In Tips to Grow Your Brain we talked about simple things we can do to keep our brain as “sharp as a tack.” There are also many different types of food we can eat that support the health of the brain and the nervous system. Here are eight types of food I’d recommend eating regularly to keep your ‘wits about you’…
1) The Winner: Blueberries — “brain-berries”!
Yep, those delicious blue little berries have a mountain of research to suggest they are one of the best, if not the BEST brain food money can buy. Published scientific studies show that blueberries are packed with nutrients that not only improve brain function, but that also protect delicate brain structures against oxidative damage.
Rich in powerful polyphenol compounds, blueberries have been shown to uniquely protect the brain against free radicals, radiation, inflammation, aging, and the damaging effects of neurotoxins.1
Scientists have noted that blueberry compounds are readily absorbed into the bloodstream, then cross into the brain where they influence regions involved in memory and motor function—suggesting therapeutic roles against Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.2
In animal studies3, a blueberry-enriched diet has been shown to protect against loss of brain cells seen with different types of brain injury and aging, as well as against impairments in memory, learning, and co-ordination. The studies showed that diets rich in blueberries significantly improved both the learning capacity and motor skills of aging rats, making them mentally equivalent too much younger rats.
Fish is very high in Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs),which are extremely important fats that support the cardiovascular, reproductive, immune, and nervous systems. Unfortunately, humans cannot synthesise EFAs so they must be obtained through diet.
- Long Live The Little Fish!!
Fish oil has been extensively studied for its role in human health because it contains high levels of Omega 3 fatty acids. Deep-water fish, such as salmon and tuna are rich in omega essential fatty acids—which are ‘essential’ for brain function, however I do have deep concerns about recommending these fish. The larger and longer-living varieties of fish such as tuna, shark, swordfish and tilefish, can accumulate toxins such as mercury (which can damage the nervous system) and dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs (which may be carcinogenic with chronic low-level exposure).4
Additionally, the feed given to commercially farmed fish (e.g. salmon and trout) has been shown to be contaminated with substantial quantities of PCBs, organochlorine pesticides, brominated diphenyl ethers, PAHs and mercury.5
I tend to stick to sardines, anchovies, herring, mackerel, small locally caught white fish, and Alaskan sockeye salmon. Sourcing these fresh is typically a healthier option then canned fish. All sockeye (red) salmon, available frozen from Costco, are wild and have lower levels of the contaminants then farmed salmon, which can be a source of hormones, pesticides and antibiotics. While canned products can be a source of toxins, canned sockeye, available in most supermarkets, is a good source of omega-3s.
- Fish Supplement
Taking a supplement is quite possibly better than fresh fish for supporting your omega-3 needs rather then potentially contaminated fish. Fish oil in supplements has been shown to contain relatively low levels of contamination.6
This may be due to the species of fish used – those that are lower on the food chain and less thus likely to accumulate contaminants, and also to distillation processes. In addition to this, mercury is found in fish meat and not fish oil, however liver oils may have higher levels of contaminants as they are generally made from oils using the whole fish.6
My favourite is Innate Choice Omega Sufficiency. I love its refreshing citrus taste. A good starting dose of fish oil of any kind is 1g a day. Higher doses — up to 10g a day — have been used, with varying results, to treat such diverse conditions as depression, attention deficit disorder, bipolar disorder and even autism.
3) Other Sources of Essential Fatty Acids
NOTE: Vegetarian sources of omega-3 fatty acids are good additions to the diet but not so reliable as fish.
- Algae is one non-fish source of long-chain omega-3s. ‘Loving Earth’ have a fabulous algae supplement.
- Nuts and Seeds are good sources of EFAs and vitamin E — focus on eating walnuts (one of the best), brazil nuts, almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, cashews, sunflower, sesame and, pumpkin seeds, unhydrogenated nut butters, and tahini. The American Journal of Epidemiology7 suggests that a good intake of vitamin E might help to prevent poor memory. Just a handful a day is all you need to get your recommended daily amount of zinc, vital for enhancing memory and thinking skills.
- Chia seeds are the richest plant-source of healthy oils and contains more omega-3 than salmon.
- Olive and Coconut Oil contain fats that have anti-inflammatory properties and olive oil is a source of omega 9 and vitamin K both of which are important to the brain.
This yellow spice is being carefully studied for its medicinal effects. It is a powerful anti-inflammatory agent that has anticancer properties and may offer significant protection against Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s begins as an inflammatory process in the brain. India has the world’s lowest rate of Alzheimer’s, and some experts think that daily consumption of turmeric is a contributing factor.
5) Other Fruits and Vegetables
Evidence suggests that diets high in fruit and vegetable content, particularly those of dark colour (blueberries, strawberries, spinach) may help protect against oxidative stress and may improve cognitive and motor function.8
- Strawberries are famous for their antioxidant capacity and they contain compounds that also protect the brain and memory.
- Avocados are high in good fats for the brain, avocados promote blood flow and are almost as good as blueberries in promoting brain health.
- Dark Greens (e.g. kale, spinach, salad greens, cabbage, broccoli, brussel sprouts) are all also high in vitamin K. These foods are important as Vitamin K not only assists with blood clotting and maintaining healthy strong bones but helps to limit neuronal damage in the brain.
