Foods for Thought: Top 12 Foods to Optimize Brain Function
By Sarah Axtell, ND • April 5, 2019
I recently led a “Foods for Thought: Nutrition and Brain Workshop” where I discussed the top super-foods for the brain. The same foods that shield our brain from dementia and aging will also make them work better today.
Below is a summary of the top foods to include in your diet to prevent a future diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, dementia or neurological condition and at the same time promote better mood, less brain fog, and better focus today.
1. Salmon. Salmon is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory properties. Neuro-inflammation (aka “brain on fire”) can contribute to depression and dementia. The omega-3 fatty acids in salmon also increase Brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), your miraculous memory- boosting protein. Get wild-caught salmon!
2. Walnuts. Like salmon, walnuts are a good source of omega-3 fats. The shape of walnuts even approximates the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Nature is wise!
3. Olive oil. Olive oil contains oleocanthal, a natural compound with the ability to remove amyloid plaque, a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease pathology.
*Tip: Oleocanthal accounts for olive oils’ peppery or somewhat spicy taste. If you notice a spicy feeling in the back of your throat upon consuming olive oil, you can rest assure you have a good quality oil. For more information on choosing a quality olive oil, see here.
4. Avocados and Avocado oil. Avocados are rich in good fats (monounsaturated fats), which are fuel for the brain. Avocados are also rich in vitamin E, the anti-aging vitamin. Avocado oil is my favorite oil for roasting and sauteing because it has a high smoke point (more stable at high temperatures).
5. Coconut. Coconut is rich in medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), which promote ketone body production. Ketones are an efficiency fuel source for the brain. In fact, MCT’s can “turn off” the Alzheimer’s gene (APOE). Aim for 1 TBSP coconut oil daily.
6. Fiber. Fiber in fruit and vegetables are a good source of prebiotics. Prebiotics are food for probiotics, the beneficial bacteria in your gut. These beneficial bacteria make short chain fatty acids (SCFAs), such as Butyrate. Butyrate increases brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), which improves memory, mood, and slows neurodegenerative processes. Butyrate also reduces inflammation, which translates to sharper memory, improved mood, and better focus. These vegetables are particularly rich in prebiotic fiber: jicama, aspragaus, garlic, onions, leek, dandelion, and jerusalem artichoke. A healthy gut= a healthy brain!
7. Greens. A study published in ”Neurology” finds that older people who ate at least one serving of leafy greens a day had a slower rate of decline on tests of memory and thinking skills than did people who rarely or never ate these vegetables. After almost five years, regular consumers of these greens enjoyed a mental edge that was the equivalent of 11 years in age. Aim for 2 cups of dark green leafy vegetables daily (arugula, spinach, kale, collards, rainbow chard, spring greens).
8. Blueberries. Blueberries are high in antioxidants, notably anthocyanins (which account for blueberries dark blue pigment). Anthocyanins can accumulate in the hippocampus and enhance memory. One study revealed 12 weeks of blueberry consumption improved memory function, mood and word recall. Aim for 1/2 cup blueberries daily.
9. Dark chocolate. Dark chocolate is rich in flavanols, which have been shown to reverse signs of cognitive aging and improve insulin sensitivity, vascular function, and blood flow to the brain.
Choose wisely: aim for dark chocolate with a cacao content of 80% or higher. The higher the cacao content, the higher the antioxidant content and the lower the sugar.
10. Eggs (yolks included). Eggs are rich in choline. Choline promotes the production of acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter responsible for learning and memory. Choline is also necessary for the production of serotonin and dopamine, neurotransmitters that regulate mood and calm anxiety. Aim for 2 eggs per day.
11. Green tea. It’s not just the caffeine in the green tea that promotes good mood, memory and focus. Green tea is rich in EGCG, an anti-aging antioxidant for both the brain and the skin. Green tea is also a good source of L-theanine. L-theanine is a precursor to GABA, our calming neurotransmitter. L-theanine reduces anxiety and promotes good focus and memory. Goals-2-3 cups per day. My favorite is matcha.
12. Turmeric. Curcumin, or turmeric extract, can cross the blood brain barrier and have a positive impact on mood and memory. It has been suggested for years that eating turmeric is the reason why people in India have a much lower rate of Alzheimer’s than Americans. Now we have research to back this up. A recent study published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry revealed consuming curcumin improves memory performance and may also lead to less neuropathological accumulation in the amygdala, our center for emotions.
Top 3 Foods to Avoid:
1. Sugar. While fat is a clean-burning fuel for the brain, sugar is a “dirty fuel” for the brain. The by-product of glucose metabolism is free radical production. Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, autism, MS and depression are neurological conditions characterized by excessive free radical production. In fact, the link between sugar and dementia is so intimate, Alzheimer’s is now often referred to as “Type 3 Diabetes.”
2. Wheat (gluten). Wheat is among the top inflammatory foods and has been found to promote neuroinflammation and cognitive dysfunction. The brain fog individuals get from eating bagels, pasta, crackers, bread, and cookies is real!
3. Highly processed vegetable oils. Canola oil, corn oil, soybean oil, vegetable oil, peanut oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, grapeseed oil, and rice brain oil are all highly processed oils rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). These PUFAs are very fragile at high temperatures and can go rancid easily. When fat goes rancid or becomes oxidized, aldehydes are formed. Aldehydes play a role in the development of amyloid plaques, which destroy connection between nerve cells and are characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease. For more information on the dangers of vegetable oils, see here.
Brain Food Recipes:
Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health practitioners with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.