Cognitive Health
Updated: Sep 4, 2022

8 Best Foods for Better Brain Health

8 Best Foods for Better Brain Health
Published: Sep 4, 2022

It is hard to prove that foods boost brain function, but there is a lot of evidence that nutrient deficiencies can cause cognitive delays, oxidative damage to brain cells, decreased cellular energy, increased inflammation, changes in immune function, increased depression and other mood disorders, and hasten the aging process. 

Many groups are working on getting aging and the chronic diseases associated with aging to be recognized as a disease. While aging is a natural process, there is a lot of interest in age management and slowing the aging process. 

Until obesity was recognized as a disease, there was little research and progress in developing solutions. The same can be said for aging and brain function. In the meantime, a healthy diet can support brain function and maximize disease-free years. Here are eight foods that may boost brain function and the research that supports these claims.

Leafy Greens

Leafy greens such as kale, swiss chard, cabbage, collard greens, spinach, and broccoli are rich in:

  • Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant that neutralizes free radicals and reduces oxidative stress. Leafy greens are high in tocopherol. Low blood tocopherol and tocotrienol have been linked to an increased risk of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and Alzheimer’s disease (AD). 1
  • Vitamin K is a fat-soluble vitamin that is important in the blood coagulation process. Researchers have also found that it has an important role in brain function. Vitamin K is essential for producing sphingolipids, an important class of lipids found in high concentrations in brain cell membranes. Alterations in sphingolipid metabolism are linked to age-related cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases such as AD. Vitamin K also seems to reduce oxidative stress and inflammation. It potentially influences cognition and behavior. In animal studies, vitamin K deficiency in mice caused a 25% decrease in motor activity. In another study, prolonged low levels of vitamin K caused cognitive deficits. It is currently unknown whether the same is true in humans. 2 
  • Lutein is a carotenoid known for protecting eye health. It is found in brightly colored fruits and vegetables such as spinach and kale. In one study, researchers observed that age-related cognitive decline might be less pronounced among adults with higher levels of carotenoids. 3
  • Beta carotene is the precursor to vitamin A and is a strong antioxidant. Like lutein, another carotenoid, beta carotene may protect against cognitive decline and support cognitive health.4
  • Folate or vitamin B9 is essential for optimal cognitive function and mood enhancement. Folate deficiencies are associated with an increased risk of depression and dementia. However, more research is needed to study the impact of folate deficiency on the adult brain. Folate is essential for the developing brain to prevent congenital disabilities of the brain and spinal cord. 5
leafy greens

Berries

Berries such as blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, bilberries, huckleberries, cranberries, and raspberries are rich in antioxidants. Berries are high in anthocyanins, which protect the brain from oxidative stress and inflammation. In a study, researchers followed over 16,000 nurses for two decades. A higher intake of berries was associated with a 1.5 to 2.5-year delay in cognitive aging. Higher intake of anthocyanidins and flavonoids was associated with slower rates of cognitive decline. 6

Berries are a great source of: 

  • Fiber
  • Vitamin C
  • Copper
  • Folate
  • Vitamin K
  • Manganese
  • Vitamin E
  • Vitamin B complex
berries

Fatty Fish

Oily fish is a good source of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). These fatty acids are healthy, unsaturated fats associated with lower levels of beta-amyloid, a protein that forms cell-damaging clumps in the brain cells and contributes to AD. Omega-3 fatty acids are also used to build cell membranes in all cells, including brain cells. 

Oily fish contain preformed eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in a ready-to-use form. Unfortunately, many U.S. adults are not meeting recommended levels for oily fish and omega-3 fatty acid intake. 7 Your body can make EPA and DHA from another omega-3 called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), but the process is not very efficient. 8

DHA is essential for healthy brain cell membrane composition and function. 9 EPA and DHA also support myelin production and maintenance. Myelin is a fatty insulator around nerve cells that speeds up nerve conduction. When myelin breaks down, people have problems with sensation and motor control. Multiple sclerosis is an example of a myelin disorder. 

Fatty fish that may support cognitive health include: 

  • Salmon
  • Mackerel
  • Tuna
  • Sardines
  • Herring

Fish are good sources of the following vitamins and minerals:

  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin D
  • Calcium
  • Magnesium
  • Vitamin B12
  • Selenium
  • Phosphorus
  • Potassium
oily fish

Seeds and Nuts

Seeds and nuts are excellent sources of vitamin E, an antioxidant that protects brain cells from oxidative damage, and omega-3 fatty acids. In one study, long-term intake of nuts was associated with better cognitive function. Women who ate at least five servings of nuts per week had an average cognitive performance score that equaled that of women two years younger. 10 

Some nuts and seeds may even increase sexual performance and improve sexual health. A study that enrolled 119 healthy men aged 18 to 35 who either consumed a diet rich in nuts in their western-style diet or a western-style diet that avoided nuts found that the men who ate nuts had higher sperm counts with increased sperm motility and virility. An updated evaluation of the data showed that nut consumption also improved erectile and sexual function. 

