Whatever you decide to eat is a choice that can nourish or deplete your brain and body, and if you choose bad foods like sugar and trans fats, you could suffer from anxiety, depression and mental fogginess. The right foods, however, will help you feel positive, productive and mentally alert.
These foods are called brain foods, and this article will look at the best ones, and how they can benefit you.
1. Oily Fish for Omega-3s
Fish has always had a reputation as being good for the brain, and it’s full of protein that is needed to form neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine – our ‘feel good’ chemicals.
Fish is also a good source of vitamin B12, which is necessary for a healthy brain and nervous system, but fish is also a major source of omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFA’s), which are perhaps the most important group of nutrients for a healthy brain.
Omega-3’s are anti-inflammatory, and this is important as chronic brain inflammation could lead to depression, anxiety, ADHD, and perhaps even dementia and Alzheimer’s.
If you do take antidepressants, eating fish can boost their effectiveness. The best sources of omega-3’s are oily fish such as salmon, herring, mackerel and sardines. Canned tuna contains very little omega-3 compared to these fish.
2. Eggs for memory
Eggs are also high in omega-3 fatty acids, along with protein and vitamin B12. They also contain tryptophan, an amino acid that’s essential to the production of serotonin.
Whole eggs are the best food source of choline, a B-complex related nutrient that 90% of us don’t get enough of. Choline is part of acetylcholine, which is a neurotransmitter that is essential for memory and learning.
You need plenty of acetylcholine now for a sharp memory, and for keeping your brain focused as you get older.
People are wary of the cholesterol that eggs contain, but your brain actually needs cholesterol to function properly. In fact, the brain contains 25% of your body’s total cholesterol, and if you don’t get enough dietary fat, your brain will start to eat itself to get the substances it needs.
There’s no official guide for how many eggs to eat, but a good place to start is between two and six per week, although some people eat more with no ill effects.
All fruits are good for you, but berries such as strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries are super fruits because of the flavonoids they contain.
These flavonoids are potent antioxidants that protect cells from free radical damage, and one group of flavonoids called anthocyanins give berries their bright colors.
Research has shown that flavonoids can improve cognitive skills including memory, learning and decision making, and they could prevent age-related mental decline and Alzheimer’s.
Berries also help protect the brain from chronic inflammation, which shuts down energy production in the brain cells and could lead to symptoms such as anxiety, depression and mental fatigue.
Resveratrol has been shown to improve brain function, memory and brain connectivity in older adults, and red wine is a good source of this compound. However, berries may be a better source.
Harvard Medical School recommends eating around 3-4 servings of berries per week.
Creamy avocados are nutrient dense, and some brain experts believe it’s the world’s most perfect food.
Other fruits are mostly made of carbohydrates, but avocados contain 75% of mostly monounsaturated fats, which are the healthy kind found in olive oil. These fats support the production of acetylcholine, which is important for brain function.
Avocados also contain tyrosine, which is an amino acid that’s a precursor to dopamine, the brain chemical that keeps you focused and motivated.
A typical serving size is only one ounce, which is around 1/5th of an avocado, but most people eat half an avocado as a serving.
Kale is one of the most nutrient-dense veggies out there, and it’s very high in brain-protecting antioxidants such as beta-carotene, flavonoids and polyphenols.
Kale also contains B vitamins, especially folate which is essential for brain development.
A study by Oxford University showed that folic acid, B6 and B12 work to reduce brain atrophy, improve brain function and can reduce brain shrinkage in the area of the brain most affected by Alzheimer’s.
Kale is also one of the best plant sources for omega-3’s, which is good news for vegans.
6. Sea Vegetables
In the West, we don’t tend to eat many sea vegetables, but we should start. The people of Okinawa, Japan, are known for their extreme longevity and good health, and it could be partly down to their diet of regular sea vegetables.
Sea veggies contain all 56 minerals that are essential for human health, and nori (also called purple laver) is also full of vitamin B12.
They are also one of the few dietary sources of iodine, a mineral that is so rare in our diets that it’s added to table salt to combat deficiency. Low iodine levels can cause hypothyroidism, a condition that can contribute to fatigue, brain fog, bad memory and depression.
