The brain plays a role in practically everything involving your body. It stands to reason that the inverse is true: everything involving your body plays a role in your brain.
The brain is directly affected by how you treat your body. It can be particularly affected by the things you eat and the amount of exercise you get. Here’s what to know.
How Does Diet Affect the Brain?
You’ve almost certainly heard the saying, "you are what you eat.” While that statement is objectively true, it only scratches the surface of how much your diet can affect you.
Even something as fundamental as sleeping can be dramatically influenced by the food you eat. So, it should come as no surprise to learn that your diet can impact your brain function.
There is a well-documented connection between your gut health, your mental health, and brain health. In short, your gut is home to more than 100 million nerve cells. These nerve cells, known as neurons, communicate with the brain through various chemicals called neurotransmitters.
A straightforward example would be the neurons in your stomach telling the neurons in your brain that your digestive tract is empty. The brain will then release hunger cues urging you to eat something.
One of the most important neurotransmitters is serotonin. It plays a crucial role in cellular communication between neurons and is involved with a large variety of essential bodily functions. Roughly 95 percent of your body’s supply of serotonin is produced and stored in your stomach.
Furthermore, your body requires a very specific amino acid (called tryptophan) to produce serotonin. A diet with food that negatively affects your stomach or doesn’t meet your tryptophan requirements can disrupt your serotonin levels and affect brain function.
The production of serotonin is just one example of how your diet can affect your brain. Additional examples are easiest to witness when viewing experimental effects on the brains of children and the elderly. The same results and information made possible in these experiments can be applied to brains of all ages:
A child’s brain is constantly developing — all the way through their mid 20s even when they’re not quite considered a child anymore. One such study was centered around the potential effects of diets on the neural function and overall plasticity of a child’s brain.
It was discovered that omega-3 fatty acids as part of the infant and child diet appeared to help support the creation of essential building material for the brain, inter-neural signaling, and the function of synapses.
In addition, the study also supported the previously held belief that a diet high in calories, sugar, or fat could be detrimental to brain function and development. For example, a diet high in sugar can contribute to depression along with obesity and diabetes. This is evidence that imbalanced diets can increase the amount of oxidative stress in the brain, potentially damaging neurons and their pathways. The more cellular death in the brain, the more likely you can be to develop a neurodegenerative disorder later in life.
In the Elderly
Cognitive function will naturally decline throughout life. Older individuals are likely to experience a slowed speed of processing information and using their short-term, working, and long-term memories.
As mentioned previously, these effects are primarily the result of oxidative stress. While there are steps that you can take to avoid applying additional oxidative stress to your brain, it’s impossible to eliminate it completely — it’s just part of life, especially since it can result from even basic chemical reactions in the body.
However, studies have shown that a diet rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds might help. These components (such as flavonoids and other polyphenols) can be found in various fruits, nuts, fish, and vegetables.
It’s possible that eating more of them can help to limit the damage done by oxidative stress. The effects of cognitive decline and the risk of developing a neurodegenerative disease could both be lessened by such a diet.
How Does Exercise Affect the Brain?
The effects of exercise are most apparent in physical metrics. Performing sustained exercise can lead to someone losing weight, building muscle, and increasing their stamina.
The effects of exercise on the brain are more difficult to notice. However, studies have shown that physical exercise can increase the brain's neuroplasticity.
Increased neuroplasticity can positively impact the production, growth, connectivity, and performance of neurons. Walking, swimming, and strength training are just a few exercises that can provide long-term benefits for your brain. A steady supply of exercise can improve your cognitive function, balance your emotions, and reduce oxidative stress in your brain.
Once again, the effects of exercise are most easily witnessed in the brains of children and the elderly:
Children are becoming increasingly sedentary during their developmental years. The ensuing rise in obesity has dramatically increased the odds of developing type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease later in life.
It also appears to be negatively affecting academic performance. One study found that a child's physical activity and fitness levels have a dramatic effect on their studies in school. In particular, the volume of the hippocampus (a part of the brain responsible for learning and memory functions) was greater in children who were more physically fit. The dorsal striatum (responsible for cognitive control and inhibition) was also positively affected by physical activity and fitness.
