The human brain is nearly 60 percent fat. We've learned in recent years that fatty acids are among the most crucial molecules that determine your brain's integrity and ability to perform. Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are required for maintenance of optimal health but they can not synthesized by the body and must be obtained from dietary sources. Clinical observation studies has related poor dietary intake of fatty acids to impaired brain performance and diseases.1
In addition, vitamins are essential for thousands of chemical reactions in the body, and certain vitamins and phytochemicals have been singled out for their critically important functions in the brain. These include B vitamins, vitamins C, D, and E.
B Vitamins are crucial for memory and neurotransmitter production
- Vitamin B1 is essential for the brain to utilize glucose for energy.
- Folate is important for memory as well as being critical for early brain development.
- Vitamin B12 is important for memory and production of neurotransmitters. Deficiency in B12 can cause nerve injury leading to impaired sensation and even blindness.2 Higher B12 blood levels are associated with slowed cognitive decline.5
- Vitamin B6 is also involved in neurotransmitter production, and deficiency is associated with seizures, chronic pain, and depression.6
Antioxidant Vitamins C and E protect the brain
- The brain is highly susceptible to oxidative stress, which is essentially an imbalance between the production of free radicals and the ability of the body to counteract or detoxify their harmful effects through neutralization by antioxidants. It is one of the main mechanisms of brain aging and a contributing factor to neurodegenerative conditions.7,8
- Nerve endings have the highest concentrations of vitamin C found in the human body. Vitamin C is thought to function largely as an antioxidant in the brain and nervous system. Blood levels of vitamin C have been positively associated with IQ.4
- Vitamin E is a component of brain cell membranes, and along with vitamin A and carotenoids, protects vulnerable unsaturated fatty acids (like omega-3s) from oxidative damage. Low vitamin E status is associated with greater risk of Alzheimer's disease.4
- Vitamin C and E intake were associated with higher cognitive scores in the elderly, and the association was stronger with food sources compared to supplement sources.9
- In addition to vitamin intake, polyphenols and other antioxidants present in plant foods are thought to contribute to protecting the brain from oxidative damage.4
Note: antioxidants are most effective when consumed from our food rather than supplements. A diet with adequate Vitamin C from fruit and vegetables and multiple forms of Vitamin E fragments from seeds and nuts offers the most protection.
Low levels of Vitamin D are linked to cognitive impairment
- Vitamin D is involved in regulating glucose and calcium transport to and within the brain, and may also protect cognition by reducing inflammation and increasing availability of certain neurotransmitters.4
- Vitamin D is also involved in memory formation.10 Several studies have associated vitamin D deficiency with increased risk of cognitive impairment or dementia in older adults.11,12
- Vitamins and DHA reduce brain shrinkage in the older population
Compared to older individuals with normal cognition, those with dementia have significantly smaller brain volumes as measured by MRI.17 A recent study analyzed blood fats and micronutrients with regard to MRI measures of brain volume and cognitive function tests in older adults. The researchers found three patterns of nutrient status that correlated to brain volume and cognitive function:
- Higher dietary intake of vitamins B, C, D, and E — associated with greater cognitive function scores and brain volume. This pattern primarily reflected fruit, vegetable, nut and seed intake.
- Higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids (DHA) — associated with greater cognitive function scores and brain volume. This pattern primarily reflected fish intake.
- High levels of trans fats — associated with lower cognitive function scores and brain volume.18,19
Keep Your Brain Healthy with a Nutritarian Diet
Fruits and Vegetables can decrease your risk of dementia
It is known that a Western diet is associated with dementia — the risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease are almost identical to those for cardiovascular disease.1 In contrast, higher vegetable and fruit intake is associated with decreased risk of cognitive decline and dementia.20,21
The American diet is insufficient in providing these brain-healthy nutrients, but a Nutritarian diet provides both the amount and variety of vitamins and other phytochemicals that support optimal brain function. It is especially important to eat healthfully, supplement with vitamin D, and get adequate DHA as we age, especially after age 50.
Keep in mind that fish is not an ideal source of DHA, since mercury is toxic to the brain and reduces the body's antioxidant status.22-24 An algae-based DHA supplement is a healthful, environmentally friendly source of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids. Eating plenty of unrefined plant foods and supplementing appropriately will allow us to maintain valuable vitamins, omega-3s, and other phytochemicals in brain tissue to keep our minds sharp as we age.