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Brain Food: Fuel Your Cognition

What you eat affects your cognition!

Food doesn’t go to your brain: even if you eat upside down. But, the nutrients totally do! Super quick recap from high school bio: when you eat, your body turns those macromolecules into ATP: the main form of energy currency in the body. While your brain is only 2% of your body mass it actually uses 20% of your body’s energy. 1/5 of ATP from food is going up to your brain!

However, it’s important to note that it’s not just the amount of what we eat that’s important, it’s what exactly we’re eating that gives our brains the nutrients it needs! Note that the blood brain barrier (BBB) is pretty restrictive on what can enter the brain, so the nutrients themselves can’t enter, but the nutrients may be precursors for other molecules that can!

Nutrients → Neurotransmitters

What are neurotransmitters? Neurotransmitters are the chemicals that our brain uses to send messages from one neuron to another! They are SO important and we can't live or function without them.

Here are some examples of the Nutrient-neurotransmitter connection!

  • Omega-3s fatty acids, considered one of the “healthy fats” actually helps dopamine signaling! Dopamine is responsible for a lot of our ability to sense reward, pleasure, satisfaction, and be motivated! Omega-3’s increase dopamine levels by increasing the D2 (one of the dopamine) receptor bindings in the prefrontal cortex and striatum regions of the brain!! The benefit that Omega-3s have in increasing dopamine levels is actually not too different from a lot of dopamine-increasing medications. How cool is that!! → Foods that are high in Omega-3s include fish, avocado, walnuts & chia seeds

  • Vitamin D is linked to serotonin: one of the feel good neurotransmitters. Low levels of serotonin is often associated with depression-like symptoms. Likewise, low levels of vitamin D is often associated with low levels of serotonin. While it’s pretty easy to get vitamin D from the sun in the summer, a lot of this comes from nutrition or supplements if your doctor recommends them.

→ Foods rich in Vitamin D include egg yolks, dairy, tuna, & fortified orange juice

  • Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin, so it is another way to increase serotonin levels! Tryptophan is found in a lot of foods and can help you feel refreshed. Again, not an end-all-be-all and all our brains are different, but tryptophan-rich foods can increase those serotonin levels in the synapses!

→ foods that are rich in tryptophan include dairy, chicken, egg whites, fish, nuts

  • B vitamins are crucial for brain functioning - for a lot of reasons! Vitamin B is thought to play a role in dementia prevention. While it is not always the culprit: many individuals with memory and concentration problems have low levels of vitamin B, and increasing B12 levels can often help combat these problems. Vitamin B can even help repair nerve fibers.

→ vitamin B-rich foods include whole grain, legumes, poultry, fish, & leafy green

  • Magnesium is known to have some great benefits on learning and memory! This is because it increases the rate of neuroplasticity - the way in which new paths are formed between neurons (synapses) in the brain! More neuroplasticity means more learning! Magnesium can also lower levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.

→ magnesium rich foods include nuts, legumes, whole grains, and dark veggies

Myths about food and the brain

There are loads of myths when it comes to nutrition and brain health, many of which run rampant online.

Here are some examples

  1. MYTH: Consuming more sugar optimizes brain function

TRUTH: While the brain does need glucose to optimize its function, too much sugar is

detrimental to the brain the same way it is to the rest of the body

2. MYTH: Fish will make you a genius!

TRUTH: Many of us have heard this one before but it’s a bit of an exaggeration and

based on the omega-3s. While Omega-3s are linked to slightly better performance

and optimize brain function, it’s not going to necessarily make you “smarter” the way

the myth might share.

3. MYTH: Superfoods can cure neurological disorders

TRUTH: Foods that are dense in brain-benefiting nutrients may help prevent

neurological disorders but it is not a “cure” and not an end-all-be-all.

4. MYTH: Caffeine, energy drinks, or other natural stimulants can optimize brain


TRUTH: Everyone’s brain works differently. While for some individuals, caffeine can

help with focus and alertness, for others, it can lead to lowered sleep quality and

increased anxiety levels.

For Kids and Adults!

These debunked myths and nutrient → neurotransmitters tidbits of information are applicable to everyone, regardless of their age! While the exact mechanisms will differ, this information can be useful to anyone!

These are just some examples of the nutrients that are good for your brain, and there are so many more!

It can be hard to keep track of which foods are rich in which nutrients but a good rule of thumb is the more diverse the foods that you’re eating, the more likely you are to hit all your nutrients for your brain!


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