Since the brain is the control center of our bodies, when we talk about nutrition for brain health, we’re including things that contribute to our ability to think, remember, move, talk, and even the most basic functions like breathing.
It’s that important for our daily functioning, and we have to protect it just like we do our heart or any other parts of our body. Don’t just think “heart-healthy” foods, think “brain-healthy” foods too.
A quick rundown of some of the lifestyle-related conditions we can develop if we don’t take good care of it (or we can minimize the damage by taking good care):
- Stroke, and also Transient-Ischemic Attacks (TIAs), or mini-strokes
- Alzheimer’s Disease
- Parkinson’s Disease
- Vascular Dementia – common in people who have had mini-strokes
- Korsakoff Syndrome
Brain Health and Diet
Since your brain is always “running”, it needs fuel and building blocks continuously, and the best foods for brain health provide a few key nutrients:
Fat and the Brain
There is fat in brain tissue: white matter is made up of myelin, which is composed of fats. While our brain tissue includes fats in its composition, don’t be quick to just eat anything with fat – they are not all created equal. Here’s a breakdown of how the different types affect the brain:
- Trans Fats – Bad for the brain. No way around it. They can impair memory and learning, and harm the body’s ability to make things it needs, like Omega 3 fatty acids (those are good). They cause excessive inflammation, which can also contribute to other brain disorders. These are artificial (man-made) fats intended to make food last longer and taste good. They are found in junk food primarily, but also in things meant to be “good” for you, like margarine and vegetable oil.
- Omega 6 fatty acids – We need these, but only a little. Many foods with healthier fats also contain omega 6, so eliminating it entirely would be both difficult, and cause deficiency in other needed nutrients. Experts also say we have it throughout our bodies and our cells need it to function, so eating them in small amounts should be the goal. If we eat too much, it can cause inflammation (which can lead to neurological and other problems), and possible depression. Avoid potato chips, fast foods, cured/processed meats, vegetable oils, excessive consumption of nuts and seeds.
- Omega 3 fatty acids – The brain loves this fat, but has very little in it naturally. It can reduce inflammation and has a protective effect against cognitive decline (dementias). When you’re looking for a fat to include in a meal, make it this kind, but don’t go overboard. They’re fats, so they are high-calorie foods, and putting on excess visceral fat can cancel out the benefits.
Our body is made of building blocks, which are proteins. Proteins are made of amino acids, and so are neurotransmitters (the chemical messengers our brain uses to function). We also need them for growth of nerve cells, so they are a critical part of our diet. So much so, in fact, the brain won’t be satisfied until it gets enough protein from what we eat. This leads to overeating in cases where our protein intake is too low. Keeping this in mind, if we focus too much on proteins, we can end up with too much fat in our diet, which isn’t good nutrition for brain health. In addition, other health problems can develop from excessive protein.
Carbohydrates are fuel. Your brains uses proportionally more of it than the rest of your body. The problem is, if you consume too many, it will backfire on you. In the short-term, eating foods relatively high in carbohydrates can negatively influence your mood and increase fatigue (make you feel worn out or run down). In the longer term, excess carbohydrates (often resulting in too many calories) brings about conditions that lead to the health problems we’re trying to prevent or minimize. On the flip side, if you don’t get enough of them, your brain will be starved of the energy it needs to do it’s incredibly demanding job.
Vitamins and Minerals
These micronutrients are important for nerve cells sending their signals, and creation of the chemicals it sends with those signals. Without sufficient intake of these, we would be unable to break down the fats, proteins, and carbohydrates we eat into usable energy forms. Deficiencies in vitamins, particularly the B-vitamins, can harm our ability to think clearly, sleep, remember things, and remain emotionally balanced. In fact, some researchers consider this the best vitamin for brain health. Over the course of long-term deficiencies, the brain can atrophy (shrink), and getting enough of things like B-12 can help prevent dementias. As with the other nutrients, of course, balance is key, as excessive dosages can lead to potential toxicity.
