Have you ever wanted to fundamentally improve the way your brain works? Just a few short decades ago, the notion that you might change your brain (short of chemically tinkering with it with pharmaceuticals) was considered an impossibility. But since the mid-nineties we’ve known that the brain is highly plastic—able to wire, and rewire, itself until death.
That finding closed the doors on “neurological nihilism,” a term coined by neuroscientist Norman Doidge, and paved the way for scientists to look into how we might maximize the function (and recovery in certain instances) of our brains at any age. This was of course good news for dementia patients and sufferers of TBI. But today, 14 percent (1 in 7) people between the ages of 18 and 39 complain of memory problems and 1 in 6 adults take a psychiatric drug, making it clear that many of us might benefit from that landmark finding. And where better to investigate first than what we’re eating?
It’s been known for some time that the Mediterranean dietary pattern, which is rich in foods like extra-virgin olive oil, fatty fish, and vegetables, has been associated with reduced risk for a number of chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s, to name a few. But while correlational research cannot prove a causal link, intervention studies, such as the ongoing FINGER trial out of Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, are highlighting the power of diet to make our brains work better while shielding them against decline.
In the FINGER study, researchers put 1200 older adult subjects who were all cognitively healthy, but had at least one risk factor for cognitive decline, on one of two treatment plans. One group received standard of care, while the other was given a diet and lifestyle makeover. They were told to consume certain foods with known links to better brain health.
The initial results, published after 2 years, were astonishing: the intervention group saw a profound increase in their brain power. They were able to boost executive function by 83 percent, and their processing speed increased by 150 percent. Executive function gives you the ability to “get stuff done” and is vital to a person’s overall success. And processing speed is one of the earliest domains affected by typical aging. It had seemed as if their brains had shifted into high gear.
New research has shown us that even when we’re young and healthy, certain foods can promote stronger brain power. Naturally-occurring nitrates found in arugula and beets, luteolin found in celery and bell peppers, and omega-3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish, like salmon and sardines, are all compounds that have been shown to boost brain function. In fact, one single high nitrate meal (say, an arugula and beet salad), may be enough to boost your mental abilities.
Carotenoids found in colorful veggies are also being studied for their potential “nootropic”—or brain-boosting—effects. One University of Georgia study found that carotenoid supplementation (specifically, two found in dark leafy greens and egg yolks called lutein and zeaxanthin) increased the processing speed of young, healthy college students by 20 percent. This was remarkable, since college-aged people are already thought to be at their peak of cognitive ability.
At the same time, foods once believed healthy are now falling under scrutiny for their impact on the delicate and damage-prone human brain. Take canola oil—considered by many to be healthy because of its high smoke point. It was recently shown in an animal study that canola oil may exacerbate problems associated with Alzheimer’s disease. And with other research pointing to the probable synthesis of memory-zapping trans fats, made during the production process of oils like canola, grapeseed, corn and soy, it seems that these fats might not be our brains’ friends after all.
While we are at the very tip of the iceberg in terms of understanding the full breadth of how our environments (including our diets) interact with our brains for better brain function, I believe we are at a unique place in time where we no longer need to sit on our hands idly.
Max Lugavere is a health and science journalist and the author of Genius Foods: Become Smarter, Happier, and More Productive While Protecting Your Brain for Life.