As we age, deficiencies in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants can damage brain tissue, contributing to degenerative diseases like dementia, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s. Beneficial antioxidant compounds like vitamins C, E, beta-carotene and other nutrients in your diet can help prevent the damage, because they can disarm potentially cell-injuring free radicals circulating throughout the system. Here are 12 brain foods to jumpstart your life and boost your brain.
Researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently tested over 100 different kinds of food for total antioxidant capacity per serving. Blueberries, both wild and cultivated, scored highest in total antioxidant capacity per serving among all the fruits, vegetables, spices, and herbs tested.
Blueberries are rich in selenium, zinc, iron, copper, and vitamins A, B, C, and E. They contain significant amounts of anthocyanins, antioxidant compounds that give blue, purple and red colors to fruits and vegetables. Anthocyanins help prevent against cancer, inflammation, bacterial infections, and age-related diseases. Blueberries also contain ellagic acid, another antioxidant that has been shown to prevent cell damage. They are a good source of manganese, and both soluble and insoluble fiber like pectin.
A study at the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande in Brazil found that feeding blueberry extract to rats for 30 days resulted in improved learning on several cognitive performance tests. The researchers concluded that blueberries can help prevent oxidative stress in the brain, which can lead to degenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.
Scientists at the University of Barcelona fed blueberry extract to rats for 8-10 weeks. Analysis of the brains of these rats indicated that blueberry phytochemicals had crossed the blood-brain barrier and were found in regions of the brain responsible for memory and learning, that is, the cerebellum, cortex, hippocampus, and striatum. These discoveries are the first to show that blueberry compounds cross the blood-brain barrier and localize in various brain regions important for learning and memory, improving cognitive ability.
Antioxidants found in spinach have been shown in animal studies to prevent strokes and hasten the recovery time. These studies showed that high antioxidant diets have a wide range of neurological benefits, including improved memory and learning and the ability to reverse normal age-related cognitive declines like Alzheimer’s.
Spinach is one of the best sources of folate and lutein, vitamins that protect against arteriosclerosis, heart disease, and stroke by reducing the levels of homocysteine in your brain and arteries, according to the American Heart Association. A study from the University of Southern California and the UCLA School of Medicine showed that lutein reduces arteriosclerosis and equates the lack of lutein with a thickening of artery walls. This study clearly shows that lutein helps to prevent cardiovascular disease and strokes in the brain.
It has long been known that potassium helps to lower blood pressure, though a study from the American Heart Association found that the reduction in risk of stroke from increasing potassium was too dramatic to be merely as a result of the lower blood pressure it may bring. It showed that one gram of potassium per day in someone who still has high blood pressure reduces the risk of stroke by 60 percent. Spinach is high in potassium.
Turmeric, the yellow spice found in many curries, contains curcumin, which has powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties and may prove useful in treating Alzheimer’s and certain types of cancer. One study showed a reduction in beta amyloid deposits, the plaques associated with Alzheimer’s, in the brains of animals fed curcumin-enhanced food. In another study, elderly people who ate curry often did better on tests of mental performance than those who never or rarely ate curry.
Curcumin is medically promising because inflammation and oxidative damage are contributors to so many diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, arthritis and various cancers, says Gregory Cole, Professor of Medicine and Neurology at the University of California who has conducted numerous studies on this spice.
Egg yolks contain one of the most important nutrients for building better brains: choline. Getting adequate amounts of choline, especially early in life, may help us learn more readily and help us retain what we learn. Sufficient choline intake early on may help keep our memory intact as we age. Although our bodies can produce some choline, we cannot make enough to make up for an inadequate supply in our diets, and choline deficiency can also cause deficiency of folic acid.
Choline is an important molecule in the cellular process known as methylation. Methylation is the process of transferring methyl groups from one area of the body to another. This is how genes are switched on and off, and cells transmit messages back and forth. Choline is essential to this process. It is a key component of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that carries messages throughout the central nervous system, and is the body’s primary chemical means of sending messages between nerves and muscles.
