A Mineral-Rich Diet: Prerequisite for Proper Brain Function

Consuming foods that supply vital nutrients like zinc, iron, and calcium can help protect cognition.

The foods and liquids we consume supply most of the nutrients and chemicals that promote the complex structures and processes of the brain. Among the most important of these are minerals. These inorganic substances play a vital role in the health and functioning of the brain, and research suggests that insufficiencies caused by aging or poor diet can negatively affect memory and cognition.

For example, a new study has found evidence that one mineral, zinc, may be critical to signaling among brain cells. Scientists have long known that zinc is present in the brain’s synapses—the communication points between neurons, or brain cells—and that it plays a role in learning and memory. Now, in animal research published online March 3, 2017 in the international journal Angewandte Chemie, scientists report that the micronutrient appears to influence the number of chemical messengers, or neurotransmitters, stored in synapses, as well as the process through which they are released from the cell. Insufficient levels of zinc were associated with a marked decrease in the number of neurotransmitters released, “Zinc is found in high concentrations in the hippocampus, a key brain region for learning and memory,” says David Mischoulon, MD, PhD, Director of the Depression Clinical and Research Program at MGH. “It is just one of a number of minerals that affect brain chemistry. Many scientists believe that even mild deficiencies of these important nutrients can result in adverse brain changes, so it’s important to assess your diet and make sure you’re getting enough of the foods and liquids that supply them.

“The over-processed and fast foods that are common in the American diet are often lacking in basic nutrients,” warns Dr. Mischoulon. “Fewer and fewer people are eating sufficient fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other foods that are natural sources of these minerals. For example, it’s estimated that more than 50 percent of Americans are deficient in magnesium.

“If your diet is lacking, consider changing your eating habits, or using supplements. If you’re experiencing health problems, you should see your doctor for a medical evaluation.”

Essential Minerals

Minerals are necessary for a number of biological and physiological processes. It’s important to get the right balance of minerals, since either too much or too little may adversely affect the brain. Among the minerals important to the brain are:

Calcium: Involved in the function of nerves, and in maintaining normal blood pressure. Deficiency may lead to dementia. Recommended daily allowance (RDA): 800-1200 milligrams (mg). Sources: Leafy green vegetables, dairy products, almonds, liver, sardines, and cereals.

Chromium: Aids in glucose metabolism and may have beneficial effects on mood. Deficiency is thought to interfere with the body’s ability to use glucose for energy, raise insulin requirements, and possibly increase risk for type 2 diabetes. RDA: 120 micrograms. Sources: Broccoli, grape juice, whole grains, fresh fruits, nuts, liver, and beef.

Iron: Involved in energy production and the transport of oxygen. Plays a role in the production of several neurotransmitters as well as the fatty sheath that coats nerve fibers in the brain. Helps protect cells from oxidant damage and is involved in clotting, blood, and circulatory disorders that affect the brain. Deficiency causes slowed thinking, problems concentrating and remembering, anemia, fatigue, dizziness, headache, and depression. RDA: Under age 50, 15 mg; over age 50, 10 mg. Sources: Liver, dried beans, whole-grain cereals, eggs, fish, wheat germ, leafy green vegetables, poultry, red meat, and nuts.

Lithium: Involved in endocrine regulation and brain function. Thought to stabilize transmission of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the nervous system and boost the growth and resilience of neurons. Some research suggests that it may help lower risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Deficiency may be associated with mood instability. RDA: Proposed amount is 1 mg. Sources: Natural mineral waters, milk, eggs, grains and vegetables.

Magnesium: Involved in a variety of chemical reactions important to the brain. Plays a role in nerve function and appears to help protect brain cells from injury. Integral to memory formation, and to communication among brain cells. Enhances brain plasticity—the ability to change and respond to new information. Deficiency may cause anxiety, headache, confusion, personality changes, and possibly loss of synapses and memory decline. RDA: 420 mg for men, 320 mg for women. Sources: Nuts, whole grains, spinach and other leafy green vegetables, fish, milk, potato, kidney beans, and raisins.

Manganese: Involved in energy metabolism and appears to be involved in the synthesis of neurotransmitters. RDA: 2.0 mg. Sources: Celery, bananas, egg yolks, walnuts, whole grains, and leafy green vegetables.

Potassium: Plays a role in nerve conduction, and may help prevent and treat hypertension. Deficiency can cause fatigue, and/or weakness. RDA: 3,500 mg. Sources: Meats, whole grains, nuts, seafood, peaches, bananas, potatoes, and cereals.

Sodium: Involved in regulation of body fluids; aids in nerve transmission. Deficiency can cause confusion, and/or fatigue. RDA: 2,400 mg. Sources: Processed foods and table salt.

Zinc: Involved in the immune system and many chemical reactions. Deficiency can cause memory and/or emotional problems. RDA: 15 mg for men, 12 mg for women. Sources: Brewer’s yeast, fish, soybeans, liver, spinach, red meat, and egg yolk. MMM

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