We all know that healthy food is good for your body, but did you know that certain foods can help improve your brain function ? These foods provide the nutrients needed to build and maintain healthy brain and nerve cells.
Just like there is no single, magical food that can result in a healthy body, the brain also needs a wide variety of healthy food. This article will highlight sources of nutrients that will improve the health of your brain and translate into better brain function.
We will also cover some of the foods that are potential threats to brain health. These foods should be avoided whenever possible.
Protein are essentials for the body health, but also for brain cells ! We can find them in Fish and meat, but also in a lot of vegetarian and vegan food !
1. Fatty Fish
As a student in nutritional science, I religiously ensured that fish formed part of my daily food intake, especially during examination periods. Fatty fish like salmon, tuna, herring, sardines and anchovies are great sources of omega 3 fatty acids.
Omega 3 fatty acids are responsible for most of the brain and mental health benefits we gain from consuming fatty fish. Omega 3 fatty acids in fish can be divided into EPA and DHA.
- EPA stands for Eicosapentaenoic acid
- DHA is short for docosahexaenoic acid
These omega 3 fatty acids are found in the eyes and brain. EPA and DHA are essential for the normal growth of brain tissue, and cognitive development throughout all stages of life.
The body uses EPA and DHA to make eicosanoids. Eicosanoids in turn, help to lower blood pressure, prevent blood clot formation, prevent irregular heartbeats, and reduce inflammation. Low DHA levels may be linked to an increased risk of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and memory loss.
Therefore, fatty fish should be included in your normal diet 1 – 2 times per week.
Caviar contains many of the nutrients that are good for the brain, including omega 3 fatty acids, choline, vitamin B6 and B12, minerals and proteins. It is high in antioxidants like Vitamin A, Vitamin C, and Selenium.
- Choline supports memory formation
- Vitamin B6 and Vitamin B12 supports the nervous system
- Minerals like Iron and Magnesium is important for healthy blood and tissues
- Selenium is involved in a wide variety of brain functions, including motor performance, coordination, memory, and cognition.
Severe Selenium deficiency can result in degeneration of specific neurons in the brain, leading to impaired brain function (source )
If you are a vegetarian or vegan, there is no need to worry. There are other, plant based food sources high in essential fatty acids like omega 3.
My favorite is Chia seeds, but other sources include flaxseed, soya beans, pumpkin seeds, and walnuts. Alternatively, the oils extracted from these seeds and beans can be incorporated into your cooking.
If you think it’s hard for you to get enough Omega 3’s, we suggest to consider supplements like Omega XL !
3. Chia Seeds
Chia seeds are small black seeds that are very high in omega 3 fatty acids. They actually contain more omega 3 fatty acids than salmon when compared gram for gram.
Chia seeds do not have a very strong taste on their own, so they can be easily incorporated into any meal or drink. An easy way to include them in your diet, is to sprinkle them over your morning porridge, or mix them into your yoghurt.
Because they are so small, you will also notice them. Adding Chia seeds to any recipe will immediately boost the nutritional profile of the meal.
Other good sources of healthy unsaturated fats are walnuts, peanuts and almonds. Did you know that some naturally occurring foods look like the parts of the human body that they are good for ? An example of this is the walnut.
When you look at the edible part of a walnut, you will notice that it looks a lot like a brain. This is no coincidence. The walnut is the best nut to consume to boost brain health, because it is so high in DHA. Just a quarter cup of walnuts provides nearly 100% of the body’s daily requirement for DHA. (source)
6. Dark Chocolate
Cocao beans are next on the list of healthy plant based foods for brain health. They are rich sources of flavanols, which have been linked to improved cognition, concentration and memory.
Flavanols also combat cell damage, which plays a role in degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s disease. Raw cocao is very bitter, so the best source of cocao is dark chocolate, as it contains a higher percentage of cocao and lower sugar levels.
Look for at least 70% dark chocolate.
Vegetables are the healthier food you can get for your body. And guess what ? They are also good for your brain !
This cruciferous vegetable is once again on the list of foods to include in your diet. This time for the benefits it has for your brain!
- Broccoli is high in Vitamin K, which plays a role in blood clot formation and strengthens cognitive abilities.
- It also contains Choline which improves the overall function of the brain and boosts memory retention.
- Sulforaphane found in broccoli aids in the restoration of cognitive functions by reducing swelling or oedema resulting from brain injury.
- Lutein, which is a pigment found in most leafy green vegetables, helps protect brain neurons which boosts memory retention.
Mushrooms are surprisingly nutritious and are an excellent source of antioxidants. Antioxidants support cell health by binding to damaging free radicals, rendering them harmless. The bioactive compounds in mushrooms delay degeneration of brain cells.
A recent study discovered that people who regularly include edible mushrooms as part of their diet have a lower risk of developing Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI).
