Brain health is the ability to perform all the mental processes of cognition, including the ability to learn and judge, use language, and remember. – The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Let food be thy medicine, thy medicine shall be thy food. –Hippocrates
Food affects brain health. To function optimally, brain needs omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins A, B, C, E, and K, healthy unsaturated fats, minerals such as magnesium, selenium, iron, zinc, and copper, and antioxidants such as polyphenols and flavanols. Food rich in these is good for the brain.
Foods good for brain are fatty fish, dark leafy greens, colourful fruits and vegetables, broccoli, cruciferous vegetables, nuts, beans, and seeds, peanuts, pumpkin seeds, deeply coloured berries, monounsaturated fats, fermented foods, turmeric and spices and herbs, dark chocolate, soy products, coffee, oranges, eggs, green tea, and whole grains.
Foods bad for brain are sugary drinks, refined Carbs, foods High in trans fats, highly processed foods, alcohol, and fish high in mercury.
Mental health deteriorates with age. But the deterioration can be reduced with proper diet. Food good for the brain is also good for the body. A healthy body requires a healthy mind.
For long food has been the favourite tool of dieters, fitness freaks and body builders. But recent research shows that food also impacts brain health. Food can be good, or bad, for brain and for moods.
Food and brain
About 20 percent of the food that we eat goes to the brain. Minerals such as magnesium, zinc, and selenium help synthesise neurotransmitters that directly affect mood, help cell activity, and help form brain tissue.
Food influences the microbiome in the body. Some gut microbes are linked to higher rates of depression. Most of the chemical serotonin, the neurotransmitter that sends signals between nerve cells and stabilizes mood and feelings of happiness and well-being, is made, stored and is active in the gut. Brain makes only five percent of serotonin. Vitamin B12, folate, and Iron help the body make serotonin.
A major portion of the brain is glial cells which perform many functions in the brain and in the nerves in the body. These cells depend on omega-3 fats.
Brain building blocks
About 60% of brain is made of fat, and half of that is omega-3 fatty acids. Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids build brain and nerve cells. Vitamins A, B, C, E, and K, healthy unsaturated fats, minerals such as magnesium, selenium, iron, zinc, and copper, and antioxidants such as polyphenols and flavanols, are the building blocks of the brain. Food rich in these is good for the brain.
Diet and brain
Research on the effect of diet on brain is at a nascent stage. Which foods and how much of them improve mental health is still being researched. But clear indicators are that diet affects brain and moods. For example, Mediterranean diet reduces anxiety and depression, though it does not prevent depression. More fruits and vegetables in diet are linked to sense of happiness, well-being, and life satisfaction. But diet is not a magic pill. Its effects take time to manifest. In one research, the effects became discernible after two years.
Food good for the brain
Which foods are good for brain health and why?
- Fatty fish such as wild salmon, albacore tuna, trout, mackerel, sardines, mussels, oysters, herring, and cod have omega 3, and vitamin B12, selenium, iron, zinc, and protein. Omega-3s fats help learning and memory, improve mood, sharpen memory, slow-down age-related mental decline, and help ward off Alzheimer’s disease. Inadequate omega-3s intake is linked to depression and to learning impairment. People who eat fish regularly may have more gray matter in their brains. Gray matter contains most of the nerve cells that control decision making, memory, and emotion.
- Dark leafy greens are inexpensive and have high nutrients but low calory. Spinach, watercress, beet greens, kale, rapini, arugula, collards, chard, and Romain lettuce, are rich with fibre, folate and vitamins C and A. Eat them as salad, or in soups, stews, stir fries and smoothies, or pesto. Have a bit of seaweed once or twice a week. It is rich in iodine, fibre, zinc, and phytonutrients.
- Colourful fruits and vegetables. Brightly coloured vegetables and fruits have compounds that reduce inflammation, and improve memory, sleep, and mood. Red and purple items such as red peppers, blueberries, and eggplant are beneficial. Avocados, have healthy fats and help absorb of phytonutrients from other vegetables.
