Eating well is good for your physical health, but what most people seem to forget it is also really good for your mental health! Keep in mind that good things for your heart are also good for your head. Eating the right foods will protect you against heart diseases, high blood pressure, obisity, and diabetes. These illnessess raise the risk for age-related cognitive decline, like forgetfulness, and decreased problem solving. Your brain needs the right kind of foods to protect you against these possible cognitive declines, along with protection against a variety of mental disorders now, and degenerative brain diseases in years to come. These foods are high in essential brain nutrients, so called brain foods.
In this guide I will show you a couple of foods that are especially important to keep your grey matter healthy and happy.
Our body isn’t capable to make essential fatty acids which means they must be obtained through our diet. Fish is a great source of protein which is needed to form serotonine, and dopamine; neurotransmitters known as being mood-boosting. The stuff in your brain that makes you happy!
However, possible the most important nutrient in fish is omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAs). These fats are important for healthy brain function, as they are a crucial structural component of brain cell membranes and nerve cells. As previously mentioned, EFAs cannot be made by our body, so it is really important to get enough of them in your diet. Oily fish is good for you because it contains the active form of this fat, which enables the body to use it easily. Low levels of EFAs have been linked to an increased risk of serious degenerative disorders like dementia and Alzheimer’s (1,2). Having sufficient levels of EFAs helps us to manage stress, and can help us to protect ourselves from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) (3).
Additionally to EFAs, fish is also a great source of another omega-3, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). DHA is the main structural fat, defining about 97% of all the omega-3 fats in our brain (4). Lower levels of DHA are known to be associated with cognitive impairment, ADHD-like symptoms, and emotional symptoms in childeren. Moreover, insufficient levels of DHA plays a role in age-related cognitive decline, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, mood swings, and depression (5,6,7,8).
Not all fish are equally rich in omega 3s. The best sources are oily fish that live in cold water, such as salmon, herring, trout, sardines, and mackerel (9).
Recommendation: 300-350 grams of fatty fish per week.
Strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, and let’s not forget the cranberries, any type of berry is beneficial for brain function. As most of us know, fruits are known to be healthy with lots of vitamines, fibers, and phytonutrients (natural chemicals found in plants) (10). However, berries especially are the topnotch of all fruit.
Berries are high in flavonoids, antioxidants that protect the brain from oxidative damage and stress that lead to premature aging, Alzheimer’s, and dementia. Flavonoids improve the communication between neurons, improve memory, learning, general cognitive function, including reasoning, decision making, and verbal comprehension. Additionaly, the flavonoids in berries may even slow age-related decline in mental function (11,12).
The effect of eating berries on brain health is mediated through molecules like brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This is a neurotrophin which influences the maintenance, survival, growth, and differentiation of neurons. BDNF excites synaptic plasticity in neurons, strengthen learning capacity and memory development. Low levels of BDNF are associated with neurodegenerative diseases like depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia (13).
Berries are also a source of resveratrol, a polyphenol (natural micronutrients with antioxidant activity), which might be neuroprotective, and be useful in the prevetion, and treatment of neurodegenerative diseases. Research has shown that resveratrol has a positive effect on brain function, and memory in older adults (14).
Recommendation: 3-4 servings of berries per week.
Avocados are a source of mono-unsaturated fats, omega 3, and omega 6 fatty acids. You will probably already understand that food high in essential fatty acids are good food for your brain. Well, yes, the same is true for avocado. The essential fatty acids in avocados increase blood flow to the brain, lower cholesterol, and play a helping role in the absorption of antioxidants. Eating food high in mono-unsaturated fats will support the production and release of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that is necessary for learning and memory (15)
Avocados also are a great source of antioxidants, including vitamin C, E, which protect our body and brain from free radical damage. They are also good source of potassium and vitamin K, both are linked to reduced blood pressure, thereby protect the body and brain for heart attacks, strokes, and kidney failure (16).
Futhermore, avocados are high in tyrosine, this is an essential component for production of neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters help nerve cells communicate and influence mood. A shortage of tyrosine causes a shortage of dopamine, the brain chemical that keeps you motivated and focused, which is associated with depression (17).
Recommendation: serving size of 30-35 grams at a time, that’s about 1/4 of the avocado.
Nuts are a great source of vitamins, protein, and minerals. People who eat nuts every day are found to live longer, and living healthier than people who don’t (18). Nuts are high in vitamine E, which might help to prevent cognitive decline, particularly in elderly (19). Futhermore, eating walnuts may inprove cognitive functioning, such as learning, improved reaction time, and memory (20).
Worried that eating nuts every day will make you gain weight? Studies show that frequent nut eaters were less likely to gain weight. Although nuts are high in fat (don’t worry: most of it is the heart-healthy variety), nuts are also high in protein and fiber, which delays absorption, and keeps you feeling satisfied longer.
The health benefits hold true for a variety of nuts, so there’s not one perfect nut. Try to eat mixed nuts, such as almonds, walnuts, pistachios, pecans, and hazelnuts, and be sure to eat unsalted over salted.
Recommendation: a golf-ball sized portion per day (about 30 grams).