Brain Food - The 5 Best Foods to Eat for Your Brain
Recently the term “brain food” has come into vogue. This term refers to foods touted by health gurus, various websites, and your health-conscious aunt as natural ways to improve your brain function and stave off aging and memory problems. The problem is, with health fads appearing and disappearing fast enough to make Harry Houdini’s head spin, how do you know which foods are actually good for your brain and which are just the fad of the week? The bad news is, you have to do a lot of research and study. The good news is, I’ve done a lot of research and studying. So while I’m nowhere near an actual health expert and you shouldn’t take my advice with the same gravity as you take your doctor’s, let me share with you the things I’ve found:
Berries seem at first to be another craze infecting the healthy diet market. Everywhere you look people are telling you to eat blueberries because they are magic! The truth is though berries are in fact very, very good for you. Lauded highly for their antioxidant content, berries actually have much more to offer as well. Recent studies have shown that berries, particularly blue, red and purple berries, contain high levels of polyphenol compounds which help reduce inflammation in humans. Many chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s, develop partly due to a sustained pro-inflammatory state, and adding berries to your diet can help reduce risk and delay onset of these chronic diseases. In addition, blueberries specifically have been shown to allay age-related as well as high-fat diet behavioral and cognitive deficits.
Leafy green vegetables, such as broccoli, kale, spinach, and nuts (most notably pecans and walnuts) have been shown to contain high levels of antioxidants. If, like me, you’ve heard the term “antioxidant” thrown around like a magical cure-all but have no idea what it means, then good news, I’m here to help. Oxidation is a process which occurs in nature when cells interact with oxygen. Although our bodies are extremely efficient at metabolizing oxygen, in a very small percentage of instances, a cell will get damaged and become what’s called a free radical. Free radicals are cells missing a crucial molecule. These cells then go about trying to bond with another molecule to fix the damage. This in turn damages other cells. The real danger here is that the damage is done to the cell’s DNA, which then plants the seeds for more damaged cells to be produced eventually leading to disease. Antioxidants take care of these free radicals so that your body is not excessively damaged by them. Although our bodies naturally produce a certain level of antioxidants, certain environmental factors such as cigarette smoke, excessive drinking, air pollution, and certain pesticides trigger an increased production of free radicals, which in turn requires us to consume more antioxidants.
In addition to their rich antioxidant content, leafy green vegetables and nuts are a good source for the omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). ALA is not produced naturally in the body, and so must be obtained through diet. In the body, ALA is converted to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), both of which we’ll discuss in the next section.
Bad luck to those of us who never had the taste for them, fish have long been known to be good for your cardiovascular as well as mental health. The biggest thing fish bring to the table (pun definitely intended) is their high omega-3 fatty acid content. Certain fatty acids are not produced naturally in the body, and so must be obtained through diet. One of the most important is the omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). In the body, ALA is converted to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Although not high in ALA, fish is a good source of both EPA and DHA. According to the National Institutes of Health “DHA is . . . the major polyunsaturated fatty acid found in the brain and is important for brain development and function,” and ELA has been shown to reduce inflammation which can help lower risk for Alzheimer’s. In studies evaluated by the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements, “fish consumption was linked to a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s dementia.” While the final consensus from the NIH was that more study is needed for conclusive proof that omega-3 fatty acids have significant impact on brain health, the overall health benefits of eating fish and other foods high in omega-3s have been shown time and time again.
4. Coffee and Chocolate
Ah, my favorite section. Coffee and chocolate are usually thought of as either treats or quick pick-me-ups, but they usually don’t register on the health foods scale. The key to both of these foods is moderation. Chocolate, especially dark chocolate, is extremely rich in antioxidants, and both coffee and chocolate contain caffeine, coffee in especially high amounts. Caffeine helps boost alertness, which in turn helps with short-term memory. However, too much caffeine can make you jittery and too energetic to pay attention to anything for long. What’s going on here is that your brain uses a neurotransmitter chemical called acetylcholine to help your memory and learning and to regulate mood and movement. We’ll talk about what your body needs to produce acetylcholine in our next section, but for now just know you need it for your brain to function. While you are awake though, your brain builds up another neurotransmitter called adenosine. Adenosine blocks the acetylcholine receptor neurons in your brain and makes you feel mentally tired and sluggish. Caffeine prevents adenosine from blocking the acetylcholine receptors and helps your brain function alertly and smoothly. Some studies have also explored the very likely possibility that caffeine strengthens the blood/brain barrier which prevents toxic chemicals from passing out of the blood and into the brain. Over time, this can help prevent neurological decline including Alzheimer’s, dementia, and possibly Parkinson’s disease. The most important thing though, is moderation. Too much caffeine can stimulate your body’s stress response, releasing adrenaline and norepinephrine and taxing your body to an unhealthy point. Typically one to three cups of filtered coffee per day is recommended.
5. Breakfast including Whole Grains
Finally, we come to the most important meal of the day. Breakfast is the most skipped meal, and that truly is a shame, because breakfast gives your brain the nutrients it needs to kick start the day. Most of the foods on this list can be eaten as part of a healthy breakfast (except fish...ew), but the most important thing to have during a breakfast is some good old fashioned whole grains. Whole grains contain many of the great things already discussed in this article, like omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E antioxidants. It also promotes heart health and blood flow, and every healthy brain needs a strong flow of blood to bring it the nutrients it uses. What whole grains provide best is sugar, specifically glucose. Glucose is necessary for the body to produce the acetylcholine we talked about in the previous section. The body breaks down glucose to produce acetyl, which it then combines with choline made from lecithin commonly found in foods like donuts, cakes, and chocolate. The brain needs a steady diet of acetylcholine throughout the day to keep it functioning. Where whole grains really excel is in the speed at which they release the glucose. More processed and enriched foods, like white flour, release an abundance of glucose into the bloodstream all at once which then prompts your body to produce more insulin and leads to all sorts of health problems. Whole grains, on the other hand, contain the glucose within complex carbohydrates which the body must break down to get to the sugar. This leads to a longer, steadier supply of glucose over time which helps regulate brain function as well as cardiovascular health. In addition, it keeps fat from building up in arteries and other places, which leads to a longer and all around healthier life.
In the end, though these foods can help you live a healthier life, they are only one component of a healthy lifestyle. Moderation is important, even when eating healthy foods, as is exercise and other forms of activity. In addition, it is important to remember that the concept of “brain foods” is relatively recent and studies are still being done to help us understand which foods are best for our bodies and brains and exactly how they help us. And remember, nothing will ruin your brain’s health faster than not using it. For now, as always, the best way to have a healthy brain is to live a healthy lifestyle and to keep challenging yourself.