By Candace Chemtob, B.S. and M.S. in Human Nutrition
The comparisons between squash and chess are plentiful. The BBC called squash “chess at 100 mph” (June 2, 2002). Nicol David explained in a recent CNN interview that squash is “all about taking control and using the space as well as you can, like physical chess”. What does this comparison imply? In squash, speed, agility, and power alone do not make a squash champion. To excel, a player must outwit the opponent to win and that takes brain power.
The relationship between diet and brain function is irrefutable. For decades, it has been well-known that malnutrition stunts the growth of the developing brain, and that the B-vitamins exert a strong influence on cognition (defined as the mental processes involved in gaining knowledge and comprehension, such as thinking, knowing, remembering, judging and problem solving). More recent research has proven that there is a long list of nutrients that exert a demonstrable effect on brain function ranging from glucose, Vitamins C, D, E to omega 3 fatty acids.
Performance, whether physical or mental, is directly influenced by your diet. Similar to your body, the brain needs a sufficient supply of energy to reach it’s performance potential. The brain, however, could be classified as an energy “guzzler”. Although it accounts for only 2 to 3% of body weight, the brain demands more than 20% of your daily energy needs or about 120g glucose per day. To put this in perspective, the amount of energy your brain uses daily is the same amount of energy it takes to run four miles. Why does the brain have such a “heavy” energy burden? The brain never rests. Neurons, the specialized cells of the brain and nervous system, never rest and are continually transmitting signals throughout the nervous system and the body even while you are asleep.
The brain is a “picky eater” and runs on glucose alone, unlike most other cells in the body which can use both glucose and derivatives from fat for energy. Glucose is the form of carbohydrate that travels through the bloodstream to provide energy to the body’s cells. When blood glucose levels drop, mental performance drops. To illustrate this point, parents and teachers have long recognized that children who skip breakfast do not perform as well at school, as compared to those who eat. Research has backed up these observations, proving that diet has a strong positive impact on attention span, behavior, test performance, short term memory, and word recall in young children (Bellisle, British J of Nutrition, 2004). And breakfast isn’t just for kids. Adults who skip meals have decreased performance on the job, increased fatigue,and lapses in memory.
There is mounting evidence that vitamins and fats also have an impressive influence on brain function. It has been long known that the B-vitamins play a vital role in brain health. The B vitamins are involved in the structure of the brain, manufacture of brain chemicals, and protect cognitive functions. One example is Vitamin B12 which is central to the development of the myelin sheath, which facilitates all communication between neurons. Vitamin B12 deficiency disrupts not only the myelin sheath, but is associated with overall degeneration of the brain, cognitive losses, and eventually can lead to severe, irreversible neurologic (brain) dysfunction if left untreated(NEJM, 2012).
Diet can protect brain function throughout the lifespan. A recent study in the elderly found adequate blood levels of the B-Vitamins (B1, B2, B6, folate, and B12), Vitamins C, D, E, and omega 3 fatty acid levels were associated with higher scores on tests of thinking and memory as compared to subjects with lower levels (Bowman, J of Neurology, 2011). To the contrary, higher blood levels of trans fatty acids, were associated with lower scores. To take this one step further, the researchers found that nutritional factors had more of an influence on brain size (as measured with MRI technology) than did age, or other health factors. These are preliminary findings, but suggest that brain power can be maximized through the lifespan by making dietary adjustments.
Good news for squash players! If you are reading this article, chances are you are a squash enthusiast who is physically active. Being physically active has a profound positive impact on brain function and this has been found at all ages. Physically active school age children had higher learning and intelligence scores as compared to sedentary children (Sibley, Ped Exercise Science, 2003). Later in life, as the brain begins to atrophy (shrink) and memory fades, exercise will slow, and possibly reverse, this decline. Active elderly subjects have more grey matter of the brain than did sedentary seniors (Colcombe, A Biol.Sci.Med. 2003).
Leaders in this field are suggesting that nutrition and exercise work synergistically to protect brain health. So, be mindful of what you eat and play lots of squash! This is a good recipe for maximizing your brain power!