by Stephanie Jaworowski, MSACN
We have all been told that consuming a well-balanced diet is important for proper care and maintenance of the body. Unfortunately, though we may know this simple fact, we may be blind to the evidence supporting this statement. One of the biggest misunderstandings in food and nutrition is the use and balance of micronutrients. These nutrients are only needed in small amounts but are responsible for initiating many enzymes and hormones, consequently leading to proper growth and development. Both vitamin B12 and vitamin E are micronutrients necessary for optimal brain function. Another thing people may not be aware of is the importance of polyunsaturated fats, specifically omega-3 fatty acids. These types of fats are considered “essential fats,” meaning the body cannot produce them on its own; therefore, they must be obtained through the diet. Omega-3 fatty acids are important in maintaining proper cell structure, making them a key factor in neuron function and brain integrity. When it comes to brain cognition and memory, vitamin B12, vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial and necessary for prime functioning.
According to a study looking at B12 deficiency in adolescents with mental instability, long-term deficiencies of vitamin B12 can lead to cognitive decline, neurological abnormalities, and progressive psychosis. In a different study examining the effects of vitamin B12 on concentration, memory performance, and brain structure, it was found that low levels of vitamin B12 were associated with poor memory. This was partly due to the decline in structural integrity in the brain, as this vitamin is an important micronutrient for the protective barrier around nerves, also known as the myelin sheath. It was found that increased levels of vitamin B12 in the body are associated with improved cognitive function. In another study looking at the benefits of vitamin B12 treatment over an extended period of time, evidence was inconclusive about the benefit of supplementation; however, it was stated that supplementation can eliminate cognitive decline. Further research is needed to conclude whether increased vitamin B12 consumption is directly related to improved cognitive function. Though we are still unsure if vitamin B12 will improve memory, we do know that it will assist in maintaining brain integrity, therefore decreasing loss of cognitive function. It is important we don’t just take any B12, but that we find methylcobalamin. The reason is, so many of us have the MTHFR gene mutation, and any other form of B12 will make the effects of that mutation that much worse. Some good sources of vitamin B12 include animal products, such as chicken, beef, pork and seafood.
According to the Neurology journal, vitamin E (an antioxidant) is a large factor in maintaining neurologic structure and function. As a lipid-soluble antioxidant, it aids in the protection of the fatty membranes of cells. Antioxidants help eliminate cellular damage done by free radicals, which if not addressed, can lead to aging, cancer and many other diseases. Without these antioxidants, the free radicals, a group of atoms with an unpaired electron, will cause several chain reactions and will damage important structures in the body, such as cell membranes and DNA. When it comes to neurons, it is thought that vitamin E is the strongest neuro-protector, as the dorsal root ganglion (structure within a neuron) contains large quantities of vitamin E. In a study done examining the effect of vitamin E on learning and memory deficits, it was found that vitamin E can improve cognitive function when under oxidative stress. This is done by protecting the membranes from being damaged by free radicals. When we have damage to our neurons, we will see changes in memory and general brain cognition. This oxidative damage, including memory and learning decline, can be avoided with vitamin E consumption. According to another study looking at dietary factors and cognitive decline, it was shown that the protective effects of vitamin E are more prominent when consuming proper amounts in the diet, as opposed to those that rely on supplementation. Therefore, it is important to receive adequate amounts of vitamin E from your diet to ensure proper brain function and prevent memory loss. Some good dietary sources of vitamin E include nuts, seeds, fish oils, whole grains and apricots.
In addition to vitamins B12 and E, omega-3 polyunsaturated acids also help with brain integrity and neuronal functioning. Omega-3s consist of several essential fatty acids, including docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and alpha-linoleic acid (ALA). Being essential fatty acids, these are required by the diet, as the body cannot produce its own. DHA is particularly important when it comes to brain development and usage of the brain. It is thought that omega-3 consumption may lead to a lower incidence of cognitive decline. According to The Journal of Nutrition, there is evidence stating that the loss of cognitive function can be prevented or reversed when there is adequate DHA in the body, and that omega-3 fatty acids have a neuroprotective quality. It is also said that these fatty acids may counteract chronic stress and be beneficial for memory formation. Another article states how ALA can increase a protein in the brain that is responsible for maintenance, and learning and memory, called brain-derived neurotrophic factor. That being said, the good fats that we consume in our diet are imperative for brain health. These memory-protective omega-3 polyunsaturated acids are primarily found in oily fish, including salmon, mackerel and herring, and have been directly linked to improved cognitive function. Additional beneficial fats that should be consumed regularly are those found in extra-virgin olive oil, avocados and almonds.
Decreased memory, especially as we age, is a large concern in many adults worldwide. Diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia are slowly on the rise, and it is important that we take the proper steps in prevention. Though we may be fearful of our genetics or assume that poor memory is normal, there are ways to increase our brain integrity, consequently improving our memory. Memory is not only a gift we have but a function of our body that, like everything else, needs to be cared for.
Stephanie Jaworowski, MSACN, is a clinical nutritionist at the Integrative Healing Center (located at 560 Northern Blvd., Ste. 109, in Great Neck). For more information or to schedule an appointment, call 516-676-0200 or visit GetIntegrativeHealth.com