Holistic health and wellness coach Phillippa Quigley shows us the best foods for optimal brain health, and why what we consume is so important for a healthy brain.
Health is so much more than moving our bodies and counting calories. To be able to live a long and healthy life, we must ensure that we are looking after our brain health. Within our brains, we control our body. It helps regulate bodily functions, our emotions and thoughts, and holds our memories.
As we get older our cognitive function can start to decrease. Factors such as poor diet, toxic environments and a sedentary lifestyle can decline our brain health substantially.
Therefore, we must proactively ensure we look after the brain. In this article, we will look at the dietary choices you can make to keep your brain healthy.
What is brain health?
Brain health is all about how well a person’s brain can function in several areas. It is only as we get older that we start to really think about how healthy our brain actually is. However, it is something that we must care about from an earlier age, not just the moment we start becoming a little forgetful!
For children, they won’t consider their brain health as something they need to look after. That is where as parents we must encourage healthy eating and being active, support their emotional needs, and encourage good quality sleep. This is because their brains are still developing and growing, and we must give them the best environment possible in order for their brains to be healthy.
Our brains control our cognitive, behavioral, sensory, social-emotional and motor functions. The brain is a critical part of our overall health, and some would say it is the single most valuable organ in our body. Our brain gives us the ability to problem solve, make decisions, communicate and be productive.
Influences such as our daily diet, lifestyle, genetics and the environment around us can affect how well our brain is functioning. While some people can sometimes fall back on the excuse that it is genetics that has caused their poor concentration or unhealthy lifestyle, such ‘bad genes’ can often be overridden with a healthy and balanced diet, good mental stimulation, and moving our bodies.
Key nutrients for the brain
A healthy diet is important for our overall health. Sometimes we only view our diet as having an impact on our weight. However, we are increasingly realising that food as nourishment helps keep various bodily systems healthy.
Our brain is one of those organs that needs key nutrients to function optimally. These nutrients include:
Antioxidants protect the body from free radicals. Free radicals are unstable atoms in the body that can damage cells and cause inflammation and illness. Antioxidants are found in vitamin C and vitamin E.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Consuming foods with Omega-3 in will help increase memory, learning, and blood flow to the brain. In particular, Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) , both being long-chain fatty acids, are important for brain development.
Minerals such as magnesium and zinc are important to help boost our cognitive function.
Vitamin D and vitamin B, particularly B6, B9 and B12 all help support overall brain health, energy levels, and production of neurotransmitters.
Amino acids help form proteins. Such proteins help build neurotransmitters, which are chemical messengers that help cells communicate with each other.
Where Can We get these nutrients?
Antioxidants are compounds found in foods that help to delay or prevent damage to ourselves. As you get older, you become increasingly prone to free radicals in your body, as you become less efficient at removing them. This increase causes oxidative stress, which can cause diseases such as Alzheimer’s, where a person experiences memory loss.
Antioxidants have been shown to counteract the damage caused by free radicals. Therefore, consuming a diet rich in antioxidants can help boost your brain health.
Foods rich in antioxidants include:
- Dark chocolate
- Berries – particularly blueberries, strawberries and blackberries
- Green tea
Omega-3 fatty acids help improve memory and cognitive function. They also can help people who suffer from depression.
Our brains are 60% composed of fats, the majority of which is made up by omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), alongside eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Both these fatty acids aid cell communication and blood flow, and reduce inflammation. They also aid our focus and efficiency.
Therefore, we must ensure we are getting enough of them. You can find and Omega-3 in:
- Cod liver oil
- Flax seeds
- Chia seeds
One incredible function of the brain is that it constantly tries to repair and renew itself. But without the right fuel, it begins to fill the gaps itself – and not always in a good way. So when we think of food, we must think of how it is fuelling our brains, and whether our food choice will help support it to function optimally.
It might come as a surprise to see coffee on this list, and if you are a coffee lover you will be pleased to read about its benefits. As with anything, though – moderation!
Within a cup of coffee there are two key ingredients that will support your brain health: caffeine and antioxidants. We’ve already seen how antioxidants can help prevent damage from free radicals. The caffeine in coffee has a few benefits to your brain:
- Firstly, it gives you improved concentration, helping you focus on what you are doing.
- Secondly, caffeine can also boost your production of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical messenger released in your brain, and it makes you feel good.
