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Think about your brain (Part 1 of 3)

You’re young. In your prime. Your brain is firing on all burners. It’s the least of your worries, right? Brain health is something you may not give much thought to when you’re busy raising a family, building a career, and trying to manage your stress level. Besides, you may think, diseases like Alzheimer’s are years in the future. And you’re right. Sort of.

The first symptoms of Alzheimer’s generally don’t make themselves known until about age 60. That may be years or even decades from now. But brain health when you’re older is impacted by circumstances and choices you make throughout your life-time – including the ones you make today. And, importantly, choices you make today also impact how your brain functions now.

So, if you’re one of those people who take a long-term outlook on your health, it makes sense to think about your brain today. On the other hand, if you’re one of those people who just wants to get through today, it also makes sense to think about your brain right now.

Brain basics

Brain development is a lifelong process that began in your third gestational week as your neural tube was being formed. Your brain increased in size by four-fold before you started kindergarten and reached approximately 90% of your adult volume by the time you were six years old.

The mature brain is composed of more than 100 billion neurons, which are the information-processing cells in the brain. Neurons use chemical signals and electrical impulses to relay information between different parts of your brain, and between the brain and the rest of your nervous system. Each neuron can make connections with more than 1,000 other neurons, leading to approximately 60 trillion neuronal connections.

Neurotrophins are growth factors in the brain and bordering tissues that regulate neuronal function, including growth, differentiation and death of nerve cells and tissue after an injury. They keep your brain vibrant. The most well-known neurotrophins are brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and nerve growth factor (NGF). A shortage of these growth factors has been linked to depression in the short term[1] and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s in the long-term.[2] Cells communicate with each other through neurotransmitters, like serotonin and dopamine.[3]

Your brain likely weighs about three pounds, and it’s composed of approximately 60% fat. Between 35–40% of these lipids are the omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) eicosapentanoic acid (EPA) and decosahexaenoic (DHA).[4] 

Keep your brain young

Despite the myths you may have heard about your brain cells depleting as you age, your brain continues to reorganize itself and form new neural connections throughout your life. The trick is to make sure you continue to challenge yourself and learn new skills at the same time you provide your brain with the nutrients it needs to create and protect neurons.

Food for thought

Omega-3 fatty acids are particularly important for brain development. Because these fats must be consumed in the diet, they’re also known as essential fatty acids (EFA). DHA is abundant in the human brain and is responsible for brain development as well as the ongoing formation and function of neural cells. DHA appears to accumulate in areas of the brain associated with learning and memory.2 Food sources of EPA and DHA include deep water fatty fish like salmon, herring, and sardines. Plant sources include flaxseed, chia seeds, and walnuts as well as natural camelina oil. North Americans are deficient in dietary omega-3 fatty acids so be sure to include them in your diet.

When it comes to promoting your healthy mood, vitamin D works with EPA and DHA to convert the dietary amino acid tryptophan to the “feel good” hormone serotonin. Low intakes of tryptophan or vitamin D can impair this conversion, which might lead to problems with memory and cognition. Sleep and mood can also be impacted, and this can increase the risk of depression.11 As with EFAs, Canadians and Americans who live in the northern latitudes (37 degrees North) are commonly deficient in Vitamin D.[5],[6] Supplementation is recommended.

Other nutrients for brain structure and function include the B vitamins. Although your brain is mostly composed of fat, it runs on glucose. The B vitamins are critical for carbohydrate metabolism. [7] In fact, B vitamins are so important for brain health that each vitamin in the family has its own dedicated transport mechanism to help it cross the blood-brain barrier.[8] As Bs are water soluble vitamins, you need to consume them daily. You’ll find them in dark green leafy foods, legumes, salmon and sea food.

