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Understanding the brain

Our brains house our minds and thoughts, control our actions, store our memories, and are responsible for our emotions, dreams, and decisions. To deliver messages across our bodies, we rely on hormones and neurotransmitters, which receive signals from our organs and send them to our muscles. For this complex system to work, we need the right nutrients, provided by the right food.

Our brains tell us of our bodies’ need for food – when we are hungry, thirsty, full, or satisfied with a meal. These and many of the functions of the brain and central nervous system operate at an unconscious level, using biochemical influences to respond to sensors in our mouth, stomach, gut, blood stream and the brain itself. These biochemical influences include hormones and neurotransmitters, which deliver messages throughout the body.

  • There are 50 different hormones, grouped into four types - amino acid derived, peptides, steroids, and eicosanoid. Broadly, these are responsible for regulating sleep, keeping our skin and reproductive systems healthy, getting rid of toxins and bringing nutrients into our body.

  • There are over 200 identified neurotransmitters, often grouped into amino acids, peptides, monoamines, purines, gasotransmitters, catecholamines and acetylcholine. Broadly, these are responsible for happiness, social engagement, sleep, motivation, memory and learning, plus the ability to plan ahead, stay calm, focus and pay attention.

Each hormone and neurotransmitter has a different purpose and level of importance, but four of the major ones to consider for brain health are:

Dopamine

Affects…
How our brains respond to reward. It is produced after pleasurable acts and influences movements, mental alertness, and sensations of pleasure and pain.

Low levels can cause…
Forgetfulness, moodiness, lack of concentration, and fatigue.

To raise levels, eat…
Omega-3 rich foods like oily fish and seafood at least twice a week, along with other protein-rich foods like poultry and red meat.

Serotonin

Affects…
Memory, mood, social behaviour, appetite, digestion, sexual desire, sleep-wake cycles, our internal clock, and how much we feel pain and our internal clock.

Low levels can cause
Poor memory, depression, anxiety and irritability.

To raise levels, eat…
Plenty of protein through fish, red meat, milk and eggs, and complex carbohydrates through sweet potatoes, dark chocolate, and fruit.

Endorphins

Affect…
How much we feel pleasure and pain, and are sometimes known as the brain’s ‘feel good’ chemicals. They also affect levels of empathy and enhance immune response.

Low levels can cause…
Greater feelings of stress and lower tolerance to pain.

To raise levels, eat…
A rich source of protein, found through meat, fish, milk or eggs.

Oxytocin

Affects…
The strength of contractions during childbirth and stimulates milk for breastfeeding. Known as the 'kissing hormone’ as it strengthens social bonds..

Low levels can cause…
Low empathy, aggression and stress.

To raise levels, eat…
A rich source of protein, found through fish, meat, milk or eggs.