- Lastly, caffeine helps increase your alertness by blocking adenosine, which makes you feel sleepy.
Another nice item of food you may not have expected on this list! Dark chocolate is known as the healthy chocolate to eat, thanks to its high cocoa powder content. It includes caffeine and antioxidants which we have already discussed, but it also includes flavonoids.
Flavonoids are a type of antioxidant. It is these flavonoids that help boost your learning and memory.
Whilst this is a healthy food for your brain, eating this in moderation is important so that you do not consume excess sugar.
Eating eggs helps us get a good intake of vitamin B. They also are a good source of Choline. Choline is a micronutrient that produces a neurotransmitter called Acetylcholine. This neurotransmitter helps us to regulate memory and mood.
Eggs give us a good dose of choline, with the yoke of the egg having the most concentrated amount. They also give us vitamin B12 and folate. A deficiency in these vitamins have been linked to depression and dementia.
Leafy green veg
Leafy green vegetables such as kale and spinach are known for being nutrient-rich. Leafy green vegetables are particularly often recommended for boosting energy levels.
They contain vitamin B, vitamin K, vitamin A and folate. All of these nutrients are known to slow cognitive decline and support brain function. It is also said that they have neuroprotective benefits, meaning that consuming foods like this helps protect nerve cells from damage and degeneration.
This shows that eating leafy green vegetables can help protect against Parkinson’s disease, Dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Turmeric is fast becoming its own superfood. This golden spice is a key ingredient in a curry, but also has many health benefits. Curcumin is the active compound in turmeric, and it can cross the blood-brain barrier. This means it can directly enter the brain and have an impact on cells.
It is best known for its anti-inflammatory properties, although it also contains antioxidants. Turmeric has been thought to benefit memory and can help people suffering with Alzheimer’s. It can also help ease depression by boosting the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. Curcumin can also boost a growth hormone which helps new brain cells grow.
Most people take turmeric supplements to ensure they consume a high concentration, and whilst this may be beneficial you must speak to a health care provider before taking them.
Just like coffee, green tea contains caffeine which will give our brain function a boost. However, green tea also contains other ingredients that aid our brain health.
L-theanine is an amino acid that helps increase the neurotransmitter, Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA). GABA produces a calming effect on the body. It helps relieve anxiety, protect the brain and promote sleep.
L-theanine also increases the alpha brain wave. These waves help us retain new information, increase our ideas and creativity, and also promote a calmness in the body. A lot of people would associate alpha brain waves with meditation.
Green tea is also rich in antioxidants and polyphenols.
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts are a healthy snack. They are known for being good for our cardiovascular health, but they are also linked to a healthier brain. There are many seed families that help support brain health, such as flax seeds and chia seeds due to their antioxidant properties. Pumpkin seeds are also very good for brain health.
Pumpkin seeds provide us with minerals such as magnesium, zinc ,iron and copper. Magnesium supports our memory and helps us learn. Zinc supports our nerves signaling – this being how the brain sends messages around the body. Copper helps support the brain with this signaling.
If we are deficient in iron, we can experience brain fog and poor cognitive function.
You can also find several key nutrients in nuts such as antioxidants, vitamin E and also healthy fats. Vitamin E is another nutrient that helps protect you from free radicals. Consuming foods rich in Vitamin E could help decrease the risk of dementia and depression. So consider adding those walnuts and almonds to your diet.
Wholegrains like barley, quinoa and oats are rich in vitamin B. They are complex carbohydrates which supply us with a steady flow of energy.
They are also a source of fiber. Fiber helps to support gut health by increasing the good bacteria. If you think about the gut-brain axis, if we have a healthy gut we have a healthy mind.
Wholegrains are also high in tryptophan. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that helps us produce serotonin, which is known as the feel-good happy hormone. Serotonin levels are important for people suffering with anxiety or depression.
Can alcohol be healthy for your brain? The answer to that is yes, but as always, in moderation. Resveratrol is a powerful antioxidant and is found in the skin of red grapes and therefore in red wine.
Resveratrol is thought to help reduce cell damage that can be associated with aging. Many age-related degenerative diseases are caused by damaging plaques forming in the brain. Resveratrol could possibly protect against these plaques forming.
It is recommended that the benefits from red wine come from drinking one glass a day. Cheers to that!