In the Elderly
The same negative effects of obesity and a sedentary lifestyle appear to apply to the elderly — high BMI and type 2 diabetes are more strongly associated with brain atrophy in various regions.
The frontal, temporal, and subcortical regions appear to be the most affected, which can contribute to problems with paying attention, accessing memories, and general cognitive control. One study found that being physically fit positively influenced the hippocampal and medial temporal lobe volumes.
A hippocampal volume increase of just two percent can be enough to delay age-related cognitive function loss by one to two years. An increase in aerobic exercise specifically sharpens spatial memory and executive control skills.
What Are the Best Foods and Exercises for a Healthier Brain?
The connection between your brain, diet, and physical activity should be very clear. It raises a new question: what can you do going forward?
The answer is fairly simple: eat a better diet and get more exercise. The reality will be a bit more complicated than that, but that’s the general idea.
These are a few ways that you achieve this goal:
Keep your gut healthy. The microbiome affects hunger cues, how you store and use fat, and balances the glucose in your blood. Eating foods good for your gut (probiotics, MCTs, and digestive enzymes) can support your brain.
Eat brain-fueling foods. The best food for your brain involves the most vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Examples of such foods include fish, vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, and whole grains. Following a diet that consists primarily of these foods can go a very long way toward keeping your mind and body in tip-top shape.
Avoid disruptive foods. The production of serotonin is essential for a healthy brain. Certain foods such as alcohol, aspartame, trans fat, and caffeine can limit serotonin production and deplete your supply. Avoiding these foods can help maintain your serotonin levels, keeping your brain healthy and functioning properly.
Drink plenty of water. The brain is about 75% water and the body's fattiest organ. Staying properly hydrated is essential for your brain. Even mild dehydration can result in fatigue, headaches, and confusion. More severe dehydration can lead to delirium, unconsciousness, and muscle degeneration.
- Exercise routinely. The physical exercise you undergo isn’t nearly as important as how often you do it. Any exercise can be beneficial for your brain as long as you’re doing it consistently. Pick the exercise you enjoy most (walking, swimming, yoga, lifting weights, etc.), create a sustainable routine, and stick to it as often as possible.
The Bottom Line
The human brain is capable of tremendous feats that border on the impossible. There’s nothing that matches the potential of the human brain in nature. The only drawback to this incredible processing power is that the brain requires a lot of maintenance.
A healthy diet and frequent exercise are essential to developing and maintaining a functioning brain. The food you eat and the exercise you get in the present can have a profound effect later in life. If you’re concerned about brain function and mental health, you can implement some of the above-mentioned changes.
One of the easiest ways to get started is to tackle your diet, and what easier way than adding a brain-fueling, protein-packed, actually-delicious bar you can take on-the-go?
Here at MOSH, you have the option to build your own bundle of intentionally formulated protein bars. You can mix and match any three boxes of Blueberry Almond Crunch, Cookie Dough Crunch, Peanut Butter Crunch, Chocolate Crunch, and Peanut Butter Chocolate Crunch.
Each bar has been specifically designed to give your brain some of the brain-fueling nutrients it needs to do what it’s meant to do!. The journey to a healthy brain won’t end with MOSH, but it can definitely start here!
Physical Activity, Fitness, and Physical Education: Effects on Academic Performance - Educating the Student Body | NCBI Bookshelf
Exercise Training Increases Size of Hippocampus and Improves Memory | PNAS
Childhood Obesity - Symptoms and Causes | Mayo Clinic
Physical Exercise Enhances Neuroplasticity and Delays Alzheimer’s Disease | PMC
The Human Brain | Rehab Chicago
In Pursuit of Healthy Aging: Effects of Nutrition on Brain Function | PMC
The Effects of Obesity on Brain Structure and Size | Practical Neurology
Relationship between Inflammation and Oxidative Stress and Cognitive Decline in the Institutionalized Elderly | PMC
The Role of Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Child Development | OCL Journal