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Your Brain On Food


Need to focus for five hours straight or pinning your hopes on hatching a million dollar idea? Give yourself a better chance by feeding the right parts of your brain.

Imagine you could head to a cafe to choose from a menu that offered ‘alertness’ snacks, ‘happy’ sandwiches or ‘de-stressing’ drinks. This is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Countless studies have now confirmed the direct connection between nutrition and cognitive function.


Yet, as with all things brain health, hitting on the right formula is a bit like throwing darts at a candle.

Targeting certain parts of the brain is a bit like trying to spot reduce fat while in simple, one step terms, it can’t be done, dig a little deeper and the difference between can and can’t is a mere matter of degrees. Although in fitness terms, the answer is in replacing pure fat loss with a combination of fat loss and targeted muscle building, in nutrition, powering up your noggin is a matter of simultaneously setting your brain up for optimal function, facilitating synthesis of certain neurotransmitters and avoiding anything that might undermine them by introducing competitors. Sound about as simple as solving Schrodinger’s cat-in-the-box conundrum after a few sauv blancs? Next time you lament your brain’s speed or dexterity, spare a thought for your diet.

Your Brain On Food

Your brain works a little like a telephone exchange, with chemicals called neurotransmitters whizzing around carrying messages between brain neurons.

There are two types of neurotransmitters – inhibitory messengers, which help you feel happier and more relaxed, and excitatory brain chemicals, as their name suggests, make you more alert. How do they relate to food? “The key neurotransmitters are made of amino acids and while foods such as beans and grains have only a few, the nine amino acids considered essential for health are contained in high-protein foods such as fish, eggs, chicken, and beef,” says Julia Ross, director of the Nutritional Therapy Institute in Mill Valley, California and author of The Mood Cure (Penguin Books). As a pioneer in functional nutrition focused on appetite, mood and behaviour, Ross believes that many of us are deficient in key amino acids that affect important brain chemicals. “Hundreds of research studies at Harvard, MIT, and elsewhere have confirmed the effectiveness of using just a few targeted amino acid precursors to increase the key neurotransmitters, helping to eliminate depression, anxiety, brain fog and cravings for food/ alcohol, and drugs.”

In short, you can nurture your mind by putting the right kinds of food on your plate.



1 Boost Your Mood

Eating the right foods can enhance important feelgood brain chemicals, such as serotonin. This happiness-boosting chemical relies on a chain reaction in the brain. It is made by an amino acid called 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan), which in turn triggers the release of a chemical called tryptophan, which boosts serotonin levels.

Top Food Choice: Carbs

Have you ever felt an overwhelming urge to indulge in a full-on carbohydrate binge after a terrible day at work or bout of the PMT blues? Clearly, your brain was trying to self-medicate – studies show that carbs help raise the brain’s serotonin levels.

Trouble is – carbs have been suffering a bad image problem in the last few years. As a result, more people are following diet regimes that encourage slashing carb intake. This is turning them into super grumps. That’s the finding of joint research conducted by the CSIRO, Flinders University and SA University, which concluded that people eating a low-carb diet experience substantially more depression, anxiety and feelings of hostility. This is most likely because their lack of carbs leaves them deficient in serotonin.

“If you avoid carbohydrates like rice and potato, you produce no diet-related serotonin at all,” says Judith Wurtman, a nutritional biochemist. Wurtman spent 15 years in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in the US, engaged In groundbreaking research exploring how food Influences brain chemicals and mood. “When you eat carbs, this helps trigger the release of Insulin, which allows tryptophan to enter your brain,” says Wurtman.

There, It conducts Its ‘mood magic’, making you feel happier and calmer. Need a quick snack to boost your mood asap? “Then eat some carbs without protein or with only a little protein to enjoy a quicker serotonin response,” she says. A slice of rye or wholegrain sourdough bread with some tomato, lettuce and cucumber would do the trick.


• Dairy foods: Think yoghurt, cheese and milk-these are all high in calcium, which causes a chain reaction that helps increase tryptophan levels and serotonin. This is why a cup of warm milk before bed helps some people get to sleep faster.

• Good quality protein: Foods like turkey, eggs, beans and fatty fish (e.g. salmon and sardines) are high in tryptophan, which then taxis across the blood brain barrier to boost your mood.

• Lentils: They replenish your levels of folic acid, an important mineral that is often deficient in people with depression.

• Brazil nuts: These boost your levels of selenium, also often low in people suffering the blues.

• Fruits: Serotonin occurs naturally in fruits such as plums, cherries, kiwi fruit, plantains, bananas, pineapple and tomatoes.

• Hot chocolate: Cocoa boasts high polyphenol levels, which may help reduce symptoms of depression, shows French research published in the journal Nutritional Neuroscience.


Minimise fast food: Giving pizzas, burgers, white bread, biscuits and chocolate a big miss could be the best investment you make in your emotional health. “Our research clearly shows that junk and processed foods that are high in fats and sugars contribute to mental health problems,” says Associate Professor Felice Jacka, principal research fellow at the Deakin University School of Medicine. “The healthier a persons diet because it is rich in foods like fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains and lean forms of protein, the less likely it is that they will be depressed or anxious.”


2 Concentrate And Think Clearly

Eating to improve alertness and concentration can ensure your brain fires on all cylinders every day. The secret? Improve your levels of the brain chemical choline and eat food to help you make tyrosine, another potent alertness booster. Once tyrosine hits your grey matter, it increases important other alertness chemicals such as dopamine and noradrenaline (these chemicals also known as catecholamines). When you don’t produce enough of them, you may find it harder to stay on task.

