To sharpen your memory, prevent cognitive decline and lift your mood, add these foods to your weekly shop.
By Annie Hayes
When you think about brain food, salmon probably springs to mind thanks to its impressive omega-3 fatty acid content. While fish is a bona-fide brain-booster you’ll be pleased to hear you don’t have to stick to a seafood diet, as a huge array of foods can improve your memory, concentration and emotional regulation.
We spoke to GP Dr Clara Russell, founder of Noggin, nutritionist Jenny Logan of Natures Aid, registered nutritionist Christina Mamada of Vitl, and nutritional therapist Kim Plaza BSc MSc of Bio-Kult, to explain the relationship between mind and stomach – and compile the ultimate brain food shopping list:
What is brain food?
Technically, all food is brain food. The average adult brain burns through 20 per cent of the body’s energy – and unlike muscles, which can store excess carbohydrates away for later, it doesn’t have a backup supply to lean on. Instead, your brain relies on a constant supply of glucose from food to perform at its peak – ideally wrapped up in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other beneficial nutrients.
‘Consuming a wide range of nutrients from your diet may provide your brain with a good supply of co-factors and antioxidants, which may allow for efficient brain cell communication, maintenance of healthy cells and a reduction of inflammation,’ says Plaza. ‘Collectively, these elements may impact the structure and function of your brain, which may consequently influence your cognitive and mental health.’
Foods that contain omega-3s, probiotics, prebiotics, and polyphenols are among the most beneficial for your gut, and by extension, your brain.
The compounds in food also interact with the bacteria in your gut, influencing your microbiome – the thousands of species of microbes in your intestines and colon that collectively weigh more than your brain – ‘which also has a direct impact on your brain health via the gut-brain connection,’ says Dr Russell. Foods that contain omega-3s, probiotics, prebiotics, and polyphenols are among the most beneficial for your gut, and by extension, your brain.
What you put on your dinner plate even alters your genetics. ‘Food has also been found to be able to influence the way genes work by a process known as epigenetics,’ she adds. ‘Some dietary nutrients that have been found to influence DNA are omega-3, certain antioxidants, B-vitamins and choline, which are also the nutrients most vital to your brain health.’
14 best brain foods
Scientists are only beginning to fully comprehend the ways in which the brain and gut interact and influence one another, and the discoveries made over the coming years will likely bring whole new meaning to the term ‘food for thought’. For now, if you’re looking to improve your memory, prevent cognitive decline, lift depression and eliminate brain fog, add these proven brain foods to your weekly shop:
- Oily fish
Tuna, salmon, trout, sardines and mackerel are all familiar forms of oily, fatty fish. ‘They contain the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA,’ says Logan. These fats are used to build brain and nerve cells – in fact, half of the fat in your brain is comprised of omega-3s – making them essential for learning and memory.
They also appear to fire up your thinking abilities. In one study, people with high omega-3s levels had increased blood flow in the brain, which researchers linked to sharper cognition. ‘On top of this, studies have suggested that consuming oily fish at least twice a week could help to reduce stress hormones,’ Logan adds.
- Dark chocolate
‘Dark chocolate is surprisingly good for brain health, as it contains cacao, which is full of antioxidants,’ says Mamada. ‘These antioxidants can help to counteract the negative effects of oxidative stress, which contributes to age-related cognitive decline and brain diseases.’
In particular, cacao contains a family of antioxidants called flavonoids, which appear to enhance learning and memory. In one study, chocaholics performed better in a series of mental tasks than those who rarely ate the stuff. It’s also a scientifically-proven mood-enhancer (although, you’d better have a square or two just to double-check…).
This tasty salad staple contains a potent antioxidant called lycopene, which has a protective effect against the free radical damage that is associated with dementia, especially Alzheimer’s disease. Adding olive oil to diced tomatoes during cooking greatly increases the absorption of lycopene in your body, research has shown.
‘Lycopene has been shown in animal studies to protect the brain by reducing inflammatory damage and improving brain cell survival and maintenance,’ says Plaza. ‘One systematic review found that individuals with preserved cognition had consumed more lycopene – however more research is needed to confirm this finding.’
Dubbed ‘nature’s multivitamin’, eggs contain a large number of nutrients that are essential for brain health. ‘The yolks, specifically, are rich sources of omega-3 and phospholipids, which are important to both the components and structure of brain cells,’ says Dr Russell.
Eggs are one of the most concentrated dietary sources of choline, which helps to regulate your mood and memory.
Eggs are one of the most concentrated dietary sources of choline, which helps to regulate your mood and memory – high levels boost your mental function, one study suggested. ‘Eggs also contain lutein and zeaxanathin, which have been shown to improve neural processing speed,’ she says.
Plus, they’re rich in vitamins B6, B9, and B12, which reduce levels of a compound called homocysteine in the blood, research shows. High levels are associated with an increased risk of cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease.
- Nuts and seeds
Nuts are rich in vitamin E, an antioxidant vitamin that protects your cells from the damage caused by free radicals – slowing age-related mental decline, according to one scientific review. Nuts, specifically, can also shore up your memory: in a human study, women who ate nuts regularly had a better memory than those who didn’t.
While all nuts can be classed as brain food, walnuts are particularly beneficial, since they’re especially high in the omega-3 fatty acid ALA. In one study, people who ate walnuts regularly scored higher in cognitive tests than those who ate other nuts, or no nuts at all.
