Protein and Brain Health: What to Know

Did you know that your brain is made mostly of water and fatty acids? It requires a steady stream of glucose for optimal function and energy, and it burns through a large amount of glucose on a daily basis. Although it prefers glucose over other fuels, it can run on short fat compounds when necessary.

Interestingly, there is very little protein found within the brain. That probably leaves you wondering, “Does the brain need protein at all?” Well, it turns out that although protein doesn’t make up much of your brain’s structure, it is extremely important to how your brain functions.

In fact, the neurons in your brain actually use protein to communicate. Amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein, are also used to make neurotransmitters that help the brain do its job of keeping other organs in the body function properly.

That means protein is essential for optimal brain health and function. What’s more, a protein deficiency can affect all of your other organs indirectly through poor brain function. Here’s what you need to know about how protein affects brain health plus how you can optimize your diet for improved brain function.

Protein May Protect the Brain Against Age-Related Cognitive Decline

Eating a high-protein diet reduces the amount of amyloid-beta in your body, which is a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease. In this study of over five hundred seniors, those who consumed 120 grams of protein daily had lower levels of amyloid-beta than those whose daily intake was only fifty-four grams.

But that’s not all. Another study of 920 seniors showed that those who follow a high-protein diet, along with plenty of leafy greens and healthy fats, also had a decreased risk of dementia and improved cognitive function.

Unfortunately, it’s not entirely clear how protein influences the level of amyloid-beta in the brain. Some believe it’s the effects of a high-protein diet for lowering blood pressure and improving heart health. In general, what’s good for your heart is also good for your brain.

Another theory is that consuming a diet that’s high in protein is great for controlling weight. Protein helps you feel full, which means you’re less likely to eat inflammatory sugar and refined carbohydrates. Maintaining a healthy weight and reducing inflammation are both essential for overall health, especially heart and brain health.

Although this seems like a lot of protein to consume in a day, if you focus on including some healthy protein in all of your meals and snacks throughout the day, you shouldn’t have any trouble getting enough protein to support a healthy brain.

Protein Promotes Healthy Brain Development in Babies and Toddlers

It turns out that protein is just as important for babies and toddlers as it is for seniors. During gestation and the first three years of life, protein is vital for early brain development. Although neurons are mostly fueled by glucose and made of fat, they need protein to communicate with each other and control numerous body processes that are crucial for growth and development.

Protein also makes up the hormones, neurotransmitters, and enzymes that the brain uses to accomplish numerous essential tasks in other parts of the body. Lack of protein in these early stages of development can result in a smaller brain with fewer neurons and neurotransmitters, as well as lower DNA and RNA content.

Mood, Appetite, and Energy Levels are Impacted by Protein Intake

It may surprise you to hear that what you eat not only affects your brain’s overall function, but also your moods and emotions. Protein deficiencies can actually reduce cognitive function because lack of protein depletes the chemicals in your brain that control your energy levels, moods, and appetite.

In fact, a lack of protein in the diet may contribute to some types of autism, ADHD, epilepsy, depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders. And it doesn’t end there!

Have you ever noticed that a heavy meal that’s full of carbohydrates leaves you feeling tired and sluggish? That’s because it promotes the production of tryptophan in the brain. Tryptophan is a neurotransmitter that increases serotonin levels, which promotes feelings of calmness and sleepiness.

On the other hand, choosing a protein-rich meal can leave you full of energy and feeling alert because it triggers an increase in the amino acid tyrosine. Tyrosine is used to create dopamine and norepinephrine, two neurotransmitters that promote energy and alertness.

Too much alcohol, sugar, processed carbohydrates, and caffeine can also affect the production of these neurotransmitters. In other words, you can’t correct an unhealthy diet and lifestyle simply by eating more protein. 

Protein Affects Hormone Production

Although some hormones are made from fats, many are made of protein. Hormones communicate much like neurotransmitters, just a little slower. They’re incredibly important for reproductive health, thyroid health, liver health, brain health, and much more.

The essential amino acids found in high-quality protein can’t be manufactured by the body. That means we need to consume them through the diet to maintain proper hormone balance.

Protein Affects the Ability of Enzymes to Function Properly

Protein has the ability to shape, bend, and twist itself into the structures that form enzymes. These industrious little enzymes are crucial for a healthy brain. Inside your brain, enzymes are busy breaking down plaque, helping to create neurotransmitters, and more.

How to Optimize Your Diet for Good Brain Health

We all know that protein comes from animal products, but it may surprise you to hear that there are other fantastic protein sources to include in a healthy diet. In fact, animal protein is often high in fat and harder to digest than plant proteins. Opting to include some plant proteins also provides valuable enzymes and other nutrients that support brain health.

Plant-based protein bars, powders, and soy protein meal replacement drinks are all great for getting more healthy plant proteins into your diet without adding unnecessary calories. Nuts, seeds, and legumes are rich in protein, and they contain healthy fats that are also essential for brain health. Even leafy green vegetables can provide a decent amount of protein, as well as other vital nutrients for brain health.

When you consume carbs, opt for complex carbohydrates because they often provide some protein, as well as other valuable nutrients, without the dramatic blood sugar spike that comes from eating refined carbohydrates and sugar. Complex carbs can be found in starchy vegetables and whole grains.

Wrapping Things Up

When choosing a healthy diet, variety is the key to ensuring that you’re getting all of the nutrients your body needs. It’s no different when it comes to protein. Your brain needs a variety of different amino acids to create neurotransmitters, enzymes, hormones, and connective tissue.

Different types of protein contain different amino acids in varying amounts. What’s more, your body can’t store protein in the way it does fat. Although protein does circulate in your bloodstream for a few days, it must be replenished daily to keep the supply where it needs to be.

Throughout the week, be sure to mix up your protein sources so that your brain can pick and choose which amino acids it needs for certain tasks. Remember, your brain is an amazing machine that knows how to take care of itself, but you have to provide it with the right raw materials.


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40 Responses to Protein and Brain Health: What to Know

  1. Miriam fox says:

    I have stage 3 ckd and am on plant based diet and recommended to have not more than 40 mg protein a day. Does that mean I will have cognitive problems since you say minimal of 50.

  2. Miriam fox says:

    I meant grams

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