You’ve probably heard the phrase “brain food.” While a good book or a documentary might be able to feed your creativity or teach you something new, those things can’t provide your mind with the actual nutrition it needs to function properly.
“Our brain is what creates our reality,” Dr. Kelsey Brenner, functional neurologist for South Florida Integrative Health told The Daily Meal. “It takes in information from our environment, about other people, and what we say to ourselves. It is constantly absorbing things. And it’s taking things in from our food, too.”
We often think of our environment as a main determinant of our reality; but the physical health of your brain can make a big impact, as well.
“We want to make sure we’re getting the right nutrients and surrounding ourselves with good people and learning things that will help our brains grow as we age,” Brenner explained over the phone. “Our brains need holistic support — from our environment and our food.”
But what foods truly nourish your brain? We asked three neurologists to explain the foods that they eat and the foods that they recommend for maintaining optimal brain health. These foods work to preserve the brain as it gets older, help you focus in the present, and may even repair past damage or eliminate toxins. All of these effects combined can help to stave off dementia, Alzheimer’s, and other forms of cognitive decline.
That being said, there’s a lot more than food to consider when you’re thinking about brain health.
“The fact is, food and brain health is a widely discussed topic with a lot of different schools of thought,” said Dr. Marwan Sabbagh, director of Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health and author of The Alzheimer’s Prevention Cookbook, to The Daily Meal. “Despite that, the National Academy of Sciences came out with consensus recommendations on how to promote brain health — and diet did not make the cut.”
Other factors, such as physical exercise, cognitive stimulation, and blood pressure management are recommended, Dr. Sabbagh explained. But with food, he says, “the literature is all over the map and there is not sufficient consistency to recommend it.”
Despite the conflicting opinions, the doctors shared their insights as to what foods could play a role in maintaining your mind — it couldn’t hurt to put these brain-boosting foods on your table.
“I encourage people to eat avocados,” Brenner advised. “They are high in healthy omega-3’s.” Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of fat with a number of brain-boosting benefits including reducing your risk of memory loss and depression. Avocados also may be successful at fighting inflammation due to oleic acid, a compound found in some studies to reduce the inflammatory response that could lead to degenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s. And those are just a few of the many reasons you should be eating avocados every day!
Black, or “forbidden,” rice has become a trendy food item on Instagram. But unlike the Unicorn Frappuccino or the cronut, this social media sensation might actually improve people’s health. The rice gets its dark color from anthocyanins, an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compound that’s also found in blueberries, blackberries, and other dark-colored plant foods. “It’s those compounds that really are the powerhouse for neurological function,” Dr. Robert Zembroski, a clinical nutritionist and board-certified chiropractic neurologist, told The Daily Meal. “Some of the data is saying anthocyanins have been shown to improve nerve transmission and enhance neuroplasticity.” This enhances the efficiency of the pathways in the brain and nervous system. “The dark compounds were also found to improve cognitive health and protect the nervous system from toxic compounds,” Zembroski said.
Antioxidants play a huge role in preventing brain degeneration. “Antioxidants are the clean-up and protection system for the brain,” Dr. Brenner said. “You want to look for antioxidants in fruit that doesn’t have too much sugar, to avoid a spike in insulin.” Berries such as blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries are all great choices for an antioxidant-rich snack. According to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, regular consumption of berries could possibly be used as a strategy in the treatment and prevention of several neurodegenerative diseases and age-related brain dysfunction.
“Not Hershey’s chocolate,” said Zembroski. “High-cocoa dark chocolate.” It’s not the sugary sweetness that makes chocolate such a healthy treat. Zembroski recommends dark chocolate largely because of its flavonoids, a class of antioxidants that have been shown to improve learning memory and help those with traumatic brain injuries that could reduce cognitive functioning and memory. “Oxidative stress and inflammation cause a lot of the damage people experience,” Zembroski explained. “Dark chocolate increases neurotrophic factor, which protects against the damage caused by toxins we ingest such as alcohol.” Chocolate is also a major mood booster, Zembroski says — not just because it tastes so good, but because it can actually alter the chemistry in your brain.
Yet another reason you shouldn’t kick your coffee habit — coffee is good for your brain! “Coffee gets a bad rap because people load it with cream, syrups, and sugar, all the things that create dysfunction in the nervous system,” said Dr. Zembroski. “It’s like a cocktail of inflammation.” However, he explained, black coffee has lots of benefits for your brain. “Certain compounds in coffee can boost serotonin,” Dr. Zembroski said on the phone, “and caffeine and the antioxidants in coffee increase our alertness by blocking an enzyme called adenosine, which makes us sleepy.” Coffee also works to improve focus and overall concentration.
