The brain is the most complex organ in our bodies; in fact, it is one of the most complex objects in the entire universe. Maintaining proper brain health through adequate mineral consumption is essential for overall well-being.
Overview of the brain
The brain is an approximately 1.4kg spongy mass, separated into functional sections known as lobes. Each lobe is responsible for key tasks such as the regulation of heart rate, breathing, blood circulation and the ability to walk, talk and eat.5 It essentially achieves this by sending and receiving chemical and electrical signals throughout the body via the central nervous system (CNS), a complex system consisting of around 100 billion nerve cells.1 Various minerals are known to play roles in multiple processes in the CNS.
Importance of brain health
Maintaining a healthy brain is a crucial factor in the goal of good health and longevity. Optimisation of brain health can be approached through many avenues, such as exercise, sleep, environment and diet. One aspect of diet that should be highly regarded in terms of brain health is mineral intake.
Role of minerals in cognitive function
Minerals are known to play a role in the normal function and development of the brain. Understanding the mechanisms and interactions between minerals and the brain and knowing where to source these minerals can prevent unnecessary deficiencies in these vital nutrients. This article highlights the essential minerals for brain health, their role in brain processes, and how to source them.
Essential minerals for brain health
Zinc, magnesium, selenium, iron and calcium are five essential minerals which are crucial for optimal brain function. Proper homeostasis (regulation) of these minerals contributes to overall brain health via the regulation of multiple critical processes and the prevention of neurological conditions.
Zinc is an essential trace mineral that plays a role in many biological functions. This essential mineral is best known for its role in the creation of DNA, cell growth and the proper function of the immune system. However, it is also one of the most prevalent elements involved in brain function. Zinc contributes to both physiological and pathophysiological processes within the brain.
The homeostasis of zinc plays a major role in the regulation of the central nervous system (CNS). Studies have suggested that zinc promotes neurogenesis and has antioxidant effects. Neurogenesis is the process by which new neurons are formed in the brain. It is crucial during embryo development yet continues throughout adult life in certain regions of the brain such as the the hippocampus. Neurogenesis plays a critical role in the maintenance of the CNS. It works to maintain cognitive function and repairs damaged brain cells affected by ageing and brain disorders.2,3 Additionally, zinc's role as an antioxidant helps prevent oxidative damage to brain cells by fighting off the free radicals which can damage brain cells. Zinc deficiency has been linked to a decline in cognition and learning due to higher rates of oxidative stress.4
Luckily, it is quite easy to source zinc from foods such as meat, seafood, beans, nuts, and seeds. Oysters in particular, contain large amounts of zinc, with a serving of three ounces containing around 32 mg of zinc, which is 291% of the 11 mg recommended daily allowance (RDA) for an adult male. Females require slightly less zinc, with an 8 mg RDA.
The brain uses around 20% of the overall energy consumed by the body despite representing only 2% of its mass. Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is the energy currency of the body.4 ATP has to be bound to a magnesium ion to be biologically active. Recent studies suggest that if magnesium cannot get into the mitochondria (the powerhouse of the cell), energy production is severely limited. Within the brain, this would cause suboptimal energy production, leading to a decline in cognitive function.
Additionally, magnesium helps prevent nerve cells from being overstimulated by acting as a gatekeeper for NMDA receptors. NMDA receptors are involved in development, learning and memory. Overstimulation of nerve cells over time can lead to cell death and brain damage.5
The RDA of magnesium is around 400 mg for men and 350 mg for women. Magnesium can be sourced in a large variety of plants and foods. Dark chocolate, avocados, and various nuts contain large amounts of magnesium. Green leafy vegetables, such as spinach and legumes, are also a good source. In general, foods with dietary fibre provide ample amounts of magnesium.
Selenium is used to synthesise the amino acid selenocysteine for use in selenoproteins. In humans, there are 25 types of these proteins. These proteins play many roles within the CNS, including protection against oxidative and endoplasmic reticulum stress, inflammation, and maintenance of redox balance (equilibrium between the production and destruction of free radicals). The brain has a high rate of oxygen consumption and, thus an increased susceptibility to oxidative stress. The brain is reliant on selenium to maintain a redox balance. A lack of selenium/selenoproteins can cause symptoms such as brain fog, depression, and anxiety. Links have also been made between selenium deficiency and Alzheimer's and Parkinson’s progression.6
Very little selenium is needed for homeostasis, with the RDA being 55 micrograms (mcg). Brazil nuts are the best source of selenium, with a serving of six to eight nuts containing around 500 mcg. As with all minerals, overconsumption can lead to complications, so it is recommended to eat Brazil nuts no more than a few times weekly. Other common sources include meats such as fish, ham, beef, chicken, and enriched foods.
