Best Foods for Brain Health: Diet for a Healthy Brain
A healthy brain is essential to age well. Diet, genetics, hormones, exercise, education level, alcohol intake, and trauma all influence brain age.
By age 6, the brain reaches 90% of its adult volume. It continues to grow throughout your teens and twenties, forming a million new neural connections every second. By your 30s and 40s, the brain starts shrinking - a process that speeds up dramatically in your 60s and beyond.
Brain size is only one of the effects of aging. As you age, the blood vessels in your brain also age which eventually leads to the loss of integrity of the blood-brain barrier. Over time, this loss causes cognitive and sensorimotor failures.
When it comes to brain health, a healthy diet is crucial to support cognitive function. Many nutritional studies suggest that a diet rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory foods prevents - and even reverses - cognitive decline.
Keep reading for some of the best foods for brain health, as well as why you should add a few of these foods to your daily meals.
Best Foods for Brain Health
The best diet for a healthy brain includes a blend of essential macronutrients including lean proteins, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates. Experts also recommend diet plans - like the Mediterranean diet - that contain plenty of foods with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
The list below contains a wealth of important nutrients to support brain health. Incorporate as many as you can into your diet to reap the benefits of these nine best foods for brain health.
1. Fatty Fish
Fatty fish is one of the best foods for brain health because of the high levels of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s are naturally occurring in fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, anchovies, rainbow trout, and arctic char. Most people don’t consume an adequate amount of omega-3 fatty acids - about 68% of adults and 95% of children are deficient.
More than half of the brain (about 60%) is made of fat, and half of that is made up of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s are used to build brain and nerve cells. Higher levels of omega-3s in the brain are associated with better intercellular signaling which is essential for learning and memory.
When it comes to the aging brain, foods rich in omega-3s have been proven to reduce inflammation that both triggers and exacerbates neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and dementia.
The American Heart Association recommends two servings of fatty fish per week, about six ounces total. If you do not like fatty fish, nuts and seeds like flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts also contain high levels of omega-3s.
Not only are walnuts a good source of omega-3s, but they are also linked to a healthy heart. Walnuts contain vitamin E, healthy fats, and anti-inflammatory compounds that protect the brain from the effects of aging.
The brain and the heart are intrinsically connected. The heart is responsible for pumping blood vessels throughout the whole body. Each blood vessel carries oxygen and nutrients to the body’s systems, about a fifth of which is used by the brain. With each heartbeat, about 20-25% of the blood in your body is pumped into the brain.
Heart attacks, strokes, and even certain types of dementia all become more likely with age. All three are caused by issues between the heart and the brain.
Heart attacks are the result of plaque buildup that blocks blood flow to the heart. Strokes are when the blood flow to the brain stops. And vascular dementia is a series of small strokes that eventually leads to memory loss and a slower thought process.
The health benefits of walnuts are greater when they are consumed before bed. Snack on them during the day or try making your nut milk for a warm bedtime beverage.
Berries - such as blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries - are another dietary addition that can slow down the aging of your brain.
The same compounds that create the stunning blues, reds, and purples that make berries look so appealing are also the reason these fruits are so beneficial. The compounds are called anthocyanins - a type of flavonoid with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and even anti-cancer benefits.
In regards to brain health, anthocyanins protect and improve brain function. One study even showed that people over 70 with dementia who consumed cherry juice daily improved both short and long-term memory and were able to speak more clearly. Anthocyanins also act against oxidative stress and inflammation to reduce your risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases.
Berries are an easy food to add to your diet. You can add them to oatmeal in the morning, eat a handful as a snack, put them in salads, and blend them in smoothies.
4. Green, Leafy Vegetables
Leafy green vegetables are a healthy addition to any diet, whatever your goals. They contain plenty of essential vitamins, minerals, and fibers that support many of the body’s systems.
The nutrients in leafy greens that prevent cognitive decline are vitamin K, lutein, folate, and beta-carotene. Meanwhile, fiber not only helps with smooth digestion but also reduces inflammation in the gut and brain. The potassium in leafy greens lowers high blood pressure, once again sustaining the heart to improve brain health.
Broccoli is a cruciferous leafy green that also has anti-aging properties. It contains glucosinolates, a compound that the body breaks down into isothiocyanates, which lower your risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases. Broccoli and other green leafy vegetables also contain antioxidants like flavonoids and vitamin C.
Research suggests that one serving of green leafy vegetables a day is enough to support a healthy brain. A single serving would be about one cup of raw leafy greens (arugula, lettuce, etc) or ½ cup of cooked greens.
Coffee is a part of many people’s morning routine - and thankfully, its anti-aging benefits make this a healthy habit. Your morning cup of coffee contains both caffeine and antioxidants to support a healthy brain.
Caffeine is linked to a slower cognitive decline and reduced risk of developing common neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. According to the American Heart Association, people who drink one or more cups of coffee per day also lower their risk of heart failure by 30%.