Top Food Choice: Protein

Aim to eat a little at every meal. Protein not only helps increase energy levels, it contains tyrosine to boost your alertness and cognition. Having trouble concentrating or thinking straight? Lose the carbs and enjoy a pure protein hit. Carbs can reduce the alertness-boosting benefits of tyrosine by throwing some more sedating tryptophan into the mix. So for a quick-thinking pick-me-up, reach for a small can of plain tuna or a little tub of cottage cheese.


• Blueberries: These tasty ‘brain berries’ can increase powers of concentration by up to 20 per cent, shows a study by the University of Reading.

• Yellow curry: A brain superfood, curry is high in curcumin, a potent antioxidant spice shown by many studies to help slow the process of brain ageing and protect against dementia.

• Black-eyed peas: The flavonoids help enhance bloodflow in the brain while the high folate levels promote faster recall and information processing.

• Dark chocolate: Enjoy just a few squares – not the whole block. A small taste can boost your cognitive skills to make your mind sharper, shows research from the University of Nottingham.

• Rye toast: A good source of carbohydrates, which are crucial for producing glucose, a major brain fuel.

• Pears and apples (with the skin on): These contain quercetin, an antioxidant that appears to protect against Alzheimer’s disease, shows research from Cornell University.

• Sardines: And other oily fish can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by up to 40 per cent according to French research.

• Coffee: Your daily latte or long black may do wonders to keep your brain in shape, shows a French study, which also found that women over 65 who drink three or more cups of coffee a day have better memory function. Don’t overdo it, though, as too much caffeine can also boost anxiety levels and compromise sleep.

• Spinach: Research at the University of Amsterdam has found that after eating this green leafy food (which boosts tyrosine), people reacted faster and with more accuracy to problem-solving tasks.

• Eggs: and beef and milk: These are all good protein sources of choline. Studies show that adults enjoy better memory function after eating choline-rich foods. So an omelette or scrambled eggs may be the best breakfast before a job interview or exam.



Don’t skimp on fats. “Your brain consists of 50 per cent fat,” says Dr Natasha Campbell McBride, a former neurologist who runs the Cambridge Nutrition Clinic in the UK and is a vocal advocate of a high fat diet. “Healthy fats and cholesterol create and protect the white blood cells and millions of other cells that repair the wall linings of blood vessels – which can help improve cognition and also protect against slow brain ageing that leads to
issues like dementia or clouded thinking.” Fish is a fab source of omega 3s. For long-term brain smarts, dish some fish several times a week.

Get Motivated

Dopamine is not only produced when you feel pleasure, it’s also linked to your desire to work towards a goal. Studies in rats show that those with lower dopamine levels will choose easy-access food rather than exert themselves to get food, even if more effort means enjoying double the amount. To increase your dopamine levels through your diet, tuck into:












3 Chill Out Or Calm Down

Want to feel calmer and less edgy? Then a natural tranquilising chemical called GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is your friend. It is known as an ‘inhibitory’ brain chemical because it blocks nerve impulses that increase stress, anxiety and edginess. This amino acid not only helps prevent memory impairment, it’s an important messenger and natural relaxant.

Top Food Choice: Tea

Every time you down an English breakfast or green tea, you enjoy a dose of a calming compound called theanine. The powerful anti-anxiety amino acid is found almost exclusively in the humble cuppa. To maximise theanine intake, choose a loose-leaf tea variety and steep it for three to five minutes to extract up to 85 per cent of the flavonoids. Big leaves need to steep for longer while tiny pieces of tea infuse faster. As well as helping you chill
out, the polyphenols in tea have been shown to encourage stronger bones and reduce the risk of numerous cancers.


Banana: Their secret sleep weapon? High magnesium and potassium levels, which both help muscles relax.

Pepitas and raw nuts: Same deal – these too are rich in magnesium, which reduces the excitability of your nervous system.

Oranges: German research shows they help lower blood pressure and reduce stress hormones, like cortisol.

Beetroot: This vibrant purple vegie boasts an amino acid called betaine, which acts as a natural calmative. It encourages the body to pump out a chemical called SAM-e (S-adenosyl methionine). SAM-e helps your brain produce and use hormones and chemicals such as serotonin and melatonin, which are important for mood and sleep.

Brown Rice: This is a potent booster of GABA, and can help promote faster sleep onset and better quality of sleep, as well as a general sense of calm and wellbeing.

Foods Rich In Vitamin B6: Stock your shopping trolley with Brazil nuts, avocado, cheese, carrots, oranges, lentils and peas. Their high vitamin B6 levels encourage the production of GABA.


Steer Clear of Sugar ‘Hits’: Sugar can lead to a rise in adrenalin levels that leaves you feeling shaky, edgy or nervous,” says Leon Massage, a spokesperson for the Australian Medical Association. “If you’re already emotional, sugar may add to that feeling and make you feel more tense and uptight. By contrast, wholegrain foods like a wholegrain sourdough rye bread can fuel up your brain with healthy glucose and help calm you.”


Happy Face

Feeling Glass Half Full? Don’t Worry, Eat Happy.

YOU WANT: To feel generous

Eating an omelette made of three eggs every day helps to make people kinder, shows research from the Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition in the Netherlands.

YOU WANT: To chillax

Eating around 40 grams of dark chocolate daily boosted mood and slashed stress hormones in Swiss research.

YOU WANT: Anger management

Eat foods like almonds, edamame beans and spinach, which are high in magnesium, a mineral that stabilises mood and blood pressure, helping combat irritability and anger.

YOU WANT: To feel like a minx Chew some celery.

This releases its natural pheromones, called androstenone and androstenol, into the mouth. From there they can travel up to your nose via your throat and trigger desire. Really.



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