The power of your brain is immeasurable. As the control center of your body, it allows your heart to beat, the lungs to breathe, and lets you move, feel and think. Because the brain is such an energy-intensive organ, it uses around 20 percent of the body’s calories. That said, it requires an abundance of nutrients and good fuel to stay healthy.
The foods we eat have a big role in the structure and health of our brains, and a brain-boosting diet can support both short- and long-term function. From improving specific mental tasks such as memory and concentration to promoting overall brain structure, a healthy diet can keep your brain sharp and will increase your odds of maintaining a healthy brain as you age.
According to registered dietitian & nutritionist, Nicole Rose aka NickiRD, “Paying attention to your diet can have a huge effect on the status of your brain. You don’t need fancy foods to gift your brain – Mother Nature has all the answers.”
The Abs-uperfood Power List
While we may not be able to control the onset of brain diseases and disorders, incorporating brain-friendly foods in our diets is something we can consciously do to keep our brains in peak working condition.
The A.B.S. has compiled a list of 10 superfoods that can help maintain brain health, and are packed with antioxidants, vitamins, good healthy fats, minerals and micronutrients. Research has found that compounds such as antioxidants, flavanols, polyphenols, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamins and minerals (notably, folate, vitamin E, and B vitamins) naturally found in food can help protect your brain.
In no particular order…
1.) Blueberries: Antioxidants Fight Cognitive Decline
Not only are blueberries delicious, but they are good for your brain. Evidence accumulated at Tufts University suggests that the consumption of blueberries may help improve or delay short term memory loss. Research also shows that this readily available fruit may help protect the brain from the damage caused by free radicals and may reduce the effects of age-related conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.
The antioxidant compounds in blueberries:
- Reduce inflammation and oxidative stress in the brain and throughout the body
- Improve communication between brain cells
- Increase plasticity, which helps brain cells form new connections, boosting learning and memory
According to NickiRD, “Blueberries, which are bountiful come summer, have been shown to boost short- term memory. Try adding the fresh (even the frozen!) ones to your morning smoothie.”
2.) Wild Salmon: May Help Promote Healthy Brain Function
Fatty fish like salmon are the ultimate brain food. Essential fatty acids (EFAs) cannot be made by the body, which means they must be obtained through our diet. The most effective omega-3 fats occur naturally in oily fish in the form of EPA and DHA.
A diet with higher levels of these fats may:
- Lower risks of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and slower mental decline
- Enhance memory
- Manage stress
- Produce good mood brain chemical, serotonin
In addition to salmon, other sources of oily fish include trout, mackerel, herring, sardines, pilchards and kippers. For brain health, two servings of fish per week are recommended.
3.) Dark Chocolate: Antioxidant Power to Boost Brain Health
Calling all sweet tooths, here’s a dessert you can feel good about! Dark chocolate contains flavonoids, which are strong antioxidants that can improve blood flow to the brain and reduce inflammation. 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.
Research shows that dark chocolate can also:
- Combat fatigue and the effects of aging
- Boost both mood, focus, and alertness – one of the few foods that can do so naturally!
- Improve brain plasticity, crucial for learning
- Provide a very respectable dose of magnesium, zinc, fiber, and caffeine-like plant-based stimulant that the brain loves
“Indulge your sweet tooth with dark chocolate. It’s delicious and brain-friendly. I highly recommend eating high cacao dark chocolate (72% or greater), as it’s low in sugar and still very tasty,” says NickiRD.
4.) Turmeric: This Brightly Colored Spice Boosts Mood, Memory & More
Spice up your life, while contributing to a healthier brain by consuming turmeric, one of the most colorful and versatile ingredients in your cabinet.
Research has shown that inflammation is the “universal brain destructor” and this beloved Indian spice is packed with antioxidants, particularly curcumin, one of the most potent and naturally occurring anti-inflammatory agents ever identified.
Other benefits of turmeric include:
- Improves the brain’s oxygen intake
- Increases memory & cognitive function
- Benefits the immune system
5.) Coffee: Aids in Processing, Memory & Focus
Whether enjoyed in the morning to start the day or for a late afternoon pick-me-up, your cup of joe has been shown to improve memory and potentially decrease the risk of dementia.
Beyond boosting alertness, a 2018 study suggests that caffeine may also increase the brain’s capacity for processing information, as the researchers found that caffeine causes an increase in brain entropy – complex and variable brain activity. When entropy is high, the brain can process more information.
