Optimize Your Brain Health: Focusing on a Brain-Healthy Diet over Just Supplementation
Rebecca Robin, IIN Content Editor
Your brain is the engine that drives the function of your entire body.
As the control center of your body and central nervous system, the brain is a key player in all critical body functions. It controls your breathing and heartbeat, movement and motor function, and ability to understand language and communicate effectively.
The brain is home to 100 billion neurons and 40,000 connecting synapses, constantly transmitting information and firing neural signals to carry out essential functions to keep you alive and humming. These signals result in the coordination of new thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and sensations. As the brain is constantly at work – whether in production mode during the day or self-cleaning mode at night – it consumes up to 20% of the body’s daily energy.
The brain requires food as both medicine and fuel to keep it – and the body – running smoothly. When you fuel your brain properly, your mind is sharp and you are able to focus on detailed tasks, express creativity, and even improve your memory.
A diversified, nutrient-rich diet is perfect fuel for your brain.
Whole fruits and vegetables, legumes, and healthy fats, including those from fish, nuts, and seeds, are some of the key food groups known to boost your brain function in the long term. These foods contain vitamins and minerals that contribute to sharper memory, cognitive function, alertness, and creativity.
Whether from your diet or supplementation, omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, E vitamins, and antioxidants are all vital for healthy brain function. They can even reverse the inflammatory effects that sugar, processed foods, and saturated fats cause in the brain. Inflammatory foods cause oxidative stress, killing neurons, weakening your memory, and impacting your ability to learn and process thoughts and ideas properly.
Does supplementation work as well as following a healthy diet?
There’s an abundance of over-the-counter pills and supplements that claim to boost memory and sharpen focus. According to the 2019 AARP Brain Health and Dietary Supplements Survey, more than 25% of Americans age 50 and older regularly take supplements for their brain health. However, it’s important to look at the scientific evidence before buying into popular and savvy marketing tactics.
When it comes to nutrient deficiencies, supplements are a quick and easy way to feed your body what it’s missing. However, the combination of nutrients found naturally in food and their bioavailability for absorption in the body may have more substantial benefits for the brain. Foods provide certain bioactive compounds and dietary fiber that aren’t present in supplements. Some supplements may also claim to have a certain daily value of a vitamin or mineral, but if taken improperly, such as without food, certain fat-soluble vitamins will not be readily absorbed.
We’ve set out to address the debate over whether you can out-supplement a less-than-healthy diet, identifying the studies and evidence behind foods and supplements that claim to power your brain.
The MIND diet for a healthy, happy brain
In 1993, the Chicago Health and Aging Project first began to study the nutritional factors that affect cognitive decline and dementia. The results indicated the benefits of following a specific dietary plan to slow potential risks of developing Alzheimer’s disease. They coined it the MIND diet: Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay. It’s a combination of the Mediterranean diet, focused on whole processed foods, and the DASH diet, focused on fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats, which has proven beneficial in preventing cognitive decline.
The MIND diet includes many whole, anti-inflammatory foods:
1) Leafy greens
A daily serving of greens can help keep your mind sharp and slow cognitive decline. A study found that people who ate 1–2 servings of greens a day had the same cognitive abilities as someone 11 years younger.
Spinach, kale, collards, and mustard greens contain essential nutrients, such as vitamins E and K, lutein, folate, and beta-carotene. Vitamin E, specifically, has been associated with better cognitive performance, reducing inflammation in the brain and preventing the buildup of plaque on brain cells, which has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease.
Folate inhibits the buildup of homocysteine, an amino acid associated with cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease in older adults. Leafy greens also contain lutein, which has been shown to suppress inflammation in the body.
Berries are a great source of antioxidants, protecting brain cells from harmful free radicals that may cause oxidative damage. The antioxidants found in blackberries, blueberries, and strawberries can aid in preventing age-related memory loss, helping neurons in the brain communicate more effectively by reducing inflammation, preventing neuronal damage, and improving motor and cognitive skills.
Berries contain carotenoids and flavonoids, the antioxidant pigments that create the rich purple and red skins on fruit. The flavonoid anthocyanin, also found in berries, has been linked to increased memory function and neurogenesis, the process by which new neurons are formed in the brain.
These nutrient-packed fruits can help fight degenerative changes in the brain and are also a good source of fiber and glucose, two major energy sources for the brain.
Legumes include beans, lentils, and split peas, all great sources of B vitamins, folic acid, fiber, and omega-3 fatty acids. B vitamins are water-soluble, meaning that your body cannot store them and will need to replenish them by absorbing these vitamins from your daily diet.
Legumes aid your body in producing neurotransmitters that regulate mood as well as the hormone epinephrine, which is a crucial component of our stress response. B vitamins are also responsible for converting homocysteine into acetylcholine, an important neurotransmitter that aids the endocrine system, in addition to aiding the brain in creating new memories. High levels of homocysteine are associated with a greater risk of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
Folic acid found in legumes is crucial for a functioning nervous system, helping to improve your verbal and memory function. Folic acid deficiency has been linked to depression and dementia. Legumes are also an important source of fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, which facilitates satiation – helping you feel full for longer! The fiber found in legumes also promotes a gradual release of sugar, fueling your brain steadily and promoting better concentration and memory throughout the day.
