Eating well isn’t just for maintaining a healthy weight and heart health- eating certain foods have been found to help brain function. Foods particularly rich in healthful components like omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, and antioxidants, are known to support brain health and are often referred to as brain foods. Incorporating many of these foods into a healthy diet on a regular basis can improve the health of your brain and mental function.
A number of animal and a growing number of human studies show that moderate-duration dietary supplementation with nuts is capable of altering cognitive performance in humans, perhaps slowing or reversing the effects of neurodegeneration (such as Alzheimer’s disease or dementia). Nuts (like walnuts, almonds, pistachios) are high in unsaturated fatty acids, which helps lower blood pressure and protects arteries. Maintaining heart health is linked to brain health due to the brain’s dependence on the vascular system in maintaining high performance.
Including nuts in a diet is also associated with a decreased risk of hypertension, gallstones, diabetes, cancer, metabolic syndrome, and obesity. Eating nuts can decrease free radicals within the body, reduce inflammation and pain, and also improve immune function.
Dark chocolate and cocoa powder are packed with a few brain-boosting compounds, including flavonoids, caffeine and antioxidants. Flavanoids, which are antioxidant plant compuonds, are also found in berries. Flavanoids gather in the brain in areas tied to learning and memory and researchers say they may enhance memory and slow down age-related mental decline. Bonus- research has been shown to also have mood-boosting benefits, particularly when participants in the studies ate the chocolate using mindful eating practices– savoring the flavor, eating slowly, and really enjoying the experience.
Green, leafy vegetables
Leafy greens such as kale, spinach, collards, and broccoli are rich in brain-healthy nutrients like vitamin K, lutein, folate, and beta carotene. These elements play different roles in supporting brain health, and research suggests these plant-based foods may help slow cognitive decline. Exactly how the elements play a role in brain health is being explored more widely, but one thing is clear- a deficiency in the elements can cause serious health risks like inflammation and buildup of plaque in the arteries (which can lead to stroke and other vascular issues). Specific to brain health, low levels of folate have been linked to increased amounts of homocysteine, which is associated with cognitive impairment in older adults.
Fatty fish are abundant sources of omega-3 fatty acids, healthy unsaturated fats that have been linked to lower blood levels of beta-amyloid—the protein that forms damaging clumps in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease (read more about Alzheimer’s disease in this post). Try to eat fish at least twice a week, but choose varieties that are low in mercury, such as salmon, cod, canned light tuna, and pollack. If you’re not a fan of fish, ask your doctor about taking an omega-3 supplement, or choose terrestrial omega-3 sources such as flaxseeds, avocados, and walnuts.
Avocado is a super food high in monounsaturated fats. These healthy fats keep blood sugar at a steady level and help keep skin, hair, and nails looking and feeling healthy. More importantly, avocados are rich in folate and vitamin K, which improve cognitive brain functions such as concentration and memory.
Pumpkin seeds contain powerful antioxidants that protect the body and brain from free radical damage. They are loaded with magnesium, iron zinc, and copper. These elements are linked with benefiting nerve signaling, maintaining neurological health (which may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and even depression) and mental clarity.
Research on pumpkin seeds and brain health focuses mostly on micronutrients, rather than pumpkin seeds themselves. However, since pumpkin seeds are high in these micronutrients, you can likely reap their benefits by adding pumpkin seeds to your diet.
Flavonoids, the natural plant pigments that give berries their brilliant hues, also help improve memory, research shows. In a 2012 study published in Annals of Neurology, researchers at Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital found that women who consumed two or more servings of strawberries and blueberries each week delayed memory decline by up to two-and-a-half years.
Turmeric has been found to help reduce inflammation and pain due to having high levels of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds. New evidence shows that it may also benefit your brain health.
Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, has been shown to cross the blood-brain barrier, meaning it can directly enter the brain and benefit cells. Curcumin may also help clear the amyloid plaques that are a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. Turmeric has also been found to improve levels of seratonin and dopamine, two hormones that impact mood; one study found that turmeric improved symptoms of depression over a period of six weeks.
Tea and coffee
The caffeine in your morning cup of coffee or tea might offer more than just a short-term concentration boost. In a 2014 study published in The Journal of Nutrition, participants with higher caffeine consumption scored better on tests of mental function. Caffeine might also help solidify new memories, according to other research. Investigators at Johns Hopkins University asked participants to study a series of images and then take either a placebo or a 200-milligram caffeine tablet. More members of the caffeine group were able to correctly identify the images on the following day.
Broccoli is packed with powerful antioxidants, vitamin K, and other components that can help reduce inflammation which can protect the brain against cell damage.
Studies in older adults have linked a higher vitamin K intake to better memory; those who had a diet low in vitamin K intake were found to have more concerns with memory issues and cognitive function.
Other studies have shown that mice treated with kaempferol, a compound in broccoli, had lowered incidence of brain injury and reduced inflammation of neural tissue following a stroke-like event.
Remember, these foods not only support brain health, but many also benefit vascular health and are part of a balanced diet. Check back next week for delicious recipes that can help you incorporate these foods into your meal plan.