Nutrition and Brain Health 

Minimal cognitive impairment is an intermediate between normal cognitive health and dementia. It is not the same as memory lapses common with normal aging. MCI prevalence increases with age from 6.7% of adults aged 60 to 64 to 25.2% of adults aged 80 to 84.1  

Many Americans are making an important shift in how they think about their health. While the internet has its good and bad points, it provides access to health information in a way that empowers people to have more agency in making their own health decisions.

Medications and testing for earlier disease diagnoses are important and have extended our lifespans. Equally important are nutrition, exercise, stress reduction, and avoiding environmental toxins. Scientists increasingly recognize how a healthy diet can prevent and protect against disease.2

Your 100 billion brain cells must last your lifetime, and you will probably have a longer lifespan than previous generations. Nutrition and exercise are as important for your brain as they are for your body. Maintain your cognitive health by choosing good nutrition for your brain from an early age. No matter how old you are now, choosing better nutrition for your brain will pay off in the long run.

How Nutrition Affects Brain Health

The brain uses about 20% of your resting metabolic rate (or about 350 to 450 calories). It takes a lot of energy to maintain brain cell health and to process and transmit electrical signals throughout the brain and to the body.

After you eat, glucose travels through your bloodstream, crosses the blood-brain barrier, and enters your brain cells. Mitochondria (bean-shaped organelles in cells) convert the energy stored in glucose into adenosine triphosphate (ATP), a form of energy your brain cells can use to power thinking, memory, mood, movement, and all the other functions your brain controls.

Scientists have confirmed that in brain regions using more energy, local capillaries dilate and deliver more glucose.3 But before you open a bag of sugary treats to give your brain energy, you should know that scientists are still trying to figure out how glucose and brain function are related.4 Glucose spikes cause more harm than good. It’s hard to prove that better nutrition boosts brain health and cognition, but it’s pretty clear that nutrient deficiencies adversely affect brain health.

Foods for a Healthy Brain 

Read about the 8 best foods for better brain health and the research that supports making these foods a part of your diet.

  • Leafy greens
  • Berries
  • Fatty fish
  • Seeds
  • Nuts
  • Whole grains
  • Eggs
  • Coffee
  • Tea
  • Water
  • Salmon
  • Walnuts
  • Flaxseed
  • Oil
  • Fermented foods
  • Green tea
  • Beans

Eat a variety of foods, following dietary suggestions from the Mediterranean and Dash diets. Choose foods that are unprocessed or minimally processed whole foods.

The word brain surrounded by healthy foods.

The Gut-mind Relationship

The gut and the brain are closely linked through direct and indirect pathways. The endocrine, immune, and nervous system connect the brain and gut. The microbiome, bacteria in the gut, strongly influences gut health and, therefore, brain health.5 Changes in the microbiome with aging may contribute to age-related changes in the brain. The link is thought to be inflammation.6

Each person’s microbiota profile is different, but the relative abundance and distribution of healthy bacteria in the gut are consistent.5 Environmental factors, foods, and antibiotics can kill good gut bacteria, giving unhealthy bacteria a chance to overpopulate your gut.

Disorders of the gut microbiome have been linked to:6-9

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Autism
  • Mood disorders
  • Memory problems
  • Schizophrenia

To maintain gut microbiome health, avoid antibiotics, consume a healthy diet, and get plenty of restful sleep. While antibiotics are essential for treating symptomatic bacterial infections, they do nothing for viral infections, and they disrupt the gut microbiome. There is well-documented evidence for the psychiatric side effects of antibiotics.5 This provides evidence linking the microbiome, the gut, and brain health.

Your diet affects your gut microbiota composition and function, which can adversely affect brain function. Animal studies have shown that:6

  • High-fat diets reduce the microbiome’s diversity and are linked to increased vulnerability to anxiety.
  • High sugar diets are linked to impaired spatial bias for long- and short-term memory.

Alcohol consumption, smoking habits, and sleep disruptions are also associated with changes in the gut microbiome.6 The gut microbiome is part of the gut-brain axis that links gastrointestinal and brain function. Signals go in both directions, but this system is complex, and more research is needed to understand how the microbiome, gut, and brain interact.

An image of a brain and healthy food.

