We know that drugs and other substances alter the way neurons communicate with each other which in turn affects how we live via our learning, memories, experiences and physical well being. Just as it is important to know what not to put into our bodies, we should know what vital substances our bodies need for optimal functioning.
The brain requires twenty percent of our oxygen to operate properly. A person's nutritional intake can substantially affect brain function, mood and behavior. Brain chemistry and neural functioning is influenced by food intake, so deficiencies or excess amounts of vitamins and minerals also may impair function. The brain requires certain materials to function well, like sugar vitamins and minerals. Our brain produces essential proteins and fatty acids to grow and maintain connections between the neurons and to add myelin to axons (Brain Guide, 2007).
When it comes to energy consumption the human brain is very demanding. Energy is represented by the calories in food. The brain uses about 20 to 30% of a person's energy intake. When people don't consume enough calories in their diet they are more likely to experience changes in brain functioning. Simply by skipping breakfast, research shows a reduced verbal fluency, lower ability to solve problems and the lack of motivation.
Continual hunger via starvation, severely affects mental responsiveness. The body responds by slowing down most non-essential functions like hormonal levels, oxygen transportation and immune efficiency. People with a continual low energy feel apathetic, sad and depressed (Brain Guide, 2007).
Some fats are essential for proper brain function. Two lipids that are critical to the brain are the n-6 and n-3 fatty acids. Low levels of n-3 may cause visual problems by badly affecting the retina. Diets without n-3 fatty acids cause learning and motor disabilities and may damage systems that use the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin in the frontal cortex. The n-6 fatty acids affect neurotransmitter release and contribute to the ability of neurons to use glucose for energy (Brain Guide, 2007).
Diet and the Neurotransmitters
Certain foods contain starting materials for neurotransmitters. "If a diet is deficient in these precursors, the brain will not be able to produce some neurotransmitters. Neurological and mental disorders may then occur if the balance of neurotransmitters is upset" (Chudler, 2009). Examples of neurotransmitter precursors are aspartic acid which is found in peanuts, potatoes, eggs and grains, choline which is found in eggs, liver and soybeans, glutamic acid, as found in flour and potatoes, phenylalanine which is used to make dopamine and is found in beets, soybeans, almonds, eggs, meat and grains, tryptophan which is used to make serotonin; found in eggs, meat, skim milk, bananas, yogurt, milk, and cheese and tyrosine which is used to make norepinephrine and is found in milk, meat, fish and legumes (Chudler, 2009).
Diet and Brain Function
Including certain foods in your diet can help improve brain function. Foods like raisins, berries, apples, grapes, cherries, prunes, and spinach are high in antioxidants and can dramatically reverse memory loss, restore motor coordination and balance. Another healthy group of foods such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, herring, flax oil, and walnuts contain omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s help improve general brain functioning and restore memory. (Carper, 2000).
The body runs on carbohydrates, although too much simple carbohydrates can be harmful to the body and brain functioning because they create a sharp rise in blood sugar. Complex carbohydrates like peanuts, dried apricots, dried beans, yogurt, oat bran, and sourdough bread digest well and will not produce rapid increases followed by rapid decreases in blood sugar. (Carper, 2000).
Sugar needs to be taken in moderation. Eating too much sugar can lead to insulin resistance. This upsets the glucose level in the blood which may lead to permanent damage to brain cells (Carper, 2000).
There are some types of fat that are not good for the brain. Polyunsaturated fats of the kind found in safflower, sunflower and corn oils, set up chronic inflammatory responses in brain tissue and may foster blood damage. They are also harmful to blood vessels and ultimately blood circulation. These oils are also found in processed foods such as salad dressings, fried foods, doughnuts and most margarine (Carper, 2000).
A daily dose of a variety of vitamins and minerals is necessary for ideal brain functioning. Ideally it's best to consume these vitamins and minerals through diet. If the recommended dose is not met through diet it is recommended to take a supplement. "According to some research studies, between one third and one half of school children who took a multivitamin-mineral supplement raised their non-verbal IQ scores as much as 25 points" (Carper, 2000).