One of the best ways to combat age-related cognitive decline, memory loss (short- and long-term), and other obstacles of cognition is with a healthy diet. Supplements and brain exercises allege they will help get your brain in tip-top shape, yet none have proven as effective as getting adequate nutrition.
As the brain is an organ, the control panel for the rest of your systems, many foods that promote wellness in other parts of the body also help the brain, notably those which regulate circulation and nerves. The findings of numerous studies support the link between food and brain power, an entirely sensible notion when you consider how poorly our bodies and minds function on a nutrient-deficient diet.
When we have to remember something important or put our minds to the test, the right foods can help extract memories more readily, think more clearly, and process and store new information with greater ease. Conversely, there are certain foods known to destroy brain cells and impair functionality, and therefore our entire diet needs to be monitored and adjusted in order to experience the greatest benefits. A recent study at the University of Aberdeen (U.K.) showed that eating an overload of saturated fats damaged neurons in the hypothalamus, the area responsible for energy, in a similar fashion to blood clot strokes and inflammation.
Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles concluded that a high-fructose diet (with the exception of naturally-occurring sugars in fruit) can slow the brain, deplete memory, and impair the ability to learn in as little as six weeks. In the same study, a second group of rats were fed flaxseed oil and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) – both omega-3 fatty acids, nutrients which protect against damage to the synapses, or chemical signals in the brain allowing for learning and memory. The rats who had omega-3s in their diet had a faster, more effective memory, and those that did not were much slower – actually worse than when they began.
Cerebral Cortex Cravings
Though you may have trained your brain to love sugars, fats, and other detrimental foods, what it truly craves is a meal rich in fruits, nuts, protein, and even a small dose of caffeine. As you may have heard, breakfast is the most important meal of the day, as it wakes up your brain and Omega-3 fatty acids are a staple of nervous system health, brain function, and well-being.
Antioxidants are another essential component of a brain-healthy diet. Keep in mind, again, that everything you consume will effect your ability to complete memory and thought-related tasks, so if you eat flaxseed and fast food on a regular basis, you “cancel out” the positive effects of flaxseed’s omega-3 fatty acids, so to speak.
Caring for your brain, preventing memory loss, and improving your overall cognition takes concern for each aspect of your diet, but it doesn’t mean sacrificing good taste. Every food on this list is stimulating for your mind and your taste buds. (A few examples of cooking with “brain food” are listed in the Recipes section, including the pomegranate kale salad and avocado soup – get creative!)
Seeds and Nuts
As mentioned, any foods containing omega-3s and their ample supply of DHA are ideal for brain health. Most commonly found in fish (see below), omega-3s are also naturally occurring in flaxseed. A wide array of nutrients are included in various nuts and seeds in addition to healthy fats. A great source of vitamin E, which has been linked to prevention of cognitive decline, nuts and seeds help boost your memory and brain power as you mature. This includes a wide variety of seeds and nuts such as sunflower seeds, walnuts, almonds, sesame seeds, Brazil nuts, filberts, peanuts, cashews, and hazelnuts.
Walnuts are particular favorite for this area (and how apropos that they resemble the shape of the brain), featuring more nutrients than other nuts to keep your head on straight. They are a great source of alpha linolenic acid (ALA), which improves blood flow throughout your body, in effect providing the brain with more oxygen. In addition to anti-inflammatory and heart-healthy properties, a study on mice with Alzheimer’s disease showed that those which were routinely fed walnuts showed increased memory, motor skills, and coordination, despite the condition.
Fruits & Vegetables
Blueberries have revealed positive effects on the brain in several studies, serving as a protector against oxidative stress, as well as a promoter of motor skills and learning capacity in aging brains. They may help lessen the impact of age-related illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia, as animal studies have suggested.
Strawberries and other berries act similarly, according to human-based studies like one published in the Annals of Neurology last year, which found that women who ate berries at least once a week could reduce their cognitive decline by approximately 1.5 to 2.5 years.
Another dark reddish-purple fruit known for its antioxidant powers are pomegranates, which also contribute to brain health by protecting your head from free radical damage. As the brain is most sensitive to free radical damage, any opportunity to prevent such an occurrence should be taken. Pomegranate juice may have added sugars, so moderation is key in order to regulate your fructose intake.
Avocados are also a potent superfood targeting the brain and memory function. High in fat and calories, many may shy away from the healthy, monounsaturated fats contained in this fruit, though they are essential to cardiovascular, and therefore, brain health. As hypertension is a known risk for reducing cognitive abilities, regulating blood flow is very important, and the avocado is a great fruit to keep it down. Spinach is also though to fight cognitive decline due to its dense supply of lutein.
Discover more fruits and vegetables and their nutrient properties here.
Certain fish, especially oily ones, are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids such as DHA and EPA, hence fish oil supplements. Eating fish such as wild-caught salmon, sardines, herring, Atlantic mackerel, rainbow trout, and albacore tuna have long been considered a great brain booster. Choose fish which have been raised and caught in clean waters with responsible fishing techniques to avoid contaminants. Also be cautious with some fish for high mercury content, such as tuna and rainbow trout.
Coffee & Tea
A moderate quantity of natural caffeine in your diet may contribute to brain health, as research seems to keep discovering. Drinking coffee and tea are not only pure sources of caffeine, but are both filled with antioxidants that promote balance, memory, and cognitive ability.
Studies on coffee have shown that the risk of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases are reduced in individuals who drink 3-5 cups daily, and another research study indicates that the beverage may lower the risk of depression in women. Be cautious, however, if you have anxiety, diabetes, insomnia, IBS, glaucoma, or high blood pressure, as an increase in caffeine can irritate and worsen symptoms of these conditions.
The caffeine content in chocolate is small but still present, and the extra stimulant properties it contains can help you stay sharp. In addition, powerful antioxidants found in raw cacao (unprocessed cacao beans used to create raw chocolate: the higher percentage of cacao, the better) are noted by researchers for their ability to regulate circulation and blood pressure. At the high concentration of flavonol antioxidants found in raw cacao (10 percent concentration level), this food is a superb source of nutrients, and not much is necessary to provide brain-boosting benefits. Some say 1/3 oz, while others say up to 1 oz of pure chocolate daily, is all that’s required in order to get your wheels turning. As you might expect, this is an exception to other superfoods, where increasing consumption is a bad idea.
Continuing the connection between heart health and brain health, whole grains support healthy circulation and blood pressure, and lower the risk of heart disease. Eating a moderate amount of whole grains, found in whole grain cereals and breads, oatmeal, quinoa, and buckwheat, among others, can improve your blood flow, and increase your brain’s capacity for learning, doing, and remembering. Whole grains are unrefined grains that still contain their bran and germ, and have a strong supply of fiber, potassium, selenium, and magnesium.
1. Carol Sorgen. WebMD. Eat Smart for a Healthier Brain.
2. Huffington Post. Brain Food: Superfoods To Improve Your Cognitive Function.
3. Alice Park. Time. Brain Food: Berries Can Slow Cognitive Decline.
4. Katherine Hobson. US News. 11 Best Fish: High in Omega-3s—and Environment-Friendly.
5. ChocChick.com. Antioxidants in Raw Cacao.
6. Mayo Clinic. Whole Grains: Hearty options for a healthy diet.
3. Janine from Mililani, Hawaii, via Wikimedia Commons
4. Erlingerl1 via Wikimedia Commons