How Good Nutrition Impacts Brain Health

Food that supports better brain health meets one or more of the following criteria:10,11

  • Are antioxidants: The brain is susceptible to oxidative stress and damage. Observational studies show a link between antioxidants such as selenium, carotenoids, vitamins A, C, and E, and better cognitive health in older adults.12 Supplements, such as NAD injections, help generate energy for cells to use for cellular and DNA repair, complementing antioxidants’ benefits.
  • Used to make neurotransmitters: Brain cells communicate using chemical messengers (neurotransmitters). Fruits, many edible plants, and roots are important sources of nutrients used to make neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine, glutamate, GABA, dopamine, and serotonin.
  • Supply healthy fats: Each neuron in the brain is surrounded by a fatty coat called myelin. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is essential for healthy brain structure and function.
  • Contain polyphenols: Flavonoids and curcuminoids are produced by plants to protect them from ultraviolet radiation. In the brain, they contribute to energy balance and communication flexibility.
  • Are high in vitamin B complex: Vitamins in the B family help chemical reactions proceed with less energy and make the brain more efficient.
  • Contain trace elements: Copper, zinc, and iron play important roles in brain cell development, neurotransmitter production, and communication.

Hormones

Hormones are chemical messengers that travel through the bloodstream. They link the nervous system with tissues and organs throughout the body. Foods and nutritional supplements can be beneficial for hormonal health.

Here are some ways to naturally regulate your hormones and improve your brain health.

  • Increase protein intake: Hormones are made of proteins, so getting enough protein in your diet is essential.
  • Decrease sugar intake: Simple sugars increase blood glucose, which over time, can cause inflammation and blood vessel damage.
  • Increase healthy fats: Choose diets high in omega-3 fatty acids.

Mental Health

Mental health and brain health intersect. Changes in the gut biome affect both cognitive and mental health. Researchers continue to investigate the relationship between brain health and mental health. The theory that mental illness is because of decreases in brain neurotransmitters is not holding up as an explanation.

Choosing foods to support brain, physical, and microbiome health will do the same for mental health. Consume food or supplements high in antioxidants, such as

  • Spinach
  • Ginger
  • Garlic
  • Avocados
  • Blueberries
  • Turmeric
  • Cocoa powder
  • Pecans
  • Hazelnuts
  • Almonds
  • Red wine
  • Coenzyme Q10
  • NAD
  • Glutathione
  • Mind Vitamin Pack
The words "food for sleep" and dishes full of healthy food.

Sleep

Complex carbohydrates, combined with a healthy source of protein, will stabilize your blood sugar and make it easier to sleep all night. Foods thought to contribute to better sleep include:

  • Fatty fish
  • Turkey
  • Eggs
  • Tart cherry juice
  • Walnuts
  • Kiwi
  • Milk

Sleep and the effect of nutrition on the body are both complex processes that are controlled by intricate pathways of hormones and neurotransmitters in the body, which makes it difficult to design research studies that conclusively link a nutrient to better sleep. It is much easier to show that a lack of a vitamin or nutrient is associated with poor sleep. Choose a well-balanced diet that supports overall health, and it will probably promote better sleep as well.

How Poor Nutrition Impacts Brain Health 

Poor nutrition can also affect brain health. Your brain depends on a healthy cardiovascular system to deliver the nutrients and oxygen it needs to function. Foods that cause glucose spikes, increase inflammation, or increase the risk of chronic diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes mellitus, and cardiovascular disease will also provide poor nutrition for the brain.

Hormones

Endocrine disruptors are environmental chemicals that can disrupt a natural hormone balance. Avoid:13

  • Food packaged in polycarbonate plastics that may contain bisphenol A or phthalates.
  • Phytoestrogens such as genistein and daidzein in soy products.
  • Excess alcohol consumption can affect your liver’s ability to detoxify your blood.
  • Tobacco use and vaping affect nearly every endocrine organ.

Mental Health

Besides alcohol, there is not much research linking food choices and mental health. Foods that are most likely to negatively affect your microbiome and, therefore, your mental health include:

  • Refined sugar
  • Processed foods
  • Saturated and trans fats
  • Alcohol

Sleep

Your brain is very busy during sleep: repairing damaged cells, restoring nutrients, and removing waste. Food and drink that impair sleep can cause brain fog, a constellation of symptoms that affect thinking and memory.

