Food is many things. It can be healthy and restorative, comforting and nostalgic. Most of all, the foods we eat offer nutrition, and can be instrumental in ensuring that we are as healthy as we can be.
In particular, the foods we eat can have a huge impact, positive or negative, on our bodies. And one of the most important - if not the most important - parts of the body, is the brain. What we eat can have an impact on the health and structure of the brain, and the way it functions. When we consider that the brain uses around 20% of the body’s calorie intake for energy, it is no wonder that eating food beneficial for the brain is important for our overall health and wellbeing too (Raichle and Gusnard, 2002).
Whilst there is no magic remedy to prevent cognitive decline as we age, eating a healthy, balanced diet full of brain foods can help to maintain brain function, both in the short term and as we continue to age.
Here are some of the best foods to promote brain health:
Leafy greens: Some of my favourite kinds of vegetables, leafy greens such as kale, spinach and even broccoli, are high in vitamins such as lutein, vitamin K and folate. These veggies are believed to have a positive impact on brain health, and may help to slow cognitive decline. Let’s take broccoli as an example - mainly because it’s a favourite vegetable here at Vivo Life! Broccoli is packed with vitamin K which is essential for forming fats called sphingolipids which make up a high percentage of brain tissue (Alisi et al., 2019).
Fatty fish (well, omega 3 fatty acids): I know what you’re thinking - that’s not plant-based! - and you’re right. However, there is no denying that sources of omega-3 fatty acids are good for the brain. For a start, our brains are made of fat, and about half of that is omega-3, which your brain uses to build nerve and brain cells. Omega-3 fatty acids may also help to slow cognitive decline and prevent Alzheimer’s disease. This is because these healthy unsaturated fats are linked to lower levels of a protein called beta-amyloid in the blood. Beta-amyloid is the protein responsible for forming clumps in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. Plus, those who eat more omega-3 fatty acids have more grey matter in their brains, which helps to regulate memory and emotion. And there is a solution for people who want all the benefits of omega 3 but don’t want to eat fish - omega-3 supplements from algae oil offer a potent and clean source of these essential fatty acids, to maximise on your brain health without the need for fish! (Wysoczański et al., 2016).
Berries: I always love it when berries are included in lists like this, because they’re one of my favourite things to eat! Not only are berries delicious and make excellents snacks, they are also packed full of antioxidants and compounds called flavonoids, which have been shown to help improve memory and slow the rate of cognitive decline when eaten regularly. Blueberries, for example, are thought to contain certain compounds which build up in the brain over time and help to improve the communication between cells - and they’re great in smoothies! (Kalt et al., 2019)
Tea and Coffee: Your morning cup of tea or coffee could be doing more than just getting you out of bed in the morning. Caffeine may help to improve focus and mental function, as well as help to solidify new memories in the brain (Borota et al., 2014). The antioxidants in coffee can also help to improve brain function by helping your cells to resist the oxidative damage brought on by exposure to reactive molecules called free radicals (Ikram et al., 2020). Here at Vivo Life, we created MAGIC Coffee, which has all the benefits of high quality fair trade coffee, with added adaptogenic Lion’s Mane Mushroom for an extra boost of mental clarity.
Walnuts: Walnuts are high in alpha-linoleic acid (ALA) which is a type of omega-3 fatty acid, which is good for the brain in the same way as other omega-3s.
Turmeric: Turmeric has myriad benefits to our health, and brain health may be one of them. This bright yellow spice contains an active compound called curcumin, which is believed to be able to directly interact within the brain cells by crossing the blood-brain barrier. It is thought that turmeric can directly impact on memory in people with Alzheimer’s by clearing away the plaques that build up in the brain. It may also help boost hormones in the brain which help new brain cells to grow, although research in this area is ongoing (Reddy et al., 2018).
Pumpkin Seeds: Pumpkin seeds are high in antioxidants, but they also contain a number of nutrients which themselves can boost brain power. Zinc, magnesium, copper and iron are all found in pumpkin seeds. Both zinc and copper play crucial roles in nerve signalling in the brain, and a deficiency in either of these can lead to the onset of multiple neurodegenerative conditions (Bagheri et al., 2018). Adding a handful of pumpkin seeds to your breakfast can offer a wellspring of benefits for the brain, and a good deal of plant-based protein too!
Oranges: Eating one orange a day can give you all the vitamin C you need, and vitamin C is vital in preventing cognitive decline. Not only is vitamin C another powerful antioxidant, helping to prevent oxidative damage to the brain, it has also been associated with increased focus, memory and attention (Travica et al., 2019).
Are there any foods that are bad for my brain?
In the same way that there are foods which are good for you, there are others which won’t do your brain any favours.
If you’re looking to improve your memory, avoiding foods with lots of added sugar may help. Added sugar has been shown to impact the parts of the brain which deal with short term memory, and may even reduce brain volume! (Pase et al., 2017)
The same goes for refined carbohydrates, and foods which are high on the Glycemic Index. Being high on this index indicates that the carbohydrates found in these foods are digested quickly, and can lead to a spike in blood sugar levels. Diets high in refined carbohydrates are often associated with dementia and other cognitive impairment (Morris et al., 2015).
Alcohol, too, can have a negative impact on your brain health and memory, and can have a neurotoxic effect when consumed in excessive amounts. This is because drinking (particularly binge drinking) can damage the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory (Mira et al., 2020).
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