Over the past several years, conversations about cognitive and mental health issues like memory loss, anxiety, depression have become much more frequent and open. This had caused many people to realize that dealing with these issues may be another facet of self-care and overall health. Societal norms regarding mental health have evolved slowly, so it understandably follows that the research surrounding the impact diet might have on these conditions has also been slow to develop.
The Food-Brain Connection
Findings from studies suggest that food and nutrients may play a much larger role in overall brain health than we ever imagined.
It can be easy to take all that the brain regulates and does for granted, but the reality is the brain is an organ just like the heart and lungs, working nonstop, 24/7. Because of this, the brain requires a constant supply of energy and nutrients. However, even though it’s long been established that diet impacts physical health issues — including risk for conditions like obesity, heart disease, and diabetes — the idea that food may affect cognitive and mental health is a relatively new area of medicine.
But over the past few years, our knowledge and understanding of how the brain functions has grown exponentially. It’s clear that there are certain nutrients that the brain needs to function properly. It’s also clear that a definite connection between the gut and the brain exists, and while not fully understood, that connection appears to play a role in attention, depression, anxiety, memory, mood, and even risk for degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s. In fact, research suggests malnourishment of certain nutrients the brain needs combined with too many less-healthy diet components may trigger changes to occur in the brain’s structure. And while it’s often easier to identify long-term changes (particularly in cognitive functioning), our diet can affect brain functioning when it comes to mood and memory on a short-term basis as well.
Our diet is one of the most important components that contributes to our overall health and wellness. It is also a component that we have complete control over. We eat certain foods to strengthen our immune system, to protect our heart, to maintain our weight, and even improve the quality of our skin, but it is above all most important that we eat for our brain. What is good for our brain is good for the rest of our body.
One highly interesting segment of the functional food market is cognitive-enhancing foods and beverages. This is a fast-growing segment as more and more people pay closer attention to their mental and cognitive state. Such consumers may be gamers who want to perform better, office workers needing to be attentive and focused, students who want support for their long hours of studying, and ordinary people who do not suffer from cognitive decline but still want to enhance and support brain function in the fast-paced world we live in.
One example of a structural component with positive cognitive effects is phosphatidylserine, or PS. PS is a phospholipid that is a component of cell membranes and is especially enriched within brain tissues and cells. Effects of consuming a variety of phosphatidylserine products on brain function have been studied in populations of all ages, from children to seniors. PS is also the only brain-health food ingredient with FDA-approved qualified health claims related to cognition. The organoleptic properties of PS (its lack of smell or taste) make it a perfect partner for certain foods — first and foremost, the dairy industry. In certain parts of the world, mainly in Asia, PS is already used in dairy products, and its popularity worldwide is growing. It’s also widely available as a nootropic supplement.
The Best Foods for the Brain
Significant changes in the food industry in the last decades have affected what we eat, resulting in certain nutritional deficiencies or nutritional imbalances. One example is omega-3 fatty acids, whose consumption has declined in parallel with a huge increase in consumption of omega-6 fatty acids.
Eating a healthy, balanced diet that includes several everyday brain-boosting foods may help to keep your focus, concentration, and memory as sharp as can be.
Evidence accumulated at Tufts University in the United States suggests that the consumption of blueberries may be effective in improving or delaying short-term memory loss. They’re widely available, but you can also achieve the same effect with other dark red and purple fruits, like blackberries, and vegetables, like red cabbage. These contain the same protective compounds called anthocyanins.
Black and Green Tea
Black and green teas provide hydration for any time of day, which is essential for the brain, while jump-starting thermogenic (metabolic) activity and boosting the feeling of energy. Caffeine is known for its natural thermogenic (metabolism-boosting) benefits and green tea for its antioxidant properties. These teas also support the body’s antioxidant activity, which helps protect against free radical damage. Don’t drink your tea immediately: give it time so water can extract and concentrate the tea’s components so you get the maximum benefit.
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds are loaded with alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid, and vitamin E, both of which support memory and cognition. Walnuts, flax seeds, chia seeds, and pumpkin seeds are the best choices. Measure out a serving instead of eating from the jar or bag. It’s easy to over-do it with these nutrition-packed, dense foods. We suggest ¼ cup or 1 ounce as a serving size.
Essential fatty acids (EFAs) can’t be made by the body which means they must be obtained through food. It’s well known that the most effective omega-3 fats occur naturally in oily fish in the form of EPA and DHA. Good plant sources include flaxseed, soya beans, pumpkin seeds, walnuts and their oils. These fats are important for healthy brain function, the heart, joints and our general well-being. Although studies are at an early stage there is some suggestion that adequate amounts of omega-3 fats in your diet may help to relieve depression.
Rich in B vitamins, Greek yogurt is a wholesome food that’s healthy for the brain. Naturally rich in calcium and a good source of vitamin D, Greek yogurt can replace sour cream, mayonnaise, or the base of a salad dressing so every bite is filled with rich nutrients.
Eggs and eggs yolk are rich in protein and vitamins such as B, D, and E, which may help to improve memory. Choline is also found in eggs; it is a micronutrient that your body uses to create acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood and memory. Egg yellow also has lutein which can help with brain health.
Like everything else in your body, the brain cannot work without energy. The ability to concentrate and focus comes from an adequate, steady supply of energy (in the form of glucose) in our blood, to the brain. Achieve this by choosing wholegrains which have a low-GI, which means they release their energy slowly into the bloodstream, keeping you mentally alert throughout the day. Eating too few healthy carbs, like wholegrains, may lead to brain fog and irritability.