Do you ever stop to think about how the food you’re eating might be impacting your brain? In full transparency, this topic never really occupied much of my mind until a growing number of my friends began sharing stories of their relatives grappling with neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Obviously, I realize there is no magic pill or single remedy that will completely prevent cognitive decline. Still, it got me thinking: can the foods we eat delay or support our brain as we age? Are there brain-healthy foods we should be including in our diet?
Turns out, recent studies have shown that our dietary choices can play a crucial role in maintaining our brain’s capacity for thinking, remembering, and staying sharp as we age. Interestingly, some studies have even suggested that certain foods may not only delay cognitive decline but also potentially decrease the risk of conditions like Alzheimer’s.
To help me explore this topic in more detail, I reached out to Dr. Annie Fenn, founder of Brain Health Kitchen and author of the cookbook The Brain Health Kitchen. You can listen to our conversation in podcast episode #84, Brain Health 101: How Nutrition & Lifestyle Can Improve Brain Health. In this conversation we explore topics such as the MIND diet (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay), the significance of brain health, the foods that should be integrated into a brain-boosting diet and why, brain-friendly culinary techniques, and much more. I highly recommend this episode; Dr. Fenn provides a wealth of valuable and actionable advice.
In the meantime, if you’re looking to give your brain a little boost, here are ten delicious brain-healthy foods to consider adding to your daily diet!
10 Brain-Healthy Foods
1. Dark Leafy Greens
Dark leafy greens, such as spinach, kale, and Swiss chard, are nutrient powerhouses. They are rich in essential vitamins like folate and vitamin K, as well as essential minerals. They also contain beta-carotene and lutein, which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that may help reduce inflammation in the brain and mitigate the risk of neurodegenerative diseases.
Folate, also known as vitamin B9, is particularly important for brain health. It plays a pivotal role in the synthesis of neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, all of which significantly impact mood and cognitive function. In fact, studies have recently linked folate deficiency to cognitive impairments and an elevated risk of neurodegenerative diseases.
Moreover, compounds like sulforaphane, which can be found in cruciferous dark leafy greens like broccoli and kale, also possess neuroprotective qualities. These compounds act as guardians, shielding brain cells from harm and potentially reducing the risk of neurodegenerative diseases.
You can read more about the health benefits of dark leafy greens and sulforaphane here: 5 Dark Leafy Greens To Add To Your Diet & Their Health Benefits.
This cruciferous vegetable is your brain’s best friend. It’s a powerhouse of essential nutrients like vitamin K and folate, which are important for optimal cognitive health.
It’s also rich in antioxidants like vitamin C and phytonutrients such as sulforaphane, quercetin, and kaempferol, which work in unison to strengthen your brain health. Sulforaphane can enhance blood vessel function, promoting improved blood circulation to the brain.
Additionally, the antioxidants found in broccoli may also help combat oxidative stress.
Brain-Healthy Foods and Oxidative Stress?
Oxidative stress occurs when there’s an imbalance between free radical generation and antioxidant defenses. This oxidative stress is associated with damage to a wide range of molecular species including lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids.
Simply put, oxidative stress is like the wear and tear that happens to your body when it’s exposed to too many harmful molecules called free radicals. These free radicals can damage your cells, proteins, and DNA. Over time, this damage can lead to various health problems, including heart disease and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Incorporating brain-healthy foods which are antioxidant-rich into your diet can be an easy way to counteract the negative effects of oxidative stress, hence why I advocate for including brain-healthy foods, such as those listed here, in your diet regularly.
3. Pumpkin Seeds
These tiny seeds pack a big nutritional punch. They’re rich in vital nutrients such as magnesium, zinc, copper, and iron, all of which are essential for overall brain function. Together, these nutrients can play a vital role in regulating neurotransmitters responsible for transmitting signals in the brain. This regulation ensures smooth communication between nerve cells, which helps to improve cognitive functions like memory, learning, and mood regulation.
Magnesium and Brain Health
Magnesium is an essential mineral for brain health, regulating neurotransmitters and supporting memory and learning.
Studies suggest that a magnesium deficiency can lead to chronic low-grade inflammation in the brain. In fact, according to a study published in the International Journal of Molecular Science, there is strong evidence supporting magnesium’s role in reducing neuroinflammation and slowing down the progression of some neurodegenerative diseases. Personally, I find this fascinating!
Furthermore, research has shown that daily magnesium supplementation (248 mg of elemental magnesium as four 500 mg tablets of magnesium chloride per day) can significantly alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety.
While pumpkin seeds are not a cure-all, there’s no doubt that adding these brain-healthy foods to your diet can support brain health.
4. Olive oil
Olive oil is a valuable source of antioxidants, including vitamin E and phenolic compounds, which serve as protectors, guarding your brain cells against oxidative damage.
The anti-inflammatory properties of olive oil can largely be attributed to a phenolic compound known as oleocanthal. Remarkably, oleocanthal shares unique perceptual and anti-inflammatory characteristics with Ibuprofen. However, more research is needed to fully understand its potential.
Olive oil is also rich in monounsaturated fats, specifically oleic acid. Oleic acid is known for its ability to decrease levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol levels while simultaneously increasing “good” HDL cholesterol levels.
Cooking tip: make olive oil your go-to cooking oil! And, whenever possible, opt for extra virgin olive oil as it retains more beneficial compounds than refined varieties. However, consuming olive oil in moderation is important as it is calorie-dense.