Another fundamental mineral required for good brain health is iron. Commonly known for its role in haemoglobin, iron is involved in many processes within the brain. Key roles include myelin and neurotransmitter synthesis. Homeostasis of iron is necessary for the maintenance of normal brain function. Excess or low iron levels have been shown to cause neurotoxicity through many different mechanisms. Optimal iron levels provide ideal conditions for cell function.7
The RDA is around 8 mg a day for adult men and post-menopausal women. Since pre-menopausal women lose a lot of blood during their period, they require up to 18 mg a day. Unsurprisingly, women are more susceptible to iron deficiency,, with 20% of women and 50% of pregnant women having insufficient iron in their bodies, compared to 3% of men. The aptly named iron deficiency anaemia is when there is a decrease in red blood cell count due to limited iron. Iron is used in the production of haemoglobin. Haemoglobin is a protein which allows red blood cells to carry oxygen around the body. In the brain, chronic anaemia leads the brain to increase its resting blood flow. This makes the brain vulnerable to disruption of oxygen delivery under stress. Common sources of iron include liver (unadvisable to consume during pregnancy), red meats, beans, chickpeas, nuts, and dried fruit. Pregnant women are often recommended to take iron supplements.
Calcium is the most prominent mineral in the body. Calcium ions help maintain electrical potential across cell membranes. Communication between neurons could not occur without calcium, as this process requires electrical impulses. Poor regulation of calcium can lead to problems with alertness, concentration and cognition. More serious symptoms include depression and seizures.
Adults require around 700 mg of calcium per day. Dairy products such as milk and cheese are plentiful in calcium. Other common sources include beans, figs, and broccoli.
Precautions and interactions
Whilst proper supplementation is ideal for good brain health, it is important to be careful to avoid excess intake to prevent toxic complications. Staying close to the RDA for each mineral is recommended to avoid any adverse effects. Every human is unique, so these guidelines are general and may require adjustments depending on your individual response. Furthermore, some supplements may interact with prescription medicines, so always contact your GP if you are unsure.
Is there a good way to test my mineral levels?
Many clinics offer a simple blood test to identify mineral and vitamin levels. Deficiencies identified may reveal a simple path to improved health.
Are natural minerals better than supplements?
Many studies suggest that nutrients ingested via a varied diet are preferable over supplements. However, in certain cases, supplementation of minerals may be ideal.
Which other minerals should I keep in mind?
The brain makes use of boron, iodine, manganese, molybdenum, phosphorous, potassium, chromium, and copper. If you suspect a deficiency in one of these minerals, perhaps a blood test can reveal them.
The brain is susceptible to many complications over its lifespan. With the average lifespan trending upwards, age-related brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s are becoming more and more commonplace. A varied and healthy diet containing all essential minerals is one of the best ways to ensure minimal avoidable complications.
- Tognoli E, Kelso JAS. Enlarging the scope: grasping brain complexity. Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience [Internet]. 2014 [cited 2023 Aug 4];8. Available from: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnsys.2014.00122
- Kumar V, Kumar A, Singh K, Avasthi K, Kim JJ. Neurobiology of zinc and its role in neurogenesis. Eur J Nutr [Internet]. 2021 Feb 1 [cited 2023 Aug 4];60(1):55–64. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00394-020-02454-3
- Poulose SM, Miller MG, Scott T, Shukitt-Hale B. Nutritional factors affecting adult neurogenesis and cognitive function. Adv Nutr [Internet]. 2017 Nov 7 [cited 2023 Aug 7];8(6):804–11. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5683005/
- Maier JAM, Locatelli L, Fedele G, Cazzaniga A, Mazur A. Magnesium and the brain: a focus on neuroinflammation and neurodegeneration. Int J Mol Sci [Internet]. 2022 Dec 23 [cited 2023 Aug 9];24(1):223. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9820677/
- Hou H, Wang L, Fu T, Papasergi M, Yule DI, Xia H. Magnesium acts as a second messenger in the regulation of NMDA receptor-mediated CREB signalling in neurons. Mol Neurobiol [Internet]. 2020 Jun [cited 2023 Aug 9];57(6):2539–50. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8202957/
- Solovyev ND. Importance of selenium and selenoprotein for brain function: From antioxidant protection to neuronal signalling. J Inorg Biochem. 2015 Dec;153:1–12.
- Ward RJ, Zucca FA, Duyn JH, Crichton RR, Zecca L. The role of iron in brain ageing and neurodegenerative disorders. Lancet Neurol [Internet]. 2014 Oct [cited 2023 Aug 10];13(10):1045–60. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5672917/