Perhaps you remember hearing your parents or some other authority figures telling you that fish is brain food. What they meant was that fish contains nutrients called omega-3 fatty acids that have been shown to enhance or improve brain function and help it to stay young.
For those of you who don’t care for fish or who don’t consume animal products, there are various supplements you can take to get your omega-3s. But omega-3s are not the only good brain nutrients; there are numerous others that can help your brain stay young and a wide variety of foods in which to find them. For example, the B vitamins (aka, B-complex) are a group of nutrients that work in sync to support and promote brain health.
In fact, the brain needs a constant supply of nutrients to support optimal function, from energy metabolism for its billions of neurons to the synthesis of neurotransmitters, propagation of nerve impulses, and other brain activities.
Here we look beyond the B vitamins to omega-3s and six other nutrients that your brain needs to stay young and functioning at an optimal level. These nutrients, along with a diet rich in these nutrients, regular exercise, avoidance of smoking, stress management, and sufficient sleep all have a role in maintaining a healthy brain.
Omega-3 fatty acids
According to researchers, omega-3 fatty acids have demonstrated an ability to improve cognitive function. A 2017 Brazilian systematic review, for example, found that omega-3 fatty acid supplements in mild Alzheimer’s disease may be helpful when there is slight brain function impairment. A mouse study reported that animals given omega-3 supplements demonstrated an improvement in cognitive function (i.e., object recognition memory, localized and spatial memory) as they got older.
In addition to cold water fish, omega-3 fatty acids are also found in walnuts, chia seeds, flax seeds, hemp seeds, and sea vegetables. Omega-3 supplements are available as fish oil, krill oil, and algae-based.
Dark chocolate is the source of brain-friendly phytonutrients called cocoa flavanols. In a three-month study, researchers discovered that individuals who consumed a high cocoa flavanol diet showed a boost in the area of the brain associated with memory loss and aging.
Cocoa powder is made by fermenting, drying and roasting cacao beans. The flavanols have been shown to lower blood pressure, fight cell damage, prevent blood clots, and improve blood flow to the brain.
To reap the brain-boosting benefits of cocoa flavanols, choose dark chocolate (organic preferred) and enjoy a small amount (about one ounce) several times a week or even daily. A 2012 study of adults with mild cognitive impairment showed that those who consumed cocoa flavanols daily benefits from improved thinking skills as well as lower blood pressure and improved insulin resistance.
The mineral that is associated with more than 300 biochemical activities in the human body plays a key role in cognitive health. Low levels of magnesium have been proposed as having a stake in the development of Alzheimer’s disease, but further research is needed. We know from mouse research that an increase in magnesium in the brain provides substantial protection of the synapses in models of Alzheimer’s disease and “hence it might have therapeutic potential for treating Alzheimer’s disease.”
Be sure to include lots of foods rich in magnesium in your diet, including green leafy vegetables, cruciferous vegetables, nuts, and whole grains.
You may recognize these antioxidants as being especially plentiful in blueberries, but others berries harbor them as well. Anthocyanins are associated with enhanced signalling of neurons in the brain’s memory regions. In one study, adults who consumed wild blueberry juice daily showed improvements in memory; namely, word list recall and paired associate learning, as well as reduced depressive symptoms and glucose levels, both of which can have a negative impact on cognitive function.
In a 2017 study, experts showed that daily blueberry consumption for six weeks by adults with cognitive decline was associated with an improvement in neural response. In addition to blueberries, you can include other foods that provide a good amount of anthocyanins, such as cranberries, black raspberries, blackberries, cherries, eggplant, black rice, red cabbage and muscadine grapes.
EGCG and theanine
The one food that nearly exclusively contains these two ingredients-epigallocatechin gallate and L-theanine–is green tea (Camilla sinensis). Although there are more than 700 compounds in green tea, EGCG and theanine are the ones responsible for improving brain health. Traces of EGCG are also found in apples, carob powder, hazelnuts, onions, pecans, and plums.
EGCG is a potent antioxidant that can pass through the blood-brain barrier and address the free radicals that can destroy brain cells. This polyphenol also has anti-inflammatory powers, which is critical since free radicals trigger brain inflammation, which in turn speeds up brain aging and contributes to memory loss, depression, and anxiety.
The impact of the amino acid L-theanine on cognition also has been shown in various studies. A review of 49 human intervention studies showed that L-theanine has “clear beneficial effects on sustained attention, memory, and suppression of distraction.” The only food sources of L-theanine are black and green teas.
This mouthful of a compound is a source of the dietary nutrient choline, which is a member of the B-complex family. Recent research involving phosphatidylcholine explored its impact on brain structure in 72 healthy older adults. The researchers found that higher blood levels of phosphatidylcholine was linked to improved cognitive flexibility.
Although the exact ways phosphatidylcholine benefits the brain and cognitive function are not fully understood, experts suggest it may that the nutrient supports brain membranes, contributes to the production of neurotransmitters that promote and support cognition, or reduce inflammation in the brain. In any event, dietary sources of phosphatidylcholine include egg yolks, raw organic dairy, wheat germ, cruciferous vegetables, and meat.
Be sure to add a lot of these foods to your diet every day to keep your brain young.
[Editors Note: When choosing supplements for Omega's and Magnesium our favorites are Barlean's and Natural Vitality (respectively). And when it comes to green or any tea, we love a cup of Bigelow Tea.]
Alban D. EGCG and L-theanine: Unique brain boosters in green tea. Be Brain Fit
Boespflug EL et al. Enhanced neural activation with blueberry supplementation in mild cognitive impairment. Nutritional Neuroscience 2017 Feb 21:1-9
Brickman AM et al. Enhancing dentate gyrus function with dietary flavanols improves cognition in older adults. Nature Neuroscience 2014; 17:1798-1803
Canhada S et al. Omega-3 fatty acids’ supplementation in Alzheimer’s disease: a systematic review. Nutritional Neuroscience 2017 May 3:1-10
Desideri G et al. Benefits in cognitive function, blood pressure, and insulin resistance through cocoa flavanol consumption in elderly subjects with mild cognitive impairment. Hypertension 2012; 60:794-801
Dietz C, Dekker M. Effect of green tea phytochemicals on mood and cognition. Current Pharmaceutical Design 2017 Jan 5
Krikorian R et al. Blueberry supplementation improves memory in older adults. Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry 2010 Apr 14; 58(7): 3996-4000
Li W et al. Elevation of brain magnesium prevents synaptic loss and reverses cognitive deficits in Alzheimer’s disease mouse model. Molecular Brain 2014 Sep 13; 7:65
Veronese N et al. Magnesium status in Alzheimer’s disease: a systematic review. American Journal of Alzheimers Disease and Other Dementias 2016 May; 31(3): 208-13
Yue Y et al TMDB: A literature-curated database for small molecular compounds found from tea. BMC Plant Biology 2014; 14:243
Zamroziewicz MK et al. Inferior prefrontal cortex mediates the relationship between phosphatidylcholine and executive functions in healthy, older adults. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience 2016 Sep 28; 8:226