- Broccoli has antioxidants and vitamin K which is fat-soluble and is essential to form sphingolipids, a type of fat that is densely packed into brain cells. Vitamin K is linked to better memory and cognitive status in the elderly.
- Cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, turnips, bok choy, and kale have glucosinolates which reduce oxidative stress and the risk of neurodegenerative diseases. Broccoli also contains vitamin C and flavonoids which boost brain health.
- Nuts, beans, and seeds are a good source of fibres, healthy fats, protein, vitamins, antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E, and minerals. Their fats are not fully absorbed so they help control weight, reduce food intake, and burn energy. Vitamin E improves cognition, protects cells from oxidative stress by the free radicals, and reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Hazelnuts, almonds, walnuts, sunflower, and pumpkin seeds, have the highest amounts of vitamin E. Chia seeds and flax seeds are also rich in omega 3. Eat half to one cup of beans, nuts, and seeds a day.
- Peanuts have plenty of protein, vitamin E, and unsaturated fats. And also, resveratrol which reduces the risk of inflammation, cancers, and neurological diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
- Pumpkin seeds have zinc, iron, copper, magnesium, and antioxidants. Zinc and magnesium deficiency are linked to many neurological conditions, including depression, epilepsy, migraine, and Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. Iron deficiency is linked to brain fog and impaired brain function. Low levels of copper increase the risk of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s.
- Deeply coloured berries have quercetin, anthocyanin, catechin, caffeic acid, and antioxidants. These increase plasticity which helps brain cells form new connections, boost memory and learning, and reduce or delay age-related neurodegenerative diseases and cognitive decline. They also reduce oxidative stress and inflammation, and improve communication between brain cells, Berries rich in antioxidants are blueberries, blackcurrants, mulberries, strawberries, and blackberries.
- Monounsaturated fats may reduce blood pressure. High blood pressure is linked to cognitive decline. Flaxseed and chia seeds, peanuts, cashews, walnuts, almonds, Brazil nuts, avocados, fish, and soybean, sunflower, and canola oils, are good sources of monounsaturated fats.
- Fermented foods lower inflammation and improve the diversity of gut microbiome. Gouda cheese, cottage cheese, sauerkraut, yogurt, coconut kefir, kimchi a traditional Korean side dish of fermented cabbage and radish, kombucha a fermented drink made with tea, kefir a fermented milk beverage, are a few of the fermented food. Six servings a day of fermented foods are recommended.
- Spices and herbs balance the gut microbes, reduce inflammation, and may improve memory. Curcumin, an ingredient in turmeric, can directly enter the brain and benefit the cells there. It benefits attention, overall cognition, helps new brain cells grow, boosts serotonin and dopamine both of which improve mood, and may improve symptoms of anxiety and depression. But turmeric has only 3–6% curcumin so the effects are less than those obtained in tests where much higher dose of curcumin is used. Add turmeric to curries, marinades, roasted vegetables, stews, sauces, salad dressing, or smoothies. Adding a pinch of black pepper makes curcumin greatly more bio-available to our brain and body. Ginger, sage, rosemary, cinnamon, and saffron are a few other spices good for brain.
- Dark chocolate and cocoa powder have flavanols including caffeine and epicatechin, and antioxidants. Flavanols may slow down age-related mental decline, enhance memory, and reduce the risk of depression by up to 70%. They may also improve brain plasticity and thus improve learning. These benefits are shown only in dark chocolate that contains 70% or more of cocoa. Dark chocolate is also a mood booster.
- Soy products have the antioxidants polyphenols which reduces the risk of dementia and improvs cognitive abilities in aging.
- Coffee has caffeine and antioxidants which sharpen concentration, increase the brain’s capacity to process information, increase alertness by blocking adenosine a chemical messenger that causes sleepiness, improve mood by boosting the “feel-good” neurotransmitters such as dopamine, and reduce risk of cognitive decline, stroke, and neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Maximum risk reduction was in people who drank 3-4 cups of coffee a day over an extended period. Caffeine affects sleep and therefore is not recommended for everyone.