Sea vegetables also contain inositol, which the brain needs to help communications between brain cells.
A typical serving of sea veggies is 1/3 cup of whole leaf, 1 teaspoon of flakes, or ½ teaspoon of powdered vegetables.
7. Dark Chocolate
Chocolate is one of the world’s favorite foods, and it’s one that people crave. It has to be dark chocolate with a cocoa content of over 70% for health benefits, as milk chocolate has none of the good compounds in it at all.
Chocolate is a good source of tryptophan, the amino acid precursor of serotonin, and it’s a good source of magnesium, which helps you combat stress.
Dark chocolate also contains phenylethylamine, a compound that has been called the ‘love drug’, as it is said to give you a high similar to being in love.
Dark chocolate is also high in neuroprotective flavonoids that help brain cells live longer and promotes neuroplasticity. It can help older adults with short-term memory loss and prevent cognitive decline.
Most chocolate studies recommend eating between 1.5 and 3 ounces of dark chocolate per day.
Nuts are all full of protein, vitamins and minerals, but walnuts have the highest brain benefits. They are one of the best sources of alpha-linolenic acid, which is the plant form of omega-3 fats.
Walnuts contain a polyphenol called pedunculagin, which has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that could reduce brain inflammation.
One study showed that adults of all ages who ate walnuts had improved reaction times, learning and memory recall.
The recommended serving of walnuts daily is around 1 tablespoon.
Spices are good sources of antioxidants and provide brain benefits, but turmeric stands above them all.
Turmeric contains over 100 known compounds, some of which have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective properties.
Turmeric possesses antidepressant properties, and studies have shown it to work even better than prozac.
The most important compound in turmeric is called curcumin, which can reduce brain inflammation and break up the brain plaques suspected of causing Alzheimer’s. Another important compound is called turmerone, which stimulates the brain to repair itself and produce new neurons.
For the highest benefit, use between ¼ – ½ teaspoon of turmeric in cooking each day.
10. Olive Oil
The Mediterranean diet is considered one of the healthiest, and olive oil is a big part of that. The heart healthy monounsaturated fats in olive oil are good for the brain, and improve memory and other cognitive functions.
Olive oil also contains over 30 phenolic compounds that are powerful antioxidants and destroyers of free radicals.
Oleocanthal is an anti-inflammatory unique to olive oil, which helps to clear the brain of beta-amyloid proteins that are linked to Alzheimer’s.
Olive oil doesn’t contain any trans fats, and simply by replacing oils like canola and soy with olive oil can reduce the risk of depression by almost 50%.
11. Coconut Oil
Coconut oil is high in saturated fat, but it is good for the brain. The people of the Pacific Islands eat coconut oil as part of their traditional diet, and they call the coconut palm tree the ‘tree of life’.
Coconut oil is high in medium chain triglycerides, which get broken down into ketones which feed the brain directly, without going through the glucose metabolism. This could be important as a promising treatment for Alzheimer’s, which some experts consider to be a third form of diabetes.
The recommended amount of coconut oil is to start with 1 teaspoon of coconut oil 2 or 3 times a day.
12. Fermented Foods
Neuroscience has made a dramatic discovery that involves the microbiome – the bacteria that live in our intestinal tract.
These microbes have a huge and unexpected influence over the brain, which makes science call the gut the ‘second brain’. Gut bacteria create over 30 neurotransmitters including serotonin, norepinephrine, acetylcholine, dopamine and GABA. These bacteria influence your moods, your health, and can even play a role in the decisions you make.
The natural balance of bacteria in your gut can be disrupted by antibiotics, stress and even the food you eat, and a microbiome out of whack can be the root cause of several brain related conditions, including ADHD, anxiety, memory loss and carb cravings.
If you want to encourage healthy gut bacteria, eat more fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, tamari and miso.
Prebiotic foods are needed to help the good bacteria grow and thrive, and these foods include asparagus, bananas, barley, leeks, chicory, garlic, lentils, mustard greens, onions, tomatoes and yacon, a natural sweetener.
If you don’t eat fermented foods, start slowly with a few spoonfuls per day to let the bacteria establish themselves, then eat one or more servings per day.