I work with many people who have experienced strokes or brain injury, which cause destruction or deterioration of brain cells and can result in muscle weakness, mobility impairments, fatigue, disturbed sleep, inattention, impaired speech and memory, difficulty concentrating, mood swings, dizziness and headaches. For many years, it was believed that a damaged brain could not repair itself or generate new brain cells. But new research demonstrates that the brain can rewire itself and even grow new cells.
Neuroplasticity — the capacity of the brain to change with learning — allows the brain to compensate for lost functions or maximize remaining functions. Changes associated with learning occur mostly at the level of the connections between neurons. New connections can form and the internal structure of the existing synapses can change. People who have sustained a brain injury can support neuroplasticity through nutrition.
The brain requires specific macro and micro-nutrients to function optimally, such as complex carbohydrates, essential fatty acids, B vitamins, vitamin C and protein. Adequate daily intake of these nutrients is essential for anyone with any kind of brain injury.
Increasing the following nutrients in your diet is recommended to help support your brain function and overall nervous system.
Complex Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates are the brain’s preferred fuel source. The brain draws nearly all its energy from glucose, which comes from carbohydrates. An inadequate supply of healthy, fiber-rich, complex carbohydrates can negatively affect attention, memory and energy levels. Healthy complex carbohydrates: whole grains (whole grain bread, whole grain pasta and brown rice); legumes (beans and peas); lentils; vegetables (Brussels sprouts, broccoli and cauliflower).
Essential Fatty Acids/Phospholipids: The brain is 60 percent fat, and requires healthy fats to function optimally. Specifically, polyunsaturated fatty acids like omega-3 and omega-6 help strengthen brain synapses related to memory. Healthy fats are also a major component in every cell in the body and a key component in the myelin sheath that covers all nerves and promotes proper signaling of messages in the brain. Omega-3 is converted into DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and helps to enhance neuronal communication and promotes neuronal growth. DHA, found in fish, makes up a large portion of the brain’s gray matter. Neurons are also rich in omega-3 fatty acids. The highly beneficial omega-3 fatty acid cannot be made in the body and must be obtained in the diet. Cold water fish is the best source of omega-3.
Phospholipids, another class of healthy fats that can help support brain function, help make acetylcholine, the brain’s memory neurotransmitter. Excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids and phospholipids: salmon, sardines, mackerel, eggs and liver.
Antioxidants: Antioxidants, found in tea, fruits and vegetables, help regulate oxidative stress, which destroys brain cells and is caused when the body converts glucose to energy and the extra oxygen created from free radicals. Free radicals cause tissue damage and antioxidants neutralize free radicals.
Dark-skinned fruits and vegetables have the highest levels of naturally occurring antioxidant levels. Blueberries and strawberries can protect the brain from oxidative stress and have shown to help improve memory and motor skills.
Consuming nuts also protects the brain. Almonds, walnuts and pecans are great sources of vitamin E, an antioxidant. They also contain healthy fats to support the brain and help promote healthy neural tissue. Antioxidant rich foods: red/green peppers, sweet potatoes, kale, dark berries (blueberries, blackberries and strawberries), guava, papaya, Brazil nuts and green tea.
B Vitamins: There are eight B vitamins, all essential to nerve function. Even short-term deficiency of any one of them can result in a shift in thinking and mood. Foods rich in vitamin B: avocados, black beans, lentils, mushrooms, spinach, salmon, beef, eggs and pine nuts.
Protein: Proteins break down into amino acids, which are used to make neurotransmitters — the brain chemicals that communicate information throughout the brain and body. Healthy protein sources: fish, beef, chicken, eggs, quinoa, legumes/lentils and nuts/seeds.
Try this brain boosting meal that contains all of the above nutrients!
Brain-Booster Salmon Dinner
2 salmon filets
2 sweet potatoes
3 cups Brussels sprouts
2 tbsp. butter
3 tbsp. pine nuts
¼ cup low sodium soy sauce
¼ cup rice wine vinegar
2 tbsp. grated ginger
2 tbsp. honey
1. Heat oven to 400 F.
2. In shallow pan combine last four ingredients. Place filets in pan and let marinate.
3. Place sweet potatoes in oven and set timer for one hour. When the timer has 25 minutes left, place salmon skin-side down on baking sheet and place in oven.
4. With 15 minutes left on timer, steam Brussels sprouts until soft. Place in bowl and add butter and pine nuts.
Everything will be ready in one hour.
Makes two servings.