Food For Thought: What Foods Promote Brain Health?
Our brains are valuable assets. The brain is responsible for almost everything we do. It's involved in memory formation, cognition, feelings, emotions and decision making. Unsurprisingly then, it's a good idea that we take care of our brains. One way to achieve this is by eating foods that support brain health. Some of the best brain-boosting foods can help improve memory and clear thinking. These are foods that are packed with antioxidants, vitamins and minerals that support brain health and promote neurogenesis.
Let's take a look at 9 of the very best foods to enhance memory, promote mental clarity and support the brain:
- Dark chocolate
- Green tea
- Wild salmon
- Dark leafy greens
- Olive oil
- Grass-fed beef
Arguably the most delicious brain-friendly food on the planet, we begin with dark chocolate. The truth is, age-related brain degeneration is completely normal. However, certain foods offer a protective benefit to the brain and can slow down the normal rate of brain ageing. Dark chocolate is one such food, with a wealth of evidence to support its health benefits.
In fact, research shows that dark chocolate compounds have a great influence on a part of the brain known as the hippocampus. This brain region is responsible for working memory and emotional processing. In a recent clinical trial, cocoa flavonols were shown to protect against age-related memory decline in healthy middle-aged adults. Flavonols are the plant compounds found in cocoa and dark chocolate, making this food a great example of a neuroprotective functional food.
There can be no doubt by now that I'm a huge fan of blueberries. These little berries boast an enviable resume of health-giving properties. Some of these benefits include protecting against cancer, inflammation and heart disease. However, the most impressive research for me is the evidence supporting blueberry consumption for brain health.
So many studies show that blueberries and their anthocyanins help with mood, memory and cognition. Blueberries are deliciously high in vitamin C and studies show that consuming blueberries helps mitigate the ageing process of all cells, including neurons in the brain. This has been demonstrated in clinical trials both in older populations as well as in children. So, for a brain-boosting food that helps with memory, cognitive processing and executive function - blueberries are it!
Green tea is another brain-boosting food that has been verified to improve memory and concentration levels. It contains the amino acid L-theanine, which mimics a neurochemical in the brain called GABA. This compound is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, which helps downregulate and 'calm' excitation in the brain. GABA, and in effect L-theanine, naturally help promote a feeling of relaxation and clarity. It's also responsible for sleep onset, along with other brain chemicals serotonin, melatonin and adenosine.
There is also some important preliminary research showing that oolong tea, which is a blend of green and black tea, improves sensorimotor function, reduces anxiety and improves other symptoms of autism in children.
Looking after the parts of the brain that govern decision-making and cognition is important for our overall health. Reducing stress wherever possible is also a good way to take care of our brain, which is sensitive to stress hormones and associated inflammation.
Due to the high omega-3 content in wild salmon, this food is an obvious choice when it comes to supporting memory, thinking and brain function. Wild salmon is an excellent brain food, as the DHA content is broadly neuroprotective. DHA is also selectively incorporated into the retina and visual cortex of the brain, which assists in visual acuity and interpretation.
Omega 3 also promotes the release of acetylcholine, which promotes neuroplasticity, memory and learning. It's also an essential nutrient for neurogenesis (formation of new brain cells) and neurotransmission (communication between brain cells). So wild-caught salmon is a great choice for its protein content, DHA and other nutrients that support brain health.
Dark leafy greens
'Eat your greens'. If I had a dollar for every time I've heard this instruction in my life, I could probably buy a tropical island. It may seem like a broken record to some of us, but it still warrants playing, because it's the truth. Eating dark leafy green vegetables is a proven way to promote your overall health, including that of your brain.
Dark leafy greens like spinach, kale and Swiss chard are packed with brain-boosting vitamins and minerals. These include B vitamins and magnesium. They're also loaded with carotenoids and sulforaphane, which are plant compounds with various benefits for the brain and nervous system. Carotenoids are protective for the brain and eyes, while sulforaphane has potent anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties. If you struggle to get your daily greens, think outside the box by adding spinach leaves to a smoothie, hidden with banana, honey, blueberries and chia seeds. Your brain will be grateful.