Next level brain boosting

You’ll recall that neurotrophins keep your brain vibrant, meaning they help with the thinking, remembering, planning, and concentrating you do all day long. And if you do a lot of that, you may be feeling mentally drained. That’s where mushrooms come in. Hericenones and erinacines are compounds in lion’s mane mushroom that can easily cross the blood-brain barrier. These natural chemicals stimulate the creation of nerve growth factors that maintain and organize neurons and activate the brain.[9] Lion’s mane may have a role in easing stress-induced cell death[10] and improving mild cognitive impairment.[11] Taking a longer-term view, animal studies show that lion’s mane may prevent damage to spatial and visual recognition memory caused by amyloid plaques in Alzheimer’s disease.[12]

Whether you want to be sharp as a tack when you’re 90 or simply want to get through all the thoughts you have to think today, be sure to give your brain health a little of your focus.

Continue reading here, where we explore the connection between your brain, your gut, mood and your mental health.

REFERENCES

[1] Vigna, L., Morelli, F., Agnelli, G. M., Napolitano, F., Ratto, D., Occhinegro, A., … Rossi, P. (2019). Hericium erinaceus Improves Mood and Sleep Disorders in Patients Affected by Overweight or Obesity: Could Circulating Pro-BDNF and BDNF Be Potential Biomarkers? Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2019, 7861297–12. https://doi.org/10.1155/2019/7861297

[2] Ryu, S. H., Hong, S. M., Khan, Z., Lee, S. K., Vishwanath, M., Turk, A., Yeon, S. W., Jo, Y. H., Lee, D. H., Lee, J. K., Hwang, B. Y., Jung, J.-K., Kim, S. Y., & Lee, M. K. (2021). Neurotrophic isoindolinones from the fruiting bodies of Hericium erinaceus. Bioorganic & Medicinal Chemistry Letters, 31, 127714–127714. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bmcl.2020.127714

[3] https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Know-Your-Brain

[4] Gharami, K., Das, M., & Das, S. (2015). Essential role of docosahexaenoic acid towards development of a smarter brain. Neurochemistry International, 89, 51–62. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuint.2015.08.014

[5] https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/time-for-more-vitamin-d

[6] Parva, N. R., Tadepalli, S., Singh, P., Qian, A., Joshi, R., Kandala, H., Nookala, V. K., & Cheriyath, P. (2018). Prevalence of Vitamin D Deficiency and Associated Risk Factors in the US Population (2011-2012). Cureus10(6), e2741. https://doi.org/10.7759/cureus.2741

[7] Elizabeth L Prado, Kathryn G Dewey, Nutrition and brain development in early life, Nutrition Reviews, Volume 72, Issue 4, 1 April 2014, Pages 267–284, https://doi.org/10.1111/nure.12102

[8] Kennedy D. O. (2016). B Vitamins and the Brain: Mechanisms, Dose and Efficacy--A Review. Nutrients, 8(2), 68.

[9] Ryu, S. H., Hong, S. M., Khan, Z., Lee, S. K., Vishwanath, M., Turk, A., Yeon, S. W., Jo, Y. H., Lee, D. H., Lee, J. K., Hwang, B. Y., Jung, J.-K., Kim, S. Y., & Lee, M. K. (2021). Neurotrophic isoindolinones from the fruiting bodies of Hericium erinaceus. Bioorganic & Medicinal Chemistry Letters, 31, 127714–127714. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bmcl.2020.127714

[10] Sabaratnam, V., Kah-Hui, W., Naidu, M., & Rosie David, P. (2013). Neuronal health - can culinary and medicinal mushrooms help?. Journal of traditional and complementary medicine3(1), 62–68. https://doi.org/10.4103/2225-4110.106549

[11] Mori K, Inatomi S, Ouchi K, Azumi Y, Tuchida T. Improving effects of the mushroom Yamabushitake (Hericium erinaceus) on mild cognitive impairment: a double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial. Phytother Res. 2009 Mar;23(3):367-72. doi: 10.1002/ptr.2634. PMID: 18844328.

[12]   Mori K, Obara Y, Moriya T, Inatomi S, Nakahata N. Effects of Hericium erinaceus on amyloid β(25-35) peptide-induced learning and memory deficits in mice. Biomed Res. 2011 Feb;32(1):67-72. doi: 10.2220/biomedres.32.67. PMID: 21383512.