Some studies suggest that regular consumption of berries, particularly blueberries, may enhance memory and cognitive function. These effects are attributed to the presence of compounds like anthocyanins, which can boost signaling in the brain’s memory-related areas.
Additionally, the antioxidants present in berries, can potentially enhance neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to restructure and form novel neural connections. This phenomenon is fundamental for processes like learning and memory formation.
Furthermore, emerging research hints at the possibility that consistent berry consumption may slow the onset of age-related cognitive decline. For instance, in the longitudinal Nurses Health Study of 16,010 participants, aged ≥70 years; established a link between increased blueberry consumption and a decelerated pace of cognitive aging. In fact, estimates from this study suggest that regular berry intake could postpone cognitive decline by as much as 2.5 years. Note: This particular study was supported by the US Highbush Blueberry Council.
6. Whole Grains
Whole grains such as oats, quinoa, and amaranth, go beyond mere sustenance; they provide a consistent energy source for your brain. This steady supply of glucose to the brain fosters enduring mental alertness and concentration. By maintaining stable blood sugar levels, whole grains contribute to the preservation of your cognitive function. Additionally, specific whole grains like oats and barley contain components, such as dietary fiber, nitric oxide, and certain antioxidants, that might enhance blood flow. This increased blood flow ensures that your brain receives sufficient oxygen and nutrients, improving cognitive performance.
You can read more about whole grains in 10 Plant-Based Protein Sources.
Eggs are an excellent dietary source of choline, an essential nutrient necessary for the production of acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is an important neurotransmitter for memory, mood, muscle control, and other brain and nervous system functions. Generally speaking, choline plays a significant role in brain development, function, and overall cognitive well-being. It’s worth noting that choline qualifies as an essential nutrient, meaning the body can’t independently create sufficient quantities of choline to satisfy daily requirements. Therefore, it’s crucial to obtain choline through dietary sources.
In addition to choline, eggs are also packed with essential vitamins and minerals, including vitamin B12, which promotes healthy nerve function and brain cells, and B6 and folate, which support cognitive function and may prevent cognitive decline.
Interestingly enough, one study I came across, published in the Journal of Nutritional Science, revealed that modest egg consumption (around one egg per week) was associated with decelerated rates of memory decline over a span of 3–4 years, particularly evident beyond the age of 70, compared to those who consumed minimal to no eggs.
When it comes to keeping your brain in top shape, nuts are like a superhero team. Walnuts, almonds, pecans, and their nutty buddies are loaded with good-for-you fats, antioxidants, and vitamin E.
Vitamin E is like the brain’s bodyguard, defending cells from damage caused by free radicals. According to a study published in Frontiers, intake of vitamin E may significantly reduce the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Shockingly, about 90% of adults in the US aren’t getting enough vitamin E from their diets.
In addition, nuts, especially walnuts, are rich in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a plant-derived omega-3 fatty acid. ALA acts as a safeguard for the brain, reducing inflammation and slowing down the harm caused by oxidative stress. This protective function could help prevent neurodegeneration in older people. However, further evidence is needed to draw conclusions about the benefits of ALA supplementation on mood and cognition in older people.
9. Fatty Fish
Fatty fish like salmon, trout, mackerel, and sardines are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, particularly Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) and Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA). These special fats are like the building blocks of brain cell membranes and play a key role in how your brain is structured and functions.
DHA, in particular, is found in high amounts in the brain, comprising about 40% of all brain fatty acids. It is crucial for brain cell communication and the brain’s ability to adapt. This adaptability is the bedrock of learning and memory, ensuring that we can acquire new skills, retain important information, and continuously grow intellectually. Basically, you can think of DHA as the brain’s very own secret sauce for staying sharp – the conductor of an intricate neural orchestra that orchestrates our ability to think, learn, and adapt.
But that’s not all – omega-3s from fatty fish can also give your brain a little boost by increasing blood flow. This results in a fresh supply of oxygen and nutrients flowing to your brain, which can improve your mental clarity and performance.
To learn more about the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, make sure to tune in to episode #96 of The Wise Consumer podcast, “3 Reasons Why Women Should Be Consuming More Omega-3 Fatty Acids.” I had the privilege of exploring the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids with Ayla Barmmer, MS, RDN, LDN. Ayla is a registered dietitian, nutritionist, functional medicine practitioner, and the founder and CEO of FullWell.
10. Dark Chocolate
Yes, you read that right. Dark chocolate with a cocoa content of at least 70% isn’t just a delectable treat; it’s also a brain-boosting delight. Dark chocolate is rich in flavonoids, plant-based compounds renowned for their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, which can elevate cognitive function, enhance memory, and even elevate your mood. A study published in Nutrients, shares that there is “good evidence that cocoa flavonoids can acutely improve cognitive function in humans, possibly via mechanisms such as increased cerebral blood flow.”
Additionally, research suggests that cocoa’s antioxidants might also contribute to neuroprotection, potentially reducing the risk of neurodegenerative diseases characterized by oxidative stress. So go ahead and indulge in a little dark chocolate – your brain will thank you!
These delicious foods are, of course, valuable for a brain-healthy diet. But remember that overall dietary choices, regular exercise, sleep, and lifestyle also play a significant role in brain health. To learn more, tune in to episode 84 of the Wise Consumer podcast.