Updated: Aug 23
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.
It’s also rich in polyphenols and antioxidants that can protect the brain from mental decline and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s while improving memory. Rich in vitamin B2, manganese, antioxidants (EGCG) and polyphenolic compounds, green tea has very strong anti-inflammatory effects.
It protects against chronic disease such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. It supports brain health, blood sugar regulation, healthy bones and the immune system. Green tea is a natural metabolism booster and natural antibiotic with antifungal properties.
Recommendation: consume 1 full cup daily. Add ginger root and lemon juice for added digestive and anti-inflammatory benefits. For osteoporosis/osteopenia boost it to 3 cups/day.
Avocados are a serious superfood and great source of unsaturated fat that supports the brain. Eating monounsaturated fats can reduce blood pressure as high blood pressure is linked to cognitive decline.
Containing both vitamin K and folate, avocados help prevent blood clots in the brain (protecting against stroke), as well as help improve brain functions related to memory and concentration.
They’re also rich in B vitamins and vitamin C, which aren’t stored in your body and need to be replenished daily. Plus, they have the highest protein and lowest sugar content of any fruit.
Avocados have high levels of fiber for overall gut health and balanced blood sugar as well as potassium, vitamins E, copper, calming magnesium.
7. Whole Eggs
Many people around the world have choline deficiency despite the fact that eggs are one of the best dietary sources of choline, mainly in the yolk. Choline is an important micronutrient that your body uses to create acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood and memory. Research shows that higher intakes of choline were linked to better memory and mental function. Large amounts of choline is essential for fetal brain development as well.
Eating eggs is an easy way to get choline, given that egg yolks are among the most concentrated sources of this nutrient. Adequate intake of choline is 425 mg per day for most women and 550 mg per day for men, with just a single egg yolk containing 112 mg.
Egg Yolks were once on the nutritional naughty list due to their fat and cholesterol content – but research has shown since that the cholesterol you eat has nothing to do with your blood work results. Our body’s need healthy fats and cholesterol to build hormones and to support a healthy brain, heart and detoxification process.
Whole eggs are nutrient dense in healthy fats, selenium, B vitamins and vitamin A – and most of these nutrients are in the yolk. Vitamin B12 and vitamin B6 actually lower the risk of developing dementia, anxiety and depression and are essential to energy production as well.
Eggs are also one of the most inexpensive sources of protein out there – but you really should purchase organic, free-range, pasture-raised eggs for these benefits. The more orange the yolk the healthy the egg!
8. Cruciferous Veggies and dark leafy greens
Both cruciferous veggies and dark leafy greens like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, bok choy, brussel sprouts, radish, arugula, collard greens, spinach, swiss chard, and dandelion greens are all great sources of nutrients which have high anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that significantly slow down the rates of cognitive decline while enhancing memory and learning.
Broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables are rich in fiber, vitamin K and choline, which can help keep your memory sharp. As well as being a low-calorie source of dietary fiber, these foods keep blood sugar stable and the gut microbiome strong. It contains high levels of antioxidants like vitamin C and flavonoids that can reduce oxidative stress, lower the risk of neurodegenerative diseases and boost brain power. In fact, just one cup of cooked broccoli can provide you with 150% of your recommended daily intake.
Cruciferous veggies also contain a compound called DIM which is very helpful in balancing hormones, especially estrogen dominant issues like PMS, mood swings, long and heavy periods, breast tenderness, uterine fibroids and breast growth in males.
Green leafy vegetables are also loaded with vitamins A and K, which help fight inflammation and keep bones strong.
This section includes all veggies - the more colors you include, the more antioxidant benefits you have! (see phytonutrient handout below)
*If your digestion is not optimal (constipation, bloating and gas) or you have thyroid imbalances then you will want to focus mostly on cooked veggies as they are easier to break down. Raw veggies such as Brussel sprouts, kohlrabi, turnips, radishes, cabbage, kale and cauliflower contain goitrogens which are substances that disrupt the production of thyroid hormones - sauté them up :)
9. Bone Broth
Bone broth is the ultimate food for healing your gut and, in turn, helps heal your brain. This ancient food is full of benefits, ranging from boosting your immune system to overcoming leaky gut, improving joint health and overcoming food allergies/sensitivities.
