May 8, 2008

Brain Food: You Think What You Eat

Nutritious, plant-based foods greatly increase strength and vitality in the human body. Most know that. Today, researchers are rediscovering a long-held truth: foods also generate a profound effect in the human brain. You think what you eat.

They're one of the mysteries of life-those tiny flashes of light deep in the recesses of our brains. Soft sparks ignite whenever we remember; whenever we plan, rejoice, or sorrow. Every moment of awareness takes place because of neurotransmitters-chemicals that our brain uses to communicate with other nerve (neuron) cells. This communication results in action. We respond, we move, we defend, we adapt.

Here's the most intriguing part: These chemicals aren't selfgenerated. We must eat them.

Acetylcholine is a neuron cell exciter designed for thought retention (memory), while dopamine is an excitatory neurotransmitter vital for attention and learning. Another chemical, serotonin, acts as an excitatory neurotransmitter, providing pleasure. It's also an inhibitor that helps create arousal, sleep, mood, appetite, and sensitivity.

Thought Nutrition

Protein foods allow neurotransmitters to improve mental performance, while carbohydrates serve as the brain's main energy source. Fats, especially omega-3 fatty acids, regulate memory, learning, and intelligence.

Vitamins and minerals also contribute to brain energy-especially in the realm of mental function, performance, and thinking. Magnesium enhances memory-especially in individuals middle age and older-and controls the ability to learn and then form memories. The mineral zinc is the student's best friend, sharpening his or her attention span and increasing memory.

Finally, plain old water serves as the nutrient transportation system to the brain. It also acts as a back-flushing system, eliminating toxins and nutritional waste. This often-ignored liquid is necessary for concentration and alertness.

Brain Foods

So called "brain foods" -- foods rich in certain nutrients -- affect the brain's ability to function in real and measurable ways. Need to increase mental alertness? Choose protein foods such as soybeans with their powerful load of isoflavones. Need to increase mental stamina? Eating small, regular, plant-based meals allows the brain to function at its best. Ingesting carbohydrates slows mental function and brings about sleepiness.

Iron-rich foods derived from whole grains, fruits, and beans- combined with vitamin C foods-allow children's developing brains to generate the necessary neurotransmitters for increased attention spans and improved learning abilities. Infants and school children need brain development, and nature happily responds by providing omega-3 fatty acid and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) found in ground flaxseed, canola oil, walnuts, and soy milk.

Simple Solutions

India's ayurvedic herbal remedy, amla berry, is said to stimulate the brain for enhanced mental functioning. This gooseberry (amalaki) can be taken as a dietary supplement. Its fruit has long been used to make chutney as a sauce topping many Indian foods. Known also as medhya, amalaki is believed to nurture the mind for enhanced coordination, acquisition, retention, and recall. Some say it helps sharpen both intellect and mental functioning.

DHA was used to treat the only survivor of the Sage Mine disaster, rebuilding the white matter (myelin) he lost in that January 2, 2006, cataclysmic event. After three months of rehabilitation and DHA treatment, this fortunate survivor was able to recover normal brain functions.

The chief of the Bethesda, Maryland, National Institutes of Health (MH) Laboratory of Membrane Biochemistry and Biophysics commented that DHA is a major structural component of the brain and serves a myriad of important functional roles, including the lessening of Alzheimer's-related dementia.

Exercise Helps

Exercise also helps to sharpen thinking by oxygenating the brain and optimizing mental performance. A study of seventy-one 93-year- old, non-smoking men demonstrated that those who walked less than a quarter of a mile daily had twice the risk of acquiring Alzheimer's disease as those who walked two miles per day. This information reinforced research done on nearly nineteen thousand 70- to 81-year- old women. Those who performed one and a half hours or more of high- level exercise per week scored better on cognitive performance tests than those living more sedentary lives.

The NIH National Institute on Aging also found that elders who exercise are less likely to experience cognitive decline as they continue to age.

Treating Memory Loss

Treating memory loss began 4,000 years ago in China-possibly earlier by Native Americans. Ancient medical practitioners had no way of knowing why their favorite herbal potions worked. They just knew that they did. Today, we know why.

