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Did you know that what you eat can directly impact your brain health? It’s true! The food you consume affects your mood, energy levels, ability to focus, and memory. Eating the right foods can help you stay sharp as you age and avoid problems like dementia. So, what are some of the best foods for brain health? Let’s take a look.
You’ve probably heard of omega-3 fatty acids before. These healthy fats are found in oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines. Omega-3s are essential for the functions we rely on our brains for, such as learning, remembering things, staying focused, solving problems, and making decisions; in other words, for our cognitive functioning. Eating foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids reduces the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. In addition, omega-3s can slow mental decline if dementia has already been diagnosed (1).
These fats also help protect your brain by reducing inflammation. In addition, omega-3 fatty acids are associated with a decreased risk of depression (2). Depression is complicated, and its effect on the brain is not entirely understood. One theory is that it reduces the mass of the brain (3). Polyunsaturated fats, of which omega 3 is one, make up twenty percent of the brain’s mass (4), and much of that is used, stored, and removed from the brain every day (5). This explains why omega-3 fatty acids are so important for the brain.
Another essential nutrient found in salmon is vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is thought to play a fundamental role in brain function, helping prevent neurological and developmental disorders, mood disorders, and dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia (1).
Nuts and seeds
The best source of omega-3 fatty acids is fish. However, if you are vegetarian or don’t like the strong taste of oily fish, the next best foods are nuts and seeds.
Nuts are a nutritional powerhouse for your brain. These delicious nibbles are loaded with a wealth of fats and proteins beneficial to the brain. It has been proven that nuts, especially walnuts, can increase mental performance in adults and help prevent the cognitive loss that comes with aging (6). In addition, almonds, along with hazelnuts and walnuts, have been proven to lower blood sugar levels by as much as thirty percent, and they help reduce inflammation in patients with type 2 diabetes, both of which are significant risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease (7). Inflammation is enemy number one in brain health, so it is essential to keep it at bay.
Seeds also contain omega-3 fatty acids for your brain. The best seeds for omega 3s are flax, chia, sunflower, and pumpkin seeds. Ground flaxseed is sprinkled on porridge or added to your homemade biscuits for a delicious nutty flavor. You can also get your hit of omega-3 from flaxseed oil. Chia seeds can be used to make a pudding or added to smoothies, baked into muffins, biscuits, energy bars, or sprinkled on salads. Sunflower and pumpkin seeds are great to nibble on as snacks or add to granolas and salads (8). Pumpkin seeds, mainly, are good for brain health as they contain magnesium. This mineral is necessary for hundreds of reactions in the body but is particularly important to boost brain health, ease migraines, and reduce mild anxiety (9). This is because it calms down nerve activity.
Seeds are also packed full of fiber which is excellent for the ‘good’ bacteria in your gut. Keeping those bacteria happy plays a part in brain health and good mental health(10). However, recent research has also suggested that some dangerous bacteria in the gut can even trigger Parkinson’s disease and autism (11). This means it is even more important to maintain the beneficial bacteria in the gut to crowd out the nasty ones.
Bearing in mind, we must keep the gut full of beneficial bacteria. Fermented food is another great food to benefit the brain. These include kefir, komboucha, kimchi and sauerkraut. These foods contain a bucket-load of key enzymes and probiotics for digestion and gut health. Probiotics are the name for the ‘good’ bacteria, and fermented foods contain billions of good bacteria. Research has shown that probiotics support brain health by improving mental health, improving anxiety and depression, and even boosting immunity (12). Eating these fermented foods not only keeps your gut and brain happy, but the fermentation process also appears to increase the amount of vitamins in the vegetables (13), which is good news for the whole body.
High-fibre or prebiotic foods are among the most unrecognized and undervalued brain foods. Prebiotic foods are converted into short-chain fatty acids by your gut bacteria, a source of energy to help fuel your brain to work efficiently. Prebiotics also play a part in reducing inflammation and helping to ease digestive issues, such as irritable bowel syndrome (14). The best prebiotic foods are chicory root, asparagus, garlic, Jerusalem artichokes, and onions. However, nuts, seeds, and fibrous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, and spinach also contain fiber, so they play a part in keeping your gut and your brain happy and healthy.
Cabbage, spinach, and kale also keep the gut healthy by reducing inflammation in the gut lining(15). On top of that, leafy greens contain lots of vitamins from the B group and folate. B vitamins and folate play a part in protecting brain health and are particularly important in the development of the brain, both before and after birth. In addition, folate helps the body to make neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers that send information from the brain to the body via the nerves(16). So, You will agree there are many good reasons to include plenty of green vegetables in your diet.
