9 Foods To Enhance Brain Health & Function
“You are what you eat”.
A saying I’m sure we’ve all heard at some point and one that is particularly apt where our grey matter is concerned.
Why? Because nutritional intake has a profound effect on brain health and function. Therefore, to promote and maintain cognitive performance and vitality, it is imperative to consume foods that facilitate both short- and long-term brain health.
In today’s piece, we’ll discuss ten foods that studies have shown to have a positive effect on brain health and cognitive function, i.e. foods that you should consider adding to your diet if you want to keep your grey matter in best possible shape.
Foods Rich in Omega-3
If there’s one nutrient that’s synonymous with brain health, it’s omega-3, and foods that are brimming full of this fatty acid should be on your plate several times per week.
How is omega-3 beneficial for brain health?
Omega-3 fatty acids help to create membranes around brain cells (as well as every other cell in the body), which in turn enhances the integrity of brain cells called neurons. Research indicates that people who consumed high amounts of omega-3 has enhanced blood flow to the brain, in addition to having improved cognition1.
Which foods contain an abundance of omega-3?
One of the best sources of omega-3 is from oily fish such as sardines, mackerel and salmon. However, there are vegan options dense in omega-3, which includes the likes of flaxseeds (and seeds in general), nuts and soy.
Rich in flavonoid antioxidants such as catechin, quercetin and anthocyanin, berries are another food choice that has been shown to promote brain health and function.
How are berries beneficial for brain health?
Antioxidants work by decreasing inflammation and oxidative stress, which is vital where the health of your grey matter (and the rest of your body for that matter) is concerned. A review of studies published in 2014 found that the antioxidants present in berries have a plethora of effects that include:
– The ability to reduce levels of inflammation throughout the entire body.
– Enhancing brain cell communication.
– Decreasing or slowing-down cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases that occur as we age.
– Improving ‘plasticity’, a mechanism through which brain cells are able to create new connections, which can, in turn, enhance memory and the ability to learn2.
Which berries are rich in antioxidants (and are therefore good for cognitive function)?
There a multitude of berries that contain high levels of antioxidants, but here are ones that are readily available: blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and blackcurrants.
Ok, so caffeine itself isn’t a food, but there are a wide array of beverages that contain high amounts of this methylxanthine stimulant.
I know that most people will view caffeine as something to consume when they need to stay awake, but in reality, there is more to caffeine (and the beverages it exists in) than meets the eye; not only can they help to enhance concentration, they can actually decrease the risk of neurodegenerative diseases.
How does caffeine improve concentration?
Caffeine works by blocking adenosine – a compound in the brain which induces drowsiness. But it doesn’t stop there; a study published in 2018 discovered that not only does caffeine increases alertness, it also enhances the brain’s ability to process information. Researchers discovered that caffeine induces improved brain entropy3, which can be defined as “the number of neural states a given brain can access”4; therefore, an increase in entropy results in the brain being able to process greater amounts of information.
Does caffeine improve brain health?
Caffeine-rich beverages, such as coffee, are brimming full of antioxidants, which may help to maintain brain health and function as we age. A study published in 2015 concluded that long-term consumption of coffee decreased the risk of Alzheimer’s disease; Parkinson’s disease; stroke and cognitive decline5.
A word of warning though, caffeinated beverages can negatively impact a person’s sleep; therefore, consuming coffee and the like is not recommended for everyone.
Foods and food products made from soybeans are typically rich in a specific group of antioxidants known as polyphenols.
Studies indicate that consumption of high levels of polyphenols can decrease the risk of dementia, as well as improving cognitive abilities as we age. Furthermore, many soy-based foods contain isoflavones (a type of polyphenol), such as genistein and daidzein, which studies have shown to have a positive impact on overall health and vitality, as well as having neuroprotective abilities6.
Commonly referred to as cocoa, cacao – often described as the pure form of chocolate – is jam-packed with type of antioxidant known as flavonoids.
Can cacao boost brain health?
Given that our grey matter is vulnerable to oxidative stress, antioxidants such as flavonoids are essential for cognitive health and decreasing the risk of age-related neurodegenerative conditions diseases.
A study published in 2013 discovered that flavonoids present in cacao might help to promote the growth of neutrons and blood vessels in the regions of the brain involved in learning, memory and recall, in addition to enhancing blood flow7. In 2018, further research also found that consumption of dark chocolate (containing at least 70% cacao) enhanced brain plasticity, a process which is essential for learning8, as well as other cognitive benefits.
Cruciferous vegetables have a myriad of health benefits, including cardiovascular health and overall longevity9; however, they may also promote brain health and function too.
Many cruciferous vegetables are rich in a compound known as glucosinolates, which are broken down into a further compound, called isothiocyanates. Studies have shown that the latter can help to decrease levels of oxidative stress, which may, in turn, reduce the risk of neurodegenerative diseases10.
Furthermore, cruciferous vegetables typically contain high levels of vitamin C, which may also have positive effects on the health of our grey matter11.
Which cruciferous vegetables are best for brain health?
Here are the most commonly available cruciferous vegetables that contain glucosinolates: broccoli, kale, cabbage, cauliflower and sprouts.
Avocados (and other foods packed with monounsaturated fats)
A food synonymous with health and vitality, the avocado also has some prowess where cognitive function and health is concerned.
Avocados are rich in monounsaturated fats, which, research has shown, may help to reduce blood pressure12. And, as high blood pressure has been linked to cognitive and neurological decline13, avocados may help to reduce the risk.
