Nutrition and the Developing Brain

By Bruce Young, MD

The development of the human brain is an amazing process that begins as early as the first six or seven days of life. At this point, the fertilized egg has grown to several thousand cells, morphing into an embryo. At one week post-conception, the embryo forms its neural tube, which is the very beginning of the brain and nervous system. Another week later, the brain, spinal cord and the body’s nerves are there and the whole nervous system has begun to form in the tiny embryo. 

During the rest of pregnancy, the developing fetus goes from a tadpole-like creature to a recognizable small human - a baby. The fetus begins to move by ten weeks and by the sixth month, the nervous system is completely organized. On a sonogram, a baby’s heart can be seen beating, its limbs moving, its chest attempting to breathe, and these functions are all controlled by the fetal brain. By six months, it has everything it needs to see and hear, to taste and smell, to feel and one day, think!

Needless to say, all these changes and developments require energy and building blocks from food. This energy comes from the mother’s diet and is passed on to the baby through the placenta. An optimal diet for brain development should include:

  • Carbohydrates coming from grain foods rich in folic acid like bread, pasta, and cereals.  In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration mandates that enriched wheat flour be fortified with folic acid to aid in the development of the spinal cord and prevent neural tube defects like spina bifida. We know that by the time a woman realizes she is pregnant, the embryo has already developed the neural tube. This is why folic acid should be at good levels before pregnancy occurs to prevent neural tube defects. 
  • Healthy fats, including omega-3 fatty acids from eggs, grains, olive oil and fish. These fats are important for the insulating cells around nerves and the chemicals that carry signals between nerves. 
  • Lean proteins such as meats, beans and milk products to fuel the growth of new nerve cells.

In addition to these macronutrients, vitamins and minerals such as iron and folic acid are crucial for brain development. Our brains continue to grow and develop after birth and a diet rich in these same nutrients is needed as we mature. A proper diet ensures that our brain is fueled up properly to learn, remember, play sports and for us to become creative and social people. Therefore, consuming the right mix of nutrients gives us a healthy brain not only from the start, but throughout our entire lifespans.

—from www.grainsforyourbrain.org