Nutrition's Impact on Brain Health

Did you know that there are steps we can take to actively protect our brain health? With cognitive deficits impacting individuals across the lifespan, it is important for us to consider practices we can implement into our daily routines that will have a positive influence on our cognition for years to come.

Now when I talk about cognition, I am referring to our ability to use mental processes to acquire and understand information presented in a variety of methods. These mental processes consist of our skills in thinking, knowing, remembering, judging, and problem-solving. These are higher level functions of the brain and encompass language, imagination, perception, and planning.

When we think of protecting these mental processes we may immediately generate a list of mental exercises we can implement into our daily routine to maintain and improve our brain health. Additionally, organizations, such as Lumosity, AARP, and ProProfs, provide excellent resources and online brain training activities for improving brain health! However, today I would like to talk about how nutrition plays a powerful role in the health of our brain.

Nutrition really does matter! Our brains are comprised of highly metabolic, active tissue. We need a constant stable supply of glucose, which is a simple sugar that is an important energy source. Now you might ask, "Where do I find this thing called glucose?". Well, I'm so glad you asked! 

Our primary source of glucose can be found in carbohydrates, but we have to be careful of not causing glucose levels to rise too quickly. Specifically, food items containing refined sugar can cause this to happen as the body tries to rid itself of a sudden excess of glucose. And we all know what happens when we overload on refined sugars - we have a sugar overload and crash of course! 

How does this impact the brain? Well, the brain reacts to excessive food (sugar) as if it were a pathogen or microscopic organism attacking our body. Scientists believe that this physical response may cause cognitive deficits such as those related to Alzheimer's disease. Similarly, high blood sugar, is associated with elevated cortisol (hormone), which is known to negatively impact memory function. 

In considering this information, it is important for us to know what carbohydrates (carbs) are best to eat. Instead of eating high glycemic (sugar) carbs we want to consume those carbs that are low in sugar. In differentiating between high and low glycemic carbs, we will utilize the Glycemic Index, which is a measurement of the effect of carb-containing foods on the level of the blood sugar.

The Glycemic Index (GI) has a range from 0 to 100 with a lower number indicating carbohydrates with a lower effect on the level of sugar in the blood stream; whereas, a higher glycemic number indicates a higher effect on blood sugar levels.

High GI Foods (70 or higher): white rice, white bread, pretzels, white bagels, white baked potatoes, crackers, sugar-sweetened beverages. Medium GI Foods (56 - 69): bananas, grapes, spaghetti, ice cream, raisins, corn on the cob. Low GI Foods (55 and under): oatmeal, peanuts, peas, carrots, kidney beans, hummus, skim milk, most fruits (except those listed above and watermelon), agave nectar.

Decreasing or eliminating high glycemic carbohydrates from our diet may have a positive impact on the brain health of individuals across the lifespan as we reduce our risk for deleterious disease processes (hypertension, hyperglycemia, inflammation, insulin insensitivity, glucose intolerance) that negatively impact our cognitive skills.

Dr. Nikosi Darnell, Ph.D., M.S., CCC-SLP                                                                                                                                                                                           

Nikosi Darnell