The brain is a complex organ that acts as the control center of the body. Many factors affect how the brain works physically, how that affects the body, and how a person perceives how they are at any given time. Dietary intake, health, chemical or environmental agents, and supplementation can affect the functioning of the brain.
The brain is responsible for the regulation and control of all bodily activities and functions. The average human brain weighs approximately 3 lbs and contains 50-100 billion nerve cells. These cells transmit information back and forth by electrical or chemical signaling (neurotransmitters). The brain is responsible for controlling emotions and moods, as well as how a person acts, thinks, reasons, learns, and remembers through physical means. It allows the body to understand and process what is seen, heard, tasted, and smelled. The brain also controls heart rate, breathing, muscle contracts, coordination, and much more.
Factors that affect brain health
Nutrition and energy sources
The brain cells, as do all cells in the body, need energy to survive and work optimally. The cells of the brain use approximately 20% of the energy used by the body. Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is the main energy source for the majority of cellular functions and reactions. It also plays a role in signal transmission from cell-to-cell within the brain. To fuel the production of ATP the body and brain uses food energy sources such as carbohydrates and fats. Vitamins and minerals are also needed as they act as co-factors and co-enzymes in the reactions that allow for the metabolism of food sources, the formation and use of ATP, and many other physiological reactions.
Neurotransmitters, comprised of amino acids derived from protein, play important roles in stimulating reactions directed by the brain. Neurotransmitters are important in regulating learning and memory, movement, mood, behavior, sleep, appetite, alertness and much more. A diet that provides carbohydrates, proteins, fats and the right amounts of vitamins and minerals is necessary to support healthy brain and body functions.
Free Radical Damage
Free radicals are products of many physiological reactions and environmental factors such as smoking or pollution. A free radical is a highly reactive molecule or atom with an unpaired electron in its outer shell. The unpaired electron will always look to pair up with another electron in order to stabilize the molecule. As free radicals move throughout the body, they capture electrons from other cells, thereby destabilizing those cells and creating more radicals. These radicals can cause damage, impaired activity, or death in other cells. Free radical damage has been implicated in neurodegenerative diseases, cancers, and other health issues.
Antioxidants are thought to help protect the body by neutralizing free radicals and reducing the occurrence of radical damage. Antioxidants work on radicals by donating the necessary electron needed to stabilize them. Antioxidants themselves are stable compounds and cannot become free radicals even after losing an electron. Research has shown that supplementing with antioxidants may have beneficial affects on diseased states and their progression.
Aging can affect the brain in many ways. The ability to make and retain memories decline, neural function declines, neurotransmitter production is decreased, and the structure of the brain changes. These changes affect a person’s way of life, their habits, and their relationships with other people. Aging also increases the risk for developing common neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, cerebrovascular disease and more.
Keeping the brain and body active, eating a healthy diet, and keeping a positive outlook has been shown to be important in reducing the effects of aging on the brain. Doing mind challenging puzzles and games, taking in the right amounts of vitamins and minerals, and exercising are just some strategies suggested for keeping a more youthful brain.
Several health conditions have been shown to affect brain health. Hypercholesterolemia, neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and diabetes are just a few health conditions that can degrade brain health. These conditions can affect blood and nutrient flow to the brain, structure and function of the brain, and even contribute to the death of neurons within the brain.
Depression, mental illness, and excess stress can also affect the brain. These can result from actual imbalances within the functioning of the brain or body, or through life-induced occurrences and perceptions.
Several natural products have been proven to be beneficial for keeping the brain healthy, alert and active.
Ashwagandha and Rhodiola Rosea: Both appear to promote a decrease in stress, an increase in mental clarity, and to inhibit the feeling of fatigue. They appear to influence the levels and activities of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, epinephrine and norepinephrine, and serotonin.
Caffeine: Appears to promote alertness, stimulate memory and brain activity, and increases glucose and lipid metabolism. Research shows that caffeine may have some protective affect on neurotransmitter receptors within the brain.
Curcumin/Turmeric: Current research supports curcumin may help to decrease the buildups of proteins (amyloids) in brain tissue. These buildups have been associated with several neurodegenerative diseases.
Gingko: Gingko provides some antioxidant protection against free radicals for neurons and brain tissue which might help to prevent progression of tissue degeneration. It also appears to improve microcirculation within the central nervous system (CNS) which improves the flow of blood and nutrients to brain cells. Gingko may help to influence the levels and availability of neurotransmitters in a positive fashion.
Vinpocetine: Selectively dilates the arteries and capillaries in the head area, reducing vascular resistance, improving cell production of ATP, and promoting better circulation to the brain. By increasing circulation, it allows for improved nutrient and oxygen delivery to brain cells.