Several things affect the condition of the brain and mental control; one of them is your diet. Thinking is fast, fluent, and easy when your diet provides the brain with optimal building blocks for energy production, important neurotransmitters, brain cells and protective tissue such as myelin sheath and glial cells. “Brain food” is a non-scientific term which means everyday foods that have scientifically been shown to improve brain function when they are frequently consumed. Some people call these “smart foods” or even “genius foods”
Diet affects these every-day processes which are linked to brain health:
- Energy levels
- Happiness and positive emotions
- Emotional balance and calmness
- Brain relaxation and recovery
- Brain immunity
- Brain cell protection and thinking speed
- Motor memory and movement
Better functioning brain can mean for example:
- Having a better memory for information relevant at work and home
- Remembering the faces and names of the people you’ve met (especially when they remember your name!)
- meetings aRemembering nd relevant tasks
- Having energy throughout the working day and until the evening when you spend time with your family
- Having calmness, focus, and concentration during presentations, lectures, and conversations
- Having energy for exercise and trying out new hobbies
- Being able to enjoy and savor the most beautiful life experiences by maintaining balanced mood and relaxed mental state
- Having a more growth-oriented and positive outlook on life
- Having deeper sleep and better overall recovery
- Being more resilient to stress and sudden challenges in life
Generally, brain foods are high in the following nutrients:
- Antioxidants – fight against oxidative stress and free radicals in the brain
- Polyphenols – beneficial plant compounds with antioxidative abilities
- Flavonoids (e.g. flavan-3-ols, flavones, flavanones, and flavonols)
- Phenolic acids (e.g. rich in seeds and skin of the fruits)
- Polyphenolic amides (e.g. capsaicinoids in chili peppers and avenanthramides in oats)
- Isoflavones, neoflavonoids, and chalcones (e.g. genistein and daidzein in soy and chalcones in the apple)
- Anthocyanidins (i.e. the red, blue and purple pigments in blueberries, grapes, and beets)
- Non-flavonoid polyphenols (e.g. resveratrol in grape peels and curcumin in turmeric)
- Unsaturated fats (such as omega-3 fatty acids in seafood and fish, and oleic acid in extra virgin olive oil)
- Amino acids
As is the case for most containers of a new life, an egg is close to a perfect food. Eggs are rich in protein, vitamins, minerals and other beneficial nutrients (including phospholipids, lutein, zeaxanthin, and choline). Eggs also contain one particularly important nutrient, choline, which helps cells to detoxify from harmful toxins and thus protect from fatty liver disease.
Beneficial nutrients for brain health in eggs:
- Lutein (in yolk)
- Well-known antioxidant found in the macula of the eye and the dominant carotenoid in the brain
- Higher lutein levels are linked to more accurate cognitive performance with less effort
- Based on several studies, lutein/zeaxanthin levels are also linked to better cognitive function in patients with Alzheimer’s disease (AD)
Eggs are also abundant in vitamins B6, B12 and B9, which are linked to better energy levels, and slower neural loss and cognitive decline in old age.
One hard-boiled egg has 150 mg of choline, which is about 30 % of the daily recommendation of choline. Egg yolk is best to be left raw or just slightly cooked since heating destroys some of the healthy xanthophylls such as lutein. Buy local fresh eggs when possible. Organic eggs contain more vitamins than non-organic. When the yolk is vivid yellow, it is richer in carotenes and fat-soluble vitamins
2. Dark leafy greens & wild greens
Dark leafy greens are an integral part of a diet that supports optimal brain function and overall health. Usually the darker the color the more vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and antioxidants the leafy green contains. Wild greens are hardier than cultivated plants. It means that they can survive better in adverse growing conditions and contain more antioxidants, vitamins and trace elements. They are also free from pesticides. For example, wild nettle contains five times more iron than cultivated spinach.
Finnish wild herb salad.
Foraging is a term that refers to searching 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.
Beneficial nutrients for brain health in dark leafy greens:
- Vitamins A & C
- Vitamin A maintains neuronal plasticity and cognitive function in adulthood
- Vitamin C contributes to building neurons, neurotransmitters and the protective layer of myelin around neurons. It is also important for neurotransmitter balance such as converting tryptophan to serotonin. Vitamin C levels correlate with performance on cognitive tests, especially those measuring cognitive decline.
- Vitamin K, β-carotene, nitrates, folate (vitamin B9), kaempferol, flavonoids, and α-tocopherol (a form of vitamin E)
- Lutein, which is linked to improved cognition and processing speed
A large meta-analysis from 2017 confirmed that consuming vegetables, such as green leafy vegetables protects from cognitive impairment and dementia. A study published in Neurology in 2018 found that eating at least one serving (half a cup cooked or one cup raw) of leafy green vegetables every day was associated with a slower decline in brain function.
3. Dark and raw chocolate
Cacao is the key ingredient in chocolate. Due to its powerful ingredients, chocolate is also known as a “love drug” which can metaphorically open up the heart, decrease stress and increase happiness.
Chocolate was also used from the 16th century to the early 20th century as a medicine to alleviate many kinds of symptoms ranging from fatigue to digestive issues. The term chocolate originates from the Aztec word xocolatl, which means “bitter water”. Chocolate has been consumed at least since 460 AD made from the beans from the Theobroma cacao tree native to Central America and northern South America.
