Well Nourished People Have Healthier Brains

While nutrition is a centre-piece in brain functioning, disciplined lifestyle, physical activity and staying hydrated also help.

Shweta Khandelwal | Jul 22, 2022

Today, 22 July, is World Brain Day. This year's theme is ‘Brain Health for All’. The idea is to stimulate a universal effort that will share crucial information needed to reduce brain issues for everyone. Awareness, prevention, advocacy, education and access will be the key pillars in making the theme ‘Brain Health for All’ a success.

An estimated 63.4 million Indian children under 5 years are at risk of poor development due to suboptimal brain health. It has been estimated that one in seven Indians was affected by mental disorders of varying severity in 2017.

World Health Organization estimates that the burden of mental health problems in India is 2443 disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) per 10,000 population. The economic loss due to mental health conditions (2012-2030) is estimated at USD 1.03 trillion. All these grim statistics show that poor mental health is neither good for the individual nor the nation. Additionally, the recent pandemic COVID-19 has had a profound negative effect on the mental health of our masses. In such times, it becomes all the more important to be aware of ways to mitigate adverse effects and promote strategies to maintain sound mental health.

Everyone wants to live an active and vibrant life for as long as possible, but this goal depends on robust brain health. At full term birth, the brain weighs around 350 g, which is roughly around 8-10% of infant’s body weight, while at child’s first birthday, the brain weight (~925 g) accounts for 70% of the adult brain weight. The brain development during early life (conception through 5 years of child’s life) is sensitive to energy and nutrient availability, which influences the development, physiology and mental health later in life.

These sensitive time-periods are critical windows of opportunity that, if missed, may cause irreversible compromises in growth and normal functions of body systems. These periods include pre-conception, pregnancy, peri- and early postnatal life that are characterized by rapid changes in maturation of neuronal, immune, endocrinal and metabolic processes. Even the microbiota composition and immune system priming of the individual across the lifespan gets affected by the nutritional intake of an individual, which in turn impacts brain health.

Most of us think that children need to eat healthy for academic excellence (indirectly implying that eating healthy only during childhood will ensure good brain health for life). Unfortunately, while early life is a critical window of opportunity to invest in a sound brain health, sustained efforts throughout life course are also very significant. Studies confirm that poor eating habits may alter brain function at all ages. For example, researchers have linked reduced memory storage in adults who were fed with a sugary diet.

We also know that food affects mood. This is due to the power of nutrients (or the lack of them) to modulate the hormones responsible for better functioning brain. Both brain and brawn need good nutrition. Green leafy vegetables, nuts, eggs, and good fats are some of the top-ranking brain foods.
While nutrition is a key centre-piece in brain functioning, disciplined lifestyle, physical activity and staying hydrated also help. No wonder, therefore, that evidence-based strategies to enhance early brain development and promote children's cognitive functioning endorse integrated multisectoral interventions, which not only include emphasizing a balanced plate with right quality and quantity of foods, but also developmental opportunities and a caring environment from early on. We must remember that happy nourished people have healthier brains.

Next time you reach out for food, ensure it is packed with good nutrients for your brain, too. We all need to be brain fit.

Source: Adapted from Berding K, Vlckova K, Marx W, Schellekens H, Stanton C, Clarke G, Jacka F, Dinan TG, Cryan JF. Diet and the Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis: Sowing the Seeds of Good Mental Health. Adv Nutr. 2021 Jul 30;12(4):1239-1285. doi: 10.1093/advances/nmaa181

(Shweta Khandelwal is head of nutrition research and Additional Professor at Public Health Foundation of India.)