Soy products – like tofu, edamame and soy milk – are loaded with polyphenol antioxidants, which have been linked to a reduced risk of dementia and have a protective effect on cognitive performance as you age.
They’re also ‘rich in essential amino acids and minerals, including magnesium and potassium’, Dr Russell explains, and high in polyunsaturated fatty acids, ‘the type of healthy fat brain cells love’.
Additionally, fermented soy foods – which includes miso, natto and tempeh – contain probiotics, which promote the growth of beneficial gut bacteria. Early studies suggest that probiotics have the power to boost your brain function and reduce stress and anxiety.
Shellfish is high on the brain food list thanks to its zinc content. ‘The brain contains the highest levels of zinc in the body – it’s an important mineral for protein structure, brain cell growth and communication, as well as the maintenance of the blood-brain barrier,’ Plaza explains. ‘One study mentions seafood among the highest scoring foods for antidepressant nutrients, of which zinc is included.’
The brain contains the highest levels of zinc in the body – it’s an important mineral for protein structure, brain cell growth and communication.
If you’re not a fan of oysters, mussels or scallops, there are plenty of plant-based sources of zinc to munch on. Hemp seeds contain particularly high amounts of the mineral – each 30g serve packs around 40 per cent of your daily requirements. Pumpkin seeds, chickpeas, cashew nuts, and dark chocolate all contain substantial amounts of zinc.
- Whole grains
Whole grains such as brown rice, oats, and spelt are typically rich in vitamin E, and they have a low glycemic index (GI). This means they release energy into the bloodstream slowly, preventing the dips and spikes that tank your concentration and focus.
By contrast, refined carbohydrates – like those in white bread, white rice, and pasta – send your blood sugar levels rocketing, which is bad news for your brain function. It impairs your short-term memory, attention span, and mood stability.
When we talk about turmeric’s many benefits, it’s usually in relation to curcumin – the prolific antioxidant compound that’s also responsible for the anti-inflammatory effects of this flavourful, bright yellow spice. Curcumin has been shown to cross the blood-brain barrier, which means it can directly act on your brain cells.
‘Curcumin has been shown to help with memory and thought-formation,’ says Dr Russell. It also has proven mood-boosting properties – in one study, curcumin improved depression symptoms as effectively as an antidepressant – and increases levels of a type of growth hormone called ‘brain-derived neurotrophic factor’, which enables new brain cells to grow.
It’ll be no surprise that your morning cup of joe is a brain-booster. The caffeine wakes up your brain by blocking yawn-inducing adenosine, fires up production of mood-boosting neurotransmitters like serotonin, and ups your processing power.
A daily coffee habit is linked to a reduced risk of neurological diseases, like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
‘Caffeine can help with alertness and performance, but only in moderation and when consumed early enough in the day – before 2pm,’ says Dr Russell. ‘Too much caffeine can cause our brain to be overstimulated and also have a negative impact on our sleep.’
It’s not just the caffeine rush that revs up your grey matter. Those fragrant ground beans contain a high concentration of antioxidants, too. A daily coffee habit is linked to a reduced risk of neurological diseases, like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, research states.
The humble orange is loaded with vitamin C, another free radical-fighting antioxidant that keeps your brain in prime condition. Getting enough through your diet can even protect against Alzheimer’s disease, according to one scientific review. Vitamin C can even help you manage symptoms of anxiety and stress, a study on students revealed.
‘Animal studies have shown that this vitamin plays a vital role in neurodevelopment, brain cell communication, as well as generating neurotransmitters such as noradrenaline; which is involved in cognitive function and reactions to stress,’ says Plaza. A single orange contains your daily recommended intake of vitamin C, but broccoli, bell peppers, strawberries, Brussels sprouts and potatoes are also rich sources, too.
The king of green vegetables, broccoli is a certified brain food. It’s a concentrated source of vitamin K – delivering your entire daily requirements in each 90g portion – which has been linked to improved memory. It’s also essential for creating an important type of brain cell fat.
And that’s not all. This cruciferous veg also has impressive anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. ‘Broccoli is rich in antioxidants, essential vitamins, minerals and fibre,’ says Dr Russell. ‘Specifically, broccoli is rich in a compound called sulforaphane, which activates the antioxidant pathway Nrf2 to mop up oxidative stress.’
Since they’re rich in omega-3s, vitamins B9, C, E, and K, and a potent dose of anti-inflammatory polyphenols and flavonoids, avocados are hugely beneficial for brain health. They provide heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, ‘which support the brain by assisting in reducing high blood pressure – another issue linked to cognitive decline,’ says Mamada.
Avocados are also an exceptional source of potassium. They also contain impressive amounts – a medium avo packs twice as much as your average banana – which is key for brain health, since low levels have been linked to mood changes and mental fatigue. In a study of psychiatric ward inpatients, 20 per cent were found to have a potassium deficiency.
- Green tea
While it’s not as concentrated as your average espresso coffee, the caffeine in green tea provides a tangible improvement in brain function. But it’s not the only useful compound in this brew. Along with polyphenols and other antioxidants, green tea contains L-theanine, an amino acid that stimulates the stress-relieving neurotransmitter GABA.
‘Green tea may be useful for working memory, attention, multi-tasking, and processing information, as well as mood – this may be through the activation of certain areas of the brain,’ says Plaza. ‘Interestingly, one study noted that the combination of L-theanine and caffeine showed greater beneficial effects compared to administration of these components taken separately.’