One of the wonders of the human body is the brain! The unexplained capabilities we possess because of our mental strength are incredible. Some studies show how the environment, as well as genetic factors, affect brain functioning. We are all aware that a child in the womb is capable of receiving outside cues.
Brain development starts within 3 weeks of conception. A 3-millimetre neural tube begins to construct into a fully capable working organ at the end of the 9 months. The neuronal proliferation (growth) occurs to develop the brain centers required for specific functions.
Concerned about baby’s brain health during pregnancy?
While a woman is pregnant, the body needs appropriate nutrition to avoid any defect or obstruction in the process. Even environmental factors affect the building of the brain. Exposure to toxins through alcohol, smoking, and radiation. Emotional, and mental stress to the mother affects the development of the baby.
At the time of birth, the brain size is just a quarter of an adult brain, in the first year of life it doubles in size, and by the age of 3, the brain grows 80% of the adult brain size. The command centre of the body, the brain is superficial, is growing, and turns 90% equipped at the age of 5.
Along with the size of the brain, the synaptic connections within the brain cells occur during the first 5 years. These connections determine the functioning of the brain, reflexes, and thinking ability of the child. With the growing age, the synaptic connections get better based on environmental exposures. During childhood, a positive and encouraging environment will help the child learn faster. While on the other hand, children who are exposed to unfortunate situations at an early age, tend to have difficulty coping cognitively in life ahead. The growth of the spinal cord and the nervous system further helps in long-term homeostasis (balance).
The connection between nutrition and brain function.
Microglia are the cells within the brain that act like a warrior against brain injury. They also support the changes that occur in the brain during ageing. These microglia grow in association with neuronal (neural tube growth) during pregnancy.
Appropriate nourishment to the child determines the structural and functional abilities of the brain. These microglia also contribute to the process of myelination in the brain. Myelination occurs throughout infancy, childhood, and adolescence.
While structural changes in the brain are occurring, this brain development is associated with the cognitive development of the child.
Why is brain plasticity important for child development?
Brain plasticity is the ability of the brain to modify and organize according to the stimulus. During growth and development, while we learn several tasks, our brain modifies itself to get attuned and remember the ability. A child’s learning ability is better than an adult’s’ With age we lose neurons, and hence brain plasticity reduces.
The role of nutrition in neurocognitive development.
Right from conception, the fetus requires appropriate nourishment. Post-delivery the infant’s brain development begins to accelerate. Not only structural but behavioural and emotional attributes build. From breastfeeding, and weaning to solid foods children move their way up to reach adequate nutrients for functioning. Malnutrition or improper nutrition impairs the child’s physical, cognitive and social potential. The brain network involves one of the major processes of myelination, the myelin sheath formation around the neurons. Several nutrients such as Iron, fatty acids, proteins, and B-vitamins participate in the myelination process. The deficiency of any of these nutrients disturbs the building of the brain networks and neurotransmitters.
Intelligence is measured by the cognitive capacity of the brain. This is not influenced by the size of the brain, but by the brain network structure and efficacy. Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers which contribute to signalling the action at the target organ or cell. Under the umbrella of the functions of these neurotransmitters, to name a few, memory retention, contraction, and mood regulation are some of the duties.
This explains that the deficiency of any of the neurotransmitters can lead to impairment in the well-being of an individual.
Does a healthy diet improve brain functioning?
Studies show Neuroplasticity- the power to learn, memorize and recollect tasks can be improved and modified. A child’s brain can be trained easily supported by Diet, physical activity, and an appropriate lifestyle.
Consistent and determined training acts as a stimulus for the brain to learn quicker. Along with this, an appropriate diet with healthy fats such as Omega 3 can help in the physical development of the neurons. Various other nutrients participate in the formation and functioning of the brain.
Physical activity promotes brain functioning in adults, studies hint that fitness exercises help in curbing stress. These lifestyle changes also effectively impact our cognitive capacity.
Foods that can boost a child’s brain!
Protein-rich foods– Amino acids present in proteins contribute to neurotransmitter formation. Tyrosine, tryptophan-like amino acids constitute the formation of dopamine, epinephrine, and serotonin-like neurotransmitters. Sources like egg whites, lean meat, pulses, dairy products are good sources of protein.
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Saturated fats for growing children- At Least 3-4% of the total diet is recommended to be consumed in the form of saturated fats. Saturated fats are one of the main components of brain cells.
Whole eggs, avocados, coconut, and full-fat dairy products contain healthy fats. Improving liver and immune health. Natural sources of fats are important energy sources for the brain.
Omega 3 fatty acids– the polyunsaturated fatty acids found in very foods like walnuts, flaxseeds, fatty fishes. Research shows that omega 3 rich foods help to prevent cognitive decline while ageing. Omega 3 fatty acid- DHA helps in improving brain plasticity and bettering cognition. During the third trimester of pregnancy, DHA requirements and uptake is the highest. Even post-tern, in childhood DHA sources are crucial for sharp cognitive activities.
Vitamin D has neuroprotective functions. It helps in maintaining the homeostasis of the brain. It has protective effects against biological processes related to inflammation and reduces oxidative stress. Beyond the role of Vitamin D for your child’s bone health, Vitamin D contributes to brain development and cognitive growth. Vitamin D-rich foods like fatty fish, organ meat, fortified cereals, milk, and milk products should be consumed.
Folate or folic acid is required for accurate brain functioning. Folate deficiency can lead to neurological disorders like depression and cognitive impairment. During pregnancy, folate deficiency can cause neural tube defects. This irreversible brain damage impairs the cognitive and physical ability of the child. Medical studies show that folic acid supplements have effects like anti-depressants. Folic acid can be found in foods like green leafy vegetables, beans, peas, pulses like Bengal gram, red gram, and fortified cereals.
Flavonoids are found in plant-based foods. Like berries, citrus fruits, apples, grapes, cranberries, and many other fruits and vegetables. Contains potential powerful flavonoids like anthocyanins, flavonols, and flavanones. These are considered to help neuronal plasticity and prevent cognitive deficits in memory and learning that occur with age.
Further, vitamins and minerals like vitamin E, C, copper, and iron are also beneficial in maintaining brain effectiveness, improving reflexes, and avoiding cognitive decline. Including all food groups in the diet will help in providing these micronutrients. Lifestyle, stress management and good nutrition can help adults and their brain health as well. Focusing on a holistic approach to modifying lifestyle will bring about a positive change in our mental health.
Understanding what drives the brain to function better is as vast a topic as is the potential of the human brain.
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With this basic understanding on the relationship between Nutrition and brain health, you are ready to know more! Stay tuned for more inputs in bettering the brain.