The brain is the most active part of the body and has an enormous appetite, consuming around twenty percent of our total energy intake to function. But energy is not the only source of ‘food’ for the brain: vitamins, fatty acids and minerals are extremely important for optimizing cognitive health.
Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D and vitamin E play an unappreciated role in brain health, while these nutrients are literally ‘food for thought’. Read below how they contribute to the nutrition for the brain.
Omega-3 fatty acids, in particular EPA and DHA, play a vital role in brain health. Omega-3 fatty acids are present in all cell membranes and are important structural fats in the brain, with DHA representing approximately 97% of all omega-3 fatty acids found there. DHA and EPA molecules help improve the transfer of information inside and outside the brain cells. The flow of molecules through brain cells is important for cognitive performance and normal brain activity, and also contributes to the flow of molecules through the membrane.
EPA and DHA are important for the maintenance of brain cells and their complex network in the nervous system and seem to play a role in the plasticity of the brain. Laboratory studies show that EPA and DHA also have anti-inflammatory properties, suggesting a role in supporting the aging brain. Studies conducted during pregnancy and childhood, in times of rapid brain growth, demonstrate the importance of DHA. DHA is now recognized as an important nutrient in brain health and in the development and function of normal brains.
Vitamin D is best known for its role in bone health, but according to studies it can also contribute to cognition. It seems that brain tissue can respond to levels of vitamin D in the blood, and the enzyme responsible for converting the storage form of vitamin D into the active form is also present in the brain. In developing brains, vitamin D deficiency affects the size of different sections in the brain. The neocortex of the brain, which is responsible for complex brain functions such as language and cognitive skills, is relatively thinner in the offspring if pregnant mothers are vitamin D deficient. Some studies have shown that vitamin D deficiency in mothers increases the risk of poorer developmental outcomes in children.
In adults, a link is made between low levels of vitamin D in winter and poorer mental performance, in particular the ability to make complex decisions. In a supplementation study, verbal memory was improved when adults used a high-dose vitamin D supplement (4000 IU per day) compared to a low-dose supplement (400 IU per day).
Vitamin E is primarily known for its antioxidant capacity. In nature, vitamin E is found in foods with a high oil content, such as nuts, where the oils prevent rancidity. It plays a similar role in the body and protects fats (including omega 3) against oxidative stress. In adults, vitamin E can help the brain maintain their ability to change throughout life. Especially by reducing the amount of oxidative stress in the brain, it seems that vitamin E can help maintain brain cognition and plasticity, which could be the reason why higher intakes of vitamin E appear to support cognition in the elderly. A study conducted among 2613 participants living in the Netherlands shows that the memory of people with the lowest vitamin E intake had declined twice as much in five years compared to people with higher intakes.
Before birth, vitamin E can influence biological processes that are related to normal brain development. Premature babies are born before the major transfer of fat-soluble compounds such as vitamin E occurs. Vitamin E levels are low in premature babies and correcting this deficiency can not only help reduce the risk of bleeding in the brain, but also help eyes develop normally.