It’s pretty well known that we are made of mostly water, and the brain is very aware of how much we have at any given time. Depending on a number of factors including your activity level, the amount we need to consume each day will vary. One thing that will not vary, though, is how much water needs to be present for the brain to function properly. Not only does it know when we’re getting low, it’s quick to tell us – with thirst. It only takes 1-2% body loss of water for the brain to start asking for some, and that also happens to be the amount that starts affecting how the brain works. When you’re even mildly dehydrated, you may find problems with concentration, memory, reaction time, and increased moodiness/irritability. Replenishing that water is one of the quickest ways to remedy some of that.
Calories and the Brain
We all know that excess calories are stored in the body as fat. It’s also becoming clearer that stored fat in the midsection can generate problems independent of what we eat after it’s there. But what about the direct relationship between excess calories and brain function? Some studies indicate eating too many calories can reduce the ability of brain cells to make new connections and can make them more vulnerable to damage from free radicals.
Brain Healthy Foods
- The most highly recommended food for Omega 3 comes from marine sources. In other words, fish such as salmon (wild-caught), anchovies top the list.
- You can also get them from many nuts and seeds, but keep that in moderation, because they can also contain omega 6, which you want to keep at a minimum. Go for walnuts, chia seeds, and flax seeds.
- Green vegetables contain omega 3, so we can get some of what we need without loading us up on calories. Think leafy greens, brussels sprouts.
- Wild rice, which is actually different from brown rice (it’s actually a grass, not a grain) is a great source and is also a great weight-loss food because it’s loaded with fiber and protein.
- Poultry, lamb, and pork are clearly winner in this category. Be sure, however, to prepare them without including ingredients that will crank up the omega 6, or pack on calories such as frying them in vegetable oils, breading with refined grains, or drowning them in sauces that contain added sugar.
- Fish, especially salmon, is also a go-to source for high protein that has the added benefits of those omega 3s.
- Lean beef, preferably organic, grass fed, has one of the best doses of protein. Lean, organic and grass fed are the best options since fattier cuts from cows who ate grains will be more inflammatory.
- Nuts, seeds and beans are also great sources of plant-based protein, but again, keep that omega 3/omega 6 balance in mind, since they contain those too.
- Low-density carbohydrates will supply the energy needed without the calorie overload. Excellent brain health nutrition! Leafy greens, green beans, celery, mushrooms, broccoli, cauliflower. Think of the veggies that grow above ground.
- Other vegetables can be higher in carbohydrates but are still much better as compared to refined (or even unrefined) grains. Many of these grow under the ground including carrots, peas, potatoes, and squash.
- Whole grains, with the fiber included will supply carbs, but the high fiber content keeps some of that under control.
- For something sweet without added sugar, fruits including berries, apples, melons, peaches, citrus fruits are a great choice. Fresh bananas have the highest concentration of carbs, and if you eat the dried versions of any fruit, it will be even higher.
Vitamins and Minerals
Often people want to take a vitamin supplement, but it’s not as effective as the real thing. To get the best nutrition for brain health, seek out natural foods to get what you need.
- Leafy greens, broccoli, asparagus.
- Lean beef (especially the liver)
- Fish like sardines, mackerel, and salmon.
One aspect of nutrition for brain health we often forget is water. It’s so important!
Two rules of thumb: if you’re getting thirsty, and if your urine is dark you’re already getting dehydrated. Based on your body weight and activity level, your requirement will vary. The University of Missouri’s website provides two quick formulas to figure out how much you need.
- Your body weight x .05 = # oz of water per day under typical circumstances
- When you’re active, add 12 ounces per day for every 30 minutes you exercise.
How To Get The Best Food for Brain Health
Want to simplify? Go with what works: The Mediterranean Diet. It relies on whole foods that include all of these groups. Historically, people who have subsisted on this diet over the centuries, and still today, have a lower incidence of the conditions that reduce life expectancy, including those that heavily impact the brain.
Recipes that include these foods aren’t hard to find. Check out sites like mayoclinic.org for a list to get you started!