Food for the Brain

Have you ever stopped to consider what your brain is made of?

Often, we talk about the brain as a muscle. You’ve likely heard some expert or other tell you that your brain, much like the muscles in your body, needs mental exercise to stay healthy. Use it or lose it, they say—encouraging mental stimulation to help your brain grow faster, stronger, and, overall, stay fighting fit. Both brains and muscles contain special fibres that help them function. And, of course, after a hard workout, like a final exam or a tough crossword puzzle, your brain may feel as fatigued as your legs do after maxing out your mileage on the treadmill.

It’s an easy analogy to throw into everyday conversation, the sort of comparison that helps to inspire people to engage in intellectual challenges like sudoku puzzles or book clubs—and it also does a fair job of highlighting how the brain can change and improve over time.

That said, the brain doesn’t actually resemble a muscle in the slightest.

The brain is the most complex organ in the human body. This three-pound command-and-control centre contains more than 80 billion neurons, the special cells that transmit nerve impulses and form the synapses, or key connections, that facilitate every thought, feeling, and action. The brain also houses another category of unique cells, called glial cells, that make up the fatty, insulating sheath surrounding neurons. Some experts estimate that there are likely three times the number of glial cells as neurons—and their unique makeup allows them to indirectly improve the efficacy and efficiency of neural signalling across the cortex. The fibres those neurons and glial cells make are quite different, both in terms of form and function, than the sorts of fibres you find in the muscles.

While the brain may already seem quite crowded with those billions upon billions of cells, it’s also home to a host of blood vessels and capillaries, which provide brain cells with the rich, oxygenated blood they need to thrive. You can also find a cornucopia of different signalling molecules, including hormones and neurotransmitters that help pass neural messages from cell to cell. You’ve likely heard about neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and glutamate

— all of which have been implicated in depressive and anxiety disorders. Scientists have also found that signalling molecules like NMDA, glutamate, and endocannabinoids play a role, too. That said, I shouldn’t forget to mention the cell receptors. These are distinct proteins that “catch” the signalling molecules, allowing messages to travel from cell to cell at the synapse.

But now that we’ve outlined the basics, what I want you to understand about your brain is that what you eat, and your brain’s overall well-being, will always be intimately connected. And that’s because, simply put, your brain is made of food.

Our brains consume 20 percent of everything we eat, and those foods provide the energy and nutrients to produce and support each element that makes up our brains. Those critical neurotransmitters and receptors? They’re made from specific proteins and amino acids that you consume through food. Similarly, the condition of your glial cells is dependent on getting enough omega-3 fats. Minerals like zinc, selenium, and magnesium not only provide the building blocks to form cells and brain tissue but also help to synthesize vital neurotransmitters. B vitamins have been shown to aid in conducting nerve impulses. When the brain is deprived of one or more of these brain-healthy nutrients, cognition, mood, and overall function will ultimately suffer. Take serotonin, the neurotransmitter linked to mood. Without eating foods that contain adequate levels of nutrients like iron, folate, and vitamin B12, your body cannot produce adequate levels of this mood-enhancing chemical. Historically, we’ve put minimal thought and focus into how food choices relate to our brains. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can dictate what sort of building materials you want to provide your brain. You can eat these very high-quality, nutrient-dense ingredients and foods to help your brain work at its highest level. When it does, you are in a place to better prevent and manage mood and anxiety disorders.

Ultimately, you, and only you, have the power to decide what you’d like your brain to be made of—and, in doing so, put your brain into a mode of growth, resilience, and health. Truly, better brains are made, not born, by the decisions you make about the foods you consume every day.

Dr Drew Ramsey

Dr Drew Ramsey is a psychiatrist, author, and farmer. He is one of psychiatry’s leading proponents of using dietary change to help balance moods, sharpen brain function and improve mental health.