- Oranges have vitamin C which is associated with improved attention, memory, and decision speed. It prevents mental decline, may protect against age-related conditions such as schizophrenia, anxiety, major depressive disorder, and Alzheimer’s disease. One medium orange a day can give the required amount of Vitamin C.
- Eggs have folate, choline, and vitamins B6 and B12. Choline is used by the body to make acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood and memory. Egg yolks are a concentrated source of choline. A single egg yolk a day meets body’s requirement of choline. B vitamins in eggs lowers levels of homocysteine, an amino acid linked to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Folate and B12 deficiency are linked to depression. Only little direct research on the link between eating eggs and brain health. But enough research to establish the brain-boosting benefits of the nutrients found in eggs.
- Green tea has L-theanine, an amino acid that increases frequency of alpha waves in the brain, which improves focus, alertness, memory, and performance, and helps to relax without getting tired. It increases the activity of the neurotransmitter GABA, which helps reduce anxiety. L-theanine is rich in polyphenols and antioxidants that could protect the brain from mental decline and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
- Whole grains, such as brown rice, barley, bulgur wheat, oatmeal, whole-grain bread, and whole-grain pasta are a good source of Vitamin E.
- Ginseng may improve brain function. But more research is needed to examine that.
- Supplements for magnesium, beta-carotene, and vitamins B, C, or E, may be taken by people deficient in them. But supplements will not improve mental performance of those who are not deficient in these.
Foods bad for brain
Which foods are bad for brain health and why?
- Sugary drinks like soda, sports drinks, energy drinks and fruit juices, have high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which has 55% fructose and 45% glucose. High intake of fructose can cause high blood fats, high blood pressure, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and arterial dysfunction. These increases the risk of heart disease, and dementia. High fructose intake can cause insulin resistance in the brain, and reduction in brain function, memory, learning and the formation of brain neurons.
- Refined Carbs such as sugars and highly processed grains like white flour have a high glycemic index (GI) and high glycemic load (GL). That is, they cause a spike in blood sugar and insulin levels. High-GI and high-GL Foods impair brain function, cause poorer memory, and increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
- Foods High in Trans Fats such as hydrogenated vegetable oils, shortening, margarine, frosting, snack foods, ready-made cakes, and pre-packaged cookies, increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, poorer memory, lower brain volume and cognitive decline.
- Highly Processed Foods such as chips, sweets, instant noodles, microwave popcorn, store-bought sauces, and ready-made meals are generally high in sugar, added fats, salt, and calories, and are low in nutrients. These increase fat around the organs, or visceral fat. Such fat is associated with decrease in brain tissue, lower levels of sugar metabolism in the brain, lower scores in learning and memory, inflammation, and a faster decline in reasoning over 10 years.
- Alcohol chronic, excessive, consumption reduces brain volume, causes metabolic changes, and disrupts neurotransmitters, the chemicals the brain uses to communicate. It can also cause vitamin B1 deficiency. Alcoholism can cause severe damage to the brain, memory loss, disturbances in eyesight, confusion, and unsteadiness. Alcohol consumption during pregnancy can have devastating effects on the fetus.
- Fish High in Mercury can cause mercury toxicity that disrupts the central nervous system and neurotransmitters and stimulates neurotoxins that damage the brain. Humans mostly get mercury from eating large predatory fish like shark and swordfish.
Overall good health demands both good body health and good brain health. Because one without the other is not possible. “A healthy body, within a healthy mind,” says Alexia Penteleόn de aRcturi
Good nutrition for the body is good nutrition for the brain. Amino acids, protein and unsaturated fat, vitamins and minerals, and vitamins E and C protect the brain.
“When diet is wrong, medicine is of no use. When diet is correct, diet is of no need.” – Ayurveda proverb
As Thomas Edison the inventor said, “Doctor of the future will prevent and cure disease with nutrition, not drugs.”
1. Foods linked to better brainpower
2. Brain foods: the effects of nutrients on brain function
3. Diets Make You Feel Bad. Try Training Your Brain Instead. – https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/03/well/eat/healthy-eating-habits-new-year.html
4. The Best Brain Foods You’re Not Eating