In 2000 Eric Kandel, M.D., won the Nobel Prize for uncovering how short-term memories are transferred to the long-term storage and retrieval center in our brains. The then 75-year-old Dr. Kandel reported at the National Academy of Sciences, "The brain takes explicit [declarative] facts and events and implicit [procedural] unconscious skills and habits and habitualizes them." This, he said, is why we're able to learn skills such as driving a car. He added that our brain "repeatedly synthesizes new proteins and makes new connections from one nerve cell to another [synapses]." The mind and body merge through two different molecular biology anatomical processes. Serotonin grows new connections from one nerve cell to another and improves both types of memories.

Any food or herb that provides die nutrients necessary for this synthesis and connective process will improve memory and our ability to reason or create.

Nutritional Balance

Beginning with the Chinese Song dynasty of 1,000 years ago, a handful of herbs, used alone or in combination with others, have proven themselves to aid the human mind in achieving that all- important nutritional balance necessary to improve memory. These long-tested and historically proven herbs include:

GINKGO BILOBA, a fanshaped, two-lobed leaf grown by farmers in China, Japan, and Korea as a medicinal crop alongside their regular food plantings. Its concentrated extract (GBE) is said to increase memory performance.

A Yale University complementary and alternative medicine study found enhanced memory in healthy adults when taking GBE. Ginkgo biloba is the most scientifically researched botanical on earth and works by increasing oxygen to the brain. Its huperzine content maintains the brain's acetylcholine level, which allows unrestricted transmission from one neuron cell to another.

GINSENG, an adaptogen comprised of ginsenosides, improves the memory modulator hormone, corticosterone.

HUPERZINE-A (Huperzia serrata), an alkaloid found in Chinese club moss, enhances a synapse connection between two nerves to improve memory deficits by inhibiting destruction of acetylcholine in both aging and young people. When junior middle school students took 100 micrograms of Huperzine-A twice daily for four weeks, they scored significantly higher on standard memory tests for recognition, reproduction association, and tactual memory.

GBE AND HUPERZINE-A: Adolescents taking this Chinese moss herb showed significant memory improvement after four weeks.

GBE AND LUOHAN KUO (LHK)-a rare Chinese fruit cultivated on the Longjiang River. Test subjects achieved memory improvement by drinking a sixounce powdered dietary supplement formula hot or at room temperature.

GBE AND SAGE AND ROSEMARY are said to improve memory by increasing blood flow and oxygen to the brain. In many societies, rosemary and sage have come to symbolize strength, remembrance, and courage.

In her book Four Centuries of American Herbs, Patricia Mitchell claims that sage was the number one memory herb from the 1600s to the mid-1940s, and that rosemary tea was proven to restore lost memory. Herbalists' texts written in 1597 and 1653, uncovered by a medicinal plant research center, reported that sage "quickeneth and heals" the memory.

THYME (Thymus vulgaris) oil capsules, studied at the Scottish Agricultural College, were shown to slow memory loss through its phenol, thymol, and carvacrol content. The oils were taken from dried or partially dried leaves and flowering tops.

HOLY BASIL (Ocimum sanctum or Tulsi): During the first century A.D. this herb was known as the "royal herb" in France and was thought to have been originally grown on the Grecian shores of the Mediterranean Sea. In the 1600s, early American colonists grew it in their gardens. This mint family herb contains volatile oils that help support memory. It's often steeped as a tea.

BLUEBERRY LEAVES (Vaccinium spp.), used as a medicinal herb, is Native American in origin and derived from blueberry highbush plants grown in the northern U.S. and Canada. This memory booster grows in moist bog sites, while lowbush blueberries are indigenous to dry, rocky areas.

In 1999 Dr. James Joseph, chief of the Department of Agriculture Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Boston's Tufts University Neuroscience Laboratory, was the principle investigator in a joint USDA and NIH National Institute on Aging-funded study. Joseph reports that aging rats that ate blueberry extracts experienced significant improvement in reversing short-term memory loss. Newly available blueberry herb tea contains natural herb leaves, ground-up blueberry fruit, and blueberry extract flavor. The brain, like any organ in the body, needs proper nutrition to operate to its fullest potential. Nature provides that nutrition in many forms. By feeding the brain what it needs most, we can maintain sound mental health for many years to come.

by Barbara Anan Kogan, O.D.

Barbara Anan Kogan, O.D., known to her friends as "Beltway Barb," lives in Washington, D.C., and enjoys access to many of the nation's top medical science facilities.