Fatty fish like tuna contain omega-3 fatty acids, which are thought to be instrumental in maintaining brain function from early development throughout life. Omega-3s help to fight depression, bipolar disorder, Alzheimer’s, and anxiety. Components of fatty acids in fish go straight to the synapses of nerve cells, and play an important role in how neurons communicate with each other. A study conducted at the University of Wollongong in New South Wales, Australia showed that people taking omega-3s had much better test scores than those eating less to none.
One 4-ounce serving of tuna provides approximately 60 percent of the daily recommendation of Vitamin B1, B3 and B6, which is crucial for memory and energy. A serving also contains 100 percent daily value of tryptophan, which regulates sleep. Tuna contains selenium, an important mineral antioxidant that helps to cleanse the body of pesticides, drugs and heavy metals. A study of over 3,500 teenagers concluded that those with higher intakes of omega-3’s had only a 10 percent likelihood of “high hostility”, and another study showed that eating fatty fish reduced the risk of childhood asthma by 50 percent.
Oysters are an excellent source of iron and zinc. If your mind wanders or you have frequent memory lapses, you may need more zinc and iron in your diet. Several research studies have linked decreased levels of these minerals to poorer mental performance in children, but now recent studies suggest these minerals help adults’ minds stay sharp as well. Other studies showed that low iron reserves reduced adults’ ability to concentrate, and other participants who had difficulty in recalling words were shown to have lower levels of zinc.
Zinc is found in the vesicles of the mossy fiber system of the brain’s hippocampus. These fibers play a role in enhancing memory and thinking skills. University of Texas researchers found that women deficient in zinc did poorly on standard memory tests. Scientists at the United States Department of Agriculture found lower cognition in men deprived of zinc.
While the effects of iron deficiency on mental function in children are well recognized, less is known about how iron deficiency affects the adult brain. In the first study of its kind, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers from Pennsylvania State University showed that women with low iron levels improved their cognitive ability by taking iron supplements or increasing their dietary iron intake. Excellent sources of iron are red meats such as beef and pork, and seafood like clams, tuna, salmon, and shrimp, beans, and of course, oysters.
Several studies have shown that eating flavanol-rich dark chocolate can improve blood vessel function, boosting circulation throughout the body and the brain. The beneficial compounds found in cocoa may also reduce the formation of damaging blood clots, and may reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
A study led by Professor Ian MacDonald at the University of Nottingham in the UK found that consumption of a cocoa drink rich in flavanols boosts blood flow to key areas of the brain for two to three hours. Increased blood flow to these parts of the brain may help to increase performance in specific tasks and boost general alertness over a short period. The findings, unveiled at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) annual conference, also raise the prospect of ingredients in chocolate being used to treat vascular impairment, including dementia and strokes, and thus maintaining cardiovascular health. The study also suggests that the cocoa flavanols found in chocolate could be useful in enhancing brain function for people fighting fatigue, sleep deprivation, and the effects of aging. This does not apply to milk chocolate candies, which are high in fat and sugar.
Antioxidants may help prevent heart disease and cancer, and sweet potatoes are loaded with the antioxidants vitamin E and beta-carotene. These substances are effective in neutralizing free radicals, which are responsible for damage to cell walls and cell structures. Vitamin E may also protect against heart attack and stroke by reducing the harmful effects of cholesterol and resulting blood clots.
Antioxidants are essential for proper brain functioning and in delaying the effects of aging on the brain. Low levels of vitamin E have been linked to memory loss. A Columbia University study showed a delay of about seven months in the progression of Alzheimer’s disease when subjects consumed high levels of vitamin E. This fat-soluble vitamin is found mainly in foods high in unsaturated fats such as olive oil, nuts, and avocados.
A cup of sweet potatoes contains more beta-carotene (vitamin A) than the US recommended daily allowance, much higher than broccoli. Health professionals believe that carotenoids help prevent the formation of free radicals and protect against cancer.