- Tomatoes contain lycopene, a powerful antioxidant which may protect against the kind of free radical damage to cells which occurs in the development of dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s.
- Bananas are high in manganese which is important for growth, wound healing and brain function.
6) Dark Chocolate
Dark chocolate is an anti-oxidant powerhouse. Dark chocolate is one of nature’s most concentrated sources of theobromine — a mild, natural stimulant which helps to keep us focused (different to caffeine and does not strongly stimulate the central nervous system). It also contains Phenylethylamine (PEA) which releases endorphins, our natural feel-good chemicals helping to lift our mood.
- Goat’s milk products — Animal phosphorous is found in goat’s milk and is essential to the brain. It is virtually unavailable to the vegetable kingdom.
- Egg yolk — Yolk is a leading source for choline, a nutrient that recently has been proven to boost brainpower by speeding up the sending of signals to nerve cells in the brain.
- Dairy produce — Including biodynamic yoghurt and milk, cottage cheese – contain vitamin B2 (Riboflavin) that is needed for the digestion of fats upon which good brain function relies and Vitamin B3 to regulate many mood and brain hormones.
- Chicken, Lean Red Meat and Liver — Chicken and red meat contain L-Carnosine, a strong antioxidant which appears to have dramatic results for a number of conditions: cataracts, improving skin tone, speeding up wound healing, and protecting the brain from plaque formation that may lead to senility and Alzheimer’s. While liver is high in vitamin B1 (Thiamine) which helps us to concentrate and focus. Organ meats, chicken, turkey and red meat are also high in Vitamin B6 which supports a strong nervous system.
- Cannelloni beans — Cannelloni beans are also loaded with Vitamin B1, thiamine which is essential for high mental performance.
NOTE: A slight deficiency of vitamin B-12 can lead to anemia, fatigue, mania, and depression, while a long term deficiency can cause permanent damage to the brain and central nervous system. Vitamin B12 can only be manufactured by bacteria and can only be found naturally in animal products, however, synthetic forms are widely available and added to many foods like cereals.
Vitamin B12 can be consumed in large doses because excess is excreted by the body or stored in the liver for use when supplies are scarce. Stores of B12 can last for up to a year.
Top 10 Foods Highest in Vitamin B1:
- Oysters and Mussels
- Fish, Crab and Lobster
Other sources include seaweed and spirulina.
8) Brown rice and Whole grains
Wholegrain foods, such as good cereals and bread, oats, rye, millet, quinoa whole grains are excellent brain foods as they improve circulation and contain essential fibers, vitamins, and even some Omega-3. These foods are a great source of folic acid, vitamin B12 and B6, which help prevent homocysteine from building up in the body — levels of which have been found to be higher in people who have Alzheimer’s. One study found that women who increased their folic acid, vitamin B12 and vitamin B6 intake showed an improvement in recalling information compared to women who were not taking a supplement.
They are also often a source Vitamin E, the American Journal of Epidemiology7 suggests that a good intake of vitamin E might help to prevent poor memory.
Whole grains also contain complex carbohydrates which release energy over a long period and will keep you more mentally alert throughout the day.
NOTE: If you prefer not to eat grains take heart in knowing that dark green leafy vegetables, citrus fruits, beans, peas, lentils, avocado, nuts and seeds, cauliflower, beetroot are wonderful sources of Folic acid. While B6 is available in organ meats, chicken and turkey lean red, muscle meats, egg yolks, oily fish, dairy produce cabbage, leeks and wheat germ breakfast cereals, vegetables, and fruit. For foods high in vitamin B12 please see previous listing.
A good diet is certainly not the only way to protect and enhance brain health there are many lifestyle habits etc that we can explore as outlined in TIPS TO GROW YOUR BRAIN. Food choices do however count. So it’s important to eat fruits and vegetables, think about your daily dose of omega-3s, nibble on dark chocolate, and consider flavouring more of your food with turmeric!
. . . . .
From the desk of…
Dr Jennifer Barham-Floreani
. . . . .
2. Srivastava A, Akoh CC, Fischer J, Krewer G. Effect of anthocyanin fractions from selected cultivars of Georgia-grown blueberries on apoptosis and phase II enzymes. J Agric Food Chem. 2007 Apr 18;55(8):3180-5.
3. Duffy KB, Spangler EL, Devan BD, et al. A blueberry-enriched diet provides cellular protection against oxidative stress and reduces a kainate-induced learning impairment in rats. Neurobiol Aging. 2007 May 22; [Epub ahead of print].
4. Costa LG. Contaminants In Fish: Risk-Benefit Considerations. Arh Hig Rada Toksikol 2007;58:367-374
5. Easton MD, Luszniak D, Von der Geest E. Preliminary examination of contaminant loadings in farmed salmon, wild salmon and commercial salmon feed. Chemosphere 2002;46:1053–107
6. An evidence-based approach to dietary phytochemicals. Jane Higdon 2007 – Health & Fitness – 238 pages
7. Hao Wang, Éilis J. O’Reilly*, Marc G. Weisskopf . Vitamin E Intake and Risk of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis American Journal of Epidemiology November 1, 2010.
8. Joseph JA, Shukitt-Hale B, Lau FC. Fruit polyphenols and their effects on neuronal signaling and behavior in senescence. Ann NY Acad Sci. 2007 Apr;1100:470-85.