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.
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Leafy greens such as kale, swiss chard, cabbage, collard greens, spinach, and broccoli are rich in:
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:
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:
Fish are good sources of the following vitamins and minerals:
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:
Nuts and seeds are rich in the following vitamins and minerals:
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:
Whole grains are high in the following nutrients:
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
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:
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:
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 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:
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.
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.
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