Healthy Routes Column: In the Autumn of Our Years … Who will We Be?

by Gladys Kublik, cower Neighbours Vitamin Shop

If we had a brain transplant, who would we be? To the world, we would still appear to be ourselves, but we would have the memories, the knowledge and the emotions of another. Even though this is a bit of science fiction at the time, it does make us think about how the health of our brain determines who we are and what we are like.

Weighing only about three pounds, our brain is the powerhouse of our being. The main frame computer is running the whole system. Years ago I saw a picture of a fellow who had tattooed “Intel Inside” on his shaved head. Intel may have been at the cutting edge of technology at the time, but it didn’t come close to the analytical power, memory and processing capabilities of the human brain.

The three main parts of the brain are the cerebrum that fills up most of the skull. It is involved in remembering, problem-solving, thinking, and feeling. It also controls movement. The cerebellum that sits at the back of the head, under the cerebrum. It controls coordination and balance. And the brain stem that sits beneath the cerebrum in front of the cerebellum. It connects the brain to the spinal cord and controls automatic functions such as breathing, digestion, heart rate and blood pressure.

The brain is divided into left and right hemispheres each controlling the opposite side of the body with the left hemisphere also controlling language. This wrinkled gel-like mass of grey matter and white matter is nourished by one of the body’s richest networks of blood vessels. With each heartbeat, arteries carry about 20 to 25 percent of the body’s blood to the brain, where billions of cells use about 20 percent of the oxygen and fuel the blood carries. When thinking hard, the brain may use up to 50 percent of the fuel and oxygen.

The surface of the cerebrum has a folded appearance called the cortex. The folding of the cortex increases the brain’s surface area allowing more neurons to fit inside the skull and enabling higher functions. The cortex contains about 70% of the body’s 100 billion nerve cells. The nerve cell bodies color the cortex grey-brown giving it its name – gray matter. Beneath the cortex is long connecting fibers between neurons, called axons, which make up the white matter. These cells are covered with a fatty white coating called myelin that acts in the same way as the insulating coating on electrical wires, enabling signals to travel faster without interference.

Scientists have “mapped” the cortex by identifying areas strongly linked to certain functions. Specific regions of the cortex: Interpret sensations from your body, and sights, sounds and smells from the outside world; Generate thoughts, solve problems and make plans; Form and store memories; Control voluntary movement. Damage or deterioration of any of these parts in effect changes the brain; it’s processing capabilities and who we are.

Clinical studies on the importance of nutrition on the developing brain in infants, as reported in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, state that certain nutrients have greater effects on brain development than do others. These include protein, energy, certain fats, iron, zinc, copper, iodine, selenium, vitamin A, choline, and folate.
Extensive reviews of the effects of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids on the developing brain have been published. Nevertheless, it is important to note that these fats, particularly docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are potent agents that affect neuronal membrane structure and myelination, that is generating the coating on the nerves. Studies in premature babies indicate important benefits for vision and intellectual development after DHA supplementation of preterm infant formula.

Given the importance of these fats and nutrients to brain development, it would be logical to assume that they would also be important for the brain’s long-term health and maintenance. Gingko Biloba is an ancient remedy for failing memory. It increases blood circulation to the brain increasing the amount of oxygen and nutrients carried to the cortex. Omega 3 oils, high in DHA are helpful in improving attention and concentration. Antioxidants such as Vitamin E, Alpha Lipoic Acid, Astaxanthin, and EGCG, the major polyphenol in green tea protect the brain from free radical damage.

Like any other powerful computational device, the brain needs protection, maintenance and an uninterrupted flow of energy for peak performance and a long life. Neglect slows its function and shortens its life and robs us of who we are.

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