This is the third blog post in a series of four on brain health. If you missed the first two foundational posts, you can check them out here and here. If you’ve read them, you now know all about how the brain functions and have probably implemented a few of the life hacks I shared to help optimize your brain function. Now, let’s dig into food and nutrition. Specifically, what to eat for a healthy brain, and to keep it functioning optimally.
One of the most important foods you can eat for brain health is healthy fat.
As I mentioned in the second post of this series, 60 percent of your brain is fat. As such, it needs a lot of fat to function well. Healthy fats like wild caught salmon, cod, and sardines are especially important because they contain DHA, or Docosahexaenoic acid, an omega-3 that helps improve learning abilities, slows cognitive decline and can also help prevent brain atrophy in older adults (1). Consuming 1-2 servings of wild caught fish each week is essential for healthy brain functioning.
In addition, consuming healthy fats like avocado, nuts, seeds, olive oil and coconut oil help protect the cell membrane – the coating or cushioning that your helps the brain and neurons to communicate effectively. You can test this piece of information out for yourself. The next time you’re experiencing brain fog or having difficulty concentrating, eat some fat – a teaspoon of coconut oil, a handful of nuts, ½ of an avocado, or a whole egg. The healthy fats in these foods will not only give you energy, they’ll help fire up your brain so you can focus more and think more clearly.
Protein is also essential for optimal brain health and functioning.
Next to water, protein makes up most of your body weight since even your hair, organs, nails, and muscles are composed of protein. It’s also essential for the neurons of your brain to communicate with each other.
The neurons in your brain are essentially made of fat, but they communicate with each other using proteins from the food you eat. Also, the hormones and enzymes that cause chemical changes and control all of your body’s processes are composed of proteins.
For example, eating protein increases the levels of the amino acid tyrosine. The presence of tyrosine prompts the brain to produce the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and dopamine (2). These neurotransmitters play a key role in mood stability and they also help us to maintain alertness and activity. Without sufficient protein, your mood will suffer as will your alertness since your brain needs it to stimulate the chemical changes needed to maintain them. To that end, I recommend eating approximately 60g of protein, animal or plant-based, each day.
Antioxidants also play an important role in maintaining a healthy brain.
Antioxidants are naturally occurring compounds that help protect your brain from harmful free radicals and oxidative damage.
A simple way to understand how they work is to think of an apple that you’ve cut in half. Once cut, the flesh of the apple begins to turn brown – the oxygen in the air is causing oxidative damage. If you squeeze lemon juice on the apple, however, you can keep it from turning brown. Of course, it won’t keep the apple fresh forever, but it slows down the aging process. Similarly, when you consistently consume antioxidants, you slow down the cellular aging process of the brain.
You can incorporate antioxidants into your diet by consuming colorful, organic fruits like blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries. You can also find them in green leafy vegetables, like organic spinach, kale, and chard. Two other great sources of antioxidants are dark chocolate and red wine. Dark chocolate contains polyphenols and flavonoids that help to reduce inflammation in the brain and red wine contains an antioxidant called resveratrol. When consuming red wine, look for organic brands and consume it in moderation.
Melatonin is also an essential antioxidant as it has the ability to protect the brain from oxidative stress and prevent the neurodegeneration that occurs as a result of aging and environmental factors. Melatonin is naturally produced when you sleep, but you can aid your body in its production by consuming foods that contain tryptophan, such as nuts, seeds, pastured chicken and turkey, eggs, and seafood. Tryptophan encourages the production of serotonin, which is required to make melatonin.
A few other foods that may help maintain a healthy brain (or even improve function) are spices, like ginger, turmeric, and cinnamon as they help reduce internal inflammation. Also, coffee and green tea have both been shown to be helpful for memory function (3).
In addition to adding brain supportive foods into your diet, there are a few foods that you may want to avoid or limit to support optimal brain health and functioning. Among these are refined sugar, gluten, and grains.
Dr. Perlmutter, a renowned neurologist and author of Grain Brain, has done extensive research on gluten and the inflammation it creates in the body. I highly recommend his book if you want to dig into the specifics. His recommendation and one I agree with strongly is to to get your carbohydrates from plant-based sources like sweet potatoes and root vegetables, instead of gluten and excessive amounts of grains.
Admittedly, it can be difficult to incorporate all of these foods and nutrients into your diet all at once, but as I mentioned in the last blog post of this series, start with the smallest doable step and continue to build on that step as you’re ready.
While you’re building, or if you’re finding it difficult to get all of the nutrients you need from the food you’re eating, you can incorporate high-quality supplements. The supplements I most frequently recommend to patients for a healthy brain can all be found here.
If you have questions about any of the information shared here, feel free to ask them in the comments. I would love to hear from you!