As mentioned above, little research strongly links food and sleep, except for alcohol and caffeine. Try to avoid the following:

  • Caffeine
  • Alcohol
  • Refined sugar
  • Spicy foods
  • Saturated and trans fats

Processed foods that are high in saturated fats and refined sugars affect overall health and are likely to negatively impact sleep as well.  

Two faces and brains facing each other with a fork between them. One face is made of junk food and the other, healthy food.

What Is Nutritional Psychiatry and What Does It Mean for Your Brain Health? 

Accumulating data suggests a strong link between what we eat and our brain and mental health. Unfortunately, it is hard to design a research study that provides causality. While it seems logical that diet and lifestyle choices will impact brain health, researchers in nutritional psychiatry are working to better understand the connections between the microbiome, gut, and brain and their effect on the brain and mental health.14 In the meantime, experiment on yourself. Track your diet and make notes about your cognitive and mental health. You may notice trends, and these insights are valuable.

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.  Petersen RC, Lopez O, Armstrong MJ, et al. Practice guideline update summary: Mild cognitive impairment: Report of the Guideline Development, Dissemination, and Implementation Subcommittee of the American Academy of Neurology. Neurology. Jan 16 2018;90(3):126-135. doi:10.1212/wnl.0000000000004826

2.  Gómez-Pinilla F. Brain foods: the effects of nutrients on brain function. Nat Rev Neurosci. Jul 2008;9(7):568-78. doi:10.1038/nrn2421

3.  Parks RW, Loewenstein DA, Dodrill KL, et al. Cerebral metabolic effects of a verbal fluency test: a PET scan study. J Clin Exp Neuropsychol. Oct 1988;10(5):565-75. doi:10.1080/01688638808402795

4. Messier C. Glucose improvement of memory: a review. European Journal of Pharmacology. 2004/04/19/ 2004;490(1):33-57. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ejphar.2004.02.043

5. Carabotti M, Scirocco A, Maselli MA, Severi C. The gut-brain axis: interactions between enteric microbiota, central and enteric nervous systems. Ann Gastroenterol. Apr-Jun 2015;28(2):203-209.

6. Rogers GB, Keating DJ, Young RL, Wong ML, Licinio J, Wesselingh S. From gut dysbiosis to altered brain function and mental illness: mechanisms and pathways. Molecular Psychiatry. 2016/06/01 2016;21(6):738-748. doi:10.1038/mp.2016.50

7. Foster JA, McVey Neufeld KA. Gut-brain axis: how the microbiome influences anxiety and depression. Trends Neurosci. May 2013;36(5):305-12. doi:10.1016/j.tins.2013.01.005

8.  Mayer EA, Padua D, Tillisch K. Altered brain-gut axis in autism: comorbidity or causative mechanisms? Bioessays. Oct 2014;36(10):933-9. doi:10.1002/bies.201400075

9.  Gareau MG, Wine E, Rodrigues DM, et al. Bacterial infection causes stress-induced memory dysfunction in mice. Gut. Mar 2011;60(3):307-17. doi:10.1136/gut.2009.202515

10.   Balakrishnan A, Padigaru M, Morde A. Chapter 19 – Cognitive health and nutrition: a millennial correlation. In: Ghosh D, ed. Nutraceuticals in Brain Health and Beyond. Academic Press; 2021:281-292.

11.  Gehlich KH, Beller J, Lange-Asschenfeldt B, Köcher W, Meinke MC, Lademann J. Fruit and vegetable consumption is associated with improved mental and cognitive health in older adults from non-Western developing countries. Public Health Nutr. Mar 2019;22(4):689-696. doi:10.1017/s1368980018002525

12.  Berr C. Oxidative stress and cognitive impairment in the elderly. Review. Journal of Nutrition, Health and Aging. 2002;6(4):261-266.

13. Tweed JO, Hsia SH, Lutfy K, Friedman TC. The endocrine effects of nicotine and cigarette smoke. Trends Endocrinol Metab. Jul 2012;23(7):334-42. doi:10.1016/j.tem.2012.03.006

14.  Adan RAH, van der Beek EM, Buitelaar JK, et al. Nutritional psychiatry: Towards improving mental health by what you eat. Eur Neuropsychopharmacol. Dec 2019;29(12):1321-1332. doi:10.1016/j.euroneuro.2019.10.011

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Published: Dec 4, 2022

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