As someone who's always trying to get the most out of my brain, I'm always game to trying a new technique to improve its performance. Some people prefer physical fitness - I prefer mental fitness. After all, thinking is the essence of humanity - not physical strength.
Something I've been trying for several years, is trying to eat a diet that would help my brain, and like any diet, I would always relapse into my normal habits. Recently, I've taken it back up to new levels, and some of my friends told me that they'd be interested to hear my thoughts on the topic. Here goes!
Two Head Games
The biggest distinction in brain food is between short/long term gains. The short term is all about maintaining the proper blood chemistry throughout the day, and the long term is about feeding the brain what it needs to be healthy and grow to be all it can be.
A big part of the short term is about blood glucose levels. It's always repeated in the literature that "the brain is only 2% of our body weight, but consumes 20% of our daily calories", and what does that mean? Glucose mainly.
Before you go out to buy that case of Mountain Dew though, you should know that it's not so much about how much glucose you have, but more about avoiding peaks. If you have a sugar-rush you will have a sugar crash, this is caused by the fast burn rate of simple sugars (graph). We need to eat complex carbs - the more complex the better. To find the best, we need to search the glycemic index for foods with the lowest GI numbers - it only works for food with carbs. It turns out that fruits, vegetables and whole grains are the best bet. Wikipedia also has a good article.
It doesn't stop there though. Since most carbs are burned within two hours, we've got some time before the next meal. Protein to the rescue! Protein allows your body to maintain a constant blood glucose level by stimulating the liver to release stored glucose. Protein also digests slower and provides the effect low enough for your next meal.
Likewise, fats (ketones) are used as secondary brain food (after glucose), so a little unsaturated fat will also help maintain a good steady supply of energy. Too much though (and this goes for sugar too), will cause an imbalance that will caused you to become sleepy (think of post-Thanksgiving).
Another way of smoothing sugar level is by spreading out the digestion of food using fiber. Fiber is nature's time-release technique that makes it hard to get at all the carbs at once. Eating low GI foods that are high in fiber (fruits / vegetables / legumes) lead to smooth sugar levels.
There are a lot of things our brains need to grow and operate at peak performance, however the American diet isn't very beneficial to obtaining many of them. Let's go through a few groups of them:
+ Omega-3 fatty acid are well known to improve brain function, not to mention reduce cholesterol, decrease vascular disease, and a host of other great benefits.
Sources: Fatty fish (salmon is the best, followed by swordfish, tuna, etc.), walnuts (try organic walnut butter on whole grain bread for breakfast), flax (try Kashi's GoLean Flax/Almond/Honey Cereal), grass-fed beef has a higher O6/3 ratio (the grass produces the omega 3's, I guess the free ranger's are on to something).
Blueberrys were shown to regenerate and improve dendrites in your brain. These are the connections between neurons that have been shown to correlate with intelligence. You need to eat about a cup a day for the best results. I buy mine frozen to preserve the berries and my wallet.
Blackberrys/Raspberrys both have high level of flavonoids which are strong antioxidants, and polyphenols which help protect your brain's nerves and have shown to decrease Alzheimer's disease and even cancer. I eat them in the morning with yogurt - delicious!
Any citrus fruit (grapefruit is the best), is great for antioxidents as well, however berries have them in much higher concentrations. However, it's best to be well-rounded so eating a variety of them is always good.
+ Proteins (Tyrosine / Tyrptophan specifically)
Both of these are precursors neurotransmitters that transfer signals in your brain. In addition, they can help maintain good mood during stress.
Good sources: egg, soy, cheese, lean meat and sunflower/sesame seeds.
- Almonds contain a lot of Vitamin E, phenylalanine (anti-depressant), and (like eggs below) assists in acetylcholine production. Sliced almonds are great in cereal!
- Walnuts as mentioned have omega 3's and 6's and are overall awesome for your grey matter.
- Pecans, Cashews, and even the humble Peanut are also pretty good too.
They're a great source of choline which has been shown to lead to all sorts of good things, including helping brain disorders. Choline is a building block for making acetylcholine which is involved with memory - as well as many other brain and nerve functions.
+ Multivitamin & Water
Best keep hydrated and take a simple vitamin. I'm a Centrum Performance guy myself since it has 300% of your daily allowance of B-12 (which some think increases energy).
There is evidence that caffeine does provide an initial boost from 30min - 3 hours after drinking. Cigarettes and other forms of nicotine can provide similar effects. I just stick with coffee through.
As a side note: Even though I'm not a massive fan of taking medicines all the time because your brain becomes dependent on them, there are certainly times when you could use some "doping" to get you through hard periods of work.
There are also many people who use ADHD drugs like Adderall, Ritalin, etc. to increase their concentration, and some have found that Sudafed (Pseudoephedrine) have very similar effects to these medications and is currently over-the-counter. Provigil is also used to increase their alertness for late night studying.
A RAND study (that I can't find!) showed that 120mg Sudafed and 300mg caffeine yielded greater results that either one alone in higher doses - however this is a potentially dangerous combination for long term use.
I'd love to hear what other people think, and also if you have any more tips to add!!!