AN IMPORTANT POWER THAT PROTECTS OUR BRAIN: ANTIOXIDANTS
Dietician Banu Suzen
Healthy diet and regular physical activity are essential for ensuring healthy brain functions. In the natural course of life, cells need oxygen for being able to produce energy from nutrients and maintain their permanence. During energy production in each living cell, oxygen particles and free radicals appear as metabolic by-products. Free radicals are harmful particles that cause damage to cells. Such harmful free radicals that form under normal conditions are used as stimulants and defense elements in the immune system, and then they are made ineffective. However, a stress condition leads to an increase in the amount of these particles, and consequently causes damage to cells.
In the whole body, the central nervous system cells are the cells most vulnerable to the harmful effects of oxidative stress.
Oxidative stress causes degenerative changes in the area of the brain that has many important functions. Degenerative damages increase the risks for autism in the developing brain, as well as the risks for the development of certain diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and schizophrenia. The mechanism that causes this damage also follows the same path with the aging process.
The factors that cause this destruction in cells are usually free radicals or oxygen particles. Antioxidants are required to be available in the defense system of the body, for reducing the damages. When such defensive precursors in foods are taken regularly through a well balanced diet, cell damage decreases and the immune system gets more strengthened. In conjunction with these compounds in foods, the defense system enzymes produced in our body are called antioxidant protection.
We take antioxidants through foods that we consume, in the forms of vitamins, minerals, trace elements and compounds that give foods their natural colors. Many antioxidants, minerals and vitamins that we take are available in the structures of antioxidant defense system enzymes. These antioxidants prevent the damage of free radicals.
In recent years, the favorable effects of antioxidants on the nervous system as well as their protective properties have begun to be better understood as a result of detailed studies on the potential effects of foods on our health. Antioxidants reduce the risk of cell degeneration, by reducing both structural damage and DNA damage in cells caused by harmful free oxygen particles. A study in which approximately 14 thousand female participants’ nutritional habits were investigated for a period of 10 years showed that the participants over 60 years of age, who frequently consumed crucifers, vegetables that contain sulphurous compounds (such as broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage) and dark green leafy vegetables (such as spinach, green lettuce), produced much better results in their learning and memory tests, compared to those who did not consumed frequently such foods.
In animal studies, anthocyanins (antioxidant substances found in certain foods such as red grapes, pomegranate and red cabbage) were found to be effective in preventing neurological and cellular damages. Food consumption studies carried out on humans, studies carried out on animal models, and cellular studies proved that all antioxidants have favorable effects at cellular level. Studies on vitamin D and the brain functions showed that vitamin D deficiency slows information processing and impair the cognitive functions. In another study on vitamin D levels of children, evidential findings showed that vitamin D regulates brain development and the brain functions. Vitamin D is also the basic vitamin for clear thinking and optimal brain functionality.
Vitamin C, Vitamin E and Beta Carotene reduce the oxidative damage in cells caused by free radicals. Vitamin E protects the cell wall that ensures the cellular integrity. Carotenoids (compounds such as beta carotenoid, lycopene, and lutein, which give foods their yellow, red and orange colors), thiols (sulfur-containing compounds), Co-enzyme Q10 and flavonoids are the examples of antioxidant compounds, while trace elements such as selenium, zinc, manganese, copper and iron are the examples of minerals entering into the structure of antioxidant enzymes.
Antioxidants are the basic elements that we should include in our diet, by considering all these favorable characteristics. However, this does not mean that they should necessarily be taken as nutritional supplements, because taking dietary compounds that do not contain high amount of vitamins, minerals, trace elements, and nutrients can lead to toxic effects. Taking antioxidants through foods is the healthiest and safest way to maintain antioxidant protection.
Antioxidant Foods That Have Significant Effects on Brain Functions
Fish: Its omega 3 fatty acid content reduces the risk of degenerative diseases by preventing cell wall damages. The fish species that are the best omega 3 sources include: salmon, sardines, mackerel and white tuna. Eating fish twice per week is recommended.
Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 having well known favorable effects on the central nervous system is a vitamin that has a role in DNA synthesis, functioning of the nervous system cells, and reducing oxidative damage. Its best sources are red meat, eggs, liver, fish, milk and dairy products. Red meat and eggs are also good sources of iron.
Fruits and vegetables: In particular, eating them in season is important. When they are picked in season, they have antioxidant contents at the highest level. Antioxidants provided by each fruit and vegetable are different from one another. Therefore, colorful diets and 4-6 servings of such products per day are recommended.
Oil Seeds: Oil seeds rich in omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E, such as walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts are also good sources of many trace elements.
Whole Grain Cereals: In particular, consuming unrefined foods for the consumption of complex carbohydrates enables us to take antioxidants and vitamin B as well as glucose required for the brain. Whole grain cereals also increase the release of serotonin with their tryptophan and vitamin B contents, and consequently send a “be happy” message to the brain.
Tea: White, green and black tea; contain strong antioxidants and nutrients that protect the cells against oxidative stress. Drinking 2 cups of green or white tea or 5 cups of black tea will be adequate to achieve the antioxidant effects.
Adequate and balanced nutrition is necessary for ensuring healthy brain functions. Getting support from a dietitian to regulate the amount of antioxidant intake will enable you to make healthy choices.
You can ensure an adequate antioxidant protection by making modifications in your daily diet. First of all, you should choose organic vegetables and fruits and should buy them in season. Avoid consuming fried and processed foods as far as possible. Reduce the consumption of foods with excess amount of sugar and salt in your diet. Limit your alcohol consumption, and drink 8-10 cups of water per day. Take care to exercise regularly.
The most important thing is to allocate time for yourself to learn how to cope with the stresses that we will encounter throughout our lives, and to become happy.