Coffee is also a source of antioxidants, which may support brain health as a person gets older. Studies have linked lifelong coffee consumption with reduced risk of:
- Cognitive decline
- Parkinson’s disease
- Alzheimer’s disease
Not a coffee drinker? Black and green teas also contain brain-boosting antioxidants, so sip away!
6.) Nuts & Seeds: Boost Your Brain Function
Eating more nuts and seeds may be good for the brain, as these foods contain omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants. Studies have found that a higher overall nut intake was linked to better brain function in older age, as nuts and seeds are also rich sources of the antioxidant vitamin E, which protects cells from oxidative stress caused by free radicals. Research has found that vitamin E may also contribute to improved cognition and reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
According to NickiRD, “You can find amazing omega-3 fats in hemp, flax, chia and pumpkin seeds. Create your own trail mix with these seeds as the front runner alongside coconut chips, cacao nibs, walnuts and almonds.”
7.) Sage: An Herb to Boost Your Memory
Dating back to 1597, ancient herbalists cited that sage was good for the brain and has the ability to quicken nerves and memory. Even then, they were onto something.
According to recent studies, sage may possess memory-enhancing properties, and a research review published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine identified sage as one of the herbs that may be beneficial to Alzheimer’s patients.
NickiRD says, “How many times have you passed these herbs at the local produce market? Now you have reason to stop and look. Sage, (part of the mint family) works wonders by improving memory and concentration. Try adding the fresh leaves to your roasted butternut squash. You can even take it one step further and rub organic brain-friendly sage essential oil on your wrists and then breathe deep!”
8.) Avocados: Promotes Blood Flow & Brain Health
A diet rich with healthful unsaturated fat supports the brain and combats cognitive decline. Avocados are a fruit (yes, they are a fruit!) packed with good-for-you monounsaturated fats that promote healthy blood flow and support information-carrying nerves in the brain. They are also loaded with several of the brain’s most valued nutrients, including folate, vitamin C, vitamin E, and copper.
A 2018 study out of Tufts University linked avocados with better brain functioning in older adults. The research monitored 40 healthy adults over the age of 50 who ate one fresh avocado per day for six months. Researchers found that they experienced a significant improvement in their problem-solving skills and working memory. The study also found that a control group in the same age bracket who did not eat an avocado each day did not experience the same cognitive health benefits during the study period.
On a salad, sandwich or as a dip, avocados have become a cult food favorite…indulge as often as possible to help boost your brain power.
9.) Whole Grains: May Help Improve Concentration & Focus
A diet packed with whole grain-rich foods promotes cardiovascular health, which flows to the brain.
Like everything else in your body, the brain cannot concentrate and function without energy. Our brains are fueled by an adequate, steady supply of energy in the form of glucose in our blood to the brain. It’s best to achieve this by choosing whole grains with a low-GI, which release glucose slowly into the bloodstream, keeping our brains alert throughout the day.
Eating whole grains are also rich in vitamin E, known for supporting overall brain health.
Whole-grain foods include:
- Brown rice
- Bulgur wheat
- Whole-grain bread
- Whole-grain pasta
10.) Beans: Stabilizes Brain-Dependent Glucose (Blood Sugar) Levels
Inexpensive, convenient and versatile, beans are the ultimate brain-friendly food. Beans are a slowly digested, nutrient-dense starch that provide the brain with its preferred fuel: glucose.
Beans pack a powerful punch of brain-friendly nutrients including magnesium, zinc, fiber, antioxidants, and folate. Folate in particular is essential for brain function, as a deficiency can lead to neurological disorders, such as depression and cognitive impairment. According to Nature Reviews Neuroscience, beans provide more folate than any other food.
“Don’t underestimate the power of beans. This wholesome starch can be enjoyed in any form – canned, fresh, frozen, or dry – and the brain benefits are phenomenal. Their antioxidant power rivals berries and in fact beans offer more fiber and folate than any other food group,” says NickiRD.
Other Brain Boosters
In addition to a healthy diet, exercise also 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. Experts recommend at least 150 minutes of exercise per week to support the brain and body.
Along with diet and exercise, here are a few additional tips to optimize your brain function:
- Not eating too much or too little
- Getting enough sleep
- Keeping hydrated
- Reducing stress through yoga, mindfulness, or meditation
- Reducing alcohol intake
- Taking brain power supplements
*Content published by the American Brain Society (ABS), such as text, graphics, reports, images, and other materials created by ABS and other materials contained on americanbrainsociety.org are for informational purposes only. The Content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on the americanbrainsociety.org.