Berries, particularly blueberries, are packed with antioxidants and phytochemicals to improve memory, learning, and motor skills. These healthy power packs can also help to protect the brain from mental decline and memory loss (17). On top of that, they play a part in lowering the risk of type 2 diabetes. This is important as diabetes increases the likelihood of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease(18). So adding a handful of berries to your breakfast or nibbling on them throughout the day is health insurance that tastes great.
Avocados are another great food you need to consider eating if you want to keep your brain healthy. They contain folate, which has already been discussed (19). Better still, they contain the carotenoid lutein, which improves cognitive function, memory, and problem-solving skills (20). In addition, these delicious fruits are high in monounsaturated fats, which have been shown to improve blood flow to the brain(19), along with Vitamin K, another essential vitamin for brain health(21). Add avocado slices to your salad or sandwich, or make a batch of guacamole for dipping vegetables as a healthy snack.
We have discussed the foods you need to eat to keep your brain happy, but there are a couple of drinks worth mentioning too. Studies into matcha, a green tea, have demonstrated that people who drank it regularly had better long-term memory and focus (22). The results were slight but better than nothing.
Cocoa contains a type of antioxidant called flavonols. It has been discovered that flavonols improve spatial memory, which is part of your memory that takes notice of your environment and spatial orientation. Flavonols also improve long-term memory, how quickly you process information, and increase focus. One reason they have this ability may be because they help increase blood flow to the brain (23). Remember, as well as drinking Cocoa, you can eat it in the form of high cocoa-content chocolate. It does taste a little bitter, but your brain will thank you.
What we eat and drink has a direct impact on our brain health. By incorporating brain-boosting foods such as oily fish, nuts, seeds, fermented foods, prebiotics, berries, avocados, green tea, and cocoa, we can sharpen our minds, improve memory, and protect our brains as we age. Make these power foods a staple; your healthier brain will thank you. Now eat up and enjoy the benefits!
- Omega-3 Fatty Acid Status Enhances the Prevention of Cognitive Decline by B Vitamins in Mild Cognitive Impairment https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4927899/
- Omega‐3 Fatty Acids in Depression: A Review of Three Studies https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6494070/
- Where in the Brain Is Depression? https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3619732/
- Dietary polyunsaturated fatty acids, brain function and mental health https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5445635/
- Lipid Processing in the Brain: A Key Regulator of Systemic Metabolism https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fendo.2017.00060/full
- Role of Walnuts in Maintaining Brain Health with Age https://academic.oup.com/jn/article/144/4/561S/4571638?/
- Almond, hazelnut and walnut, three nuts for neuroprotection in Alzheimer’s disease: A neuropharmacological review of their bioactive constituents https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1043661817311751
- 5 Superfood Seeds for Better Brain Health https://centrespringmd.com/5-superfood-seeds-for-better-brain-health/
- The Role of Magnesium in Neurological Disorders https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6024559/
- The gut-brain axis: interactions between enteric microbiota, central and enteric nervous systems https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4367209/
- How gut microbes could drive brain disorders https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-00260-3
- Fermented foods, microbiota, and mental health: ancient practice meets nutritional psychiatry https://link.springer.com/article/10.1186/1880-6805-33-2
- Health benefits of fermented foods: microbiota and beyond https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27998788
- Fiber and Prebiotics: Mechanisms and Health Benefits https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/5/4/1417/htm?__hstc=3584879.1bb630f9cde2cb5f07430159d50a3c91.1522886401936.1522886401937.1522886401938.1&__hssc=3584879.1.1522886401939&__hsfp=1773666937
- Overview of the health benefits of fruit and vegetable consumption for the dietetics professional: Selected literature https://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/syllabi/325/schedule/Classification,%20Nutritional%20&%20Health%20Benefits/Overview%20of%20the%20health%20benefits.pdf
- Emerging roles for folate and related B-vitamins in brain health across the lifecycle https://www.cambridge.org/core/services/aop-cambridge-core/content/view/4D024A2EEEE4126D725B74118DBEC2D3/S0029665114001554a.pdf/emerging-roles-for-folate-and-related-b-vitamins-in-brain-health-across-the-lifecycle.pdf
- Neuroprotective effects of berry fruits on neurodegenerative diseases
- Fruit consumption and risk of type 2 diabetes: results from three prospective longitudinal cohort studies https://www.bmj.com/content/347/bmj.f5001
- Hass Avocado Composition and Potential Health Effects https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/10408398.2011.556759?needAccess&
- Avocado Consumption Increases Neural Lutein and Improves Cognitive Function https://faseb.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1096/fasebj.29.1_supplement.32.8
- The Relationships Between Vitamin K and Cognition: A Review of Current Evidence https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6436180/
- An intervention study on the effect of matcha tea, in drink and snack bar formats, on mood and cognitive performance https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28784536/
- Effect of Cocoa and Cocoa Products on Cognitive Performance in Young Adults https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7760676/