But these effects aren’t just limited to its avocados; any food that is brimming with monounsaturated fats may have the same effect. This includes, but is not limited to, walnuts, Brazil nuts, almonds, cashews, fish, flaxseed and chia seeds.
Like many other foods on this list, eggs are dense in a plethora of vitamins that are crucial for brain health and function; therefore, they can be classed as a ‘brain food’. In particular, eggs are rich in vitamin B-6, vitamin B-12 and folic acid – three vitamins that may play a role in preventing brain shrinkage and decreasing the onset of cognitive decline14.
Legumes such as peanuts have an exceptional nutritional profile, both in terms of macro and micronutrients. Although many vitamins and minerals are needed for brain health and function, the two we’ll focus on here are vitamin E and resveratrol.
Are peanuts beneficial for cognitive health and function?
Both vitamin E and resveratrol may have positive effects on brain health and function. They may even help to reduce the risk if age-ranted brain conditions such as Alzheimer’s diseases and Parkinson’s disease.
Studies have shown that, “High plasma levels of vitamin E were repeatedly associated with better cognitive performance”15 and that, “The neuroprotective effects of resveratrol in neurological diseases, are related to the protection of neurons against oxidative damage and toxicity, and to the prevention of apoptotic neuronal death.”16
Nine Foods for Brain Health and Function: A Summary
Although the above list of foods and compounds is not exhaustive, it does give an array of options if you’re seeking to improve your brain health, enhance your cognitive function and stave off neurodegenerative conditions and diseases, such as Alzheimer’s diseases, Parkinson’s disease and dementia, in years to come.
If you want to discover more ‘brain foods’, look for food choices that contain at least one of the following (ideally two or more): omega-3; healthy fats, such as monounsaturated fats; antioxidants; B vitamins or vitamin E.
However, optimal brain health and function isn’t solely related to diet; lifestyle choices are equally important. Therefore, if you are seeking to maximise your brain function and cognitive health, it is important to:
– Eat a healthy, balanced diet, without eating too much or too little food.
– Get adequate sleep and have a regular and consistent sleeping pattern.
– Ensure you stay hydrated at all times.
– Partake in exercise and physical activity several times per week.
– Decrease stress levels (mindfulness, yoga and meditation are great for this).
– Decrease your alcohol intake.
If you combine all of the above, you give yourself the best chance of a healthy and fully-functioning brain for many years to come…as well as boosting the vitality of your whole body!
Thank you for taking the time to visit our blog; we really do appreciate it a lot! If you’d like to learn more about brain health, cognitive function, nootropics (‘smart drugs’), and everything related to our grey matter, feel free to head over to our homepage and browse our blog posts. Or, alternatively, use the search function if there’s a topic you’re specifically interested in.
If you can’t find information on a specific brain-related topic, get in touch and we’ll try and write a blog post on it!
1. Amen DG;Harris WS;Kidd PM;Meysami S;Raji CA; Quantitative Erythrocyte Omega-3 EPA Plus DHA Levels Are Related to Higher Regional Cerebral Blood Flow on Brain SPECT. Journal of Alzheimer’s disease : JAD. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28527220/
2. Subash, S. et al., 2014. Neuroprotective effects of berry fruits on neurodegenerative diseases. Neural regeneration research. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4192974/
3. Chang, D. et al., 2018. Caffeine Caused a Widespread Increase of Resting Brain Entropy. Scientific reports. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5807546/
4. LJ;, S.G.N.C.D.M., Brain Entropy and Human Intelligence: A Resting-State fMRI Study. PloS one. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29432427/
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6. Kalaiselvan, V. et al., 2010. Current knowledge and future direction of research on soy isoflavones as a therapeutic agents. Pharmacognosy reviews. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3249910/
7. Nehlig, A., 2013. The neuroprotective effects of cocoa flavanol and its influence on cognitive performance. British journal of clinical pharmacology. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3575938/
8. Anon, 2018. Dark chocolate consumption reduces stress and inflammation. ScienceDaily. Available at: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/04/180424133628.htm
9. Zhang, X. et al., 2011. Cruciferous vegetable consumption is associated with a reduced risk of total and cardiovascular disease mortality. The American journal of clinical nutrition. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3127519/
10. Giacoppo S;Galuppo M;Montaut S;Iori R;Rollin P;Bramanti P;Mazzon E; An Overview on Neuroprotective Effects of Isothiocyanates for the Treatment of Neurodegenerative Diseases. Fitoterapia. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26254971/
11. Travica, N. et al., 2017. Vitamin C Status and Cognitive Function: A Systematic Review. Nutrients. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5622720/
12. Miura, K. et al., 2013. Relationship of dietary monounsaturated fatty acids to blood pressure: the International Study of Macro/Micronutrients and Blood Pressure. Journal of hypertension. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4109685/
13. Anon, High blood pressure is linked to cognitive decline. National Institute on Aging. Available at: https://www.nia.nih.gov/news/high-blood-pressure-linked-cognitive-decline
14. Smith, A.D. et al., Homocysteine-Lowering by B Vitamins Slows the Rate of Accelerated Brain Atrophy in Mild Cognitive Impairment: A Randomized Controlled Trial. PLOS ONE. Available at: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0012244
15. La Fata, G., Weber, P. & Mohajeri, M.H., 2014. Effects of vitamin E on cognitive performance during ageing and in Alzheimer’s disease. Nutrients. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4276978/
16. Andrade et al., 2018. Resveratrol Brain Delivery for Neurological Disorders Prevention and Treatment. Frontiers. Available at: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fphar.2018.01261/full