Bone broth offers both fat-soluble vitamins and high levels of B vitamins in forms your body can easily absorb and utilize, as well as important minerals like zinc and iron. Bones, skin and connective tissue are rich in collagen and amino acids. Minerals from bones leak into the broth making it a source of magnesium, calcium, potassium, etc.
Bone broth helps promote healthy digestion, supports gut healing, reduces intestinal inflammation, and healing amino acids like proline and glycine keep your immune system functioning properly, help improve memory and balance mood.
Recommendations: drink 6-12 oz of broth from pasture-raised animals daily. Poultry, game and pasture-raised meat on the bone for slow cooking. Drink it like hot tea or use it as a base for soups and stews.
10. Coconut Oil
With so many coconut oil uses, from skin health to brain health there’s almost nothing that coconut oil can’t help. When it comes to your brain, it can help suppress cells that are responsible for inflammation. It can also help with memory loss and fight bad bacteria that hang out in your gut. The fatty acids in coconut oil provide the body with energy, boost organ function (liver, gallbladder) and regulate thyroid function.
Coconut oil and related MCT oil are also two of the most popular fats for people following the ketogenic diet, which research suggests may offer benefits related to reduced Alzheimer’s risk due to ketone bodies having a neuroprotective impact on aging brain cells.
Anything coconut is a fabulous addition to the diet: coconut oil, yogurt, flakes, milk, etc.
11. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Real extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) and olives are among the top recommended brain foods due to the powerful antioxidants that they provide known as polyphenols, as well as healthy monounsaturated fats. They are staple ingredients in the Mediterranean diet which studies show is associated with cognitive benefits among older adults.
Including EVOO in your diet may not only improve learning and memory, but also helps fight against ADDLs, proteins that are toxic to the brain and induce Alzheimer’s.
As great as extra virgin olive oil is, remember that it’s not a great option for cooking, as it hydrogenizes and begins decomposing at higher temperatures. The best way to get your fill is by having it cold or at room temperature drizzled over foods or used as salad dressings with lemon juice and herbs.
12. Rosemary + Other Herbs
Carnosic acid, one of the main ingredients in rosemary, helps protect the brain from neurodegeneration. It does this by protecting the brain against free radicals, which are linked to neurodegeneration, Alzheimer’s, strokes and normal aging in the brain.
It also helps protect eyesight from deteriorating thanks to its high levels of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties. Other herbs with similar levels of antioxidants include basil, peppermint, sage, parsley and cilantro.
Turmeric is an ancient root that’s been used for its healing properties throughout history. Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, has been shown to cross the blood-brain barrier, meaning it can directly enter the brain and benefit the cells there. It is one of the most powerful (and natural) anti-inflammatory agents.
Turmeric also helps boost antioxidant levels and keeps your immune system healthy, while also improving your brain’s oxygen intake, keeping you alert and able to process information. You can utilize turmeric in cooking or as herbal teas. For even more benefits, combine turmeric with black pepper to help improve absorption and with other spices like ginger and cinnamon for digestive and metabolic support.
*Benefits memory: Curcumin may help improve memory in people with Alzheimer’s. It may also help clear the amyloid plaques that are a hallmark of this disease.
*Eases depression: Curcumin boosts serotonin and dopamine, both of which improve mood.
*Helps new brain cells grow: Curcumin boosts brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a type of growth hormone that helps brain cells grow. It may help delay age-related mental decline.
Keep in mind that most studies use highly concentrated curcumin supplements in doses ranging from 500–2,000 mg per day, which is much more curcumin than most people typically consume when using turmeric as a spice. This is because turmeric is only made up of around 3–6% curcumin. Therefore, while adding turmeric to your food may be beneficial, you may need to use a curcumin supplement to obtain the best results.
The bottom line
These brain boosting foods can help improve a person’s memory and concentration as well as mood. Some may also reduce the risk of stroke and age-related neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. All of these foods are nutrient dense supporting overall brain health as well as the entire body.
For more information on antioxidant rich foods and a fun handout for kids: