Our brains are amazing organs, but they can’t function properly without essential nutrients and chemical compounds. There are certain foods that are not only essential to our brain’s normal day to day operation, but that can actually help ‘improve’ the way our brains operate and help us improve specific functions such as memory and concentration.
Here are the top 5 foods which can help improve your memory and sharpen your brain, plus a few other general guidelines and additional pointers.
Beets or beetroot to regulate heartbeat and leafy greens
Basically your brain relies on your heart for survival as every cell in your body needs a steady supply of oxygen and nutrients to stay alive and work properly. Keeping blood pressure in check (less than 120/80), exercising regularly and eating foods such as beets which improve blood flow, all help towards ensuring a steady supply of nutrients to the brain.
It’s a proven fact that brains need well-nourished neurons to enable us to think and remember more clearly. Leafy green vegetables should be consumed as often as possible. Long-term studies have shown that people who eat large amounts of spinach, kale, and other leafy greens have less age-related memory decline, probably due to phytonutrients such as vitamin C.
Fish to maintain brain cell health
It has long been established that fish in your diet, especially fatty, oily fish such as salmon, sardines, herring and mackerel which all contain generous amounts of omega-3 fatty acids; important for maintaining the health of brain cells.
It is generally recommended to eat a four-ounce portion (slightly larger than the palm of your hand) of fatty, oily fish at least three times a week. A large part of the brain is made up of omega-3 fats, which we now know are vital for healthy brain function, in fact, 60% of the fats in the brain are omega-3 with DHA, a type of omega-3 fat found in fish, being the main type. This is why fish play such an important part of our diet when considering brain development and maintenance. (1)
Berries to prevent brain cell breakdown
Berries are busting with antioxidants called anthocyanins which help prevent the breakdown of brain cells.
Blueberries are the top source of substances called anthocyanins, which are brain-boosting antioxidants which shield the brain against inflammation and oxidation, both of which can damage neurons and make them less effective at communicating with one another. All berries such as blueberries, blackberries, cranberries, and strawberries benefit the aging brain in several ways.
Some studies in humans have shown that dietary supplementation with berries reduces inflammation in humans. Grapes and blueberries have also been shown to improve brain function in older adults with mild mental impairment. (2)
Further study is needed to determine if these beneficial effects on brain function are the result of individual compounds shared by berries or unique combinations of chemicals in each berry fruit. Either way, there is no denying that berries are good for your brain and health in general.
Chicken, turkey, eggs and low-fat milk for lean protein
Vitamin B12 is an important protein which is found in chicken and turkey breast, eggs and low-fat milk, and helps to maintain cognitive skills. Studies have shown that older adults who were mildly B12 deficient were at higher risk of cognitive decline.
The brain is mainly made of fat, but the neurons communicate with each other via proteins that we eat and the hormones and enzymes that cause chemical changes and control all body processes are made of proteins. Brain cells communicate with one another via chemical messengers called neurotransmitters, which are usually made of amino acids, the building blocks of protein and eating protein raises the levels of an amino acid called tyrosine, which prompts the brain to manufacture norepinephrine and dopamine which promote alertness and activity. (3)
Walnuts to improve memory scores
Walnuts not only resemble a miniature human brain, but recent studies have concluded that walnut consumption is attributed to better memory scores and cognitive function. Walnuts are also a great source of alpha-linolenic acid; a plant-based form of omega-3 fatty acids.
Low omega-3 intake has been linked to depression and cognitive degeneration, so eating walnuts regularly then can keep the spirits up and help keep your brain active. Walnuts are also known to raise melatonin levels by a staggering three times, promising relief from sleeplessness and insomnia.
Walnuts contain an impressive list of nutrients such as manganese, copper, iron, calcium, phosphorus – all of which can contribute to a good, healthy, happy body. (4)
Now, it’s not for us to encourage alcohol consumption, but recent research published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that women who had one drink a day were 20 percent less likely than teetotalers or heavier drinkers to experience a decline in their cognitive function, including the ability to remember points of a paragraph that had been read to them 15 minutes earlier.
The researchers believe this may be because moderate alcohol consumption elevates levels of HDL cholesterol (the good kind) and improves the condition of the blood that reaches the brain.
It does say ‘moderate’, which means sensible and certainly not that drinking more will help your brain, so you have been warned!
On a more general note, here are a few more pointers as a way of helping your brain stay healthy and vibrant:
Eat healthy fats and minerals – Your brain needs fat to make myelin, which is the insulation on the wiring between your brain cells. Eating more omega-3 fats will help support the production of myelin. Minerals are cofactors for many vitamins in the brain, so using sea salt sparingly and adding seaweed to your diet is an excellent way to increase your mineral intake.
Eat high-quality protein – The neurotransmitters (molecules that your brain uses to communicate at the synapse or junctions between brain cells) are made of amino acids. The building blocks of protein are amino acids. It is important to have sufficient protein so that your brain can make the necessary neurotransmitters – see point 4 above.
Eat more vegetables & reduce soda and other sweetened drinks – As stated above, higher intake of vegetables and berries are strongly associated with having better cognition and less dementia so aim for 6 to 9 cups of vegetables every day. Conversely, higher sugar intake is now widely associated with more rapid loss of brain cells and earlier onset of cognitive decline or dementia.
Most of the above points are based on the common sense of a good balanced diet, but hopefully by explaining exactly why each food is important and how it contributes, it makes it easier to build it into your daily diet and to appreciate the long term advantages of eating the right foods.