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Are You Starving Your Brain?

In April 2008, a study out of the University of Minnesota Medical School confirmed once again that the brain uses more energy than any other organ. Makes you wonder what some folks are doing with all that energy, eh?

Human beings are born with ravenously hungry brains. A baby’s brain consumes 60% of all the energy tots take in each day. As we get older the brain’s heft makes up just two percent of our total body weight, yet receives a whopping 15% of cardiac output and consumes a full 20% of the body’s oxygen! Interestingly, the brain uses 20% of your body’s energy even at rest.

While we have long understood that the brain uses lots of energy, it’s only been recently that medicine uncovered how the brain’s energy is allocated internally. The Minnesota researchers discovered that while two thirds of the brain’s energy is used to help trillions of neurons send their signals, the last third is used almost exclusively for cell maintenance and housekeeping. Pretty important jobs, wouldn’t ya say?

The study used magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) to measure the brain’s energy output. This technology has been around for over thirty years and has proven instrumental in early detection of countless brain tumors. MRS can also detect the early stages of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

High Energy Demand for all Brain Cells

Neurons (cells that communicate with one other) have a high demand for energy because they’re always in a state of metabolic action. Even during sleep cycles neurons are busy repairing and rebuilding worn out parts of brain tissue. Neurons are always working to manufacture enzymes and neurotransmitters that are transported the entire length of nerve branches.

Bioelectric signals responsible for communication throughout the nervous system demand most neuronal energy. This nerve transmission juggernaut consumes one-half of all the brain’s energy, which is equal to nearly 10% of the body’s entire energy consumption.

Clearly the brain is an energy pig. So how do we go about feeding it?

The Catch: Any Energy Will Not Do – How Diet Changes Affect Brain Functioning

The Minnesota researchers focused on how fast glucose, and later, adenosine triphosphate (ATP), are made available for cellular use. Glucose is the main energy source used to fuel the brain’s operation. Blood sugar is usually derived from carbohydrates we eat in the form of grains, fruits, and vegetables.

However, too many refined carbohydrates can actually deprive the brain of glucose. Depletion of the brain’s energy source obviously has grave consequences on its ability to work effectively. Turns out this glucose balance is a sensitive system. A change in caloric intake can dramatically alter the amount of important brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters transmit nerve impulses from one nerve cell to another, and influence mood, sleep patterns, and thinking.

Insufficiencies or surpluses of certain vitamins and minerals can potentially damage the delicate nerves in the brain. This can lead to changes in memory and problem-solving function.

Feeding Your Brain Drain – What Should You Be Eating?

Which foods and nutrients to a brain good? Here are five categories and their brain-boosting benefits.

Fish: Considered the original “brain food,” fish contains lots of omega-3 fatty acids and fish oils, especially cold water fish like salmon and cod. Omega-3s promote neuronal growth, improved cholesterol, and fortification of myelin sheaths which facilitate communication between neurons.

Vegetables: Everyone knows veggies provide antioxidants, which may help your brain by hindering oxidation-related cognitive impairment. Spinach and cruciferous veggies; such as Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cauliflower; are among the best bets.

Fruits: Like veggies, fruits are rich in antioxidants, and more palatable for those of you still sneaking broccoli to the dog.  Your best brain bets are: blueberries, blackberries, cranberries, strawberries, raspberries, plums, avocados, oranges, red grapes, red bell peppers, cherries and kiwis.

Curcumin: Curries are rich in curcumin, the main ingredient in turmeric.  Curcumin’s anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties suppresses the accumulation of beta-amyloid in brain tissue!

Water: A dehydrated brain can mean more than a headache, fair members. Chronic dehydration long-term can lead to neuronal damage from elevated stress hormones.

Chocolate: Last (shhh) is cocoa beans, which contain the flavanol epicatechin and antioxidants. Dark chocolate is best, of course!