Peanuts – which are legumes, not nuts! – contain niacin, an essential form of vitamin B3, as well as resveratrol, a non-flavonoid antioxidant. Studies have found that niacin deficiencies are correlated with cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. Resveratrol has also been shown to have protective benefits against Alzheimer’s and Parkinson's disease.
Fish is a key source of omega-3 fatty acids, a nutrient that regulates your brain’s structure and its ability to perform. The brain uses omega-3s to build brain and nerve cells, maintain a steady heartbeat, and prevent blood clots. The brain has a particularly high concentration of DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid that provides neuroprotection and boosts cognitive performance for all ages.
Consuming omega-3 fatty acids actually helps you make less “bad” cholesterol (LDL) and more “good” cholesterol (HDL) that protects your brain. It also helps build cell membranes within the brain that may have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects to protect brain cells.
Omega-3 fatty acids cannot be made naturally by the body, so integrating fatty fish, like salmon, sardines, mackerel, trout, and tuna, into your diet can be beneficial, as well as plant-based sources of omega-3s, such as flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and soy.
Nuts contain healthy fats and can be a hearty snack, making them great for brain health. Walnuts, specifically, have nearly 100% of the recommended daily intake of DHA. They contain nutrients that prevent damage and inflammation in the brain and help maintain brain function as you age.
Almonds and hazelnuts are also brain boosters, containing a concentrated amount of vitamin E. During the aging process, the brain is more susceptible to oxidative stress, and vitamin E can protect cells from this stress by preventing free-radical damage to cell membranes.
6) Whole grains
Carbohydrates are often villainized, but for many, the benefits are all about choosing the right carbohydrates! Whole grains, like oats, barley, quinoa, and oatmeal, can enhance brain function by increasing blood flow to the brain, aiding in vascular homeostasis, which can help maintain the brain’s muscular tone and function.
Rich in dietary fiber and vitamins B and E, whole grains keep you satiated throughout the day, helping you stay focused and fueling your brain. B vitamins also reduce inflammation, promoting overall health of the brain.
Brain supplements can include vitamins, minerals, herbs, and amino acids taken by mouth – each of which has differing levels of scientific evidence to support brain health improvement:
1) Fish oil or DHA supplements
Fish oil contains the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA, which are responsible for essential brain processes and functions. There is evidence that fish oil supplements did not improve brain function in a study of otherwise healthy adults. However, the dietary supplement has shown some benefit when taken by healthy adults with mild cognitive impairment or early-onset Alzheimer’s.
2) Ginkgo biloba
Ginkgo biloba, a Chinese herbal supplement, has long been advertised as a “memory enhancer,” thought to increase cerebral blood flow. However, a study by the Ginkgo Evaluation of Memory determined that those who had taken the supplement did not experience any further reduction in cognitive decline than those who had taken the placebo.
3) Rhodiola rosea
Rhodiola rosea is an herb commonly used to treat fatigue and anxiety. As a natural adaptogen that helps the body cope with stress, this supplement may be helpful in improving brain health. One study demonstrated that the use of this supplement reduced mental fatigue and enhanced sustained performance in work-related tasks.
4) Folic acid (B vitamins)
Folic acid (or B vitamin) supplements are taken as a means to lower levels of homocysteine in your blood, an amino acid that in high levels has been linked to memory loss and dementia. A two-year study found no significant improvement in performance and cognition in those who had taken the supplement.
Tyrosine is an amino acid often taken as a dietary supplement to improve alertness, attention, and focus. It is also used in pre-workout supplements as a source of clean energy, helping create neurotransmitters that aid your brain in dealing with mental strain. A study found that tyrosine is in fact helpful in improving flexible cognitive ability during stressful tasks.
The principal curcuminoid in turmeric, curcumin is an antioxidant used in supplement form as a memory booster. A UCLA study found curcumin supplementation improved memory and mood in those with mild age-related memory loss as well as diminished buildup of abnormal proteins in their brains.
Your bio-individual needs come first.
How can you add more brain-enhancing superfoods to your daily diet? It could be simple, such as whipping up this breakfast bowl full of whole grains, omega-3s, and fiber, throwing a handful of blueberries into your green smoothie, or getting in a serving of walnuts with this shaved Brussels sprouts salad. You can also start incorporating salmon into your weekly meal rotations or, if you’re plant-based, making a hearty chili.
Improving your diet is a major lifestyle change that can result in sustainable long-term benefits for the brain. It’s important to remember that each of us may have different reactions to certain food groups or supplements, and it’s always recommended to consult with your healthcare practitioner before undergoing any major diet changes. The same goes for supplements, as they are often way more concentrated with a vitamin or mineral than you would naturally get from food.
Our goal is to empower you with knowledge and science-based evidence of potential benefits of a certain way of eating or living. It’s up to you as a bio-individual to review the available research and determine which new food groups or supplements fit best into your life.
By understanding more about the foods that nourish you, you can make educated decisions to find a way of eating and living that meets your bio-individual needs. The brain is an integral part of whole-body health and thus requires an integrative approach to keep it at its peak performance!