Women’s Wellness: Lifelong Brain Health

Bruce Young, MD

grains-for-your-brain2As a girl grows to become a woman, her nutritional needs keep changing. Her body grows and changes, as does her brain. If she becomes pregnant, and afterward, her nutritional needs undergo enormous shifts. And in menopause, they change yet again. All of these are governed by her hormones and her level of physical activity, and thus affect her brain.

From childhood to adolescence there is a gradual onset of estrogen secretion by the ovaries, and then cyclic progesterone, the two basic hormones responsible for growth and development of the female brain and body. Even before birth, the female fetus’ brain is programmed by pregnancy hormones, and fetal nutrition is totally dependent on the mother’s diet.

From fetal life through adolescence, the brain and body require the right building blocks, in the right amounts. A woman needs minerals like calcium for making (and maintaining) strong bones. She needs essential vitamins for wellness. She needs carbohydrates as an energy source for the brain and the chemical processes of metabolism to permit growth, development and normal function. All carbohydrates are an excellent energy source and come from grain foods like bread, cereals and pasta, as well as fruits and vegetables. These are sources of glucose, and several amino acids: aspartic acid, phenylalanine and glutaminic acid, all needed for a properly functioning brain. Protein is another source of amino acids used by the brain and is provided by eating meat, eggs, nuts, beans, milk and whole grains. They are crucial for growth from childhood on, and for maintenance of muscles and other organs as well as the brain. And yes, women need some fats, especially for maintaining brain health. Choline and fatty acids are important as the chemicals that help to transmit nerve impulses. Choline and certain fatty acids are found in eggs, fish and shellfish. Omega-3 and 6 fatty acids are important for vision, thinking and learning, and are found in flaxseed, fish and fish oils.

Pregnancy leads to a major metabolic overhaul and a healthy diet before and during pregnancy includes the nutrients discussed above plus prenatal vitamins. One especially important nutrient found in enriched grains and prenatal vitamins is folic acid, a B vitamin that helps prevent neural tube defects such as spina bifida and hydrocephalus in the developing fetus.

After childbirth, the body restores itself and hormones normalize. Regular exercise and proper diet play a key role in getting back to prepregnancy condition and staying healthy. A proper diet should include protein, carbohydrates to provide energy, as well as some fat to maintain proper brain health to ensure adequate nutrition while gradually returning to prepregnancy weight.  Lactation requires up to 50% more calories than a regular diet, and more protein.

Looking many years ahead, the beginning of menopause is associated with irregular hormones and irregular menstrual cycles. During this time, a woman’s weight tends to increase and calorie needs tend to decrease. Proper nutrition is slightly different because there is loss of connective tissue and of some muscle; to keep healthy brain function, a woman needs to keep up her mental and physical activity while monitoring her body’s changes. She also needs more fiber, iron and calcium for proper digestive health, red blood cell maintenance and strong bones. Cereals, whole grains and high-fiber breads are strongly associated with preserving mental function as well as helping the gastrointestinal system as a person goes through middle age and enters menopause. The Mediterranean diet, emphasizing vegetables and complex carbohydrates such as whole grain breads, cereals and pasta, olive oil and fish oils low in saturated fats, has been associated with improving brain function as well as a  lower risk of heart disease in older patients.

After menopause, hormone levels are low and energy declines overall. There is an even greater need for mental exercises like reading or crossword puzzles, and, of course, continuing physical activity. Both have been found to help maintain brain function. We now know that contrary to old ideas that the brain was fully developed by adulthood, the brain actually continues to develop throughout life, and with good health, continues to work well and make new connections even in an older person. This is when exercise may play a lesser role due arthritis,so a diet emphasizing vegetables, beans, whole grains, cereals and pasta, fish and healthy oils (like fish or vegetable oils) becomes even more important. Whatever a woman’s age, she can use good nutrition and an active lifestyle to maintain that brain!