Optimal Nutrition for Your Brain: The Best (And Worst) Foods for Brain Health
There is no single magical solution to keep your brain healthy, and no single food or nutrient that can prevent the onset of cognitive decline as we grow older. That being said, certain foods have been demonstrated to support optimal brain health, can help your brain stay sharp and even protect it from diseases.
Which Nutrients Can Improve Brain Function?
Nutritionists agree that the best strategy to keep your brain sharp is to follow a balanced diet that includes a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes. There are a number of foods and nutrients that can keep your brain healthy at all stages of life. The best foods for optimal brain health include the following:
1. Complex Carbohydrates
The primary source of energy for the brain is glucose. Our brains work hard and consume around 20% of our total caloric intake. Complex carbohydrates and foods with a low glycemic index provide a steady supply of glucose to the brain, helping us to stay alert and focused throughout the day.
2. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Essential fatty acids, and specifically omega-3’s, are crucial for both brain structure and function. Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as oily fish and nuts, support brain function, prevent depression and may even protect us from neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
An antioxidant is a substance that inhibits oxidation, which removes damaging oxidizing agents from the body’s cells. Examples of oxidants include flavonoids, and Vitamins C and E. Berries, such as blueberries and strawberries, and leafy green vegetables, such as kale are all foods high in antioxidants. Antioxidants can help to protect the brain from age-related diseases and neurodegeneration.
4. Vitamin E
Vitamin E is acts as an important antioxidant and protects brain cells from damage associated with free radicals. It has been recently discovered that patients with Alzheimer’s disease (AD) have lower levels of vitamin E in their cerebrospinal fluid (the fluid that nourishes and protects the brain). Foods rich in vitamin E include nuts, seeds, whole grains and leafy green vegetables.
5. B Vitamins
B Vitamins are essential for nervous system function, and research shows that the play an important role in brain health. Studies show that supplementation with vitamin B6, vitamin B12 or folate has positive effects on memory performance in women of various ages, and that Vitamin B12 has potential to improve cognitive function. Best sources of B vitamins include green leafy vegetables, whole grains, fruits, eggs, and dairy products.
6. Folic Acid
Folate and folic acid are both a type of vitamin B9. Folate is the natural form of the nutrient, found in foods such as spinach, lentils and asparagus. Folic acid refers to the synthetic (human-made) version used in supplements and added to fortified cereal, bread and other foods. Research shows that folate plays an important role in mood and cognitive function, especially in the aging brain. Folate deficiency is associated with depression and dementia, and it is an essential nutrient for nervous system function and development.
Caffeine is the most widely used psychostimulant in Western countries. Although caffeine is not an essential nutrient, it has many benefits for brain health. Scientific studies show that regularly drinking coffee (1-3 cups a day) can reduce the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease and protects the brain against Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and early cognitive decline. It is not yet clear how caffeine protects the brain, but scientists have shown that it can protect cells from damaged caused by oxidation and prevent the onset of programmed cell death. Another great way to get the optimal daily dose of caffeine is by chewing the Neuro Smart Energy Caffeine Gum, which also contains brain-boosting vitamins B6, B12 and L-theanine.
L-theanine (often referred to as theanine) is an amino acid found in most types of tea. Like caffeine, it is able to cross the blood-brain barrier, and has beneficial effects on the brain. Studies have shown that L-theanine can help to prevent Alzheimer’s disease, and protect brain cells from damage following stroke. L-theanine can help to protect the brain from environmental toxins which can cause Parkinson’s disease. In addition, consuming L-theanine results stimulates the production of molecules responsible for brain growth and development.
Is Sugar Good for Your Brain?
The brain uses glucose, which is a form of sugar, as a source of energy. However, consuming too much refined sugar is actually bad for the brain, and can cause damage and aging of brain cells. On the other hand, complex and unrefined carbohydrates, such as the ones found in fruits and vegetables, are beneficial for brain health and function.
Which Foods Are Bad for Your Brain?
In contrast to brain superfoods outlined above, there are also several types of foods which are for brain structure and function, and consuming them regularly can even negatively affect your memory and mood, and increase your risk of dementia. You can keep your brain healthy and reduce your risk of developing dementia by avoiding the following foods:
1. Foods High in Trans Fats
Trans fat is a type of unsaturated fat that occurs in small amounts in animal products such as meat and dairy, and these small quantities are typically not a major health concern. However, industrially-produced trans fats, such as hydrogenated vegetable oils, can be harmful for the brain and the overall health. In fact, individuals who consume high amounts of trans fats have an increased risk of Alzheimer's disease, poorer memory, lower brain volume and increased risk of cognitive decline. Trans fats are widely produced from vegetable fats, and can be found in foods such as ready-made cakes and prepackaged cookies, margarine, shortening, frosting, and snack foods,
When consumed excessively, alcohol can have serious negative effects on the brain. Alcohol can be toxic for brain cells, causing cell death and preventing new cells from forming in the area of the brain called hippocampus, which is important for learning and memory. Research studies show that chronic alcohol use causes a decrease in brain volume, changes in brain metabolism and disruption of brain’s messenger molecules called neurotransmitters, which are necessary for brain cells to communicate with each other.
3. Fish High in Mercury Content
Mercury is a heavy metal element that is very toxic to the cells of the nervous system, and is particularly harmful to developing fetuses and young children. Mercury accumulates in fish tissue, and predatory fish are particularly susceptible to accumulating high concentrations of mercury. When consumed in high concentrations, mercury causes damage to the central nervous system, including the brain. High-mercury fish includes shark, swordfish, tuna, king mackerel and tilefish. Experts generally recommend that adults consume around 2-3 servings of low-mercury fish per week.
4. Highly Processed Foods
Highly processed foods often contain high amounts of added sugar, fat, and salt, and when consumed in large amounts, can be bad for the brain. Studies show that eating a diet rich in processed foods results in a decrease in brain tissue and negatively impacts brain function. In addition, researchers have found that eating a diet high in processed meats impairs learning and memory.
Your diet has an enormous impact on your brain health. Although there is no single miracle nutrient which will keep disease away, experts generally recommend a varied diet, rich in brain-friendly foods outlined in this article to keep our brains healthy throughout all stages of life.