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Neuro Nutrients


Whether you’re trying to help your kids with their homework, divvy up the restaurant tab, or multi-task on several major projects at work, your brain works better when you feed it well. In fact, scientists in the pioneering field of nutritional neuroscience are finding that specific nutrients may be able to charge your brain’s neurotransmitters (messenger cells), thereby enhancing your mental performance and sharpening your memory. These nutrients come in pill form, but “the best brain food is a healthy diet,” says Madelyn Fernstrom, PhD, professor of psychiatry, epidemiology, and surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. To give yourself a mental edge, fortify your diet with foods that contain the following nutrients.


What it does: This important mineral helps myoglobin in muscle cells and hemoglobin in red blood cells ferry oxygen throughout your body, and to your brain. Iron-poor blood has been linked to a short attention span and mental sluggishness.


Super sources: Red meat, poultry, pork, raisins, dried apricots, prunes, dried beans, fortified bread, and grain products.


Food for thought: Consume these foods with vitamin C-rich food such as orange juice to up your body’s ability to absorb iron. Men and women age 50 and under should get 8 mg and 18 mg of iron per day, respectively. Men and women age 50 to 70 should get 8 mg of iron per day.


What it does: This little-known trace mineral may foster hand-eye coordination and short-term memory.


Super sources: apples, pears, broccoli, and carrots.


Food for thought: In the body, boron mimics the action of the hormone estrogen, which means that like estrogen, boron helps calcium keep bones strong.


What it does: In the body, choline is converted to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which appears to regulate memory and mental sharpness.


Super sources: eggs, red meat, and nuts. (In pill form, choline is found in lecithin.)


Food for thought: Some red meat is high in fat; reach for lean cuts and trim all fat before cooking.


Folic Acid
What it does: This B vitamin (also known as folacin or folate) helps maintain your brain’s levels of memory-boosting choline.


Super sources: orange and tomato juice, strawberries, dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, and turnip greens; wheat germ, dried beans, peas, fortified grains, and cereals.


Food for thought: Two major studies — the Harvard Health Professionals Follow-up Study and the Nurses’ Health Study — found that men and women who took folic acid supplements for many years had a lower incidence of colon cancer than those who didn’t take them. Most breads and cereals sold in the U.S. are fortified with folic acid. Consider taking a daily multivitamin containing folic acid as added health insurance. It has been found to reduce a woman’s risk of having a baby with neural-tube birth defects; all women of childbearing age are advised to get at least 400 micrograms daily in foods or supplements to guard against the possibility of birth defects.


What they do: Vitamins C, E and beta-carotene and other carotenoids (a class of orange plant pigments) help battle cell damage caused by free radicals (unstable oxygen molecules) that may lead to cloudy thought and premature brain aging. Free radicals are unstable because they lack a full complement of electrons so they steal electrons from other molecules, damaging those molecules in the process.


Super sources: Whole grains, nuts, and dark green, purple, blue, red, yellow, or orange fruits and veggies such as tomatoes, sweet potatoes, strawberries, blueberries, concord grapes, cantaloupe, and kale.


A trick to help you meet your quota of five or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day — pack in the produce before 4pm. Studies show that if you don’t get it by then, your chance of meeting your requirement is slim.


Food for thought: The latest research shows that taking antioxidants in pill form or added to foods doesn’t confer the same health benefits. It’s best to get these nutrients from their naturally-occurring forms — food. Getting plenty of free radical-fighters from your diet can help reduce your risk of heart disease.


Linolenic Acid
What it does: This super-unsaturated essential fatty acid helps brain cells forge new connections. With linolenic acid in your diet, you might “get it” — especially complex stuff — more easily. Men and women should get 1.6 grams and 1.1 grams of linolenic acid per day, respectively.


Super sources: Canola, soy, walnut and flaxseed oils, and seaweed.


Food for thought: Other oils —such a polyunsaturated corn or safflower — are practically devoid of linolenic acid. And saturated fat (butter, bacon) may clog the arteries of your brain as well as your heart.


What it does: Although its main job is to build strong bones, calcium has also been shown to increase your ability to concentrate during premenstrual days, when hormonal changes impair mental focus.


Super sources: Non-fat and low-fat milk and cheese, yogurt (regular and frozen), calcium-fortified juices, broccoli, and mustard greens.


Food for thought: Aim for 1,000 mg per day if you’re under age 50, including if you’re pregnant or nursing, which is roughly equivalent to the amount of calcium in two cups of low-fat yogurt plus an 8-ounce glass of milk. Try to get 1,200 mg of calcium per day if you’re 50 or older.   SANDRA GORDON


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