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Use the power of nutrition to gain optimal brain power for planning

By on December 13, 2012



The next time you are traveling to a meeting or conference, consider what you might do to perform at peak mental capacity. Travel can adversely affect brain function. Sleep deprivation, time zone changes, lack of exercise, poor nutrition and dehydration can sabotage your mental abilities.

While some of these may be inevitable, they may in part be offset by wisely choosing what you eat. While proper sleep, hydration, nutrition and exercise are the cornerstones of optimizing business travel, evidence indicates that certain foods may modulate mental performance. Nutrition for the brain can be considered with three perspectives in mind. The first is supplying the brain with energy, the second is supplying the brain with nutrients it needs for structural maintenance and repair and third, providing nutrients which, in the short-term, may influence brain function.

The brain needs the basic building blocks
Consider this: The brain represents 2.5 percent of total body weight yet accounts for a quarter of resting metabolic energy consumption. It is exquisitely sensitive to blood flow and blood glucose and oxygen content. Witness, when blood pressure drops – as it does upon fainting – the brain shuts off. When our blood sugar levels fall as in hypoglycemia, confusion, lethargy and loss of consciousness can rapidly ensue. So, first and foremost is to drink plenty of non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated, and non-sweetened drinks to avoid dehydration and prevent decreased blood pressure. Secondly, ensure a steady supply of food for the brain. That means eating regularly, or, if you are the grazing type, ensuring you always have plenty of nutritious low glycemic foods available. Nuts, whole wheat products, fruit, vegetables and low fat dairy products fit the bill.

The adult brain continues to renew its neural cells. To do this, it needs basic building blocks: protein and fats. Protein needs to come from sources of complete protein. Protein is made up of amino acids and while our bodies can synthesize some, there are eight amino acids we must obtain from the diet. Hence, while bread or rice each provides protein, they are lacking in some essential amino acids and as such must be eaten along with other source of protein in order to provide for our needs. Eating toast or croissant with coffee in the morning does not provide necessary essential amino acids: add dairy products. Meat and fish provide complete protein.

Fish is excellent brain food
One of the healthiest sources of protein is also the best source of fat for the brain: Fish. Fat is essential for proper brain chemistry. In particular, the omega-3 fatty acids, which we hear so much about these days, are crucial for brain structure. For good reason: The brain is approximately 60 percent fat and omega-3s are a large proportion of this and a diet deficient in omega-3 fatty acids has been associated with a number of mental disorders. On a daily basis, brain function is dependent on a steady supply of omega-3s as demonstrated in experiments with children showing increased dietary omega 3s helped students perform better at school. When snacking, keep in mind that nuts are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids. Finally, keeping your mind healthy warrants consideration of anti-oxidants, those molecules that help prevent negative cellular changes due to oxidation. Oxidation is a chemical process which ‘burns the cells out’. Important oxidative stresses include meals containing lots of saturated fats (the big steak and desserts). Berries, particularly strawberries, contain lots of antioxidants and are an ideal desert.

The effects of food on the brain Having covered the fundamental needs of the brain, now we can consider more specific effects of foods on brain function. Brain function is dependent on communication between cells which in turn is dependent on the availability of neurotransmitters, a variety of small molecules which carry messages from cell to cell. Interestingly, levels of neurotransmitters can be influenced by diet. In particular, the precursors to some of the more important neurotransmitters involved in cognition and mood come from our diet. Perhaps the best studied example is the amino acid tryptophan. It is used in the production of serotonin. When it is abundant in the diet, it can preferentially get beyond the blood brain barrier, which maintains a distinct environment for the brain, and increase production of serotonin.

The effect is familiar to us: when we have cookies and milk at night, we cause increased levels of tryptophan to enter the brain, alter serotonin production, and induce a relaxed sleepy feeling.

While this may be wanted at night, it may not be in the early afternoon when you sit after a large lunch and listen to a lecture. The lesson here is, while at a meeting, keep lunch light: it is better to nibble and graze until dinner if you don’t wish to dose off. In particular, avoid high sugar foods. Another vital neurotransmitter is acetylcholine. Low brain levels of this neurotransmitter are characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease. Choline, found in high quantities in eggs, is used for making acetylcholine. While eating eggs may not prevent Alzheimer’s disease, there is some evidence to suggest that increased choline intake may slow age-related memory loss.

Several factors affect our alertness level
Being focused, alert, and at cognitive best at a meeting is related to numerous factors. Exercise, which provides oxygen to the brain; sleep, which allows neurons to repair and replenish; hydration, which encourages a strong blood supply to the brain, all work in concert with proper nutrition to ensure you are at your best. From the nutritional point-of-view, an excellent axiom to live by is: Breakfast like a king, lunch like a queen and dinner like a pauper! This regimen will keep you from getting hungry, eating too much, and at the wrong time: it will keep you at high levels of concentration and alertness.


Dr. Pierre Geoffroy, MD, CM, MSc, FCFP  is a family physician and nutritionist. In addition to research and teaching activities, he also runs a family weight management clinic. He is available to give conferences on nutrition, lifestyle and weight loss issues and can be contacted via e-mail at: pierre.geoffroy@



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