You need to stay hydrated during the day. Why not choose a drink that help your brain work better ?
9. Tea and Coffee
That first cup of coffee or tea you drink in the morning is great for a quick wake-up, thanks to the caffeine it contains. But studies have found that people who consume caffeine regularly achieved higher grades on tests of cognitive function. Caffeine boosts attention and mindfulness, helping to build new memories.
The adult human body is made up of over 60% of water, but the brain consists of over 80% water. Just like in the rest of the body, every chemical reaction in the brain requires water in order to take place, including energy production.
A body suffering from dehydration will start to switch off other organs in the body to ensure the brain has enough water. If dehydration continues, symptoms like fatigue, dizziness, and confusion all result as the brain starts to shrink.
Be sure to consume at least 2 litres of water per day. This will ensure that the body and the brain has enough water to sustain optimal organ function.
Most fruits are extremely good to eat, not only because they taste good, but also because they contain a wide variety of nutrients, including vitamins and minerals which help the body perform optimally.
Figs, berries, and grapes are more examples of foods that look like the parts of the body they are good for. These fruits not only look like the brain, they also support cognitive functioning. Other brain supporting fruits include bananas and citrus fruits.
11. Citrus Fruits
Citrus fruit are not only good food to burn fat. The vitamins, minerals and antioxidants found in this fruits help protect against age-related cognitive decline.
Be sure to include : oranges, lemons, limes, and ruby grapefruit in your daily diet.
Oranges and grapefruit are great on their own as a snack, while lemon rind and lime juice are great flavor enhancers that can substitute some of the salt used in cooking.
Berries, including blueberries, blackberries, strawberries and raspberries contain anthocyanins which fight the symptoms of inflammation.
This, in turn, helps to reduce the time it takes the body or brain to heal. Berries are great snacks on their own or can add heaps of flavour and colour when added to smoothies and desserts.
-> Berries are also in our list of foods to beat CFS
Threats to Optimal Brain Function
Here is what you need to ban from your life to become more productive, more focus and have a better brain health !
Saturated fats and Trans Fatty Acids
These fats raise the level of LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) and can even lower HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol) in the body. This imbalance in overall cholesterol levels is in indication of increased cardiovascular disease risk. Cholesterol accumulates in the arteries, resulting in restricted blood flow. This results in higher blood pressure, and can result in a heart attack or stroke.
A stroke occurs when the arteries leading to and within the brain, carrying oxygen and nutrients to the brain, are blocked. As a result, the brain cannot get enough oxygen, and the cells of the brain begin to die. Because the brain controls the body, the part of the body controlled by brain cells that have died, will not work as it should.
Alcohol can cause noticeable impairments in cognitive function and memory after only a few drinks. The more alcohol is consumed, the larger the impairment becomes. Usually once alcohol consumption ceases, the impairments experienced also start to dissipate.
Long-term heavy alcohol consumption may lead to a shrinking of the brain and deficiencies in the fibers that carry information between brain cells.
People who consume large amounts of alcohol on a regular basis can also develop a thiamine deficiency, since alcohol displaces the absorption of thiamine from food sources. A severe thiamine deficiency can result in a long-term disease called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. The symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome include mental confusion, learning and memory impairments, and difficulty with muscle coordination.
If alcohol is consumed during pregnancy, the unborn child can develop fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). Children borne with FAS have distinct facial features, including a small head circumference, thin upper lip, short nose and low nasal bridge to name a few.
These infants are generally smaller than the average infant of comparable age. Children with FAs may also suffer from microencephaly (smaller brain), which results in long-term problems with learning and behavior.
Nicotine from cigarettes is just as addictive as heroin and can be harder to beat. Nicotine causes changes to the receptors in the brain. When you stop smoking, the brain stops getting nicotine and goes into withdrawal. This results in feelings of anxiousness, irritability, and produces cravings.
Smoking is also associated with a reduction in brain cells, leading to atrophy of brain matter, cognitive decline and memory loss.
Remember that no single food or food group can support the entire body and all its functions.
The foods mentioned above that support brain health should be included in a diet along with a wide variety of other healthy foods. All foods should be consumed in moderation.
Always select whole foods, as they would be found in nature, instead of highly processed foods. Whole foods contain a lot more of the nutrients, including vitamins and minerals, as nature intended.
Highly processed foods are usually low in nutrients and high unhealthy substances, like saturated fats, trans fats, and preservatives.
Exercises should form part of any healthy lifestyle, even if it is just a brisk walk around a mall. Though the fresh air and outdoors can do wonders for a tired mind. No amount of any food can substitute a good night’s rest.
The brain needs an average of about 8 hours of sleep every night. Ensure that you get enough rest every night to support mental and physical vitality.