Nuts and seeds associated with optimal cognitive function include:

  • Walnuts
  • Almonds
  • Cashews
  • Pecans
  • Flax seed
  • Pumpkin seed
  • Sunflower seed

Nuts and seeds are rich in the following vitamins and minerals: 

  • Vitamin E
  • Vitamin B6
  • Riboflavin
  • Iron
  • Magnesium
  • L-carnitine
  • Phosphorus
  • Zinc
  • Copper
  • Manganese
  • Choline
  • Folic acid
  • Calcium
  • Selenium
nuts and seeds

Whole Grains

Whole grains are another great source of vitamin E. To qualify as a whole grain, kernels must include the bran (hard outer shell), endosperm (carbohydrates), and germ (high in vitamins, minerals, proteins, antioxidants, and phytochemicals). Many of the benefits of whole grains are found in the bran and germ, parts of the kernel that are reduced during processing. 11

Common whole grains include:

  • Oatmeal
  • Amaranth
  • Spelt
  • Brown rice
  • Millet
  • Quinoa
  • Whole rye
  • Brown rice
  • Buckwheat
  • Corn
  • Barley
  • Bulgur
  • Sorghum
  • Wheat berries

Whole grains are high in the following nutrients:

  • Manganese
  • Magnesium
  • Phosphorus
  • Iron
  • Vitamin B6
  • Selenium
  • Vitamin B3
  • Vitamin B1
  • Copper
  • Folate
  • Potassium
whole grains

Eggs

Eggs are a great source of B vitamins, lutein, and choline. Choline and lutein play a role in brain and nerve development and cognition across the lifespan. 12 B vitamins may lower homocysteine. High homocysteine levels are a risk factor for brain atrophy, cognitive impairment, and dementia. 13 

Eggs were originally thought to increase cholesterol. However, over 50 years of research have shown that eggs are not associated with increased health risk in many populations and that they contain many bioactive compounds that can potentially reduce disease. 14

Whether you like them hard-boiled, fried, in an omelet, or scrambled, eggs are rich in: 14

  • Vitamin A
  • Iron
  • Vitamins B1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 9, 12
  • Riboflavin
  • Choline
  • Zinc 
  • Calcium
  • Copper
  • Iodine
  • Magnesium
  • Manganese
  • Phosphorus
  • Potassium
  • Selenium
  • Sodium
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin E
  • Vitamin K
eggs

Coffee and Tea

Caffeinated beverages have been consumed for ages to improve alertness, focus, and memory. Caffeine blocks adenosine, a brain chemical that gradually accumulates throughout the day and makes you sleepy. Adenosine increases in brain cells throughout the day and then decreases during sleep. 15 

Caffeine has effects on both blood vessels in the brain and brain cells. It may increase brain processing power by increasing resting brain entropy. Researchers found the greatest increases in the prefrontal cortex, visual cortex, and motor control areas of the brain. 17 Too much caffeine can cause sleep problems, anxiety, and jitters.

Coffee and tea are also rich sources of antioxidants. 16 Whether you prefer black, green, or herbal tea or are a die-hard coffee fan, tea and coffee contain: 

Coffee

  • Vitamin B12
  • Vitamin B5
  • Vitamin B3
  • Calcium
  • Magnesium
  • Phosphorus
  • Sodium
  • Potassium

Tea

  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin K
  • Vitamin E
  • Flouride
  • Carotene
  • Vitamin B1
  • Vitamin B6
  • Folic acid
  • Manganese
  • Potassium
coffee and tea

Water

Every chemical reaction in the body takes place in a watery environment. Water is essential to maintain blood flow to the brain, carry nutrients and oxygen to brain cells, and remove cellular waste products. When your body does not have enough fluids, you become dehydrated, which can cause the following signs and symptoms: 

  • Fatigue
  • Thirst
  • Decreased urination
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Headaches

Drinking plenty of water optimizes brain function and can help improve focus, concentration, and memory. Add fruits or herbs to your water for variety. Drinking plenty of water can also help improve body composition and skin health. 

Foods That Are Bad for Brain Health

Foods that are bad for your overall health also harm your brain health. These foods cause blood sugar spikes, which can impact metabolic health. They also increase inflammation, disrupt hormone levels and deplete nutrients. Avoid the following: 

  • Processed foods
  • Refined sugar
  • Artificial additives

Your brain only accounts for about 2% of your total body weight, but it consumes about 20% of the energy you consume. To optimize brain health, choose a well-balanced diet with whole foods. The Mediterranean diet is a great example of a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, seeds, herbs and spices, and olive oil. It stresses the consumption of healthy sources of fat and protein. Making choices to fuel your body with healthy foods will help keep your brain healthy.

Disclaimer

While we strive to always provide accurate, current, and safe advice in all of our articles and guides, it’s important to stress that they are no substitute for medical advice from a doctor or healthcare provider. You should always consult a practicing professional who can diagnose your specific case. The content we’ve included in this guide is merely meant to be informational and does not constitute medical advice.

