By Lucy Barlow
Nutrition. Scientists know that certain nutrients and other key chemical compounds are essential to human brain function. Nutrition plays a major role in the optimum functioning of the brain by providing it with required nutrients to maintain cellular integrity, support the ability of brain cells or "neurons" to communicate and properly process information and to meet its energy needs. And, we know that the effect of nutrition on the brain begins before birth-with the nutrition of the mother. The brain's billions of neurons "talk" to one another through chemical neurotransmitters that convey signals through neural pathways. These chemicals include norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine which can be hampered or destroyed by toxins produced by your body. Vitamins and minerals in plant foods provide protective antioxidants, and fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and grains contain thousands of other types of compounds that contribute significantly to the overall dietary intake of antioxidants. A 2005 report issued by the USDA stated every person should consume between 5 to 13 servings of fresh vegetables and fruits daily. But, what is the average American person of today feeding their body? A recent national survey indicated that 40% of American people eat NO fresh fruits and vegetables on a daily basis! Further, many studies indicate a severe "dilution" in the nutrient content of fruits and vegetables harvested today when compared to those grown 20-30 years ago, making an adequate daily intake even more important to good health.
A nutritious, low fat diet with plenty of fresh fruits (berries are the best for antioxidants-the darker the better) and vegetables, fish, beans (legumes) and healthy fats can improve brain health, cognitive functioning, learning, and lower your risk for Alzheimer's disease later in life.
Learning foods. Before we talk specifics lets agree on one major point- breakfast is the most important meal of the day! You know it, we know it, and science has confirmed it over and over again, Harvard researchers found that students who ate breakfast were "...significantly more attentive in the classroom, earned higher grades in math, and had significantly fewer behavioral and emotional problems." When you eat breakfast before school, you're giving your body the necessary vitamins and minerals and nutrients that convert into energy and affect the way you concentrate, the way you absorb information, and the way you function in class. You're fueling your brain and its ability to process information. Think of it this way: it's pretty tough to pay attention to a lecture on President Lincoln when your eyes are beginning to droop and you can't focus on the blackboard. It's also hard to remember what you learned in class when your mind wanders and it seems impossible to pay attention. One of the most important things you can do to help your child in school is to assure that their bodies and brains are properly fueled. Breakfast, lunch, and snacks in the afternoon can all affect how your child learns, studies, does homework and how he or she perform on tests.
Breakfast should be high protein and complex carbohydrates. Choline is found in eggs and nuts. It augments brain and memory development. Whole grain foods are complex carbohydrates which contain iron, folate and other B vitamins which help improve mental alertness, memory function and are rich in fiber, providing a steady stream of energy so your child can "endure" a full day of learning and ace that math test. Iron is also found in lean red meat and leafy vegetables such as spinach. Omega-3 fatty acids are important in bolstering and maintaining cognitive function, omega-3 fatty acids are "healthy fats" and are found in a variety of foods including fish, avocado, or ground flaxseed, nuts, and heart-healthy oils (like flaxseed or olive oil). Caution should be used however in incorporating fish into children's diets. Trace levels of mercury may be found in most fish, but swordfish, shark, mackerel, and tuna can contain levels that exceed safety limits. Mercury toxicity has been linked to neurological, cardiovascular and immune system health effects in infants and children. Most importantly, try for a balance diet meeting the guidelines of the USDA food pyramid. You may have to get creative to get your kids to eat healthy but you'll be building a habit that will serve them well through school and beyond.
Brain Drains. Steer clear of certain items that can quickly drain energy and attention levels, often causing short spikes in activity but then crashing lows from excess sugar and artificial ingredients. Check labels and ingredient lists. Bypass sugary cereals, processed snack foods and anything that includes artificial sweeteners or coloring, high-fructose corn syrup, refined white sugars and breads, trans fats and partially-hydrogenated oils because sugary fruit drinks, colas and juices, caffeine and some drinks billed as "energy drinks" may work for some people and may give short bursts of energy but the crash as the sugar is burned up is much like running out of gas in your car.
Water Intake - Given that your brain is over 85 percent water, the first rule of brain nutrition is adequate water to hydrate your brain. Even slight dehydration can raise stress hormones which can damage your brain over time and hamper your cognitive functioning. Fluids/hydration should come from liquids without sugars (natural or artificial), caffeine or alcohol. Adequate hydration is not only essential for tip-top cognitive function, it also:
o Maintains your body temperature
o Flushes toxic waste from your body and aids in digestion
o Metabolizes fat and helps maintain proper weight
o Lubricates and cushions your organs and joints
o Transports nutrients throughout your body
o Reduces wrinkles, improves skin elasticity-keeping you looking and feeling young
For years physicians have been telling us to drink 8-10 eight ounce glasses of water each day. Don't wait until you're thirsty, by the time you experience thirst, you're already dehydrated.
According to "Hydrate for Health" by NutriScience "Your brain-the highest maintenance organ in your body and the one which controls all of your physiological functions-is the most devastated by dehydration. In fact, the number one cause of memory loss, at any age, is dehydration." Staying well-hydrated is extremely important and helps prevent fatigue and helps children maintain adequate concentration levels.
Lucy Gross-Barlow: As a Speech/Language Pathologist of over 26 years and having practiced in a wide variety of therapeutic settings, Lucy brings to her clients a diversity of patient care knowledge. For the past 12 years, she has specialized her practice in the area of processing disorders and remediation of learning impairments, and she has a passion in seeing her clients succeed in their communicative and learning skills. Lucy now desires to extend the knowledge she has gained in processing and learning remediation to as many children as possible to enable them to reach their full learning and communicative potential in life.
Lucy is a founding partner of The Therapy Group, an association of Speech-Language Pathologists, Occupational Therapists, learning specialists, Speech-Language Pathology Aides, parent teachers, administrators and advocates pioneering an industry in web-based consulting for parents who seek to help their children with learning challenges or those learning with disabilities in achieving academic and social success. Providing parents with resources, learning therapies, proprietary products and programs worldwide.
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