Nutrition and Brain Function: The Importance of Protein

In a previous article we had a look at the importance of neurotransmitters in optimum brain function. These important chemical formulations can be accurately described as the ‘brain’s messengers’ as they play such a crucial role in facilitating the movement of impulses between different nerve cells. The very same things that we require from a ‘real life’ messenger service (i.e. an overnight courier) also apply to neurotransmitters namely that they should do their work speedily, efficiently and reliably. If this is not the case you could very well end up with a situation in which the brain simply does not perform as it should. The symptoms of this kind of sub-optimal performance can range from mild mental fuzziness to serious mental health problems. A strong case can be made that some of the symptoms associated with ADD-ADHD can also be traced back to deficient neurotransmitter activity.

It is very important, in light of the above, to strive towards conditions in which high quality neurotransmitters can be created and in which they can do their work as efficiently as possible. It should come as no surprise that nutrition plays an absolutely vital role in doing this with each food type contributing something significant to the mix. Over the next few weeks we will therefore look at the role of proteins, carbohydrates, fats and vitamins and minerals in ensuring proper brain function. This week the spotlight will be on the role of protein.
The vital importance of protein in our diets can be summed up in two words: Building Blocks. Neurotransmitters do not enter our bodies ‘whole’, they have to be manufactured by the body. This is done by using basic chemical building blocks of which amino acids are the most important. Where do we get these amino acids? Answer: From the protein in our diets. The body needs twenty two different amino acids which it then combines and reconfigures into the things that are necessary to sustain human life and thought. Eight of the twenty two amino acids (phenylalanine, valine, threonine, tryptophan, isoleucine, methionine, leucine, and lysine) are considered essential. This is not because they are more important to sustain human life than the others but because the body cannot manufacture them and they can therefore only be obtained through the diet. Non-essential amino acids can, on the other hand, be manufactured by the body, mostly by using the essential amino acids.

We all need sufficient amounts of the eight essential amino acids mentioned above in order to survive and thrive. This means that there should be enough protein in our diets. We should also pay careful attention to the kind of proteins that we eat since there are marked differences between what different kinds of proteins can supply. In general proteins can be divided into:

Complete Proteins: These proteins include sufficient amounts of all the essential amino acids. The most important sources are: Meat, fish, poultry, eggs and cheese. There are also some plant based sources of complete proteins, such as quinoa, hempseed and buckwheat.

Incomplete (or ‘Complementary’) Proteins: Incomplete proteins are mostly plant based (gelatin is the only animal based protein considered to be incomplete). They are considered to be ‘incomplete’ because they lack, or do not have sufficient quantities of, one or more of the essential amino acids. Examples of sources of incomplete proteins include grains (e.g. barley, cornmeal, rice, pasta and rye); legumes (e.g. beans, lentils, peanuts, chickpeas and soy) and nuts and seeds (e.g. sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, walnuts, cashew nuts and pumpkin seeds). Proteins from these categories will have to be combined with each other in order to create complete proteins. This means that a plate of rice will supply only part of the amino acids that you need, but that a dish of rice and beans can act as a complete protein. Information on the best ways of combining incomplete proteins is obviously very important if you follow a vegetarian diet. It is recommended that all vegetarians reading this research the topic thoroughly in order to make sure that you do not end up with a protein deficiency.

The importance of getting the right amount, and the right kinds, of amino acids from our diet have two very important implications. They are:

  • Make sure that your diet contains enough protein: This may seem like a no-brainer, but it is often the case that people skimp on protein, either through neglect or through following the latest diet fad. The fact is however, that your body and brain cannot function properly without the basic building blocks provided by sufficient amounts of protein in your diet.
  • Protein intake needs to be balanced and ‘in sync’ with that of other nutrients: Our protein intake should not be seen in isolation. The way in which we combine it with other foodstuffs (especially carbohydrates) can play a crucial role in helping us to achieve peak brain function. This topic (and especially how it related to the concept of Low GI) will be further highlighted and explained in subsequent articles.

A healthy brain needs a healthy messaging system. Part of making sure that this is in place is the supply of the right building blocks through sufficient protein intake. This is, if anything, even more important in the case of the ‘ADD-ADHD brain’ where everything possible should be done to ensure the smooth running of every part of the central nervous system.