Mental acuity, also referred to as mental sharpness, is a measure of focus, concentration, memory and understanding. It is not a measure of intelligence; rather, mental acuity is how efficient your brain functions on a day to day basis. There are many factors that may affect mental acuity, including distractions, environmental conditions, fatigue, and health concerns.
Our brains are made up of approximately one hundred billion nerve cells called neurons. These neurons transmit electrochemical signals to one another along axons, which are long threadlike portions of the nerve cell. At the end of each nerve cell is a dendrite, which connects neurons to one another. Thoughts are created by an electrochemical impulse being sent down an axon to a synapse. The message is then sent across a synaptic gap to the dendrite on the next neuron. This pattern continues through brain cells similar to dominos being pushed over in a line. The portion of the brain that processes thoughts is the cerebrum, also known as the cerebral cortex. It is also responsible for sense organs, motor function, emotions, and memory.
Exposure to factors like environmental pollutants, heavy metals, excess sugar, extreme stress and fatigue can all impair the proper function of neurons. Free radicals are molecules with unpaired electrons which buzz around causing damage to surrounding molecules in their search for another electron. Similar to how rust attacks metal, free radicals attack our brain cells, causing inflammation. In turn, inflammation can cause communication breakdown between the neurons, meaning that our thought processes become inefficient. Antioxidants are nutrients and enzymes that are capable of counteracting the effects of free radicals. They are found in fruits and vegetables primarily and help to protect against the negative effects of oxidization and inflammation. The best sources of antioxidants include citrus fruits, berries, tomatoes, green tea, cacao and leafy green vegetables.
Research from the Harvard Medical School and Harvard Men’s Health Watch has revealed that exercise is a key factor in maintaining mental acuity. Regular, moderately intense exercise stimulates a chemical known as Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) that has the ability to “rewire” our brain’s memory circuits so that they are able to perform better. Dr. John Ratey, Associate Clinical Professor at the Harvard School of Medicine and author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain has conducted studies that show that the chemicals released by exercise strengthen our brains by causing neurons to grow and reach further to create more connections. Using the analogy of a tree growing more branches and blooming, exercise cultivates the neurons in our brains, encouraging them to expand and connect with other neurons.
Controlling blood sugar levels is a critical component in maintaining mental acuity. The results of German led studies show that increased levels of glycated hemoglobin are directly correlated with a decreased ability to recall information and decreased learning comprehension. A similar study conducted by UCLA researchers found that fructose impairs both memory and learning.This is because excess sugar molecules in our brains actually block the membranes that facilitate communication between neurons. Furthermore, when protein and sugar molecules bond in our brain it stimulates our body to emit an immune response that causes inflammation and oxidation in that particular area. Sugar has been known to cause neurons to misfire, interfere with synaptic communication and even permanently damage neurons. For this reason it is extremely important to manage blood sugar and insulin levels.
Supplements That Support Mental Acuity
- Vitamin D
The sunshine vitamin. Studies have shown that we have Vitamin D receptors in both the nervous system and hippocampus areas of our brains. Vitamin D protects neurons, regulates brain enzymes and the amount of cerebrospinal fluid. Interestingly, tests have shown that low levels of vitamin D are correlated with negative performance on brain function assessments.
- Acetyl L Carnitine
Find it in red meat and dairy products. Acetyl L Carnitine (ACL) is a nutrient that plays an important role in brain health. It is able to stimulate energy production in brain cells meaning better thought processes and connections across synapses. ACL plays a role in maintaining the amount of Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor which, as stated previously, encourages the growth of new brain cells. It is also key to metabolizing fats so that lipids are not left to clog brain function or to contribute to inflammation caused by free radicals.
Find it in cold water fatty fish such as salmon. Docosahexaenoic Acid, also known as DHA, is an essential fatty acid that is a key component of the physical makeup of our brains. Studies have shown that DHA can reduce the likelihood of memory loss, depression, ADD, dementia and possibly Alzheimer’s disease.
- Coconut Oil
Coconut oil is made up of medium chain triglycerides, a type of fat that when digested is converted to ketones in our liver. The ketones are then released directly into our bloodstream where they are quickly transported to our brains. Science suggests that Alzheimer’s disease may be caused by a peptide called Amyloid-B which is the main component of deposits found in the brains of patients with the disease. Recent studies have suggested that ketones created from the digestion of MCTs protect against, and offset the effects of, Amyloid-B peptide. Furthermore, there is evidence that shows that ketones are actually able to restore and renew neurons and nerve function in the brain.
Found in shellfish such as clams. Vitamin B12 deficiency is one of the most common vitamin deficiencies across the country. A lack of vitamin B12 can cause mental fogginess and memory troubles. An Oxford University study found that a mixture of folic acid, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12 can help stop mental decline, dementia, and may also have a positive effect on the symptoms associated with dementia.