Your brain is arguably the most important organ in the body, being the command center for everything else. And completely aside from keeping your lungs breathing and your heart beating, the brain controls emotions that color how we approach everything in our lives. Keeping your brain in optimal condition not only facilitates the health of your body, it can support your ability to learn new things and to handle the tough situations that come your way. (And it’s always something in life, isn’t it?) Wellness starts in the kitchen, and we’ve got you covered with a list of the most important ingredients for peak brain health.
Fiber-rich whole grains are associated with many positive benefits in the body. There has been some research out of Columbia University Medical Center that suggests a high-fiber diet lowers your risk of cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease as you age. It also reduces overall inflammation and oxidative stress, as well as potentially lowers blood pressure. All of these effects have a role in reducing the risk of brain disorders. It is key that you choose whole grains, however, not refined. White flour, for example, has an extremely high glycemic index and is associated with an increased risk of cancer.
The brain relies on a steady dose of glucose to work its best, which is why people actually get angry when they let their blood sugar tank. Beans are full of B vitamins and deliver slow burning energy, which keeps you mentally sharp and better able to navigate challenges throughout the day. They are also extremely affordable and a great addition to many meals. Getting ½ cup per day is ideal. If you find that beans upset your digestive system (they are the “musical fruit” after all) try lentils instead for a similar dose of B vitamins.
Pomegranate juice is full of potent antioxidants, which can help protect your brain from damaging free radicals. We hear a lot about free radicals and skin damage, but in reality, the brain is more susceptible to damage from free radicals than any other part of the body. There is also some evidence that suggests pregnant women who drink pomegranate juice can protect the brains of their infants if they are deprived of oxygen during birth. However, pomegranate juice usually has added sugar because it is very naturally tart. Just two ounces per day is recommended – you can dilute it with water and add a sprig of mint for a very refreshing beverage.
Turmeric is deep-yellow spice that has a number of benefits for the brain. One of the main ingredients in curry powder, the active ingredient in turmeric is curcumin, which is able to cross the blood-brain barrier. That means it can directly enter the brain and benefit its cells. Curcumin also has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. It may improve memory in Alzheimer’s patients and clear the amyloid plaques that occur with the disease. Turmeric has been shown to boost both serotonin and dopamine, which can ease depression symptoms and improve overall mood. More research is necessary, but turmeric may even help new brain cells grow and thus reduce the effects of aging on cognitive ability.
Pumpkin seeds have those all important antioxidants to protect the brain from free radical damage. But they are also chock full of iron, magnesium, copper, and zinc, all of which are crucial to brain health. Iron deficiency can cause brain fog and diminished brain capacity. Magnesium supports learning and memory; low levels of magnesium are found in many patients with migraines, depression, and epilepsy. Zinc and copper are both integral elements of nerve signaling, necessary for the brain to convey the right messages to the body. Zinc and copper deficiency is linked to neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and depression.
Vitamin C is a strong antioxidant that can help rein in aging related mental decline and potentially help stave off Alzheimer’s. It also protects the brain from free radical damage, and is a critical part of synthesizing dopamine. It’s not too difficult to get enough – one medium orange per day can deliver all the vitamin C you need for top brain health. Vitamin C deficiency causes scurvy, which is fatal if not treated and has a range of painful physical symptoms. Specific brain-related problems with scurvy include hallucinations and depression. While oranges are one of the most concentrated sources of vitamin C, many other foods offer this vital nutrient, including kiwi fruit, bell peppers, strawberries, and tomatoes.
Eggs have a lot of vital nutrients for brain health, including B6, B12, and folate. Deficiencies in these nutrients are linked to depression and mental decline in the elderly. B12 also has a role in synthesizing chemicals and regulating glucose levels in the brain. They also contain choline, a micronutrient used by the body to make acetylcholine, which helps to regulate and stabilize mood and memory. High choline intake is associated with strong memory and mental function, but many people don’t get enough in their diets. Egg yolks have a more concentrated amount of choline than most any other source, so don’t skip the yolk unless you are also eating a lot of foods like liver, shellfish, dark greens, and mushrooms.
And finally, here is a brain-boosting food that feels like a treat. Dark chocolate, more specifically the cocoa powder contained in dark chocolate, contains several brain-friendly compounds such as flavonoids, caffeine, and antioxidants. Flavonoids are known to help with learning and memory as well as slow aging-related mental decline. One study found that people who ate chocolate frequently performed better in mental and memory-related tasks than people who rarely ate it. Chocolate also seems to elevate mood, though it is unclear whether that is because of specific compounds in the chocolate or because eating tasty foods feels good. In any case, there is no need to deny yourself a small taste of chocolate every day. Dark chocolate contains less added sugar and a higher concentration of cocoa powder, so it is a better overall choice.
Each of the foods on our list are relatively easy to incorporate into a brain-healthy diet. You can grab an orange or some pumpkin seeds for a snack, add beans to taco salad, drink a refreshing pomegranate juice seltzer, and finish off with a couple of squares of chocolate. Being informed and educated about the best food choices for strong brain function and longevity makes it much easier to make a smart selection when you realize you feel mentally zapped. Smart thinking on your part to have read this article!