When you think about how to support the health of your brain, making the right food choices probably isn’t the first tactic that comes to mind. But a healthy brain requires the right nourishment, just like the rest of your body. Your brain enables you to communicate, make decisions, solve problems and live a productive life. Its function is a critical piece of your overall health.
Many nutritionists agree that a wise strategy for good overall health is to follow a dietary pattern that includes a lot of fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains, including foods that are rich in components that support brain health, like omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins and antioxidants. Incorporating many of these foods into your diet regularly could translate into better mental function. The following list highlights 11 foods that research has shown can improve your brain health.
A healthy brain requires the right nourishment, just like the rest of your body.
Broccoli is high in nutrients, including fiber, vitamin C, vitamin K, iron and potassium. Vitamin K is a fat-soluble vitamin that is essential for forming sphingolipids, an important type of fat that’s densely packed into brain cells. Some studies have linked a higher vitamin K intake to better memory and cognitive ability in older adults. Broccoli also contains more protein than most other vegetables, and it contains several compounds that have powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, which contribute to good overall health.
Eggs are a good source of several nutrients that are good for brain health, including vitamins B6 and B12, folate and choline. Many people do not get enough choline in their diet, and eggs are an excellent source of this nutrient. Higher intakes of choline have been linked to better memory and mental function. The B vitamins found in eggs may help slow the progression of mental decline in older adults by lowering levels of homocysteine, an amino acid that could be linked to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Dark chocolate is a form of chocolate usually containing 70% or greater cocoa content. It does not contain milk or butter found in milk chocolate. In addition to tasting good, dark chocolate contains compounds that boost memory, attention span, reaction time and problem-solving skills by increasing blood flow to the brain. Dark chocolate and cocoa powder contain brain-boosting compounds, including flavonoids, caffeine and antioxidants. Flavonoids are a group of antioxidant plant compounds that gather in the areas of the brain that deal with learning and memory. These flavonoids may enhance memory and also help slow down age-related mental decline.
Fatty fish is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids. This nutrient is essential for brain health because about half of the fat that makes up the human brain is comprised of omega-3 fatty acids. Trout, salmon, albacore tuna, herring and sardines are excellent sources of omega-3s, which may slow age-related mental decline and help protect against Alzheimer’s disease. For those who don’t eat fish, other sources of omega-3s include flaxseeds, avocados and walnuts.
Dark berries, like blueberries and blackberries, contain multiple health benefits, some of which support brain health. Deeply colored berries contain anthocyanins, a group of plant compounds with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that help prevent cell damage and boost brain plasticity. Antioxidants act against both oxidative stress and inflammation, conditions that can contribute to brain aging and neurodegenerative diseases.
Turmeric is a plant in the ginger family and is the main ingredient in curry powder. Its active compound, curcumin, is the major component of turmeric and gives it its bright yellow color. In research, curcumin has been shown to boost serotonin and dopamine, both of which improve mood. And it may benefit memory and help new brain cells grow. Most studies of turmeric’s benefits use highly-concentrated supplements, which contain much more curcumin than is typically used in cooking. Therefore, to achieve similar health benefits, you may need to take a turmeric supplement under the guidance of a health care provider.
Nuts are an excellent source of healthy fats and protein and contain numerous brain-boosting nutrients, including vitamin E and plant compounds. Walnuts stand out by offering a type of omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid, which helps lower blood pressure and protects arteries and benefits both the heart and the brain. One study found that nut consumption among older adults was associated with a decrease in cognitive decline.
Pumpkin seeds, also known as pepitas, are rich in antioxidants that protect the body and brain from free-radical damage. They are also an excellent source of magnesium, zinc, copper and iron, all of which are important minerals for brain health. Magnesium supports brain development, memory and learning. Zinc helps regulate communication between brain cells, and both copper and iron play key roles in normal brain function and development. Pumpkin seeds can be eaten alone as a snack, sprinkled on salads and other foods or mixed in with yogurt or smoothies.
Oranges are loaded with vitamin C, which is beneficial for brain health by preventing mental decline. One study found a significant association between vitamin C concentrations in the blood and better performance on tasks involving attention, focus, decision speed and memory. Vitamin C is also a powerful antioxidant that can help fight against free radicals that can damage brain cells. It may also protect the aging brain against depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Coffee’s two main components, caffeine and antioxidants, can help support brain health. The caffeine in coffee is enjoyed by many for its stimulating effects, including increased alertness, sharpened concentration and improved mood. Long-term use may protect against neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. This could be partly due to coffee’s high concentration of antioxidants. Moderate caffeine consumption is key because too much can cause sleep problems, anxiety, jitters and an irregular heartbeat.
Green tea contains less caffeine than coffee but enough to produce a similar brain-boosting effect. And it has other components that support brain health, such as L-theanine, an amino acid that can help reduce anxiety and make you feel more relaxed. Green tea contains polyphenols and antioxidants that could protect the brain from mental decline and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Some studies have shown green tea also helps improve working memory.
Reduce Risk Factors That Affect Brain Health
In addition to food choices, another component for supporting brain health is understanding and reducing brain health risks associated with environmental and lifestyle factors, such as accidents, alcohol use, medications, smoking and health conditions. The Administration for Community Living offers these guidelines for promoting healthy aging for your brain and mitigating certain risks. By eating the right foods and making recommended lifestyle choices, you are well on your way to supporting your brain to be its healthiest.