Most of us spend a lot of our time thinking about how our training and diet affect our muscle power, but for many of us brain power is important too. I’ve always been interested in the idea of a Renaissance person, or polymath, as they are sometimes called. A polymath is a person who is well-rounded and good at many things. The philosopher Plato, for example, who is commonly known for his academic prowess, was also an accomplished wrestler. “Plato” was actually a nickname that means “broad,” and was supposedly given to him by his wrestling coach in reference to his imposing size.
The idea of developing the mind isn’t new to physical culture. Working the mind with vigor has long been a goal of many athletes interested in also developing their bodies, and for good reason. A well-developed brain is at least as associated with health and longevity as athleticism is, and probably even more so. But besides training the mind, researchers in a recent study published in Nutrition and Metabolismwished to learn how our diets affect cognitive performance.
The effect diet has on the brain is a poorly understood facet of mental performance. The brain is the most protected organ in the body, and that includes being shielded against our diet. Our blood is already highly regulated, but add to that what is called the blood-brain barrier and our brain is like its own little fortress. This barrier strictly controls which of the blood’s contents can access the brain’s distinct environment.
Despite the blood-brain barrier, several disorders, most notably metabolic syndromes like type 2 diabetes, are associated with cognitive decline. Inflammatory cytokines can cross the blood-brain barrier or induce their own production within the brain. Insulin receptors, also found in the brain, can be altered by metabolic syndromes as well. Both of these outcomes impair cognitive function and cause cognitive decline.
In this study, researchers compared a normal diet to a diet high in foods that fight the inflammation associated with metabolic syndromes. Most of the participants were middle-aged and slightly overweight, but otherwise healthy. Each participant tried both diets for four weeks in a random order with time in between to reset. For each diet they were tested for cognitive function.
We should all take note of what the researchers found. Not only are metabolic disorders associated with cognitive decline in the long run, but a diet without anti-inflammatory foods and other disease-fighting properties correlated with short-term cognitive impairment, even in healthy subjects. The reverse was also true. In fact, participants who ate the anti-inflammatory foods didn’t just have lower markers for disease, but they also consistently performed better in several cognitive tests compared to when they did not eat these foods.
There’s no way to know which of these foods boosted cognitive performance. The participants who performed better ate more high antioxidant foods (like berries), fatty fish and other omega-3 sources, pre- and probiotics, including barley kernel and lactobacillus, and lipid-balancing foods such as soy and almonds. They also focused on eating a low glycemic diet. It’s a pretty basic healthy eating guideline, and it worked.
So if you want to be less prone to disease and more well-rounded, you have even more reason now to eat healthy. Your brain power may depend on it.
1. Anne Nilsson, et. al., “A diet based on multiple functional concepts improves cognitive performance in healthy subjects,” Nutrition & Metabolism 2013, 10:49.
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