Drinking green tea regularly has been shown to improve memory, learning ability, and cognitive functioning, according to a study from the Tohoku University Graduate School of Medicine in Japan. The main components of green tea thought to improve brain function are polyphenols epigalochatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), a very strong antioxidant which can penetrate the blood-brain barrier and reduce the effects of free radicals that may damage the brain. Green tea shows promise in the prevention of stroke. The green tea polyphenols, particularly EGCG, have been shown to protect brain cells from destructive processes following stroke.
Green tea may reduce the risk of degenerative disorders of the central nervous system, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Green tea catechin polyphenols produce several neuroprotective activities like iron chelation, scavenging of free radicals, activation of survival genes and cell signaling pathways, anti-inflammatory activities, and inhibitory action on Abeta fibrils/oligomers formation. All of these biological effects result in a lessening of damage to brain cells.
A study from the University of San Francisco found that the polyphenols in green tea can boost the availability of dopamine. It is a neurotransmitter that is crucial to improving mood, transmitting signals of reward, increased motivation, and muscle function. Dopamine production is low in the brains of Parkinson’s patients, leading to muscular rigidity and tremors.
Other studies in animals show that the polyphenols in green tea can also help the brain and body maintain healthy blood sugar levels. Polyphenols influence glucose metabolism in part by helping the body regulate sensitivity to the hormone insulin.
Tannins are another important group of compounds found in green tea. They may prevent the brain damage that occurs during strokes and other brain injuries. One of the tannins found in tea leaves, gallotannin, helps the body’s DNA repair system and keeps it working during stroke. Researchers at the University of California at San Francisco found that gallotannin is highly effective in preventing neuron death.
A serving of Greek yogurt contains 20 to 30 percent of the recommended daily value of B vitamins, and increases brain energy. Yogurt contains the key amino acid tyrosine, which is vital to the production of adrenaline, and the neurotransmitters dopamine, norepenephrine, and serotonin, aiding in metabolism, the regulation of mood, and the central nervous system. Deficiencies may result in depression. Tyrosine levels are depleted by activity and stress. Eating yogurt is a great way to restore healthy levels and yogurt’s low glycemic index can aid in balancing blood sugar levels and maintaining mental focus.
Walnuts are loaded with omega-3s. The human brain is made up of about 60 percent “structural fat” and needs omega-3s to function properly. Studies, including a 2001 study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, have linked low levels of omega-3s to depression and decreased cognitive function.
Walnuts have been found to triple your body’s levels of melatonin, a sleep regulating hormone, according to Russel J. Reiter, PhD of the Department of Cellular and Structural Biology at the University of Texas Health Science Center. They also contain manganese, copper, iron, phosphorous, magnesium, and calcium, nutrients which contribute to overall health.
Pomegranates are rich in vitamins and antioxidants, and may be effective against cancer, boosting memory, and Alzheimer’s disease. The ellagic acid in pomegranates helps with everything from cholesterol to menopause. Whether taken in juice, concentrate or supplement form, pomegranates have numerous health benefits.
A study conducted by researchers by the Washington University School of Medicine found that mothers who drank pomegranate juice helped the infant become more resilient to hypoxia ischemia and avoid the devastating effects that occur when the brain is deprived of oxygen.
Alzheimer’s disease has been linked to a buildup of plaque in the brain called beta-amyloid. A study at Loma Linda University in California conducted by Richard Hartman linked pomegranate with lowering the occurrence Alzheimer’s symptoms. The National Institute of Aging says that the polyphenol antioxidants, found abundantly in pomegranate, help to lower the occurrence of this plaque buildup, thus improving cognitive functioning.
Incorporate these 12 super brain foods to jumpstart your life and improve your brain function.
Michael Locklear is a researcher and consultant with 30 years experience, studying health, nutrition, and human behavior. He has been president of the Global Peace Project since 1986, and he administrates the website www.Natural-Remedies-for-Total-Health.com as part of the Global Peace Project Educational Outreach Program. You can also find him on The Total Health Blog.