Keeping your brain healthy and well-nourished is a goal that should be high on your personal health “to-do” list. Here is how to be a brain-friendly vegan!
There’s a ton of evidence that suggests that what you do for your brain now can have a big impact on how it functions in the years and decades to come. Eating well in the present, along with other healthy lifestyle choices you make today, can keep your brain bopping and stave off age-related problems in the future, like cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.
When you feel mentally sluggish, foggy, unable to concentrate, and just plain tired, there’s a good chance that what you have (or haven’t) eaten may be the culprit. It’s all too easy to be deficient in some of the nutrients that the brain needs to work at prime capacity, especially if you’re dieting or constantly stressed-out or eating too much on the go. These nutritive deficiencies can affect you mentally, leading to a number of high-level cognitive problems and even to imbalanced emotional states such as anxiety and depression.
It’s a good idea to become familiar with the brain-friendly nutrition provided by omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, vitamin D, and phytochemicals, which are plant-derived compounds that often act as antioxidants. These compounds provide a supercharged list of health benefits to your brain and body.
Healthy Fats Are Your Brain’s BFF
To keep your brain happy, you need to feed it the right nutrients—and we know that the human brain loves healthy fats like the Cookie Monster loves chocolate chips! In fact, the average adult human brain is composed of about 60 percent fat. Specifically, omega-3 fatty acids (in particular, DHA and EPA), are absolutely essential for healthy brain function. Dietary docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is needed for the optimum function of the retina and visual cortex, with visual acuity and mental development improved by extra doses of it. According to research from the Department of Neurology at Chi-Mei Medical Center in Taiwan, omega-3 fatty acids not only play a vital role in building our brain structure but also act as messengers that are involved in the synthesis and functions of brain neurotransmitters and in the molecules of the immune system. This is one reason why extremely low-fat diets can actually starve your brain of the essential nutrition it requires to function optimally.
(NOTE: Avocado is one of the most common foods that can boost your brain with healthy fats! Let us help you get more avocado with our 9 Sneaky Ways to More Avocado.)
Ironically, DHA is the most abundant omega-3 fatty acid in cell membranes in the brain, but the human body is not particularly efficient at synthesizing DHA. Therefore, we are dependent on getting it from our food. It has been proposed that access to DHA during human evolution had a key role in increasing the brain/body-mass ratio—arguably a marker of our level of intelligence.
Over the past 100 years, the intake of saturated fatty acids, linoleic acid, and trans fatty acids has increased dramatically in Western civilization, whereas the consumption of omega-3 fatty acids has greatly decreased. Unlike omega-3 fatty acids, saturated fats and trans fats do more harm than good.
Let’s take a closer look at these good guys, the omega-3s.
One Order of Omega-3s, Please
Omega-3 fatty acids help the brain communicate using the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, which are powerful players in the regulation of mood. Another way omega-3s can help the brain is by enhancing the production of bone-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which, through a cascade of events, ultimately stimulates the cell processes that are central to learning and memory. Finally, omegas can reduce inflammation in the brain, just as they do in the rest of the body.
So, what could possibly happen if your diet does not contain enough omega-3 fats? Since the body is not very good at manufacturing the chief omega fatty acid, DHA, it’s possible to become extremely deficient in this compound. On the more severe end of the spectrum, DHA deficiency is associated with disorders like depression, ADHD, bipolar disorder, dyslexia, and schizophrenia. It can also lead to fatigue and problems with memory.
Another important omega-3 is alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is found in nonanimal sources like walnuts, flaxseed, soybean oil, spinach, and kale. Getting enough of this particular omega is not usually a problem for vegetarians. However, since the other omega-3s are mainly found in fish, high-potency natural supplements may be necessary for strict vegetarians and vegans. I found out that I was deficient in omega-3 fatty acids after seeing the results of my full blood panel test. Now, I take a daily DHA and EPA supplement derived from third-party-tested ocean microalgae. The difference in my memory and overall brainpower has been noticeable!