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Food for Your Brain

Food for Your Brain

Contributor Bio

Arianna Ferrini is a postdoctoral research fellow at University College London (UK) and a freelance scientific writer and illustrator. She holds a PhD in Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine from Imperial College London and an MSc in Medical and Pharmaceutical Biotechnology from the University of Florence (Italy).

https://www.linkedin.com/in/ariannaferrini/

The right diet and proper nutrition can help you boost your brain health and maintain a healthy memory. Research shows that the best brain foods are the same ones that protect your heart and blood vessels, meaning that balanced nutrition can lower your risks of several conditions, including cognitive decline and cardiovascular diseases. 

The Brain – A Truly Wonderful Machine

The brain is the most complex organ in the human body and is probably the most complex system known to humankind. It contains a large number of structures and billions of cells called neurons that communicate with each other through connections called synapses. 

The functions of the brain are almost endless. They vary from controlling the breath and other involuntary actions to fine-tuning voluntary movement and generating memories, thoughts, and feelings. The brain’s primary task is to help maintain the whole body in an optimal state relative to the environment to maximize the chance of survival. The brain does so by registering stimuli and then responding by generating actions. In the process, it also creates subjective experiences. 

For all these reasons, it’s a good idea to keep your brain working in peak conditions. And the food you eat can play a big part in this. 

Nutrition for the Brain

The brain is a very energy-intensive organ, using around 20% of your body calories, so it needs plenty of good fuel to keep going throughout the day.1

There is not a single food that can ensure you maintain a sharp brain as you age. No surprise there. However, variety is the key. The most important thing you can do is follow a healthy and diverse diet that includes lots of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. You should try to get protein from plant sources and fish and choose healthy fats, like olive oil, rather than saturated fats, like butter. 

Here’s a list of foods that are good for your brain and your memory.

  • Fatty Fish: These are always at the top of the list when we talk about brain food. Salmon, trout, sardines, and mackerel are all rich in omega-3-fatty acids, which have been shown to slow down cognitive decline. An interesting study found that regular consumption of fish (all kinds of fish, fatty or even non-fatty fish) is able to increase grey matter volume and improve brain structural integrity.2 Therefore, you should really consider regularly adding fish to your diet if you want to take care of your brain.
  • Green Leafy Vegetables: Leafy greens such as broccoli, spinach, kale, and chard are rich in nutrients like vitamin K, lutein, folate, and beta carotene. We know from research that these plant-based nutrients help slow cognitive decline and protect your memory.
  • Blueberries: Blueberries have so many health benefits it is almost hard to keep track of them all. It all comes down to their high content of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, for example, anthocyanins and flavonoids. Some of these health-boosting molecules accumulate in the brain, making blueberries an excellent ally for your memory. A 2012 study by Harvard found that women who consumed two or more servings of blueberries and strawberries each week delayed memory decline by 2½ 3
  • Green Tea and Coffee: Coffee and green tea are rich in antioxidants, which are very good for your brain’s health. The caffeine contained in both coffee and green tea improves alertness, mood, and concentration. Lifelong coffee/caffeine consumption has also been associated with the prevention of cognitive decline and reduced risk of developing stroke, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease.4 This means that in moderation (not to disturb your sleep), coffee and green tea consumption should not be reduced in older adults. On the contrary, it should be a brain-boosting addition to a healthy diet.
  • Nuts: Nuts, and walnuts in particular, have been linked to heart and brain health. Similar to fatty fish, walnuts are high in a type of omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which helps lower blood pressure and protects arteries. That’s good for both the heart and brain. Nuts are also rich in vitamin E, which shields the cells from oxidative damage, helping slow mental decline.
  • Dark Chocolate: Good news! Dark chocolate and cocoa powder are packed with a few brain-boosting compounds, including flavonoids, caffeine, and antioxidants. One study, including over 900 participants, found that those who ate chocolate more frequently performed better in a series of mental tasks, including some involving memory, than those who rarely ate it.5 According to research, chocolate is also a mood booster, and having a good mood is always nice for our overall health.
  • Turmeric: Turmeric is a very interesting spice. Its active ingredient is called curcumin, and several research studies have shown it to have strong anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and brain-boosting effects. Unfortunately, curcumin is not easily absorbed into the bloodstream. A great way to increase its absorption by a whopping 2000% is by combining it with black pepper.
Turmeric can increase the levels of a factor called BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor), which is a hormone that protects against neurodegenerative diseases and keeps the neurons healthy. BDNF can also improve your memory and slow age-related memory loss. Therefore, if you are looking at ways to keep your brain healthy, think about adding turmeric to your preparations in the kitchen.
  • Pumpkin Seeds: These seeds are packed with healthy nutrients that can contribute to your brain’s health. They have very high levels of zinc, a mineral essential for nerve signaling, and magnesium, a mineral essential for memory and learning.
  • Oranges: By eating a medium orange, you get all your daily dose of vitamin C in one go. And vitamin C is essential to protect brain cells from degeneration. Eating a sufficient amount of vitamin C–rich foods can protect against age-related memory loss and mental decline. The good news is that many of the foods making it to this list are already vitamin C–rich (for example, berries and green vegetables).  
  • Eggs: Eggs are not only rich in proteins, they are also a good source of several nutrients important for the brain, including vitamin B6, vitamin B16, and choline. Choline is essential for the synthesis of a chemical messenger called acetylcholine, which helps regulate mood and memory.

Other Lifestyle Changes To Keep Your Brain Healthy

Having a balanced and healthy diet is a great step you can take in preventing age-related memory loss and keeping your brain sharp. However, it is not the only thing. The good news is that most of the actions you can take to keep your brain healthy will also improve your overall health and wellbeing. Examples of these are the following:

  • Practice physical activity
  • Manage your stress
  • Maintain an active social life
  • Don’t smoke
  • Avoid excessive alcohol use
  • Practice good sleep habits and manage sleep disturbances
  • If you have any, manage your health conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, and depression
  • Stimulate your mind with puzzles, games, and memory training
  • Get your hearing and vision tested

Bottom Line

The brain is the most energy-hungry organ in the body. This supply of energy is provided by the food we eat. Think about it as a performance car. The brain functions best when it runs on premium fuel. Therefore, if you want to keep your brainpower at its best, pay attention to your nutrition and regularly put on your plate the foods listed here.  

 

References

1. Raichle, M. E., & Gusnard, D. A. (2002). Appraising the brain’s energy budget. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 99(16): 10237–10239.

2. Raji, C. A., Erickson, K. I., Lopez, O. L., Thompson, P. M., Riverol, M., & Becker, J. T., (2014). Regular fish consumption and age-related brain gray mattr loss. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 47(4): 444–451.

3. Devore, E. E., Kang, J. H., Breteler, M. M. B., & Grodstein, F. (2012). Dietary intakes of berries and flavonoids in relation to cognitive decline. Annals of Neurology, 72(1): 135–143.

4. Nehlig, A. (2016). Effects of coffee/caffeine on brain health and disease: What should I tell my patients? Practical Neurology, 16(2): 89–95.

5. Crichton, G. E., Elias, M. F., & Alkerwi, A. (2016). Chocolate intake is associated with better cognitive function: The Maine-Syracuse Longitudinal Study. Appetite, 100, 126–32.