Coffee is also a good source of antioxidants that protect the brain against aging by disarming free radicals and stopping oxidative stress. In addition to defending the body, antioxidants also decrease your risk of developing other life-threatening diseases including certain types of cancer and depression.
A few studies also show that coffee may people who drink coffee are less likely to become depressed since it stimulates serotonin release.
Overall, coffee is a wholesome choice for anyone looking to support brain health. The healthiest way to consume coffee is black - with little to no cream and sugar - and to drink between one and five cups per day.
6. Green Tea
If you’re not a fan of coffee, green tea has many similar benefits without the jittery, over-caffeinating feeling many people get when consuming cup after cup of coffee.
Green tea contains both caffeine and the amino acid L-theanine. Caffeine boost brain functions such as mood, reaction time, and memory. Meanwhile, L-theanine crosses the blood-brain barrier to increase dopamine and change the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain. L-theanine relaxes you without making you sleepy.
Together, caffeine and L-theanine have synergistic benefits - different than those received when drinking a cup of coffee. You will most likely experience rises in concentration and energy without feeling anxious or stressed. For those who are sensitive to the effects of caffeine, green tea might be a better solution.
Turmeric has been used as a medicinal herb for thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine and Indian Ayurvedic medicine. While anecdotal evidence suggested that turmeric was beneficial for skin problems, indigestion, and upper respiratory infections, scientists only recently discovered why this herb is such a powerful healing tool.
Modern science has revealed that curcumin - the active anti-inflammatory compound found in turmeric - is responsible for its many health benefits. Since then, turmeric supplements and the herb itself have dramatically increased in popularity in the west.
Aging is the body’s response to low-grade chronic inflammation due to natural bodily functions. For example, when your body metabolizes food, it creates harmful free radicals in addition to energy. Curcumin counters inflammation and also contains anti-oxidants to counter free radical damage.
High levels of chronic inflammation are one well-known cause of cognitive decline. However, adding an unknown spice is intimidating to many amateur home cooks. Try adding a teaspoon to scrambled eggs, salad dressing, or rice for a flavorful and easy anti-aging boost.
Chocolate lovers will rejoice to know that the benefits of cocoa make this indulgence one of the best foods for brain health. The products of the cocoa plant yield powerful antioxidants to counter aging.
Chocolate has more antioxidant activity than berries and supports a healthy heart. It boosts blood flow and pressure, raises healthy cholesterol levels while lowering bad ones, and contains trace amounts of energy-boosting caffeine.
The increased blood flow also benefits brain health. One study on the effects of chocolate on young adults shows that daily cocoa consumption improved concentration and memory. These promising studies indicate that chocolate might be useful in treating patients with neurodegenerative diseases, even reducing a person’s decline into dementia.
However, not all chocolate should be used for its health benefits. Many types of chocolate on the market today are processed so that the antioxidant compounds are destroyed.
The best choices are chocolate bars with a high cocoa content - dark chocolate with 70% cocoa or higher. You should also look for pure and organic options when possible. Consume sparingly since chocolate usually contains high amounts of sugar and calories.
Most people know that oranges and other citrus fruits are a significant source of vitamin C. This powerful antioxidant protects the body from free radicals and the brain from age-related decline.
Oranges also contain anti-inflammatory flavonoids that can cross the blood-brain barrier. They protect neurons against injury from neurotoxins and reduce neuroinflammation. In patients with Alzheimer's or Parkinson’s, flavonoids could prevent further cognitive decline.
Consuming oranges may also improve memory, learning, and cognitive function in healthy individuals. A single glass of orange juice contains twice the recommended daily amount of vitamin C.
Other Healthy Brain Habits
If you are going to change your diet to support a healthy brain, don’t forget to add in a few other healthy aging habits. For example, exercising regularly is one of the most important healthy habits for brain health.
Physically active people are far less likely to develop degenerative brain disease. Most experts speculate that this is because of the improved blood flow from the heart to the brain.
The benefits of exercise extend beyond the increased blood flow to the brain. Exercise also helps you maintain a healthy weight, supports your mental health, and improves your quality of life as you age.
Other healthy habits to adopt - in addition to a diet full of brain foods - include developing a regular sleep schedule, continued education, and remaining socially active.
A Note About Foods to Avoid
You cannot talk about the best diet without also indicating which foods should be avoided. Unhealthy foods like white flour, sugar, fast food, and processed meats contain little nutritional value and may do more harm to your body than support it.
You’ll notice that all of the best foods for brain health are whole and unprocessed foods - best consumed fresh. They are packed full of vitamins and minerals to support a healthy aging brain.
Diet for a Healthy Brain
The best foods for brain health are only a starting point when it comes to aging well. You cannot counter a night of binge drinking with a teaspoon of turmeric or use coffee to compensate for a night without sleep.
The key to healthy aging is to develop healthy habits - eating the right foods, exercising regularly, reducing stress, and taking care of your mental health are great places to start. The earlier you adopt healthy habits, the better they will serve you. Experts recommend adding in anti-aging diets in the mid-20s, although many people don’t usually consider how much influence their diet has until their 50s.