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Brain Function Optimization Basics - Diet, Exercise and Sleep

Wednesday, March 31, 2010
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Effect of diet, exercise and sleep on brain function:

A recent global survey by a Swedish firm suggests "Young Indians are the happiest lot, optimistic with career as their topmost priority" compared to their counterparts from other countries. This is definitely a matter of pride for the young working task force in India.

But the stark reality is - career, well cushioned job at an  MNC comes with a baggage of long working hours, stress, lack of sleep, physical inactivity and a faulty diet. It is a fact that all these are a cause for lifestyle related diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and hypertension and heart ailments.

To add to the woes, recent research indicates, that nutrient deprived diets, physical inactivity and lack of sleep deteriorate brain health and mental function. Difficulty in concentration at work, anxiety, mood swings are evident even before the incidence of lifestyle disorders.

A sharp mind and strong memory depend on the vitality of brain's network of interconnecting neurons, and specifically the junctions between these neurons called synapses. Brain synapses and molecules related to learning, memory and other cognitive functions are influenced by diet, exercise and sleep.

Food can make or break your ability to work and concentrate. Young Indians who wish to excel in their careers should consider a few dietary changes that would enhance their brain function.

So, What Foods Affect Brain Function The Most?
B complex vitamins: folic acid, thiamin, and B12 are necessary to synthesize neurotransmitters that communicate messages within the brain. Mood, hunger and sleep are regulated by neurotransmitters. Deficient intake of these vitamins can cause depression and anxiety. Regular intake of whole grain cereals, dark green leafy vegetables, and lean cuts of meat, fish, and skimmed dairy improve brain function.

The brain is susceptible to oxidative damage caused due to environmental pollution. You can alleviate the oxidative damage by increasing the intake of fruits and vegetables that contain antioxidant / anti-aging nutrients vitamins A and C.

The most important nutrient that dramatically improves brain health is omega 3 fatty acids. Over intake of refined foods, saturated fats disturbs the ratio of omega 3 and omega 6 the essential fatty acids in the diet. Fish eaters are known to have better brain function. Fish and fish oils contain omega 3 fatty acids, EPA (eicosapentenoic acid) and DHA (decosahexanoic acid) that have the capacity to reduce oxidative stress, enhance synaptic plasticity and improve learning and memory.

What about vegetarians?
Vegetarians can savor the same health benefits by regular intake of walnuts, almonds, or flax seeds. Intake of flax seed oil and vitamin C supplements in hyperactive Indian school children reflected improved control over symptoms like impulsivity, restlessness, in attention and learning problems (Joshi et al, 2006).

Foods high in sugar and fat are often considered to uplift mood. However, research suggests that these foods have adverse effects on brain synapses. Mind well, it is not a very good idea to binge on chips or a cola to relieve stress.

Role of diet & exercise on Brain function:
Other than diet, emerging research suggests that exercise and sleep remarkably affect the brain function. Exercise improves the blood flow to the brain cells. Adding 30-40 minutes of moderately intense exercise enhances the ability to concentrate, learning and memory.

Sleep deprivation is a common problem. Sleep is essential to regenerate brain cells to function optimally. Long term lack of sleep influences verbal learning and memory. Apart, from the daily sound sleep of 6 to 7 hours squeeze in power naps of 5 to 10 minutes to improve cognitive abilities.

The young happy Indians, can definitely become more active, energetic and happier by holding on to these dietary and lifestyle modifications.  

By Geetanjali Kelkar PhD.

To request Ms Geetanjali Kelkar to be your personal dietitian - you can select her from your 'Dashboard' once you have 'Registered' and purchased a Clinical Nutrition Care Package.

2.    Gómez-Pinilla et al. Brain foods: the effects of nutrients on brain function. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 2008; 9 (7)
Joshi K, Lad S, Kale M, Patwardhan B, Mahadik SP, Patni B, Chaudhary A, Bhave S, Pandit A(2006) Supplementation with flax oil and vitamin C improves the outcome of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder(ADHD), Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes

Related articles:

Examination Stress on Students - Importance of Healthy Eating For Students

Kids Health - Role of Nutrition and Exercise in Children's Health, Growth, Development

The Importance of Exercise In The Maintenance Of a Long Healthy Life

Insomnia: Should I lose sleep worrying about it?



User Comments

15 June, 2010 | Sangeetha Narayana Swamy | Reply

Sangeetha Narayana Swamy Dear Sunaina,

Flax seed is a power house of compounds that helps to fight disease in our body. It contains omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), fiber, and lignans (which are powerful anti-oxidants) which are helpful in preventing heart disease, protect against inflammatory disorders and certain cancers. It also lowers your cholesterol. Flax adds flavor, nutrition, and health benefits to a variety of foods and has a mild, nutty flavor.

