How athletes can improve their brain power with food
– Contributing article
If you’re a hard-working athlete, it’s not uncommon to experience symptoms like mental fatigue, irritability, low mood or even poor memory on a regular basis. Our brains often feel like they are in overload, juggling multiple tasks at once.
While being physically fit is obviously an important requirement for athletes, having a healthy, focused mind is somewhat underappreciated. Having mental stamina is just as important as physical strength for anyone who wants to compete at the highest levels.
Along with factors such as sleep and exercise, your diet can play a huge role in how well your brain functions and develops over time. Consuming a variety of healthy foods gives your cells the nutrients required for good cognitive functioning. Healthy brain function has also been shown to help stave off cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s and dementia, whilst also improving mood, memory, mental response time and decision-making abilities.
Food is the one thing on my mind after we set up camp and the sun goes down.
Ensuring that you consume a healthy and varied diet is a great way to increase your mental clarity and feel brighter and more energetic throughout your day. And for athletes with busy training schedules, services that deliver pre-portioned ingredients for quick, simple and balanced dinners like the leek and feta chicken breast found here are a great way to get the nutrition your brain needs to stay in top shape.
The link between diet and cognitive functioning
Studies have found that food not only provides the body with energy, but also helps prevent diseases and improves cognitive function. Here are the main ways in which diet affects the mind:
Research suggests that we should consume more “good” fats, like monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and Omega-3 fatty acids, than “bad” fats like saturated and trans fats. Saturated and trans fats have been found to have a negative effect on memory, whilst increasing LDL cholesterol, which can cause plaque to form in the brain. This plaque is linked to the development of Alzheimer’s disease. In contrast, “good fats” are linked to improved memory and cognition, as well as the prevention of disorders such as depression and dementia.
Eating protein boosts the amino acid tyrosine in the brain, which leads to the production of norepinephrine and dopamine. These chemicals boost the brain’s alertness and energy. The brain cannot store amino acids – it needs us to consume protein in order to create them.
Your brain also relies on a range of minerals – like calcium, magnesium and sodium – in order to work effectively. Minerals perform a range of functions, such as maintaining nerve cells and fuelling brain cells.
Vitamins are essential for proper brain functioning. There are many different kinds of vitamins we need to consume, which is why eating a varied diet is so important. B vitamins can improve nerve functioning and help convert tryptophan into other neurotransmitters, which in turn improves mood and sleep. Vitamins C and E are believed to preserve cognitive functioning over time and help ward off dementia.
The best foods for boosting brain power
It’s important to regularly consume foods from each of the different food groups, as all foods provide different kinds and amounts of nutrients. Here are some of the stand-outs:
Tuna, anchovies, salmon and other fatty fish provide an excellent source of Omega-3 fatty acids. These work miracles on the brain, boosting brain cell growth and mood, and reducing stress and the risk of cognitive disorders. They’re also a great source of protein.
Olive oil & coconut oil
Olive oil provides a great source of polyphenols and antioxidants, which protect the brain from cognitive disorders, aid in brain functioning and have anti-inflammatory properties.
Coconut oil is great at providing the brain and body with energy due to the fact that its fats break down into ketones. It also minimises free radicals in the body (which can cause damage to brain cells) and boosts overall brain functioning. Oils are easy to incorporate into your diet – simply splash some over a salad or use in your baking.
Green vegetables such as kale, broccoli and spinach are packed with key nutrients and antioxidants. This makes them great for your brain – vitamins A, C and K improve cell health and limit free radicals, whilst iron and potassium increase your brain’s oxygenation, aiding in brain functioning. Toss some into a stir fry for a delicious, easy and healthy meal.
A great source of calcium, antioxidants, iron, and magnesium – cacao is a real superfood. What’s so impressive about cacao is that it contains higher amounts of nutrients than most other foods; it has more than 40 times the amount of antioxidants than blueberries, and contains more calcium than cow’s milk. It’s also a natural mood booster, elevating levels of serotonin and tryptophan in the brain.
Cacao is very versatile – you can eat it in a block as a snack, put some in your smoothie or on your cereal, or use it in baking.
Nuts provide so many health benefits you could write a book about them. Nuts are a great source of antioxidants, fibre, protein, vitamins, minerals and healthy fats. They have also been found to lower cholesterol and inflammation, and can even promote weight loss. Enjoy them as a snack or add them to salads and homemade protein bars.
Fermented foods are those which have been exposed to beneficial bacteria. You’re probably aware that these are great for your gut, improving digestion and immunity, but did you know they can also help with depression and anxiety? The bacterial state of the gut (known as the microbiome) has a profound impact on our mental state. The microbiome can alter levels of serotonin in the brain, which in turn affects our mood and stress levels. All the more reason to add some sauerkraut, kombucha or kefir to your diet!
Eggs are a great source of protein and choline, which helps improve energy, alertness and overall cognitive functioning. They also contain antioxidants and healthy fats, which fight off free radicals and help strengthen brain cells and structures. Including eggs in your diet is easy – add them to sandwiches, salads, wraps or quiches.
Improving your diet is an easy and effective way to boost your overall brain power. Over time you should notice that you have a better memory, increased alertness, more energy, and a brighter mood.