As we’ve stated before, one of the most fascinating things about the human brain is that neuroplasticity, the process by which the brain undergoes changes in response to internal and external stimuli, affords us a great deal of control in determining the overall health of our brain. While there are many lifestyle changes one can make to improve overall brain health, studies have shown that dietary factors can have a significant impact. Choosing which foods you use to fuel your body goes far beyond counting calories; the macronutrients—fats, proteins, and carbohydrates—you emphasize in shaping your diet can have major repercussions for brain health. There is evidence to suggest that individuals who consume a diet high in carbohydrates have an 89% increased risk of developing dementia, while people who consume a diet high in healthy fats actually reduce their risk by 44%. Ensuring that the foods you consume are high in antioxidants, rich in healthy fats, low in carbohydrates, and powerfully anti-inflammatory can go a long way towards optimizing brain health and boosting memory and cognition.
Foods to Improve Brain Health and Memory
Generally speaking, we recommend a diet that is higher in fat and fiber, low in carbs, and rich in gut-healthy probiotics. To that end, please read on for some suggestions on specific foods around which to build a brain-boosting diet!
Oils derived from plants, specifically extra virgin olive oil and coconut oil, have massive brain-boosting potential. Olive oil is rich in polyphenols, potent antioxidants that have been shown to reverse cognitive deficits brought on by both the natural process of aging and disease. Coconut oil also contains polyphenols and goes one step further by directly improving the ability of neurons and brain cell membranes to perform their cellular functions. Careful though, these oils are only as good as the sourcing and production methods used to create them, so make sure you buy high-quality versions that are certified organic and GMO-free. It is equally important to avoid seed and vegetable oils that are high in pro-inflammatory polyunsaturated fats. Corn oil, soybean oil, and certain seed oils are high in this type of fat.
Nuts are rich in a variety of brain-supporting nutrients like vitamin E, omega-3 fats, copper, and manganese. These nutrients have been shown to help nurture and protect brain cells, prevent or reverse cognitive decline, and improve cognitive function. However, not all nuts are created equal; avoid peanuts—which aren’t actually nuts at all!—and focus on organic, GMO-free walnuts and almonds instead. Furthermore, if you frequently find yourself craving a snack between meals, nuts are a fantastic, healthy option because they satisfy cravings without the “empty” calories in chips and other heavily processed snacks.
Wild-Caught, Oily Fish
Oily fish, particularly salmon, are excellent sources of the BDNF boosting omega-3 oil Docosahexaenoic Acid, better known as DHA. This fatty acid plays a crucial role in developing and protecting brain cells, specifically the myelin sheath, and has the potential to drastically improve memory and cognition if consumed on a regular basis. However, it is essential to ensure that the fish you consume is wild-caught and not farm-raised; farmed salmon is a far inferior product in terms of nutritional value, and the risk of contamination from bacteria and other toxins is far higher than in wild-caught fish. In addition to salmon, which is by far the most popular oily fish, other options include sardines, trout, and herring.
Berries are chock full of antioxidants, flavonoids, and anthocyanin, which makes them a memory and cognition superfood. These nutrients help protect brain cells from oxidative damage caused by free radicals and allow brain cells to maximize their potential. A study in the Annals of Neurology found that high intake of flavonoids may possibly reduce rates of cognitive decline in the elderly. Furthermore, berries deliver a mega-dose of antioxidants to help reduce systemic inflammation, which has a devastating impact on brain health.
Fermentation has been used for centuries by cultures around the world to create food that contains an abundance of beneficial bacteria. These bacteria, referred to as probiotics, play a vital role in maintaining the delicate balance of your microbiome, which supports and promotes, mental health, memory, and cognition. Common probiotic-rich foods are kimchi, kombucha tea, sauerkraut, and pickled fruits and vegetables. In addition to probiotics, consuming adequate levels of prebiotic fiber is equally, if not more important. This fiber is not directly digested by our gastrointestinal tract and is instead used as substrate—a soil of sorts—by our gut bacteria. Examples of foods rich in prebiotic fiber are dandelion greens, garlic, onions, and asparagus, which are best if consumed raw.
Above-Ground, Leafy Vegetables
Above-ground, leafy vegetables should be the focus of any diet designed to optimize brain health. These vegetables are rich in a variety of vitamins and minerals, like Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, potassium, iron, and folate. They also contain a suite of antioxidants, which help fight inflammation, destroy harmful free radicals, and boost brain health. Finally, many above-ground leafy vegetables contain prebiotic fiber, which helps feed and maintain a healthy gut microbiome. Examples of common above-ground, leafy vegetables include dandelion greens, asparagus, kale, broccoli, and spinach.
Avocado is very high in monounsaturated fats that have been shown repeatedly to reduce the risk of heart disease, lower blood pressure and improve insulin sensitivity. In fact, it is part of my “Anti-Alzheimer’s Trio,” the three most powerful foods we should be eating on a daily basis to optimize brain health. Avocado can be consumed on its own, in a salad, or as an oil in cooking and seasoning, so they can be incorporated in just about any aspect of our diet.
Eggs help improve brain health in two important ways. First, eggs deliver a mega-dose of choline, a precursor chemical which is converted to acetylcholine by the body after it has been consumed. Acetylcholine is a crucial neurotransmitter in the nervous system that relays messages between cells, primarily between motor neurons and the musculoskeletal system, but it also plays a central role in memory and cognition. Second, eggs provide cholesterol, which, contrary to popular belief, is incredibly salubrious. Cholesterol comprises part of the membrane of brain cells and functions as a key antioxidant to protect them from damage caused by oxidation.
When preparing the above-listed foods, you can improve flavor and reduce inflammation at the same time by incorporating this spice into the cooking process. Turmeric—the active ingredient of which is curcumin—has very powerful anti-inflammatory properties and has a long culinary history. In fact, the oldest known reference to the spice can be found in the Vedic Sanskrit texts, which date back to 1700 BC!
These nine foods show incredible promise as powerful epigenetic modulators that can optimize brain health and cognitive function. Better yet, shifting your diet to incorporate them is completely within your control. You make decisions every day about how you fuel your body, so why not make the conscious decision to fuel your body the best way you can? While it can be challenging to transition away from the hyper-palatable snacks and junk food that are designed to make us crave them, doing so can have a huge impact on improving brain health and ensuring we stave off many of our most debilitating neurological diseases.