Memory: Design and Function
‘Yesterday is but today’s memory, and tomorrow is today’s dream.’
The way one’s mind and memory works is often one of the defining parts of our personality. Good memory, bad memory, selective memory, photographic memory- all these very descriptive ways to try to categorize the functioning of our brains. We are shaped by our memories and experiences, whether they be treasured and hoarded, or sorrowful and guarded.
As we age some degree of memory loss is expected and feared, but as science digs deeper into the great mystery of our brains, some of that loss may be avoided. With simple elegance, the answer may be right in front of us: on our plates.
The Brain: A Complex Organ
‘Memory is the treasury and guardian of all things’
-Marcus Tullius Cicero
Being an extraordinarily complex organ, the brain has astonishingly exacting demands on what fuels it. For optimum performance, a varied mix of fruits, vegetables, lean meats and healthy fats is absolutely essential. Considering the fact that it is the master system that controls all our conscious actions, our subconscious maintenance, and stores our memories it comes as no surprise that the brain requires super premium fuel.
As part of that logic, it is no surprise that eating junk food results is substandard performance. Over time, the long-term effects of poor food choices can accumulate in multiple disorders and illnesses. So what constitutes wise and poor choices to sustain a healthy body and a quick mind?
Common Food Options: A Perilous Path
‘Human memory is short and terribly fickle.’
-Janine di Giovanni
The foods that are most detrimental to clear brain function are also some of the most obvious ones. American diets are riddled with white bread, pasta, processed meats, and sugar. Through multiple pathways each of these contribute to systemic disorders like diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
As if these aren’t deadly enough, the accompanying inflammatory response associated with them also affect brain functioning. The combined metabolic toxins and inflammation cause plaques to build up in the brain, leading to impaired function.
There are some fantastic food choices out there that both decrease inflammation and help contribute to brain health. Conclusive research is still pending on many of these choices, but the overall evidence looks promising, with the added benefit that these foods are all beneficial to the entire body and a systemic state of health.
A Wealth of Choices For Brain Health
‘Memory is the mother of all wisdom’
The array of foods laid out in the Mediterranean Diet aren’t only beautiful and delicious; they also have wildly restorative and healing properties for the human body. This doesn’t stop when it comes to brain health and function. In fact, it seems that a carefully considered and balanced diet might be one of the most important facets of maintaining an accurate memory over time.
These are the top picks in brain defenders.
1. Dark Green Leafy Vegetables
From kale to spinach, Brussels sprouts to broccoli, all these leafy wonders have impressive vitamin and mineral loads: vitamins A,C, and K, folate, calcium, and potassium. Dense with fiber and deliciously versatile, these veggies are easily accessible year- round to add to soups, stews, salads, and side dishes.
While most of the virtue of leafy greens can be attributed to suppressing excessive inflammation, the folate content seems to be working on a different agenda. Studies are only just now releasing preliminary results, but good evidence is starting to appear on how folate may decrease serum homocysteine. This amino acid may cause deterioration and death of nerve cells- but folate helps to break it down into harmless molecules.
2. Cold Water Fatty Fish
As an alternative to red meats, you can hardly go wrong with fish. High in protein and healthy fats, fish doesn’t only fuel your body with superior protein. DHA, one of the Omega-3 fatty acids, allows for smooth and efficient functioning of neurons. Like many of the stars of the Mediterranean Diet, fatty fish can help to decrease systemic inflammation- lowering the risk of heart disease, arthritic conditions, and Alzheimer’s Disease.
3. Berries and Brilliant Fruits
Cheerful advice from kindergarten classes encourages children to ‘eat their rainbows’. So foods- especially fruits and vegetables with deep, vibrant coloration- are prized and consumed simply for aesthetic value. There’s more than a little value to this simple plan- by consuming brilliantly colored fruits and veggies we ingest powerhouses of fiber and vitamin C.
Recent research presented by the American Chemical Society in Boston has revealed that blueberries, strawberries, and Acai berries all contain a phytochemical that helps to clear out destructive toxins from the brain. Impressive work from tiny packages of flavor!
4. Nuts and Nut Butters
Vitamin E has come into its own with brain health, contributing to the smooth functioning of the brain as well as protecting the heart muscle. Fantastic choices here include the obvious peanuts and peanut butter, but also range out to almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, and sunflower seeds.
