Eating well is good for your mental as well as your physical health. But which foods are particularly important to keep your grey matter happy and healthy?
Whether you want to optimise your nutrition during exam season or stay sharp in your next work meeting, paying attention to your diet can really pay off. Although there's no single 'brain food' to protect against age-related disorders such as Alzheimer's or dementia, thinking carefully about what you eat gives you the best chance of getting the nutrients you need for cognitive health and mood.
Eating a healthy, balanced diet that includes these 10 everyday brain-boosting foods may help to keep your memory, concentration and focus as sharp as can be.
May improve concentration and focus
Like everything else in your body, the brain cannot work without energy. The ability to concentrate and focus comes from an adequate, steady supply of energy (in the form of glucose) in our blood, to the brain. Achieve this by choosing wholegrains which have a low-GI, which means they release their energy slowly into the bloodstream, keeping you mentally alert throughout the day. Eating too few healthy carbs, like wholegrains, may lead to brain fog and irritability. Opt for 'brown' wholegrain cereals, granary bread, rice and pasta.
2. Oily fish
May promote healthy brain function
Essential fatty acids (EFAs) can't be made by the body which means they must be obtained through food. The most effective omega-3 fats occur naturally in oily fish in the form of EPA and DHA. Good plant sources include flaxseed, soya beans, pumpkin seeds, walnuts and their oils. These fats are important for healthy brain function, the heart, joints and our general well-being. Although studies are at an early stage there is some suggestion that adequate amounts of omega-3 fats in your diet may help to relieve depression.
What makes oily fish so good is that they contain these active fats in a ready-made form, which means the body can use it easily. The main sources of oily fish include salmon, trout, mackerel, herring, sardines, pilchards and kippers.
Low DHA levels may be linked to an increased risk of dementia, Alzheimer's disease and memory loss, whilst having sufficient levels of both EPA and DHA is thought to help us manage stress and make the good mood brain chemical, serotonin.
If you're vegetarian or vegan, you may wish to add seeds like flaxseed, hemp and chia to your diet, or consider a plant-based omega-3 supplement from micro-algae. If you are considering taking a supplement speak to your GP first. It’s worth remembering that vegetarian or vegan mums-to-be, or those who are breastfeeding, should consider a supplement because of the important role omega-3 fats play in the development of the central nervous system of your baby.
Learn more about the health benefits of salmon.
May boost short-term memory
Evidence accumulated at Tufts University in the United States suggests that the consumption of blueberries may be effective in improving or delaying short-term memory loss. They're widely available, but you can also achieve the same effect with other dark red and purple fruits, like blackberries, and veg, like red cabbage. These contain the same protective compounds called anthocyanins.
Read more about the health benefits of blueberries.
May prevent free radical damage
There is good evidence to suggest that lycopene, a powerful antioxidant found in tomatoes, could help protect against the kind of free radical damage to cells that occurs in the development of dementia, particularly Alzheimer's. Favour cooked tomatoes and enjoy with a little olive oil to optimise your body's absorption and use. Other foods supplying this, and similar protective phyto-nutrients, include papaya, watermelon and pink grapefruit.
Discover more: Which foods should you eat raw or cooked?
May delay brain shrinkage
Certain B vitamins – B6, B12 and folic acid – are known to reduce levels of a compound called homocysteine in the blood. Elevated levels of homocysteine are associated with increased risk of stroke, cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's disease. A study of a group of elderly patients with mild cognitive impairment found that after two years of intervention with high doses of B6, B12 and folic acid there was significantly less brain shrinkage compared to a subset given placebo treatment.
Other B vitamins including vitamins B1, B3 and choline play an important part in regulating normal brain function. Choline, which is rich in egg yolk, is essential for the memory-boosting brain chemical, acetylcholine.
Opt for B-rich foods like eggs, chicken, fish, leafy greens and dairy. If you're vegan, look to fortified foods, including plant milks and breakfast cereals, for vitamin B12 or consider a supplement. Other useful vegan sources of B vitamins, including B6, include nutritional yeast, avocado, soya, nuts and seeds.
May reduce anxiety and stress
Vitamin C has long been thought to have the power to increase mental agility, and some research suggests that a deficiency may be a risk factor for age-related brain degeneration including dementia and Alzheimer's. Furthermore, interesting studies demonstrate that vitamin C may be useful in managing anxiety and stress. One of the best sources of this vital vitamin are blackcurrants. Others include red peppers, citrus fruits such as oranges and broccoli.
Discover more about why we need vitamins.
7. Pumpkin seeds
May enhance memory and boost mood
Richer in zinc than many other seeds, pumpkin seeds supply this valuable mineral which is vital for enhancing memory and thinking skills. They're also full of stress-busting magnesium, B vitamins and tryptophan, the precursor to the good mood chemical serotonin. Other useful food sources include beef, oysters, chickpeas and nuts including cashews and almonds.
Read more about the health benefits of pumpkin seeds.
May improve brainpower
Broccoli is great source of vitamin K, which is known to enhance cognitive function and improve brainpower. Researchers have reported that because broccoli is high in compounds called glucosinolates, it can slow the breakdown of the neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, which we need for the central nervous system to perform properly and keep our brains and memories sharp. Low levels of acetylcholine are associated with Alzheimer's. Other cruciferous veg rich in glucosinolates include cauliflower, kale, cabbage and Brussels sprouts, whilst you can obtain vitamin K from liver, hard cheeses and prunes.
Discover more about the health benefits of broccoli.
May boost memory and concentration
Sage has long had a reputation for improving memory and concentration. Although most studies focus on sage as an essential oil, it could be worth adding fresh sage to your diet too. Add at the end of cooking to protect the beneficial oils.
Put sage to good use in our healthy recipes, including butternut soup with crispy sage, pearl barley & sage risotto and veal escalopes wrapped with proscuitto, sage & lemon.
May help protect healthy brain function
A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology suggests that an adequate intake of vitamin E might help to prevent cognitive decline, particularly in the elderly. Nuts are a great source of vitamin E along with leafy green vegetables, asparagus, olives, seeds, eggs, brown rice and wholegrains.
Learn more about the health benefits of nuts.
The importance of exercise
Don't forget that as well as a healthy diet, exercise helps to keep our brains sharp. Research suggests that regular exercise improves cognitive function, slows down the mental aging process and helps us process information more effectively.
Although research linking diet and dementia is still in its infancy, there are a few important relationships between nutrients and brain health that are worth exploring. Having a nourishing, well rounded diet gives our brain the best chance of avoiding disease. If your diet is unbalanced for whatever reason, you may want to consider a multivitamin and mineral complex and an omega-3 fatty acid supplement to help make up a few of the essentials. If you are considering taking a supplement it is best to discuss this with your GP or qualified healthcare professional.
Download a printable PDF of the top 10 brain-boosting foods.
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This article was last reviewed on 21 January 2020 by Kerry Torrens.
Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a Registered Nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.
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