To sum up last week’s post: sugar, trans-fats, excesses of omega 6 fats and toxic additives are killing our brains. As promised, this week I will turn positive and focus on foods which are especially good for the brain.
The blueberry (along with other berries) remains at the top of many lists of brain healthy foods. To start, blueberries are relatively low in sugar content. One half cup of blueberries has only about 8 grams of carbs. While low in sugar, they have more antioxidants than any other fruit. The phytonutrient anthocyanin provides the dark blue color and has powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. It helps strengthen capillaries and promotes the dilation of blood vessels which enhances blood flow bringing oxygen and other helpful nutrients to the brain. For years rat studies have demonstrated improved cognitive function associated with blueberries even showing the development of new brain cells and improved transmission of signals in brain cells. Recent trials have shown similar effects in humans. Berries maintain their healthy benefits when frozen. This makes it easy for me to mix frozen blueberries or strawberries with spinach leaves, plain Greek yogurt and other healthy ingredients in a delicious smoothie most mornings.
Another wonderfully healthy fruit is the avocado. They are an excellent source of many nutrients which protect and stimulate the brain including monounsaturated fats, magnesium, folate, vitamin E, carotenoids, glutathione and polyphenols. Avocados have the most magnesium of any fruit – a mineral which tends to be low in many of us. Magnesium helps regulate calcium entry into brain cells which if uncontrolled can cause headaches along with cell damage or even cell death. It also helps regulate blood pressure and has a calming effect promoting sound sleep. The healthy fats and large amount of fiber in avocados help control the appetite and they are also very low in sugar. Avocados can be enjoyed in guacamole, sliced in salads or blended into smoothies and in many other ways.
Spices enhance the taste of our natural whole foods and can provide tremendous brain benefits. Tumeric gives Indian curries their distinctive flavor and bright yellow color. Many scientists believe this may be a major reason for the very low incidence of dementia in India. An active ingredient in tumeric, curcumin, may be the source of many of it’s benefits. It decreases the formation of sticky deposits in the brain which are found in Alzheimer’s dementia and also suppresses inflammation.
Another tasty spice, cinnamon, decreases inflammation, acts as an antioxidant and helps improve insulin sensitivity. The herb sage helps improve memory by boosting acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter which is very involved with in the memory centers of the brain. Another herb, rosemary, helps improve memory along with strengthening and repairing the interconnections of brain cells.
Eggs, much vilified due to misunderstandings of dietary cholesterol, are one of our healthiest and most complete foods. I’m talking about eggs from pastured hens and not those hens that rarely go outside and are fed some kind of soy based product. These “pastured” eggs have larger and brighter almost orange colored yokes. They contain good amounts of omega 3 fatty acids particularly DHA which is critical to brain health. Eggs provide a complete source of protein along with numerous other nutrients which can be low in our diets such as vitamin E and B12 and the phytonutrients critical for eye health, lutein and zeaxanthin. Finally they are one of our only good sources (unless you like liver) of the B vitamin choline. Choline along with folate helps lower homocysteine which can increase risk of memory loss and heart disease. It also is crucial in the prevention of fatty liver disease which contributes to diabetes and thus brain decline.
There are so many more foods I could discuss such as dark leafy greens, green and black tea and nuts but will end with salmon and hope you are inspired to research the others yourself. Remember, research stimulates your brain!
Eating fish has been clearly shown to help preserve memory functions. This is mainly due to their high content of essential fatty acids, the omega 3’s. These fats are called essential because they must be consumed in the diet as our bodies cannot make them from other materials. Wild salmon is the best overall source of omega 3 fats but others include halibut, canned albacore tuna and sardines. Omega 3’s play a crucial role in the functioning of cell membranes in brain cells. They are also critical for vascular health which plays a huge role in brain health. Many mental health professionals use omega 3’s in supplement form for depression, bipolar disorder and anxiety. Several well done studies have shown a significant benefit in depression. Fish oil supplement studies have otherwise recently been disappointing. Better studies will likely give a different picture but for now we should concentrate on getting omega 3’s from whole foods which is consistent with our overall philosophy. In trying to get several servings a week don’t forget high omega 3 eggs, canned albacore tuna and grass fed meats which are more available than ever before. Your brain will thank you and reward you in the long run!