4 Ways to Fuel Your Brain

21 09 2011

By Kate Fisher


Fatigue is a very common complaint. Sometimes we relate it to physical fatigue after a race, or a hard workout, and often we relate it to mental fatigue at the end of a workday or work week.

Those who complain of fatigue may say they lack energy or lack motivation, they get tired easily or their muscles tire easily in a workout or doing daily tasks. Mentally speaking they may complain that they can’t concentrate or have to struggle to focus to complete an activity. Other words they might use include: tired, worn out, exhausted, or run down.

We can all relate to one of these symptoms or words above. Fatigue is a very common complaint, and the list of potential causes is extensive. This article, though, will focus on potential nutritional influences on fatigue and how you might combat them by improving what you eat.

Let’s take a look at how you can better fuel your brain in four simple ways: hydration, meal frequency and consistency, adequate vitamin D and adequate omega-3 fatty acids.



Fatigue is a common symptom of dehydration. In a study by Szinnai et al. (2005), moderate dehydration negatively affected short-term memory and working memory (temporarily storing information for use in various cognitive tasks), as well as subjectively increasing tiredness, reducing alertness and increasing the perceived effort and concentration necessary to complete tasks while dehydrated.


So What Can You Do?

  • Always carry a filled water bottle with you. Whether stuck in a car in traffic, or stuck in a meeting at work, you can avoid dehydration by assuring you have fluids available.
  • Be sure to consume fluids when you exercise. Often we are in a rush to complete our workout or our run or walk. So make sure you adequately hydrate before, during, and after exercise to avoid dehydration.
  • As soon as you wake up, grab a glass of water or 100 percent fruit juice to start your day on the right note.
  • Look for dark colored urine. If your urine is dark yellow, you are likely dehydrated. The goal is straw colored or clear.
  • Consume more fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables are mostly water and fiber. Therefore, increasing your fruit and vegetable intake can increase your fluid intake. Other food and beverage options you may consider include: soups, fruit juices, yogurt, low fat milk, iced or hot tea, coffee—in moderation.

Meal Frequency and Consistency

Glucose is the primary fuel for brain function. An article from 1930 from Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine discussed the relationship between “industrial efficiency” and fatigue. Inadequate energy intake led to a significant “diminution” in the capacity to do work. Simply put, in this article “efficiency would be helped by education… as to best ways to spend the food allowance” to assure adequate caloric intake.

From a 2010 standpoint, there are very easy ways we can apply that learning to today.

  • Eat regular meals and snacks, including a balanced breakfast before you start your workday. Not only will this help to keep energy levels constant, but it will also help prevent cravings and overeating later in the day. Smaller, more frequent meals can also allow for easier digestion, and less risk for the Thanksgiving-like “food coma” that may ensue.
  • Avoid simple sugars, and instead opt for high-fiber, nutrient-dense carbohydrates that will supply glucose to the working muscles and the brain, but do so in a more sustaining fashion versus a sharp rise and sharp drop. Examples include: whole grains, grain alternatives like quinoa, high-fiber fruits and vegetables, beans and legumes.


Vitamin D

Research has shown us that there are receptors for vitamin D throughout the brain. Ganji, et al. (2010) noted in their large population-based study, that the “likelihood of having depression in persons with vitamin D deficiency is significantly higher compared to those with vitamin D sufficiency.”


Food Sources

There are limited sources of vitamin D in our diet. We do make vitamin D in our skin with the presence of sunlight; however, in certain areas of the country like the Pacific Northwest, adequate sunlight is nonexistent and many people are subject to vitamin D inadequacy or even deficiency. There are some whole food and fortified food sources of vitamin D, including oily fish like salmon, mackeral and sardines, fish oils like cod liver oil, egg yolks, and fortified foods like milk, cereals, orange juice and yogurt (Holick, 2006).


Dietary Reference Intake for Vitamin D

Very recently, new recommendations were released by the Institute of Medicine for both vitamin D and calcium. The recommended dietary allowance for vitamin D is 600 IU/day for ages 1-70 and 800 IU/day for ages 71 and above. Consequences of inadequate vitamin D can affect the skeletal and neuromuscular systems, and we are learning with continued research that vitamin D may affect many other non-skeletal systems as well.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are stored guess where? In your brain, among other places, but each synapse in your brain has a lining composed partially of DHA, one of the primary omega-3 fatty acids our body requires. Our bodies cannot make these fatty acids, thus their term, “essential fatty acids.” The following bullets show the extreme importance of essential fatty acids on the brain.

  • If you look at any baby formula container, you will find fortification with Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA), due to the importance of omega-3 fatty acids on neurological and visual development.
  • A review of essential fatty acids released by the Linus Pauling Institute (Oregon State University), indicates that “low DHA may be a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia.” This review also reported rodent studies indicating a connection between omega-3 fatty acid deficiency and learning/memory.
  • Also reported by the Linus Pauling Institute, is a noticeable inverse association across countries between rates of depression and seafood consumption; seafood being a primary source of omega-3 fatty acids in our food system.

The Institute of Medicine also established adequate intake levels for omega-3 fatty acids. Recommendations for adults 19 and older are 1.6g/day for males and 1.1g/day for females. The American Heart Association sets more specific recommendations for those with documented heart disease at 1g/day specifically of EPA+DHA.

The brain is very complex, and as you can see, there are many ways in which nutrition can affect your brain, and fatigue. Think about the above four nutritional recommendations in your own diet and see if you can better fuel your brain.

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Works Cited:

Holick, Michael, F. 2006. “High prevalence of vitamin D inadequacy and implications for health”. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 81(3):353-373.

Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. 2010. Report Brief: Dietary reference intakes for calcium and vitamin D. Available at: http://iom.edu/Reports/2010/Dietary-Reference-Intakes-for-Calcium-and-Vitamin-D/Report-Brief.aspx.

Linus Pauling Institute Micronutrient Information Center, 2005. “Essential Fatty Acids.” Available at: http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/infocenter/othernuts/omega3fa/
Szinnai, G., Schachinger, H., Arnaud, M.J., Linder, L., Keller, U. (2004). “Effect of water deprivation on cognitive-motor performance in healthy men and women.” The American Physiological Society, 289:R275-R280.

Kate Fischer, MS, RD, LD is the managing partner of Edge Performance Fitness, LLC, Portland, Oregon. She offers group fitness classes, and personal nutrition counseling. For more information email kate@edgeperformancefitness.com or visit www.edgeperformancefitness.com



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