Many people think a decline in brain function is a natural part of aging. However, a well-nourished noggin is better able to aid every other system in your body. No matter your age, your brain will be sharper if you feed it right. The following foods — full of antioxidants, flavonoids, and other bioactive compounds — will nourish your brain throughout your lifetime.
Seeds and nuts
Chia, flax, and quinoa are especially nutritious. In fact, flax is the main source of alpha-linolenic acid, which helps the cerebral cortex process sensory stimuli. Pumpkin seeds are high in antioxidants as well as minerals like copper, iron, magnesium, and zinc. A study showed “significant improvement in learning skills, memory, reducing anxiety, and motor development in mice fed a walnut-enriched diet.” Eat an ounce a day of any combination of nuts.
Savor up to 1 ounce of dark chocolate daily and you’ll consume powerful antioxidants along with mood-enhancing endorphins. Non-Dutch process cocoa is also rich in flavonoids that can improve blood flow to the brain. The caffeine and other natural stimulants that dark chocolate contains can improve your concentration, too. Just enjoy in moderation!
The monounsaturated fat in avocados contributes to healthy blood flow and, according to Ann Kulze, MD, “… Healthy blood flow means a healthy brain.” Avocados also help lower blood pressure, which is good since hypertension is a risk factor in cognitive decline. Avocados are high in calories, so enjoy 1/4 to 1/2 of an avocado per day.
Legumes help stabilize blood glucose levels. Since the brain relies on glucose for fuel and can’t store it, the organ depends on foods like beans for a steady fuel supply. All legumes, especially lentils, are rich in folate, which protects brain cells from amino acids that impair brain functions. Half a cup of beans or lentils per day will fuel your brain. If you hate beans, try baking delicious Black Bean Brownies.
Coffee is good for your brain. Studies show the drink’s phenylindanes may reduce the risk of disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. In fact, coffee often supplies the majority of antioxidants in a person’s diet! (It actually contains more essential antioxidants than green tea.) Remember, drink it in moderation (1 to 3 cups a day). And skip the creamers and sweeteners that add unnecessary fat and calories.
Blueberries provide numerous health benefits, including some that are specifically for your brain. Blueberries and other deeply colored berries deliver anthocyanins, a group of plant compounds with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. Antioxidants act against both oxidative stress and inflammation, conditions that may contribute to brain ageing and neurodegenerative diseases.
Some of the antioxidants in blueberries have been found to accumulate in the brain and help improve communication between brain cells. Animal studies have shown that blueberries help improve memory and may even delay short-term memory loss. Try sprinkling them on your breakfast cereal or adding them to a smoothie.
Colorful fruits and vegetables
Richly colored fruits and vegetables, like beets, blackberries, berries, carrots, watermelons, green beans, kiwis, plums, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes have high levels of antioxidants. This protects against the oxidative stress caused by free radicals, which is vital for a healthy brain.
Antioxidants also improve communication between brain cells. Beets contain natural nitrates that improve blood flow in the brain, and a flavonoid in berries (called anthocyanidin) concentrates in the hippocampus, where memory and learning occur. This flavonoid also protects brain cells from the aging effects of oxidation and inflammation.
Dark, leafy greens provide more nutrition (and antioxidants) than many other vegetables. The USDA advises eating at least 2 to 3 servings per week to lower your cancer risk. Common dark, leafy greens include beet greens, endive, lettuce, microgreens, spinach, and Swiss chard.
Oily, deep-water fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids vital for proper brain function. They regulate neurotransmitters, which are key to mental focus. Lake trout, wild salmon, albacore tuna, halibut, herring, mackerel, and sardines are great sources of fatty acids. Eat 3-4 ounces of these fish two or three times per week for optimal brain (and heart) health.
Co-author of The Better Brain Book, Dr. David Perlmutter says: “Probably no part of the body is more sensitive to the damage from free radicals as the brain.” Pomegranates, along with cranberries and citrus fruits, contain powerful antioxidants that fight off these free radicals. Pomegranate juice usually has added sugar. So aim for 2 ounces a day. Add it to seltzer water for a delicious sparkling drink.
Nori (and other seaweeds)
You can find this dried, edible seaweed in supermarkets that stock Asian ingredients. In addition to vitamins, minerals, protein, and fiber, seaweeds are extremely high in antioxidants. Eat nori in moderation due to its high salt and iodine content; a tablespoon per week is ample. If you aren’t familiar with this seaweed, these recipes may help.
Scientific research finds that reishi mushrooms have hundreds of bioactive compounds that protect the brain against neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. They also limit the effects of strokes. Reishi mushrooms’ unique Ganoderma peptide-protein is a potent antioxidant. The spores protect the hippocampus from issues related to diabetes.
Black and green tea
Preferably made from loose tea, the freshly brewed drink contains potent antioxidants that benefit your brain. Many studies link black tea to a range of health benefits, including reducing the risk of stroke. Green tea is high in a type of antioxidants called catechins, which enhance blood flow throughout the body, including the brain. Enjoy two or three cups of tea every day.
Whole grains reduce the risk of heart disease. And a healthy heart pumps blood more efficiently throughout your body, including your brain. This type of grain is also absorbed into your system slowly, releasing brain-fueling glucose over an extended period.
Eat at least 1/2 cup of oatmeal or whole-grain cereal, a couple of slices of whole-grain bread, or 2 tablespoons of wheat germ each day. While not technically a whole grain, wheat germ shares many of the same attributes. Other whole grains like barley, brown rice, bulgur, rye, wild rice, and whole-wheat couscous add variety to a brain-healthy diet.
Warm spices like those used in baking and autumn lattes nourish and protect your brain. A study done on 26 common seasonings found that “many spices contained high levels of phenolics and demonstrated high antioxidant capacity.” Cinnamon topped the list with unusually high levels of phenolics. Turmeric benefits many areas of the body. And ginger improves cognitive function — an indicator of a well-nourished brain!
Yes, we know water isn’t technically a food, but studies show dehydration causes brain tissue to shrink, upsetting the balance of brain chemicals. Not surprising, since our brains are 85% water! A lack of water also impairs focus, decision-making, short-term memory, and long-term memory recall.