We have all heard the phrase, “you are what you eat,” but did you know you that what you eat can make you smarter?
In addition to helping your body stay healthy and strong, certain foods can help your brain work better and even protect against mental disorders.
“Food is like a pharmaceutical compound that affects the brain,” said Fernando Gómez-Pinilla, a UCLA professor of neurosurgery and physiological science who has researched the effects of food on the brain. “Diet, exercise and sleep have the potential to alter our brain health and mental function. This raises the exciting possibility that changes in diet are a viable strategy for enhancing cognitive abilities, protecting the brain from damage and counteracting the effects of aging.”
The food we eat can affect everything from our mood to our memory. Nutrient-dense whole foods can do more than just fuel our bodies; they can help us think more clearly.
According to Cynthia Green, PhD, an expert on memory and brain health, key nutrients — along with exercise and daily brain stimulation – help keep brain cells healthy and prevent inflammation. Green writes that a person’s memory, attention span and ability to learn all benefit from the right food choices.
Here are 10 brain-boosting foods to make a part of your diet.
1. Fish — Salmon, mackerel, albacore tuna, trout and sardines are packed with omega-3 fatty acids, which experts believe are essential for healthy brain function.
Nearly 40 percent of the fatty acids found in brain cell membranes are the DHA variety, which are found in fish oil. Scientists have discovered that DHA helps the brain transmit signals between its cells. The body cannot manufacture fatty acids, so they must be gained through diet.
Tufts University researchers found that people who ate oily fish three times a week and therefore had the highest levels of DHA in their blood reduced their risk of Alzheimer’s disease by almost 40 percent.
2. Dark green leafy vegetables – Dark green vegetables, such as kale, collard greens and spinach, are excellent sources of vitamin E and folate. Folate may protect the brain by lowering levels of an amino acid known as homocysteine in the blood. Nitrates in spinach help increase blood flow to the brain and thereby improve mental performance.
Broccoli is a great source of vitamin K, which enhances cognitive function and improves memory. Leafy greens also contain carotenoids, which help protect the brain from damage from free radicals, the waste products the body makes when its cells create energy.
3. Nuts and seeds — As sources of omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids, and vitamin B6 and vitamin E, nuts (especially walnuts) and seeds are good for the brain and the nervous system.
Sunflower and pumpkin seeds contain omega fatty acids, protein and B vitamins, which all can help provide you with an energy boost. These seeds also contain tryptophan, a substance the brain converts into serotonin to elevate your mood.
Eating a handful of seeds also can provide you with the daily recommended amount of zinc, which helps enhance thinking skills and memory.
4. Berries – Dark berries, such as blueberries, cherries and blackberries, are both good to eat and good for your brain. They contain anthocyanins and other flavonoids that improve memory function and cognitive function.
Research indicates that berries help protect the brain from oxidative damage and stress that can contribute to premature aging, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
5. Avocados — Avocados are a good source of monounsaturated fats, omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids, potassium, vitamin K and vitamin E.
Consuming these nutritional powerhouses helps increase blood flow to the brain, lower “bad” cholesterol levels and absorb antioxidants. Avocados are delicious but high in calories, so consider adding just one quarter to one-half of an avocado to your daily diet.
6. Dark chocolate – Dark chocolate – the kind that contains at least 70 percent cocoa – can be a powerful brain booster. It contains important antioxidants as well as natural stimulants, such as caffeine, which help improve concentration.
The flavonoids in dark chocolate also help blood vessel function, which enhances cognitive function and memory skills.
7. Bone broth — When you sip a homemade stock made from animal bones, you can help nourish your brain.
Bone broth contains collagen, which helps keep cells, bones, ligaments and the brain healthy. Additionally, the glycine in bone broth helps improve sleep and memory.
8. Whole grains – The complex carbohydrates, fiber and omega-3 fatty acids found in whole grains help protect the heart and brain from cholesterol, blood clots and sugar spikes.
Whole grains – such as oatmeal, oat bran and brown rice — also contain B vitamins that enhance blood flow to the brain and improve mood and concentration.
9. Beets — Beets as brain food? You had better believe it. Beets are high in vitamin B9 and in nitrites, which help increase blood flow in the areas of the brain related to cognitive functioning.
They also are rich in carotenoids, which help boost brain functioning and improve mood.
10. Beans and legumes – An excellent source of complex carbohydrates and fiber, beans and legumes also offer a steady supply of glucose for the brain without the risk of potentially harmful sugar spikes.
Beans and legumes also contain omega fatty acids and an abundance of folate, both of which boost brain function.
Finally, don’t underestimate the role hydration plays in good brain health. Be sure to drink plenty of water each day to keep your body and your brain working at optimal levels.
The brain is approximately 85 percent water, and brain function – including thought and memory processes — depends on you staying hydrated. So drink up this summer!