurons are called synapses and these allow for accurate transfer of signals from one neuron to the next in the chain. Much memory and learning occurs at the synapses, and these need to stay healthy to avoid a “broken telephone” transfer of messages. A number of nutrients are involved in maintaining healthy neurons and synapses, allowing for good mental function and cognitive ability.

Omega 3 fatty acids

These are referred to as essential fatty acids, as the body cannot make them and they have to be taken in through the diet. Excellent sources are fatty fish such as pilchards, sardines, salmon, trout and mackerel.

Omega 3 fatty acids are essential for normal brain function and are involved in cognitive development, learning and memory. They prevent damage caused by oxidative stress to the neurons and maintain the health of synapses. Deficiencies in these fats have been associated with a number of mental disorders.

Many studies have recorded the benefits of omega 3 supplementation in the school performance of children. Improved handwriting, spelling scores and reading ability, as well as fewer behavioural problems, have been reported in children eating a diet high in omega 3 fatty acids.

It is certainly worthwhile to encourage your children to develop a taste for pilchards and sardines from a young age. Experiment in the kitchen with a few new dishes, such as pilchard bobotie (simply use pilchards in tomato sauce instead of mince) and home-made fish cakes, using mashed up sardines or pilchards.

The two main omega 3 fatty acids that are present in foods are DHA and EPA. DHA in particular is found in abundance in fish sources. If you are using an omega 3 supplement instead of food sources, be sure to read the label and choose a product that delivers at least 500 mg of the specific fatty acids DHA and EPA combined.

Avoid junk food and fast foods

Diets that are high in trans fats and saturated fats negatively impact on cognitive ability. These fats are abundant in animal fat, commercially available baked goods, and fried foods.

Remove chicken skin, pork crackling and all other visible fat before you cook the meat. Trans fats and saturated fats harden the usually flexible neurons and synapses, detrimentally affecting brain health.

Regular exercise helps to produce endorphins or feel-good hormones. Endorphin levels in the brain increase with exercise, and physical activity also improves mental alertness by increasing blood circulation to the brain.

Eat fresh fruits and vegetables daily

The brain is highly susceptible to oxidative damage caused by the presence of free radicals. Foods with high antioxidant capacity can neutralise free radicals, preventing damage. Brightly coloured fruits and vegetables are the richest sources of antioxidants.

Besides doing the daily crossword to keep your brain in good shape, eat omega 3-rich fish three times a week, while incorporating the brightest foods possible in every meal you eat.

• Sharon Hultzer is a consulting dietitian. She can be reached at eatsmart@iburst.co.za

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