References

1. Mangialasche F, Xu W, Kivipelto M, et al. Tocopherols and tocotrienols plasma levels are associated with cognitive impairment. Neurobiol Aging. Oct 2012;33(10):2282-90. doi:10.1016/j.neurobiolaging.2011.11.019

2. Ferland G. Vitamin K, an emerging nutrient in brain function. Biofactors. Mar-Apr 2012;38(2):151-7. doi:10.1002/biof.1004

3. Walk AM, Edwards CG, Baumgartner NW, et al. The Role of Retinal Carotenoids and Age on Neuroelectric Indices of Attentional Control among Early to Middle-Aged Adults. Front Aging Neurosci. 2017;9:183. doi:10.3389/fnagi.2017.00183

4. Morris MC, Wang Y, Barnes LL, Bennett DA, Dawson-Hughes B, Booth SL. Nutrients and bioactives in green leafy vegetables and cognitive decline: Prospective study. Neurology. Jan 16 2018;90(3):e214-e222. doi:10.1212/wnl.0000000000004815

5. Reynolds EH. Folic acid, ageing, depression, and dementia. Bmj. Jun 22 2002;324(7352):1512-5. doi:10.1136/bmj.324.7352.1512

6. Devore EE, Kang JH, Breteler MM, Grodstein F. Dietary intakes of berries and flavonoids in relation to cognitive decline. Ann Neurol. Jul 2012;72(1):135-43. doi:10.1002/ana.23594

7. Papanikolaou Y, Brooks J, Reider C, Fulgoni VL, 3rd. U.S. adults are not meeting recommended levels for fish and omega-3 fatty acid intake: results of an analysis using observational data from NHANES 2003-2008. Nutr J. Apr 2 2014;13:31. doi:10.1186/1475-2891-13-31

8. Gerster H. Can adults adequately convert alpha-linolenic acid (18:3n-3) to eicosapentaenoic acid (20:5n-3) and docosahexaenoic acid (22:6n-3)? Int J Vitam Nutr Res. 1998;68(3):159-73. 

9. Stillwell W, Wassall SR. Docosahexaenoic acid: membrane properties of a unique fatty acid. Chem Phys Lipids. Nov 2003;126(1):1-27. doi:10.1016/s0009-3084(03)00101-4

10. O’Brien J, Okereke O, Devore E, Rosner B, Breteler M, Grodstein F. Long-term intake of nuts in relation to cognitive function in older women. J Nutr Health Aging. May 2014;18(5):496-502. doi:10.1007/s12603-014-0014-6

11. Slavin J. Why whole grains are protective: biological mechanisms. Proc Nutr Soc. Feb 2003;62(1):129-34. doi:10.1079/pns2002221

12. Wallace TC. A Comprehensive Review of Eggs, Choline, and Lutein on Cognition Across the Life-span. J Am Coll Nutr. May-Jun 2018;37(4):269-285. doi:10.1080/07315724.2017.1423248

13. Smith AD, Smith SM, De Jager CA, et al. Homocysteine-Lowering by B Vitamins Slows the Rate of Accelerated Brain Atrophy in Mild Cognitive Impairment: A Randomized Controlled Trial. PLoS ONE. 2010;5(9):e12244. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0012244

14. Réhault-Godbert S, Guyot N, Nys Y. The Golden Egg: Nutritional Value, Bioactivities, and Emerging Benefits for Human Health. Nutrients. Mar 22 2019;11(3)doi:10.3390/nu11030684

15. Huang ZL, Zhang Z, Qu WM. Roles of adenosine and its receptors in sleep-wake regulation. Int Rev Neurobiol. 2014;119:349-71. doi:10.1016/b978-0-12-801022-8.00014-3

16. Socała K, Szopa A, Serefko A, Poleszak E, Wlaź P. Neuroprotective Effects of Coffee Bioactive Compounds: A Review. Int J Mol Sci. Dec 24 2020;22(1)doi:10.3390/ijms2201010717. Chang D, Song D, Zhang J, Shang Y, Ge Q, Wang Z. Caffeine Caused a Widespread Increase of Resting Brain Entropy. Sci Rep. 2018/02/09 2018;8(1):2700. doi:10.1038/s41598-018-21008-6

This Article


Tags:



Article Categories

More Questions?

Fill out the form below, and one of our treatment specialists will contact you.

Featured Articles

7 Ways to Lose Weight Without Cardio

It is possible to lose weight without cardio exercise. Learn research-backed steps you can take to maximize your weight-loss success.

5 Benefits of Exercise for Aging Adults 

The over 65 population in the US is expected to double by 2030, reaching about 20% of the population. The prevalence of osteoporosis, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some cancers incre…

Future Anti-aging Technology: Is Age Reversal Really Possible?

If we accept aging as a fact of life and inevitable, then there is nothing we can do to slow or even stop the process. However, considering the possibility that aging has a cause means there is the…

As Featured In

  • Featured in Forbes
  • Featured in Forbes
  • Featured in Forbes
  • Featured in Forbes
  • Featured in Forbes
  • Featured in Forbes