Updated: Aug 23, 2022
What Is a Brain Food?
Brain foods are those that are rich in antioxidants, healthy fats, amino acids, vitamins and minerals. They provide your brain with energy and aid in protecting brain cells, which helps ward off development of brain diseases.
How exactly do healthy foods for brain function aid in mental health? One way is by supporting gut function and a healthy inflammatory response.
A number of important hormones and neurotransmitters are created in the gut and are then able to enter the brain, which influences cognitive abilities such as:
Understanding and processing new information
Memory and concentration
Happiness and the ability to deal with stress
80% of serotonin is made in the gut!
50% of dopamine is made in the gut!
This means that a well-functioning gut is essential for sending the brain the kind of chemical signals that keep us functioning at our best.
A poor-quality diet (which is what the Standard American diet is unfortunately) can cause our bodies to release more inflammatory cytokines, which can contribute to inflammation that can wind up damaging the brain.
While acute inflammation helps protect us against illnesses and repairs the body when you do something like cut yourself, chronic inflammation is a different topic. It’s been linked to a number of mental/cognitive conditions including dementia, cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease, among other 'age-related' (accumulation of oxidative stress) issues.
Here are some of the Top Brain Foods to incorporate in your diet:
1. Oily Fish
Oily fish contains high amounts of omega-3s which help boost brain power and overall health. Omega-3s help build membranes around each cell in the body, including the brain cells. They can, therefore, improve the structure of brain cells called neurons.
Research shows that people with high levels of omega-3s in the diet have
increased blood flow in the brain and overall better cognitive abilities.
Oily fish not only contain high levels of omega-3s, but also unsaturated fats, vitamin B12 and vitamin D, which all have a good impact on memory and learning. Fatty fish leads to a great improvement in mood and also strengthens the immune system. Therefore, it’s recommended to consume fatty fish at least twice per week (12 oz/week), but make sure to choose high quality, low-mercury fish.
Salmon is one of the most nutritious brain foods out there! See ya brain fog — and hello improved memory!
If you have children, feeding them oily fish, such as sardines or trout, can even prevent ADHD by improving their focus. Please note that these benefits are for Alaskan wild-caught salmon (as farm-raised can be filled with mercury and toxins and are fed a poor diet).
On the flip side, not getting enough omega-3s is linked to learning impairments, as well as depression and anxiety. Research also suggests that people who eat fish regularly tend to have more gray matter in their brains. Gray matter contains most of the nerve cells that control decision making, memory, and emotion.
Some sources of fatty fish include:
You can also get SOME omega-3s from some nut and seed sources like flaxseed, hemp, chia and walnuts. However, these sources are actually alpha-linoleic acid (ALA) fatty acids that get converted in the body to DHA and EPA omega 3s. A common misconception is that we can meet our omega-3 needs by eating these sources. While it’s true that the body can convert some ALA to EPA and DHA, this conversion is extremely inefficient in most people.
On average, less than 5 % of ALA gets converted into EPA, and less than 0.5 % of ALA gets converted into DHA. This conversion also depends on adequate levels of nutrients such as vitamin B6, zinc, and iron, so these conversion rates are likely to be even lower in vegetarians or those with chronical illness.
2. Dark chocolate
A huge mood booster that makes you feel good and happy. Research has shown that dark chocolate with over 70% cocoa content has the highest flavonoid (a type of antioxidant) content compared to other types of milk chocolates (with added sugars). These flavonoids also improve cognitive functions especially memory and mental tasks. The darker the chocolate, the better it is, although the taste is bit more bitter and can take time to get used to.
It contains the compound tyramine responsible for the increased levels of dopamine that activates our reward centers in the brain, making us feel good. Cocoa also contains stimulant substances that improves brain function and concentration.
Antioxidants are especially important for brain health, as the brain is highly susceptible to oxidative stress, which contributes to age-related cognitive decline and brain diseases.
