Food fuels every part of your body, including your brain. Your brain uses 20% of your body’s energy to do everything from reminding your body to breathe to controlling motor skills, memory, and focus, as well as enabling you to feel complex emotions. Your brain still functions if you consume junk food, but science proves that fueling your body with a nutrient-rich, well-balanced diet will help your cognitive function, reduce cognitive decline, and improve your overall brain health. Improving your brain health and cognitive function starts with knowing which nutrients benefit your brain, which foods contain these nutrients, and finding ways to work them into your diet.
Nutrients that Benefit the Brain
In addition to specific brain foods that you should try to incorporate into your diet, there are certain nutrients that you should add. The following compounds are valuable to your brain health and can be found in a variety of foods. So, even if you’re a picky eater, you have ample options for integrating these foods into your diet and boosting your brain health.
Coenzyme Q10 plays an essential role in the functioning of the human body. You wouldn’t be alive without it, yet it is very possible that you have never heard of it before. CoQ10 is an antioxidant that protects and supports the mitochondria, the part of the cell that produces energy, making all our biological functions possible. Your body’s natural CoQ10 production decreases as you get older, so it is important for seniors to incorporate CoQ10 into their diets. CoQ10 supports brain health by reducing harmful compounds that are linked to neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s. Foods with CoQ10 include:
Omega 3 fatty acids can have a positive impact on your brain health as well as your mental health. There are two types of Omega 3 fatty acids: DHA and EPA. Both are crucial for normal brain function and brain development. EPA reduces inflammation in the brain which is a contributor to depression and dementia. DHA incorporates directly into brain cell membranes for optimal function. A lack of DHA is linked to learning deficits, memory issues, and quicker brain aging. Omega 3 fatty acids also help combat two of the most common brain health issues that develop with age: mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and Alzheimer’s.
The good news is that Omega 3 fatty acids can easily be incorporated into your diet, especially if you love seafood. Fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, and albacore tuna are all good sources of Omega 3. Go lighter on tuna due to mercury concerns especially if pregnant. Other types of seafood including shrimp, clams, oysters, and caviar also contain omega 3 and other valuable nutrients. Eating seafood a few times a week can help your brain stay sharp on a daily basis and for years to come. Although not as rich a source, walnuts, flax seeds, chia seeds, pasture raised eggs and grass fed meats also contain Omega 3 fatty acids.
It is true that a diet full of naturally colorful food is healthier than a visually bland diet—one of the reasons for this is carotenoids. Carotenoids are brightly pigmented molecules that give many fruits and vegetables their bright colors. In addition to adding a pop of color to your plate, carotenoids are powerful antioxidants that provide health benefits to various parts of the body, including the brain. They are anti-inflammatory, and many researchers believe that they play a role in slowing the development of dementia.
Lutein and Zeaxanthin
Lutein and zeaxanthin are two prime examples of carotenoids that support and can even improve brain health. These compounds are associated with greater brain efficiency and increased visual processing speed. In a study conducted at the University of Georgia, participants who were given lutein and zeaxanthin for 12 months saw a 20% increase in visual processing speed, which is the time it takes to take in visual stimuli, digest them, and react. These carotenoids also strengthen crystalized intelligence—the ability to recall skills and retain knowledge that you learned in the past.
Foods That Support Brain Health & Function
There is a magnitude of healthy foods out there, from fruits and vegetables to grains and proteins, and each has its own unique set of health benefits. Foods can be used to help you reach your fitness goals, bolster your immune system, improve digestion, and keep your brain sharp. In this section, we are going to focus on a few foods that support brain health and their specific benefits.
The Benefits of Berries
Berries have long been praised for their health benefits. Studies have shown that they can help lower blood pressure, prevent heart disease, help manage diabetes, and may even help prevent cancer. If these benefits aren’t enough to convince you to add berries to your grocery list, berries can also improve your brain health.
A study published by the International Journal of Molecular Sciences revealed that anthocyanins, a compound that is abundant in berries, boosts memory, attention, and brain processing speed. In another study that examined the impact that consuming anthocyanins had on older adults with dementia, drinking a glass of anthocyanin-rich cherry juice each day significantly improved short-term memory, long-term memory, and verbal fluency among individuals with dementia in just 12 weeks.
Berries are also rich in antioxidants. Antioxidants protect cells from damage and prevent inflammation that slows motor control and cognitive abilities. The health benefits of berries are undeniable, and the best part is they taste good. Berries are easy to add on top of a salad, in a smoothie, with breakfast, or to eat as a snack.
Go Green, Leafy Greens
Leafy greens such as spinach, kale, collard greens, swiss chard, mustard greens, romaine, and bok choy contain an abundance of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients that support brain health. Leafy greens are associated with a reduced risk of mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s. A study conducted at Tufts Human Nutrition Research Center split a group of 960 participants ages 58 to 99 into 5 groups based on how many servings of leafy greens they consumed per day. The group that consumed the most leafy greens were the equivalent of 11 years younger in terms of cognitive decline than the group that consumed the least. Kale and spinach are particularly high in lutein and zeaxanthin, the highly beneficial carotenoids discussed earlier.
Incorporating Brain Foods into your Diet
While we have only named a few brain foods in this article, each has the power to improve your cognitive function if consumed regularly. Many of the foods on this list can be thrown together to make a salad, blended into a smoothie, or consumed on their own as a snack. Another useful way to make sure that you are eating enough brain foods is to meal plan. Make a brain-healthy grocery list at the beginning of the week and spend some time putting together meals that you can enjoy for the rest of the week.
Improve Your Brain Health with VitalSigns
This article is only scratching the surface of how your diet can impact your brain health. Everyone is different in terms of their health and goals--developing a nutrition plan with the help of a health professional is the best way to maximize your results.
Through our VitalCOACH and VitalCORE programs, you will be paired with a health and wellness coach who can help develop a brain food rich nutritional plan that works for you. Our programs also address other aspects of overall health and wellness including exercise, sleep, and what we refer to as peace.
You were designed for health peace, and VitalSigns wants to be your guide in achieving it. Let's work together to create a personalized health plan for you that integrates nutrition, exercise, sleep, and peace, so that you may be a steward of your body and mind. Learn more by contacting us today.