Food helps to keep your brain sharp and healthy. In the last brain power article I talked about the importance of good fats (short of a ketogenic diet, which is a topic for another day) and protective antioxidants for optimizing brain health. Now it’s on to foods that are particularly beneficial for memory, mental response time and mood. I’ll also touch on brain zappers and the critical gut/brain connection.
Brain Warrior Superfoods
Raw cacao: Calling all chocolate lovers! Raw cacao is what chocolate is made from with added sugar and dairy. Its plant chemicals protect neurons and help increase blood flow to the brain. Other compounds in cacao support the “feel good” neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. Why has chocolate long been associated with love? It may be due to an ingredient called phenylethylamine (PEA), which is is associated with emotional euphoria. Add raw cacao nibs or powder to smoothies and yoghurt, or put the nibs in a trail mix. If raw cacao is too bitter for you, go for an ounce or two of at least 70% dark chocolate.
Leafy Greens: Veggies like kale, spinach and collards are rich in brain-protective nutrients like B vitamins, vitamins A, C, K, E and lutein. So swapping in a salad for french fries is a smart choice. A recent study found that people who consumed about 1 and 1/2 servings of green leafy vegetables per day had cognitive function roughly eleven years younger than people who ate little or no leafy greens.
Berries: All berries contain high amounts of potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory chemicals that give them their brilliant hues and protect cells from damage. Components in berries may also improve cognition. One study found that women who consumed two or more servings of strawberries and blueberries each week delayed memory decline by up to two-and-a-half years.
Green tea: While any type of caffeine enhances performance, I love green tea because it contains l-theanine, a compound that promotes a sense of calm, so you end up with a feeling of “alert relaxation.” Green tea is also rich in brain protective antioxidants – AND it has a plant chemical that enhances metabolism. Of course, if a cup of joe is your day’s highlight, drink on! But if you tend to run anxious, you might want to consider switching to the green stuff. Or go with matcha, where you ingest the entire leaf and get a more potent mix of nutrients and antioxidants than with traditionally prepared green tea.
Turmeric: One of the most brain protective foods is in your spice rack. Turmeric – a key ingredient in curry powder – is a great antioxidant and fantastic anti inflammatory. It crosses the blood/brain barrier and is thought to directly benefit brain cells. It’s also thought to activate a genetic switch that turns on an internal antioxidant system. Try a tspn a day in tea or supplement with its active ingredient, curcumin.
Eggs: Egg yolks contain substantial amounts of choline, the “memory” chemical. Eggs also contain phospholipids and B vitamins, two critical ingredients for mind and mood. One of my favorite breakfasts for peak mental function is eggs with avocado and a veggie like sautéed spinach.
Wild Salmon: When was the last time you had fish for dinner? In my prior post, I talked about omega 3 fats being critical for brain health. It turns out the omega 3 fat, DHA, goes straight to your head. The DHA you get from wild salmon and other cold water fish helps to keep the brain functioning efficiently. Research suggests that long term consumption of DHA is associated with improved memory, enhanced learning ability and reduced rates of cognitive decline. Think of eating fish as a savings plan for your brain. Or you can take omega 3 fish oil.
Processed Foods: Just like a high end car, our brains can be damaged if we ingest a lot of low premium fuel. Chemical extracts and artificial colors are brain toxic substances often found in processed foods. So read your labels! A good rule of thumb is if you can’t pronounce the ingredients and have no idea what they are – your brain and body probably don’t know either.
Sugar: Studies have found a correlation between a diet high in refined sugars and memory loss and thinking ability – as well as a worsening of symptoms of mood disorders like depression. The danger is in the dose, so watch your intake and just enjoy sugar recreationally. Sugar is also a master of disguise. Foods like refined pasta, breads and cereals quickly turn into sugar in our blood stream. They give us a boost, but then a quick crash – in energy, attention span and mood.
Healthy Gut, Healthy Brain
We can eat all the superfoods we want, but we need a healthy digestive tract to have a healthy brain. We are what we eat, but also what we ABSORB. We have an ecosystem in our gut comprised of billions of bacteria and other micro organisms. The bacteria significantly influence our nervous system and brain. They help to activate the neural pathways that travel between our gut and our brain and help produce important neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. Much of the body’s serotonin – the feel good neurotransmitter – is actually made in the gut. Here are a few actionable items to take care of your gut:
- Eat a diverse array of veggies and fruits as their fiber is food for the good bacteria
- Limit sugar as it feeds the bad bacteria
- Eat a bit of fermented foods every day which contain probiotics, or good bacteria, that fortify our guts. Or you can take a probiotic supplement.
Try incorporating some brain power foods and see how you feel! If you have haven’t read part 1 of my brain health info, you can find it here.