Broccoli is one of the favorite green vegetables. Known as being part of the cruciferous vegetable family, it is a staple part of many dinners. Broccoli is packed with healthy plant compounds. It is high in vitamin K and has anti-inflammatory and antioxidants effects.
Vitamin K is mainly known for helping blood to clot, however more recently it has been identified as a key vitamin to help with aging. It has been said by consuming foods high in vitamin K, it helps to prevent the risk of Alzheimer’s by protecting nerves from harmful substances in the brain.
The Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean diet is a popular health-boosting diet to follow. There was research from as far back as the 1960s that showed that men from the Mediterranean regions had lower rates of heart attacks than anywhere else. This then garnered interest from health professionals to continuously investigate the benefits of this diet.
The diet is high in vegetables, fruits, legumes, moderate consumption of dairy and oily fish, and lower amounts of saturated fats, sugar and meat. They consume most of their fats from olive oil (which is normally naturally produced, not refined) and also moderate consumption of alcohol – most often red wine.
It has been thought that the Mediterranean diet can be linked to lower levels of stroke, cardiovascular diseases and type 2 diabetes. There is also evidence to suggest that this diet would promote a healthy weight, as well as preventing diseases such as cancer.
When the Med diet is followed regularly and consistently there are slower rates in decline of memory and thinking skills. It is also thought that this diet is key to living longer and healthier.
One way to look at this diet is to see it as a lifestyle. Within the Mediterranean regions they focus on enjoying food and drink with loved ones, all in moderation. They also value being physically active.
With this in mind, you can start to see how the healthy way of eating, along with their values of living, can have many positive health benefits to their brain.
How to boost your brain health
Now we have covered key foods that are important to our brain health, let’s look at some steps that you can take to incorporate these into your diet and boost your cognitive function.
Tea or coffee?
We now know that caffeine can help boost your cognitive function. Therefore, on days where you need to be alert and focused, a good cup of coffee might be a good way to start.
However, make sure you are aware of the time of day that you are drinking your coffee. If it’s too late in the day this could negatively impact your night’s sleep. Stick to one to two cups of coffee in the morning.
If you like your tea, consider trying a cup of green tea for all its health benefits.
Be inspired by the med
Try to consume a diverse diet like those who live in the Mediterranean regions. By having a diverse and colorful plate, you will ensure that you are getting a good variety of nutrients.
Some of the key vegetables to add to your plate are spinach and kale, to help with your energy and nerve protection, and also broccoli for its boost of vitamin K.
Think ahead for snack time
Planning healthy snacks will stop you from reaching for the high-processed, high-sugar unhealthy snack. Swap these out for a handful of walnuts and almonds or a piece of dark chocolate. You could also enjoy a pot of blueberries and strawberries, for a boost of antioxidants.
Whilst you might be pleased to note that tea and coffee have health benefits, they can also contribute to dehydration. When you are dehydrated, cognitive function can become impaired and it can also cause headaches.
Therefore, you must drink water throughout the day to keep yourself hydrated. The recommended daily amount is 1.5 to 2 liters.
Where you can, consider cooking with fresh fruit and vegetables. The Mediterranean diet heavily focuses on plant foods, with some people growing their own. This limits the food’s exposure to any chemicals or pesticides.
You might want to consider organic foods, and when consuming any meat you should look for GM (genetically modified) free products. If the meat isn’t GM free, then the animal had been fed products or crops that were modified in some way. This can also apply to some fruit and vegetables.
Supplements for brain health
There are now a vast number of supplements and nootropics available to purchase that claim to improve your brain health. Some will, some might, and others will barely make a difference.
The key part to improving any part of your health is within the fundamentals from your daily diet and lifestyle. Consuming a diverse diet and remaining physically active with regular mental stimulation will all contribute to a healthier brain.
As with any supplement, approach with caution, get educated, and seek professional advice from your health care advisor before consuming. This is particularly important if you are taking regular medication, as supplements can interact with these and have adverse effects.
There are many foods that can help support your brain health long term.
By incorporating a lot of these brain-boosting foods, your brain will be able to function optimally with a lower risk of generative diseases. Supplying it with a varied diet full of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals will give you a long, happy and healthy life.
In this article we’ve covered the balanced and healthy diet. Remember too, that to give your brain the very best opportunity to thrive, you need to ensure you value your sleep, physical activity and mental health as well.