Those who have practiced at the gym know that sufficient protein and mineral intake are essential to building muscle. Similarly, the brain benefits from cognitive training whether it is work, education, puzzles, or learning a new language. Importantly, your brain is also partially built from the nutrients you eat and thus diet also has an integral role in supporting cognition such as memory, planning, emotions, and focus. For example, the brain needs healthy fats and vitamins to support cell structure and build insulation around nerve cells, and amino acids to build signaling hormones (neurotransmitters). Nutrients also contribute to brain immunity by keeping inflammation and oxidative stress in check. This article lists 6 foods and nutrients that help you to support your cognitive work and brain functioning.
Fish & microalgae
Seafood is rich in long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. Especially important for memory and cognition is Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). In the human organs, the highest DHA contents are found in the eye (60 %) and the brain (40 %). In the brain, DHA concentrates the brain’s grey matter (a type of brain tissue), where it has an important role in cell signalling. Remarkably, nearly half of the nerve cell membrane weight is DHA.
Dietary DHA intake is linked to healthy executive functioning and cognition. Omega-3s are also needed for the healthy function of neurotransmitter systems such as serotonergic, dopaminergic, and noradrenergic systems. It’s even suggested that the development and size of the human brain would be due to increased consumption of seafood at the beginning of the development of the species Homo Sapiens.
Did you know that DHA in fish mainly comes from the microalgae that fish eat? This means that if you’re not a fish-consumer, you can get your DHA from alternative sources including microalgae or microalgae oil.
Blueberries and bilberries
Blueberries (lat. Vaccinium cyanococcus) and bilberries (lat. Vaccinium myrtillus) have achieved the status of one of the healthiest foods on the planet.
The wide range of bioactive plant compounds (such as resveratrol) found in the berries have properties that protect the brain from ageing and inflammation. They might also support healthy cell signalling and cognition. In animal studies, consuming blueberries is also linked to increased expression of brain growth factors and brain plasticity.
These berries are similar (but not identical) and easy to confuse so here is a memory rule: blueberries are big and blue, as their name implies. On the other hand, bilberries are small and almost black. Blueberries are native to Americans and grow in bushes whereas bilberries (the small ones) grow in heaths, meadows and moist coniferous forests.
Tip: Pick wild berries during their harvest season, freeze them, and eat all year long!
Avocado is a unique piece of fruit: it contains no carbohydrates, but instead it is filled with healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, and fibre. Only olive fruits are similar to avocados in terms of nutrient content. The high amounts of various phytochemicals and antioxidants in avocados help to protect from neuronal damage caused by oxidative stress. In one study, eating one medium avocado per day for six months increased neural lutein and supported cognitive functioning such as working memory. In an animal study, the consumption of cold-pressed avocado oil also improved mitochondrial function and decreased oxidative stress in the brain.
Eggs are known as food rich in protein, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. With regards to memory and brain, choline and lutein are especially interesting. Choline contributes to building myelin around brain cell axons. Myelin (white matter) supports cell signaling and protects the nerve cells from damage.
Eggs are also a rich source of a colour pigment called lutein. Lutein is a well-known antioxidant found in the macula of the eye. It is also the dominant carotenoid in the brain. Higher neural lutein is linked to better academic achievement and language performance and shown to support neural efficiency. In older adults, higher lutein levels are linked to increased brain activity in the areas of verbal memory and learning
Tip: Opt for local and organic eggs for optimal nutrient density. A vivid yellow yolk is rich in carotenoids and fat-soluble vitamins. See two cooking recipes for a perfect egg in the Biohacker’s Handbook’s Nutrition chapter.
Tip for women: It might be important for a pregnant woman to ensure sufficient choline intake as it might contribute to the normal brain development and cognition of the child.
Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO)
Olive oil is the main product of olive trees (lat. Olea europaea). Olive oil has a delicious taste and it’s also a key part of the Mediterranean diet that is linked to higher life expectancy. It’s believed that the beneficial effects of the Mediterranean diet are partly due to EVOO and the polyphenols it contains (such as hydroxytyrosol, tyrosol, and oleocanthal). Replacing dietary vegetable oils (such as sunflower, soybean, and rapeseed oils) with extra virgin olive oil has been shown to protect the brain especially in the older population.
In one study, two groups of older people followed a Mediterranean diet so that one group used all sorts of vegetable oils and one group only extra-virgin olive oil. After one year, the elderly who had been using only olive oil had better scores in tests of memory and some other cognitive functions. EVOO is also used in other diets linked to healthy cognitive ageing, such as the MIND diet.
Tip: Opt for unfiltered extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) – it has a darker colour, more intense taste, and much higher polyphenol content than other olive oils.
Leafy greens (especially the dark ones) are packed with vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and antioxidants and thus support optimal brain function and overall health – these include vitamin K, C, A, E and folate, to mention a few. Usually, darker colours imply more nutrient-density.
The most nutrient-dense leafy greens are watercress, kale, collard greens, spinach, swiss chard, dark lettuce, cabbage, arugula, turnip greens, and herbs. Also, broccoli and broccoli sprouts, as well as other sprouts and microgreens, are high in various important nutrients essential for brain health. For example, sulforaphane, that activates the so-called Nrf2 pathway supporting the cell’s mitochondria and renewal.
A study published in Neurology (2018) found that eating at least one serving of leafy green vegetables every day was associated with a slower decline in brain function.
Tip: Foraging is a term that refers to searching for wild foods from nature. It is a great way to find nutrient-dense, healthy herbs and plants to support brain health, as well as to connect with nature, relax and recover.
- Nutrition is important for cognition, brain immunity, and brain cell renewal
- DHA supports cell structure cell signaling. The best sources for DHA are fish oil and microalgae
- Blueberries and bilberries contain resveratrol that protects the brain from aging and inflammation and supports healthy cell signaling. Fresh berries are the most nutrient-dense and can be frozen to enjoy all year round.
- Avocados are filled with healthy fats and when consumed regularly, might increase neural lutein and support cognitive functioning.
- Egg yolk is rich in choline and lutein that contributes to building myelin and thus protecting the nerve cells. A vivid yellow yolk signifies nutrient-density.
- Extra virgin olive oil is linked to higher life expectancy and contains a lot of polyphenols that might contribute to lowering inflammation and supporting cognition. Extra virgin oil is darker in color and more intense in taste. It also contains more polyphenols than regular oil.
- Leafy greens (especially the dark ones) and cruciferous vegetables are packed with vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and antioxidants that support optimal brain function. Foraging (searching for wild foods from nature) is a great way to find herbs and plants to eat as well as to connect with nature, relax and recover.
What are your favorite brain foods? Tell us in the comments!