This dark red vegetable is also a lesser-known brain food. Beetroot is rich in nitrates, which convert to nitric oxide by the body. Nitric oxide helps to oxygenate the brain and increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is involved in brain plasticity and learning.
Beetroot juice also contains vitamin C, betaine and folate, which are important for tissue repair and red blood cell function. Beetroot is also a good source of polyphenols, which help protect brain cells from oxidative damage. Grate raw beetroot into salads, blitz them into a deep purple veg juice or roast them along with your fave root veggies laced in olive oil for an earthy boost of brain-loving nutrients.
Olive oil is another brain-promoting food that contains healthy fats for brain function. Studies show that diets high in unsaturated fatty acids are associated with better cognitive function and memory.
One such study published in the Journal of neurology, neurosurgery, and psychiatry included a large cohort of over 500 participants. These study participants followed a Mediterranean-style diet, which was specifically high in extra-virgin olive oil. The results demonstrated an improvement in cognitive function over a six-year period.
In an interesting animal model study, extra-virgin olive oil was shown to ameliorate the effects of neurodegeneration, poor memory and impaired learning. The results also showed that neuronal oxidative stress was also lowered, partially by increasing endogenous glutathione levels. Glutathione is a powerful antioxidant compound that is found abundantly in brain tissue.
The natural polyphenol content of olive oil also accounts for its potent anti-inflammatory effects on the brain and body. Drizzle extra virgin olive oil over salads and steamed veg or add it to homemade hummus for an easy brain-boosting dip. Yum!
Eggs are one of the most versatile and complete foods available, which also happen to be a brain-friendly superfood to boot. Eggs are very nutrient-dense with brain-boosting B vitamins, vitamin B12, vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids.
The unique and important nutrient prevalent in eggs that make them a brain-loving food is choline. Choline helps to form acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter involved in brain plasticity and learning. This makes it important for memory formation and cognitive function. A 2017 study established that the moderate intake of eggs as part of a healthy diet can indeed have benefits on cognitive performance. Enjoy scrambled eggs for breakfast, or eat hard-boiled eggs as a nutrient-dense snack on the go.
Grass-fed beef is a brain-boosting powerhouse thanks to its high levels of B vitamins, iron, L-carnitine and zinc. Collectively, these nutrients help with boosting overall brain function, including mood and memory formation. L-carnitine is abundantly found in red meat and is essential for cellular energy production as well as nervous system function.
A study by Veronese et al. (2018) found that carnitine supplementation significantly reduced depressive symptoms. Interestingly, the results showed a comparative effect to antidepressant medications with fewer side effects.
Enjoy quality cuts of grass-fed steak, or better yet, burgers made from freshly ground grass-fed beef and support your brain in all the right ways.
Does Our Diet Directly Impact Brain Health?
An emphatic yes, is the answer here. There is compelling research that shows eating a healthy diet improves depression in adults. This Australian study known as the SMILES (Supporting the Modification of lifestyle In Lowered Emotional States) study was published in 2017 in BMC Medicine.
The results found that increasing vibrantly coloured vegetables and fruit, including healthy fats, quality protein, grass-fed meats, nuts and complex carbohydrates in the diet had a direct effect on mood, depressive symptoms and overall quality of life.
In fact, 32% of those who upped their healthy food intake demonstrated such low depression rating scores at the end of the study, that they no longer qualified as being depressed! Effectually, this was a modified Mediterranean diet, and we all know this is the gold standard of dietary trends in my books. Eating well helps your body and mind, according to this and a wealth of other research!
Enhance Your Memory & Mind with these Brain-Boosting Foods
By focusing on brain-boosting foods, you'll give yourself the best chance of healthy brain function now and into the future. Improve your memory, mental clarity and overall brain function with these nine brain-boosting foods listed above. Each one provides essential vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients that also further help the brain-boosting cause.
So, include them in your snacks and meals, your body and brain will thank you for it!
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