Foods that help you think
Are you forgetful, fuzzy or slow? Diminished brain function doesn't have to be an inevitable part of life. With the right diet and lifestyle, you can stay sharp as a tack.
The ability to make smart decisions rests primarily on your clarity of mind, and how quickly and effectively you can concentrate and recall memories. The nutrients in the food you eat are strongly linked to your brain function: the more refined sugar and processed foods you consume, the cloudier your concentration becomes, and the better you eat, the sharper your focus will be.
What’s more, your brain is incredibly sensitive to stress, free radicals, poor blood circulation and blood-
sugar imbalances. A suboptimal lifestyle, with continuous exposure to these factors, can lead to chronic brain inflammation and may eventually lead to brain deterioration and damage.
But there’s good news: it is possible to give your brain a boost and prevent mental decline with the right lifestyle, foods and nutrients:
When it comes to brain functioning, your intake of omega-3 fatty acids is one of the first things to consider. These essential fatty acids, found primarily in cold-water fatty fish, allow the blood vessels and nerve cells in the brain to remain healthy. Both docosahexanoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentanoic acid (EPA) play a role, and a lack of these omega-3 fats in your diet could lead to mood disturbances, concentration problems, poor memory, lack of attention and behavioural problems.
Omega-3 fatty acids are also known to reduce inflammation. For this reason, fish-oil supplementation (along with antioxidant supplementation) is sometimes recommended to prevent or help treat Alzheimer's disease – a debilitating condition that’s characterised by a build-up of beta-amyloid plaque (clumps of protein) and resultant inflammation in the brain’s blood vessels.
Eat fish at least three times a week. Good sources of the omega-3 fats include mackerel, salmon, bass, rainbow trout, halibut, cod, tuna and sardines. Blue-green algae and sea vegetables such as nori and dulse are also rich in DHA, and make for mineral-rich, bioavailable sources of fatty acids (strict vegetarians often use these foods as a substitute for fish).
Some plant foods, like flaxseed, walnuts, pumpkin and hempseed oils, also contain omega-3 fats. Even though the omega-3s they contain are not quite as potent or bioavailable as the fats in fish, it’s good to also add these foods to your diet.
Certain types of protein affect the brain’s overall ability to perform at a peak level of functioning. Proteins provide our brains with amino acids, from which neurotransmitters are created. Neurotransmitters are messengers that carry signals between neurons (brain cells) and allow parts of the brain to effectively communicate with each other. When you feed the neurotransmitters with quality food, they deliver messages to other neurons more quickly, more effectively, and more powerfully. Protein also helps to stimulate orexin neurons , the cells in your brain responsible for keeping you awake.
All animal by-products such as fish, meat, whey, dairy and eggs (as well as pea and brown-rice proteins) are packed with protein and essential amino acids. Liver, heart and kidneys are fantastic brain foods, and a completely underutilised source of nutrition. Organ meats and fatty fish are also rich in COQ10, the fat-soluble brain antioxidant normally taken in supplemental form.
Choline and phosphatidylcholine
Choline, found in liver, fish, nuts, beans and eggs, are used in many chemical reactions in the body, and seems to play an important role in terms of the health of the nervous system.
The compound phosphatidylcholine, found in eggs, soybeans and sunflower, also has extraordinary benefits for the brain. It’s been shown to have a positive effect on memory, intellectual skills, learning skills and concentration.
Phosphatidylcholine contains the same lipid structures present in the cell membranes in the brain, and is used by the body to make a brain chemical called acetylcholine. This major neurotransmitter is associated with memory, learning, attention, sensory perception and higher brain activity.
Nuts and seeds
Nuts are an excellent source of brain-boosting oils and antioxidants that help fight damage caused by free radicals in the brain. Raw and unroasted, they’re all good sources of the antioxidant vitamin E, which is associated with slower cognitive decline as you age. They’re also rich in essential oils and amino acids that aid focus.
- Walnuts are your best bet when it comes to brain health (interestingly, these nuts actually look like the brain) – they can help you process information and think critically. Eaten at night, walnuts can help raise melatonin levels and help you sleep. A handful a day will keep your brain firing away!
- Flaxseeds, especially the golden variety, are high in magnesium, B vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids and fibre – all of which aid mental clarity and focus. Make sure to grind them or chew them properly to release the beneficial oils.
- Chia seeds are equally high in protein and omega-3 fatty acids – both of which are important for focus and clarity, making them excellent brain food. They make a wonderful breakfast cereal or addition to smoothies, and will keep you satisfied for longer.