Yummy and useful in everything from diet to skin and hair health, the simple avocado has become a superstar this decade. Avocado has multiple delicious uses from guacamole to salads to mayonnaise substitute. While a strict relationship has not been scientifically proven yet, there are strong correlations between eating foods rich in vitamin E and a lower risk of degenerative memory disorders like Alzheimer’s Disease.
6. Red Wine
Moderate consumption of red wine has long been associated with many health benefits, from preventing blood clots to lowering your risk of contracting heart disease. Apparently, your evening nightcap may be a contributing factor to longstanding brain health. Populations that enjoy a daily glass of wine appear to have lower rates of memory loss issues in general and Alzheimer’s Disease in particular.
As with foods like avocado, solid evidence is still forthcoming. Researchers are currently ferreting out whether red wine is the pivotal dietary additive here. The trend for physical health in general and brain health in particular could be due to other factors like regular exercise, a well managed diet, or social support. It would seem that a glass of red wine every day is potentially beneficial at best, and a relaxing minor indulgence at worst.
7. Healthy Oils
An obvious dietary trend is starting to build here. Vitamin E, once merely touted as the go-to source for healthy hair, skin, and nails has revealed more powerful virtues. In this case, it again seems to help defend and repair neurons from daily wear and tear. More interestingly, studies have shown that supplements don’t work as well as actual food sources rich in Vitamin E naturally. In the case of brain health, extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is one of the most important staples.
Useful in low-temperature cooking and as a component for homemade salad dressings, EVOO is rich in naturally occurring vitamin E. Almost as popular as EVOO is cold pressed virgin coconut oil. This miraculous substance is astonishingly versatile, adapting easily to cooking and baking; it even makes a superior skin moisturizer and hair treatment.
Loaded with Vitamin E and antioxidants and possessed of impressive anti-inflammatory properties, coconut oil is still debated as a treatment for memory loss issues- but with all the other benefits to be had, it is still a reasonable addition to any varied diet.
8. Dark Chocolate
Any list of brain boosting, mood improving, and downright enjoyable foods would be incomplete without the mention of dark chocolate. Not only does it affect the brain the same way that falling in love does, it elicits a bounty of collateral health benefits as well. No matter what your age, the flavonoids in dark chocolate have been proven to improve memory by increasing the blood flow to the brain.
This was studied as both a solid bar form and as hot chocolate, where short term memory was boosted and memory decline was prevented in seniors. The rich concentration of antioxidants defend neurons against the detrimental effects of aging and the accompanying memory loss. In a victory for all of us who love chocolate, it has been found that the more dark chocolate elderly people ate, the less likely they were to develop dementia over time.
And eat up, it makes you smart- and there’s solid research to prove the fact! In a paper published by the New England Journal of Medicine, a direct correlation has been established between countries with a high rate of chocolate consumption and how many Nobel Prize recipients they have produced. Far from being junk food, chocolate is now the hero of the day, both saving our brain structure and making us more intelligent and intuitive.
Not just a cup to get your day started, coffee has long been associated with increased alertness and awareness. Caffeine is largely responsible for this improvement in performance- in moderate doses. It has even been shown to be a component in improving cognitive skills in the elderly, moderating the effects of neurodegenerative disorders. Lifetime coffee drinkers have a 20% lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease according to one study- though the exact mechanism has yet to be identified.
The Whole Picture
‘Mens sana in corpore sano’ (Sound mind, sound body)
The foods we eat or avoid are only part of the equation. Certainly, the fuel we provide is absolutely vital for optimal function of our brain, but there are other equally important aspects. Primarily, the absolute necessity of regular exercise cannot be stressed enough. Regular physical activity helps to stave off many of the contributing issues that lead to memory degradation- conditions like diabetes and heart disease, to name a few.
Additionally, regular mental challenges help with reinforcing cognitive abilities. Puzzles, reading groups, and active debate and discussion of current events/sports/movies all contribute to maintaining good mental health. It is rather unsurprising that such a complex and mysterious organ would require so many different kinds of upkeep; but like any irreplaceable treasure, that stewardship is incredibly worthwhile.