Commercial milk chocolate is not optimal brain food. Commercial chocolate often contains only low levels of cocoa and other ingredients such as sugar, milk and even gluten. Recently a healthier option (raw chocolate), has become a popular alternative for commercial chocolate products. Raw chocolate is made of (mostly) unroasted cacao beans, cacao butter (theobroma oil), and low levels of some sweetener that is not white sugar (such as stevia, cane sugar, coconut sugar, xylitol, or lucuma).
Beneficial nutrients for brain health in dark and raw chocolate:
- Cacao is high in bioactive flavonoids that are linked to various health benefits through their high antioxidant capacity and beneficial effect on cell signaling in the brain, which can improve thinking speed, memory, cognitive function, and protect the brain from inflammation and dementia
- Dietary flavonoids and antioxidants found in dark chocolate are linked to enhanced memory and slowed mental-decline in old age – in some studies, cocoa is even referred as a nutraceutical (i.e. a food product which shows extra health benefits such as preventing a disease)
- Cacao contains methylxanthines such as theobromine and caffeine, which are stimulants and can boost alertness, reaction times and psychomotor functions especially in a tired state or after a sleep deprivation
- Other beneficial ingredients in cacao are:
Choose high-quality raw chocolate (cacao) when possible with at least 70 % cacao content. This assures a low sugar and high antioxidant content in the product. As a rule of thumb, always check that cocoa/cacao is the first ingredient in the ingredient list. Use single-origin, organic chocolate to avoid artificial sweeteners and added chemicals.
4. Polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids (omega-3 PUFAs)
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2015) recommends consumption of 8 ounces of seafood per week. Fish is rich in essential healthy fatty acids, trace elements, vitamins and amino acids. Fish is also an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D. Wild fish has a higher level of omega-3 and more trace elements and vitamins than farmed fish. Fish oil and fish liver oil are recommended for individuals who do not eat enough fatty fish. Fish and other seafood contain polyunsaturated long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (PUFAs). The most important of these fatty acids are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
Compared to other organs in the human body, the highest DHA contents are found in the eye (60 %) and the brain (40 %). In the eye, DHA is found in the retina where it contributes to vision. In the brain, DHA is mainly found in the grey matter, where it has an important role in cell signaling (for example speed of thinking, neuroprotection, and memory). Nearly half of the nerve cell membrane weight is DHA.
Brain benefits of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids:
- Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids improve mood, increase attentiveness and generally improve cognitive functions
- Higher intake of omega-3s (EPA & DHA) is also linked to improved memory, executive functioning, and motivation
- Deprivation of omega-3s is linked to mental illness (such as depression) and poorer memory and cognition
- Omega-3s are needed for the healthy function of neurotransmitter systems
Good sources of EPA and DHA are for example:
- Wild fatty fish, such as (based on the Fineli food database):
- Mackerel (1480 mg EPA and 3350 mg DHA per 100g)
- Salmon (900 mg EPA and 2620 mg DHA per 100g)
- Herring (1032 mg EPA and 1036 mg DHA per 100g)
- Sardines (515 mg EPA and 965 mg DHA per 100g)
- Fish roe (average of 606 mg EPA and 1248 mg DHA per 100g)
- High-quality and ecologic cod liver oil
- High-quality and ecologic fish oil
- High-quality krill oil
- High-quality algae oil (recommended for vegans)
5. Blueberries and bilberries
Blueberries, also called highbush blueberries, are native to Americans. They are normally planted and grow in a height of 6–8 feet. Bilberries, also called lowbush blueberries, grow naturally in heaths, meadows and moist coniferous forests. They are smaller and darker than blueberries and have a long history in the human diet. A 2018 study found that wild bilberries contain a higher content of trace elements such as calcium, sodium, magnesium, manganese, and zinc compared to cultivated high-bush berries.
Blueberries / highbush blueberries
The wide range of bioactive plant compounds found in blueberries and bilberries have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anticancer and antimicrobial properties. In the brain, they seem to protect neurons from aging and improve cell signaling and cognition. The compounds include flavonols, tannins, ellagitannins, and phenolic compounds, and most importantly high amount of anthocyanins, which give the berries their dark blue (almost black) color.
Bain benefits of consuming blueberries and bilberries:
- Rich in vitamins, flavonoids, anthocyanin (the dark blue and purple color pigment) and other important polyphenols and phytochemicals such as resveratrol
- The polyphenols in the berries directly interact with aging neurons, lowering their aging process and improving cognitive function
- Consuming blueberries and bilberries frequently is particularly beneficial for cognition due to their cumulative effects
- Anthocyanin, a powerful antioxidant in the berries (which gives them their blue color), can cross the blood-brain barrier and directly affect brain areas important for learning and memory
Finnish wild bilberries.
Photo: Jarkko Remahl/ Yle.
Pick up wild bilberries from the forest during their harvest season. Whenever possible, choose bilberries over blueberries because they contain more nutrients and less sugar. Look for berries that are firm, dry, plump and smooth-skinned, with a silvery surface bloom.