As science advances, the more clear it becomes that what we eat matters. In fact, some health issues can be solved with diet adjustments alone. And while eating healthily can help you feel that your body is at its best, a diet that includes the right foods can also keep your brain in top shape. Not only can good nutrition help you manage your day-to-day stresses more efficiently, but it can also improve how your brain functions as you age. "The fact is, our brains are constantly aging, and while we can't stop that process, we can slow it down by consuming nutrients that keep it young,” explains Rebecca Lewis, registered dietitian at HelloFresh. “Nutrient-dense foods that are rich in antioxidants, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals help us grow new brain cells while warding off illnesses such as depression and dementia."
Ahead, doctors and dietitians reveal the vitamins and foods that are essential for keeping your mind sharp.
"This B vitamin (also known as cobalamin) helps ensure proper nervous system function," explains Jennifer Markowitz, RD, a clinical dietitian working in Philadelphia. "Low levels of B12 are associated with poorer short-term memory and concentration, low energy levels, and depression." So where can you get it? Animal products like meat, seafood, eggs, and dairy are rich in B12. If you're vegan, look for fortified alternative milks, or give supplements a try.
Best in B12
Another essential B vitamin, this one is crucial for regulating mood and preventing mental fatigue, according to Markowitz. "Vitamin B6 also helps the body make hemoglobin, the part of the blood that carries energy-boosting oxygen to the brain and other organs. Low levels have been associated with low energy and impaired ability to focus," she says. The best way to get this nutrient is by eating cod, salmon, halibut, trout, and tuna. Dairy products will provide some B6, but not as much, so many multivitamins include it in the mix.
Quercetin is an antioxidant that's in many fruits like apples and berries, making them some of the healthiest choices for your brain. "Quercetin has been historically recognized for its benefits for treating high-cholesterol, heart disease, and other circulation-related diseases," notes Matthew Kuchan, PhD, discovery scientist at Abbott. New research suggests, though, that quercetin might help delay the decline of cognitive health. "Adults should aim for at least 5 milligrams of quercetin every day or the equivalent of an apple," Kuchan says. "Just make sure you eat the peel, too, as that's where you'll find the highest concentration of quercetin."
Simple but effective. "Caffeine improves mental acuity and can enhance focus, but there may be additional cognitive benefits to drinking coffee and tea," says Markowitz. "A 2015 study found that older adults who consumed one to two cups of coffee daily reduced their development of mild cognitive impairment compared to those who did not drink coffee regularly." In other words, this is pretty much the best reason ever to keep up your coffee habit.
Carotenoids are pigments in fruits and vegetables that give them their color, and they're also nutritional powerhouses. "They have antioxidant properties, which protect components of cells, such as the cell wall, mitochondria, as well as the DNA from free radicals," explains Dean Sherzai, MD, PhD, and co-author of The Alzheimer's Solution. "Free radicals can wreak havoc on cells, and through their disintegrating properties, they can damage cells or promote mutations that often lead to cancers and degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's." Foods with carotenoids tend to be vibrant in color, like carrots, cantaloupe, sweet potato, and kale, and they're best consumed through real food rather than in supplement form.
"Medium-chain fatty acids are a brain's best friend," says Sharon Brown, CEO and co-founder of Bonafide Provisions. "The brain uses MCTs as energy, and therefore cognition is improved. Studies have shown that the best source of MCT is coconut oil. My favorite way to get MCTs in a food program is to add half a teaspoon to my daily coffee or tea," she says. Looks like it's time to break out that Bulletproof coffee recipe.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
If you're even a little bit interested in nutrition, you probably know that omega-3 fatty acids are good for you. That's partially because they help slow the aging process in your brain. "Recent research in older adults at risk of late onset Alzheimer's disease showed that those who consumed more omega-3 fatty acids did better than their peers on tests of cognitive flexibility or the ability to efficiently switch between tasks," explains Kuchan. "Unlike some nutrients, omega-3 fatty acids do not naturally occur in the body, so it's important to make sure you're incorporating healthy foods into your diet that are rich in omega-3s. Adults should aim for 500 mg of omega-3 fatty acids every day or the equivalent of 3 ounces of cooked salmon." Of course, a high-quality supplement is always an option, too.
There's been a lot of buzz about turmeric lately, and for good reason. "This super spice gets its signature yellow hue from curcumin, one of the richest sources of beta-carotene (the precursor to vitamin A) and a potent anti-inflammatory ingredient that prevents plaque buildup in the brain," says Lewis. "Turmeric also helps slow the breakdown of neurons (which is a critical component in preventing Alzheimer's) while also promoting the growth of new nerve cells in the brain." Incorporating the spice into your daily diet is a good option, as well as trying out a curcumin supplement.
What health problems are you interested in healing through nutrition? Let us know, and we'll tap out nutrition experts for answers.