- Raw almonds, sesame seeds and peanuts (or butters made from them) also help keep the brain working at its best.
Many plant oils are also considered excellent brain food:
- Coconut oil helps the body to produce ketones – an alternative energy source for the brain. Coconut oil is very stable and can be heated to high temperatures with little change in nutritional value. This fantastic oil is an alternative to butter, and can be used as a spread, or as a healthier frying-oil option (e.g. to lightly fry chicken and Brussels sprouts). Coconut oil can also be used raw to make chocolate spreads or treats.
- Avocados and avocado oil enhance blood flow and fire up brain cells. The monounsaturated fats in this fruit also help support information-carrying nerves in the brain. They’re also a great source of fibre and fat – both of which help to balance blood sugar levels.
- Olive oil (particularly extra virgin olive oil) is a good source of beneficial monounsaturated fats, which seem to slow the ageing of the brain.
- Borage oil is loaded with gamma linolenic acid (GLA) – an anti-inflammatory omega-6 essential fat. GLA is converted into a hormone-like substance called prostaglandin that blocks inflammation, making it very effective in enhancing memory and cognitive processing. Borage oil also contains antioxidants that protect the brain and neurons from oxidative stress.
Green, leafy vegetables
Green, leafy veggies are rich in B vitamins, and contain magnesium and potassium, which aid clear thinking by sending oxygen to the brain. The B vitamins help with memory focus and overall brain health and power, while folic acid is also a critical nutrient for brain and nervous-system health.
Go for green vegetables such as spinach, kale, rocket, broccoli and watercress – all of which are also high in antioxidants and chlorophyll.
Coffee is a fantastic pick-me-upper, but there’s a downside: caffeine is highly acidic and depletes the body of B vitamins, potassium and magnesium. It may also cause your energy levels to crash (along with your mood), especially if you’re under a lot of stress. But, used moderately, organic coffee can do great things for short- term alertness and focus, with little or no consequences.
Remember that green tea not only contains caffeine, but also l-theanine – an ingredient that’s been shown to increase alpha-wave activity in the brain, which allows for a slower, controlled release of caffeine and a feeling of tranquillity.
Packed with powerful polyphenols, blueberries can enhance your cognitive abilities significantly, while also providing antioxidant protection. Polyphenols are able to stimulate the blood and oxygen supply to the brain, which results in sharper focus. Blueberries also delay memory decline and can help prevent brain degeneration.
Ginger helps improve cognitive ability and memory function. This fragrant root acts as a potent protective agent to reduce oxidative stress in the brain. It can also thwart the effects of neurotoxic food additives, such as monosodium glutamate.
The flavonol in dark chocolate boosts the circulatory system, increasing the blood supply to the brain. A block or two of dark or raw chocolate will help you focus when you’re experiencing a slump. Of course, chocolate also contains a small amount of caffeine, which further assists in making you more alert. And dark chocolate contains magnesium, nature’s tranquiliser which helps curb cravings and reduce anxiety. Chocolate also stimulates the release of endorphins and serotonin, both of which make you feel good. Raw, unsweetened cocoa & cacao are the perfect cure for a sweet tooth and can be used in recipes to create a host of delectable treats.
This root vegetable supplies the amino acid betaine, which aids in regulating neurotransmitters (e.g. dopamine). This, in turn, boosts memory and alertness.
Ripe bananas are a good source of tyrosine, which helps to regulate and stimulate dopamine levels. A combination of banana and peanut butter is a particularly good snack if you feel like boosting your brain power.
Curcumin, a substance in turmeric, is a potent anti-inflammatory that has the ability to enter the brain and bind and destroy plaques associated with Alzheimer's disease.
This spice helps to stabilise the brain by balancing blood-sugar levels. In this indirect way, it supports brain function.
Ginkgo biloba helps to boost blood circulation in the body, also in the brain. Many health practitioners recognise this medicinal herb's outstanding results when it comes to improving memory and overall brain function.
Bacopa/brahmi /water hyssop
Bacopa is a tropical plant used in Ayurvedic medicine for its cognitive and memory-improving capabilities. It generally comes in tonic or capsule form.
Every single function of your body depends on water, and without water, your brain ages at a rapid rate. In fact, dehydration may actually cause brain shrinkage. Water also gives the brain the electrical energy it needs to function. Drinking water throughout the day will help you think faster, be more focused, and experience greater clarity and creativity.