Dark chocolate and cocoa powder have many anti-inflammatory properties. Studies show cocoa can increase cerebral blood flow and cerebral blood oxygenation — plus it can help lower blood pressure and oxidative stress in the brain and heart.
Dark chocolate is also rich in:
and other minerals
These are all nutrients that have a major effect on your overall health and wellbeing. In fact – if you are craving chocolate (especially women throughout their cycle) this means you REALLY need magnesium. So, take note of this way your body uses to communicate to you what it needs.
Even though dark chocolate can be very good for you - remember that not all chocolate is created equal. Most of the chocolate you see on supermarket shelves is highly processed, high in sugar and other additives and is therefore not considered a great food for the brain. Anything lower than 70% will not have the health benefits discussed here.
The rule of thumb is the darker the chocolate, the more benefits it has.
70% or higher ensures you’ll get your cocoa fix and its brain benefits!
Like dark chocolate, many berries contain flavonoid antioxidants making berries good food for the brain. This antioxidant rich food can help reduce inflammation and oxidative stress.
... all provide the body with the much-needed anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and neuroprotective compounds which support a decline in neurodegenerative diseases and improve motor and cognitive functions.
They also modulate signaling pathways responsible for inflammation, cell survival, and neurotransmission, along with their rich content of vitamins C and K, which revive the blood flow and oxygen supply to all the tissues in our bodies. They are also high in fiber which makes them a great fruit source for those working on balancing blood sugars.
These antioxidant compounds found in berries have many positive effects on the brain, including:
improving communication between brain cells
reducing inflammation throughout the body
increasing plasticity, which helps brain cells form new connections, boosting learning and memory
reducing or delaying neurodegenerative diseases and cognitive decline
Blueberries alone are one of the highest antioxidant-rich foods known to man. Because of their high levels of gallic acid, blueberries are especially good at protecting our brains from degeneration, cognitive decline and stress.
4. Nuts and seeds
Nuts are great sources of healthy fats, flavonoids, phenolic acids, melatonin, folate, and vitamin E that protect the cells from free radical damage and oxidative stress, which are considered to be the main causes of the aging process of brain tissue and cognitive impairment.
All nuts have their health benefits, but amongst the wide variety - the one shaped most like a brain is by far the one most beneficial to the brain. Walnuts are great sources of mono- and poly- unsaturated fatty acids. They are responsible for decreasing beta amyloid protein concentrations, which is the main constituents of the amyloid plaques in the brain of those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
Including walnuts in the diet helps protect the brain’s cognitive functions and reduces the risk of or delays the onset of dementia and Alzheimer disease, as well as reducing the risk of depression especially in those with chronic diseases like heart disease and type-2 diabetes.
Nuts and seeds can also be a good plant-based source of protein.
While all nuts and seeds are good for your brain, you want to focus on higher levels of omega-3 intake over omega-6. Too much omega 6s can actually cause inflammation – so there needs to be a nice balance. These include walnuts, flaxseed, hemp seeds and chia seeds. Pecans and pistachios also have a relatively higher level.
Besides their healthy fat content seeds are usually high in brain health nutrients:
Zinc: this mineral is crucial for nerve signaling and wards off amyloid plaqueing. Zinc deficiency has been linked to many neurological conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease, depression, and Parkinson’s disease.
Magnesium: essential for learning and memory. Low magnesium levels are linked to many neurological diseases, including migraine, depression, and epilepsy.
Copper: Your brain uses copper to help control nerve signals. And when copper levels are out of whack, there’s a higher risk of neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s.
Selenium: essential for thyroid function and an antioxidant for brain health. Eat 2-3 Brazil nuts a day!
5. Green Tea
Green tea has been proven to improve alertness, performance, memory, and focus. But green tea also has other components that make it a brain-healthy beverage. One of them is L-theanine, an amino acid that can cross the blood-brain barrier and increase the activity of the neurotransmitter GABA, which helps reduce anxiety and makes you feel more relaxed. L-theanine also increases the frequency of alpha waves in the brain, which helps you relax without making you feel tired.