Curcumin is the active ingredient in turmeric, an orange-colored spice used widely in Indian cuisine. “It’s a really powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant,” said Dr. Zembroski. “The research shows that it’s excellent for those with potential dementia, potential Alzheimer’s, or those with a traumatic brain injury.” Curcumin boosts what’s called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which helps brain cells to grow.
But the benefits don’t end there. In one study that compared Prozac to curcumin, Zembroski said, curcumin almost came out as more effective for those with major depressive disorders. “It increases serotonin and dopamine in the brain,” he explained. But sprinkling some turmeric on your dinner might not do the trick. “You’d have to eat bottles of turmeric,” Zembroski admitted. “But a supplemental form of curcumin works for people.”
They might have more calories than the whites, but the egg yolks might be the healthiest part. They contain a nutrient called lutein, which Dr. Anna Hohler, chair of neurology at St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center, says is great for cognitive functioning. Want to ace your exam? Eat eggs for breakfast. Here are 50 great ways to cook them!
Protein is absolutely essential for brain health. “Amino acids in the protein that we eat help to create neurotransmitters,” said Dr. Brenner. “They are the really the basics for building neurotransmitters, the little messengers that help your brain communicate and keep you feeling good and energetic.” You can get this protein from any number of sources, but grass-fed beef is a good option — especially if you’re someone who loves eating burgers but are avoiding fast food. The way your beef was raised actually does matter in terms of overall nutrition — Dr. Brenner advises you buy your beef grass-fed.
Green tea is one of the healthiest beverages you can drink, as it contains tons of antioxidants. “It also contains an amino acid called L-theanine,” Dr. Zembroski said, “which increases the activity of a neurotransmitter called GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). GABA calms the brain down and relaxes the nervous system. People that don’t produce enough develop symptoms of anxiety.” So maybe that’s what’s so calming about sipping a hot cup of tea. Green tea also contains polyphenols, which, as Dr. Zembroski described, can reduce the likelihood of cognitive decline for those at risk for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Legumes, including lentils and beans, are a fibrous, healthy way to get the carbohydrates your brain needs. “When we take in carbs, whether they are from a fruit, vegetable, or grain, our bodies break them down into glucose,” explained Dr. Brenner on the phone. “Glucose is fuel for your whole body, including your brain. We want this fuel to come from more complex carbs, which take a little longer to break down than say, pure white sugar.” Pure white sugar can spike your insulin. “Any time our insulin spikes it can impact our brain health,” Dr. Brenner said. “Huge spikes can be inflammatory to the brain. Legumes are a great source of protein and glucose, both of which your brain needs. Just avoid eating a huge bowl, since your insulin might spike.”
“For prevention of Alzheimer’s and other brain-related diseases, the data is very strong to support the Mediterranean diet,” said Dr. Sabbagh. “The diet involves eating fish, whole grains, legumes, olive oil, antioxidants, spices, and a splash of red wine.” But one of the most important factors of the Mediterranean diet is monounsaturated fat, such as that from olive oil. “Olive oil seems to be protective, not just of the heart but also of the brain,” Dr. Sabbagh said.
Salmon is a staple food of the Mediterranean diet, long thought to have benefits for human cognition. This fatty fish is good for you for many reasons, one of which is for its protein and omega-3 concentration. But, Dr. Zembroski explains, “The real power of these foods is in the concentration of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which is shown to prevent cognitive decline and improve those with mood disorders.” The type of salmon you buy matters, too, he says. “There’s nothing like wild-caught fatty fish — not farm raised, because as the fish farming industry improves, so does our health.” Other fish, such as sardines and shellfish, can also help provide the healthy fats found in salmon.
Seeds such as sunflower seeds and flaxseed contain omega-6 fatty acids, which, according to Dr. Brenner, help with connections in the brain and boost growth and learning. “It helps protect our brain, helps communication to different areas of the brain,” Dr. Brenner explained. “We can really see its effects on cognition with memory and being able to focus. It can also help in the creation of newer memories, to aid with learning.”
“High-lutein foods such as spinach are good for cognitive functioning,” advised Dr. Hohler. Kale and other leafy greens also provide lutein. Swap your iceberg lettuce for one of these nutritious greens to get all the brain-boosting benefits. Or go ahead and try making a kale smoothie — so long as you do it right, they taste great!
“If you’ve ever looked at a walnut, it kind of looks like a brain,” said Dr. Zembroski. “We love nuts as functional neurologists. Nuts in general are loaded with vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids, abundant in antioxidants, and loaded with polyphenols.” According to the Journal of Nutrition, these polyphenolic compounds found specifically in walnuts reduce oxidative stress and inflammation in the brain. They also improve neuro-signaling (which is the brain’s way of communicating) and increase the growth of neurons. Walnuts in particular also provide vitamin E, which helps protect cells against oxidative stress and free radicals. Neurologists are nuts about nuts. Eat them as a snack or add nut butter to your diet. There are lots of different kinds of nut butters to choose from!
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