An adult can use about 3-5 teaspoons of ground flax seed in a day. You can start from 3 teaspoons and slowly increase it to 5 teaspoons. Grind flax seeds as you use to ensure utmost freshness. Flax seeds are easy to grind at home using a coffee grinder, food processor or blender. Young children should be given only 1 teaspoon of ground flax seeds per day.

It is generally advised to use ground flax seeds instead of flax oil because the oil does not contain fiber, lignans and protein present in the rest of the seeds, but is high in omega 3 fatty acids.

Thank you for your query. Visit for all your nutritional related needs.

Sangeetha Narayana Swamy,
Senior Dietitian,

15 June, 2010 | Sunaina | Reply

Sunaina How much flaxseed/flaxseed oil should be consumed by vegetarians?

08 April, 2010 | Vijayalakshmi Iyengar | Reply

Vijayalakshmi Iyengar Hello Ms Shivani, that’s a very good question. Yes studies have shown that central obesity (that is, being fat around the middle) leads to memory loss, cognition and sensation as it causes shrinkage of a part of the brain ( the hippocampus) which is associated with these activities and in slightly older adults it lays down the path for Alzheimer’s and/or Parkinson’s disease.
Thank you for your query
Vijayalakshmi iyengar

03 April, 2010 | Vijayalakshmi Iyengar | Reply

Vijayalakshmi Iyengar Hello Ms Fairfax
That’s a very good question. Yes studies have shown that central obesity (that is, being fat around the middle) leads to loss of memory, cognition and sensation as it causes shrinkage of a part of the brain associated with these activities.In slightly older adults it lays down the path for Alzheimer’s and/or Parkinson’s disease.
Thank you
Vijayalakshmi Iyengar

02 April, 2010 | Shivani B. Fairfax, VA | Reply

Shivani B. Fairfax, VA Can obesity affect brain function?

01 April, 2010 | aditi | Reply

aditi Hi,Very informative article,I liked it.

01 April, 2010 | Amit | Reply

Amit Hey Vijayalakshmi,
ok, will try small snack.
Can't get in early for the gym as 4 of us take the taxi service together.
Its not easy.

01 April, 2010 | Vijayalakshmi Iyengar | Reply

Vijayalakshmi Iyengar Hello Amit,
We understand you are facing health problems due to working night shifts but since it’s your conscious decision you have to take pains to make it work. Remember you are working against the circadian cycle (the internal biological clock that controls an organism's daily activity cycles) and therefore it is not easy, it is like swimming against the current in the river.
So ensure that you at least eat right apart from ensuring that you sleep for 7-8 hrs in the day. Night dinner should always be light and you can always carry a light meal from home. You can also use the gym facility by going an hour earlier. If you do feel hungry late night have a drink of hot chocolate or a fruit at the most.
Thank you
Vijayalakshmi Iyengar

31 March, 2010 | Amit | Reply

Amit You talk about getting good amount of sleep, but its the one thing my brian hasn't adjusted to, even after 13 months.

I work the night shift in a Gurgaon BPO. They have workout machines and a gym for us here, but who wants to get on a treadmill when you are tired and the body wants to simply doze off.

Yah, the pay is good, so I do it.

The food is good too, but its often heavy and I get belching and burping if I eat heavy during the night.

Any sugg, other than to QUIT!

12 May, 2012 | Vijayalakshmi Iyengar | Reply

Vijayalakshmi Iyengar Dear Amit,
Time and again people have come back to us saying that as long as they were doing the night shift (also called as Grave yard shift) they were very uncomfortable and wanting to quit or change jobs was foremost on their minds so I don’t want you to think it is unusual and uncomfortable. So if this is the job you want to currently hang on to so be it, but you can at least work on making adjustments in the food and exercise angle.
The adage NO PAIN NO GAIN applies at every point, so the next thing I can now suggest is that kindly report one hour in advance to your shift and exercise before you start work or join a gym close to your place of stay to work out before you go to work, follow up with a hearty meal and leave for work. Secondly food served in the BPO may be good and tasty but I am sure it wont be as healthy as home made food (plain rotis, dal, chawal, sabji whatever) so kindly carry your own food from home so that you are at least eating healthy and ensure it is light. This way you can control your acidity at least.
Hopefully with these changes and making auto suggestions that you are going to have a good sleep and get up refreshed , it will make it better than it currently is/
Hope this helps and all the best.

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Tags: Alzheimers & Nutrition, Antioxidants - Anti Aging, Eat Healthy, Exercise and Yoga, General health, Healthy Lifestyle, Mental Health, Sedentary Lifestyle, Sleep Deprivation


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