“How does the water of the brain turn into the wine of consciousness?”
― David Chalmers
The Building Blocks of Brain Health Part I
“How does the water of the brain turn into the wine of consciousness?”
Modern science understands little of how consciousness is created by the chemistry and biology of the brain. What is certain is that the chemistry of the brain alters the flavour of Chalmers’ figurative wine of qualia. The importance of a well-functioning brain goes so far beyond the ability to improve your score in a memory test or anxiously awaited exam. Our entire experience of reality is contained between our ears, our thoughts, dreams, loves, ambitions, and passions are all a wonderful storm of electrochemistry in the amazing wet, fatty organ behind our eyes. That chemistry matters.
Altering our brain’s structural and chemical composition through diet and exercise (or other less natural methods) can have a profound impact on everything that makes us human: our emotions, cognition, mood. Maintaining brain health with food and exercise can prevent age-related cognitive decline, increase levels of molecules that stimulate neuron growth, regulate mood increase cognition and more1-5. The ability to modulate this through food is something we should all care about.
What is a high functioning brain?
The CDC defines a healthy brain as one with the skills to “remember, plan, learn new things, concentrate and make decisions”6. This definition seems to miss many of the components of brain function we should care about. Like with other forms of health it is often easier to recognise and define what health is not. A brain suffering from prion disease that has the characteristic appearance of swiss cheese or a brain that has suffered catastrophic physical trauma is easily recognised as unhealthy. Is a brain that is lacking negative effects of disease, aging, trauma, malnutrition, damage from ischemia and oxidation, or genetic damage significantly different from a “high functioning” brain?
Characteristics of brain function
A perfect definition of brain health may be hard to come by, but important characteristics might include adequate levels of the important and essential macronutrients, neurotransmitters, fatty acids , polyphenols, vitamins and minerals important to brain function such as vitamins B, E and K that influence brain function1,4,6,7. It may also include avoiding genetic damage, oxidative damage, toxic heavy metals, inflammation, beta-amyloid plaques and tau proteins associated with Alzheimer’s Disease, loss of grey matter volume, or signs of biological aging like senescent cell accumulation, epigenetic changes and telomere shortening8-18. A wide variety of chemicals, pathologies, metrics, and characteristics can be useful in how we consider the health of our brains.
Brain health and cardiovascular health
It is difficult to talk about brain health directly without considering the secondary effects of cardiovascular health. Poor cardiovascular health strongly predicts poor outcomes in cognitive function because cardiac events such as strokes or heart attacks can result in a loss of oxygen to the brain16,19. The brain is uniquely sensitive to hypoxic damage among our organs, and neuron cells begin to die almost immediately when cut off from oxygen10,11.
Using both cardiovascular and brain health scores allow us to predict important life outcomes like functional independence and risk of institutionalisation in aging and elderly individuals19. As we age, they correlate with physical factors too, like endurance, reaction time and balance20. A healthy body and a healthy mind go hand in hand, as is so often said.
Personal and societal impacts of brain health
The ability to maintain a healthy brain and prevent age-related degradation not only allows people to maintain their mobility, personal and financial independence, autonomy and physical well-being, but it also allows people to maintain important connections with family and friends19. The retention of cognitive faculties allows for individuals to maintain their careers and reduces the strain placed on the healthcare system from diseases of decreased cognitive function and dementia19.
In Australia alone there are approximately 459,000 cases of dementia and an estimated 1.6 million people involved in their care and support21. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported in 2017-2018 that 13.1% of Australians have an anxiety disorder and 10.4% had feelings of depression, both increasing significantly since the last survey22. This health survey also found that 4.8% of people have cardiovascular disease22. Dementia is among the most expensive health conditions to treat19, making it difficult to underestimate how much societal and individual benefit could come from increased brain health!
Exercise, food, and brain health
There is a widely prevalent belief that ageing, and the associated cognitive decline is inevitable. Some even believe that prevention is undesirable23. However, the current scientific literature suggests that there are several important lifestyle and diet changes that can slow this process significantly. Few people will be surprised to hear that getting enough quality sleep and maintaining a consistent exercise regime are essential2,3,5.
Many people underestimate the role that the amount and type of food we eat has on our brains. People often think of food only as a source of energy and building blocks used to create tissue and discount the role of biologically active molecules in our food4,7. Even today many pharmaceuticals are derived from plants and 11% of the medicines considered basic and essential by the WHO come from flowering plants24.
It really should come as no surprise then that many of the plants we eat for food contain molecules that alter the way our bodies function, including our brains. The amount of food we consume can affect our brains as well3, with the hormones responsible for regulating hunger and satiation being associated with cognitive and emotional processes7.
While everyone would like to be able to take a pill and quickly and easily increase their brainpower, it isn’t quite that easy unfortunately. However, research does suggest that making changes to our diets and lifestyles (and sticking with them!) will result in changes to cognition, mood, and levels of cognitive decline. And they’re changes that your body, your friends and family and society at large will appreciate you making!
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