Everything you eat and drink affects your brain function and how you think. Your ability to learn new skills, focus on a task and recall memories are all affected by the type and quality of foods you eat.
Eating a well-balanced diet abundant in brain-boosting nutrients will not only help improve your memory and brain power but can also help reduce the risk of ageing-related diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Here are some of the key nutrients to include in your diet to keep your brain healthy.
The trace mineral iodine plays an important role in healthy brain function and cognitive ability as well as brain development in children. In Australia and other Western developed countries we’re seeing widespread iodine deficiencies as a result of poor soil quality and reliance on processed foods. Common signs and symptoms of iodine deficiency include poor concentration and difficulty retaining information. Deficiencies are also associated with lower IQ and decreased cognitive function in children.
A recent study has found that curcumin, the active compound found in turmeric, can help protect the brain.
The best natural sources of iodine include sea vegetables (kelp, nori, kombu, wakame), wild-caught fish, eggs and green vegetables. Try adding wakame flakes to meals for extra goodness. Spirulina is another excellent source of iodine that can be added to green smoothies and vegetable juices.
B6, B9 and B12 are required to make neurotransmitters that are involved with mood and brain function. Vitamin B12 has been found to help prevent brain atrophy (loss of neurons in the brain), which is associated with memory loss and dementia. If your diet is lacking in B vitamins you will be at risk of cognitive decline and memory loss and run the risk of developing a neurodegenerative disease like Alzheimer’s.
The best sources of B vitamins include whole grains, fruits (in particular, green leaves) and legumes. Vitamin B12 is found only in animal products so vegans should take a B12 supplement. Vitamin B12 is found in red meat, poultry, fish, eggs, yoghurt and spirulina. Beneficial gut bacteria can also synthesise vitamin B12, so supporting good gut health by including probiotic-rich fermented foods in the diet is recommended.
Choline is an important nutrient related to the B vitamin family. Choline makes up part of your cell membranes and is used to produce acetylcholine, an important neurotransmitter involved in memory. Choline is essential for healthy brain function as it is found in the myelin sheath that insulates nerve fibres throughout the brain and body, which facilitates rapid transmission of electrical impulses.
Including choline-rich foods in the diet will help improve memory and brain performance. Egg yolks are one of the richest sources of choline. Other good sources include soy beans and lecithin granules, peanuts, spirulina, broccoli, wheat germ, milk and beef.
Essential fatty acids
The brain is made up of more than 60 per cent structural fat and needs to be supplied with the right type of fats to stay well oiled and functioning properly. Omega-3 essential fatty acids — in particular DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) — are vital for optimum brain performance.
The brain and the retina contain the highest content of DHA found in any tissue in the body. These healthy brain fats help enhance learning and memory and are vital for brain growth and development in infants. DHA is important for preventing depression and age-related cognitive decline including dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Including more berries in your diet is a simple and delicious way to improve your memory and brain health.
Omega-3 fats cannot be made by the body, so they need to be supplied through the diet. DHAs can be found in cold-water fish such as wild salmon, sardines, trout, herring, halibut and mackerel. DHA can also be made by the body from alpha-linolenic acid found in flax, hemp and chia seed (oil and meal), walnuts and, to a lesser extent, in dark-green leafy vegetables.
You should aim to include wild oily fish in your diet at least three times a week. Instead of butter or margarine, use flaxseed oil drizzled on toast. Use omega-3 rich oils in salad dressings and dips. Snack on raw and unsalted nuts and seeds or add them to breakfast cereals or salads. Sprinkle one tablespoon of freshly ground flax, hemp or chia seeds in smoothies.
Include plenty of antioxidant-rich foods in your daily diet. Antioxidants help prevent free radicals from damaging brain cells. Antioxidants help slow down the ageing process and can help protect you from Alzheimer’s disease.
The best sources of antioxidants are fruit and vegetables, especially red, blue and purple varieties, including blueberries, raspberries, tomatoes, red grapes and red capsicums. Citrus fruits such as oranges, lemons, limes and grapefruits and green leafy vegetables are also rich in health-promoting antioxidants.
Drinking a couple of cups of green tea a day will also provide you with a good dose of brain protective antioxidants. Super berries such as açaí, camu camu and maqui, and spirulina are abundant in antioxidants and can easily be added to smoothies and fresh juices to help boost your daily antioxidant intake.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa)
A recent study has found that curcumin, the active compound found in turmeric, can help protect the brain. Curcumin has potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that can protect brain cells from free-radical damage and help prevent neurodegeneration.
Researchers have found a link between improved cognitive performance and the consumption of turmeric. A study indicated a lower prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease and better cognitive performance in Indian people who consumed curcumin in curry on a regular basis.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
Rosemary has been used traditionally by herbalists to boost mental performance and memory. Rosemary can also be used as an essential oil added to massage oils or oil burners, or the fresh or dried herb can be used in cooking or as a tea.
Top brain-boosting foods
Coconut oil is the perfect brain fuel because of its abundance of medium-chain fatty acids, a good energy source for the brain. Buy a good-quality organic cold-pressed coconut oil. Coconut oil is a healthy oil to use for cooking at higher temperatures as it won’t turn to a harmful trans fat.
A study published in Neurology found that people whose diets were high in trans fats were more likely to have brain shrinkage than those whose diets were low in trans fats. These brain-damaging fats are found in fried fast foods, commercially baked goods and some margarines.
Wild salmon is an excellent choice of oily fish that is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and iodine to help support optimum brain performance and memory. Wild salmon is also rich in the super antioxidant astaxanthin.
Walnuts make a great brain-boosting snack, containing alpha-linolenic acid to help improve memory and the antioxidant called ellagic acid, which helps protect the brain from free-radical damage. Add walnuts to salads, baked goods, muesli or dips or use a walnut butter spread on toast.
Including more berries in your diet is a simple and delicious way to improve your memory and brain health. According to a paper published in Annals of Neurology, women who have higher intakes of berries in their diets have a slower rate of age-related memory loss.
Berries have high levels of two potent antioxidants called anthocyanins and flavonoids, which are associated with lower rates of cognitive decline. Positive effects were seen in women who consumed only ½ cup of blueberries or 1 cup of strawberries a week. And, the more berries eaten, the better the effect, too.
Green tea (Camellia sinensis) has been found to help boost memory and attention and improve mental clarity. Green tea’s beneficial effects on cognition are due to a combination of L-theanine and caffeine. L-theanine has a calming effect and helps reduce caffeine’s stimulating effect while still enhancing its ability to improve focus and brain function. L-theanine has been found to improve attention, particularly in individuals who are prone to high levels of anxiety.
Lecithin is a group of fat-like substances, including the phosphatidylserine (PS), essential for all cells in the body including brain cells. A large proportion of our brain cell membranes are made up of PS. PS is used to make the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is responsible for memory storage and retrieval. PS helps improve focus and attention and also has neuroprotective properties that can help prevent age-related cognitive decline.
PS is naturally found in soybeans (soy lecithin granules) and egg yolks. Adding 1–2 tablespoons of organic soy lecithin granules to your breakfast cereal, salads or smoothies is a perfect way to enhance your brain function.
Eggs are a fabulous memory-boosting food rich PS and choline, which are needed to make the neurotransmitter acetylcholine involved in memory. Eggs also provide brain-boosting B vitamins.
Avocados are a rich source of the antioxidant vitamin E that helps protect brain cells from oxidative stress caused by a buildup of free radicals. Eating foods high in vitamin E will support brain health and improved cognition, as well as helping reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Other good sources of vitamin E include nuts and seeds. Avocadoes also supply plenty of healthy monounsaturated fats.