While brain-power foods may sound like just another health trend, research shows that there is a direct connection between your nutrition and brain functioning. There really are certain foods that can boost your cognition and improve your overall mood. From memory to stress reduction, these foods provide key nutritive properties that clear your brain fog, enable you to think more clearly, optimize your cognition and even allow you to feel happier.
1. Fermented Foods
Probiotic-rich foods like yogurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut positively impact your gut microbiota and directly affect your mental health. A healthy gut microbiota is also responsible for warding off neurological and psychiatric conditions from Parkinson’s disease to depression (1). In fact, probiotic-rich fermented foods can not only enhance human behavior and mental health, but can also be used as a treatment of mental health disorders and other diseases (2).
Spinach and other dark, leafy green vegetables like kale, collard greens and broccoli contain high amounts of nutrients like folate, beta-carotene, vitamin K and lutein, all of which promote a healthy brain. Research suggests that this particular group of plant foods may slow cognitive decline as you age (3). Folate and vitamins E and K found in dark leafy green vegetables also aid in boosting memory and mood.
In addition to being loaded with antioxidant-rich phytochemicals, broccoli contains two key nutrients that are key in improving brain functioning: vitamin K and choline. These little green trees also contain anti-inflammatory compounds that can help protect the brain from damage (4).
Berries contain some of the highest amounts of antioxidants out of any other food category. They are mini superfood powerhouses. These powerful antioxidant properties are what help berries in protecting the brain from free radicals, keeping you mentally sharp and cognitively aware. Blueberries also improve memory abilities and may protect against Parkinson’s (5).
Also known as insoluble fiber, prebiotics include fresh, raw foods such as onion, garlic, leek, wheat, barley, oat, banana, apple, asparagus, Jicama, Jerusalem artichokes and chicory. Prebiotic-containing foods are non-digestible by the gut and can only be metabolized by probiotic microbiota. Therefore, they stimulate the growth and activity of probiotic microbiota in the gut, keeping you physically and mentally healthy (2). This is why keeping your gut healthy is so crazy important!
7. Whole grains
One study compared Western dietary patterns (frequent intakes of red/processed meat, saturated/trans-fat, refined grains and sugar) and a more “prudent” dietary pattern (more frequent intakes of vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, fish and water). The evidence from this research showed that Western dietary patterns predicted cognitive decline, whereas the healthier dietary approach, which included whole grains preserved cognitive function and counteracted the adverse effects of a Westernized diet on brain health (6).
Pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, flax seeds and hemp seeds are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are acknowledged for their benefit to healthy brain development, aiding in memory and improving mental health. Zinc, also commonly found in seeds, aids in healthy brain function, too. Seeds also contain magnesium, which has been shown to reduce anxiety and induce a calming effect on the brain.
Sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds contain tryptophan, a nutrient that can reduce feelings of mild depression. Tryptophan converts to serotonin in the body and can help in handling stress, regulating moods and improving sleep. (7)
Flax seeds, chia seeds, and hemp seeds, with their high levels of omega-3, aid in overall brain health but also reduce the risk of depression and improve positive thinking. Proof you truly can boost your mood with nutrition.
Think it’s just a coincidence that a walnut looks like the human brain? Walnuts contain omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, essential for nourishing the brain and preventing depression. They’re also high in vitamin E and vitamin B6, two nutrients that aid in nerve functioning. A healthy nervous system helps with clearer thinking and more positive thoughts :)
Nuts like cashews, walnuts, and almond contain high levels of magnesium which aid in healthy blood flow to the brain. When more oxygen-rich blood flows to the brain, it functions at a better level. (8)
10. Polyphenols + Flavonoids
Polyphenols are a group of phytochemicals, which are micronutrients found in plants. These nutrients are what give plants their vibrant, bright colors. Dietary polyphenols, including dark chocolate (yes!), berries, fruit, beans, nuts, vegetables, soy, tea and red wine have the ability to promote brain health by protecting neurons against oxidative stress. Polyphenols reduce inflammation on the brain, therefore reducing the risk for neurotoxicity and neurodegeneration (9).
One group of polyphenols is flavonoids, phytochemicals (or plant nutrients) that have recently been studied for their health effects on the central nervous system. Due to their antioxidant effects, flavonoids help to prevent cognitive decline (10).
By introducing flavonoid-rich foods into your diet, including tea, citrus fruits, berries, red wine, apples, legumes, and fruits and vegetables, you can help protect the neurons in your brain and enhance their functioning. Flavonoids also help with enhanced memory, learning, cognitive performance and processing speed (11). Additionally, diets rich in flavonoid-containing foods may delay the initiation of Alzheimer's Disease (12).
Notice a trend? They’re all PLANTS. Nature provides the vital nourishment to a pretty serious organ: your brain. With the introduction of these nutrient-dense foods, that are loaded with antioxidants, phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals, you can guarantee an improvement in your overall mental functioning and mental well-being, too.
Additional foods to boost brain power include:
Important lifestyle factors for a healthy brain:
Food is just one area of our multi-dimensional lifestyles. The following are equally important in maintaining not only a healthy functioning mind, but a balanced, healthy life.
A purpose in life that centers around your values
Challenging tasks that stimulate your brain
Deep breathing and meditation
Key takeaway: focus on whole, plant-based foods, move your body daily and create a life that makes you feel good: mentally, physically and emotionally.