What Is the Best Food for Brain Health?
May 16, 2019
“What Is the Best Food for Brain Health?” isn’t exactly the most asked question…
However, as knowledge about health and nutrition increases – and so does its awareness – such a question is increasingly popular.
We all know that is important to take care of physical health through exercise and diet. But a lot of people aren’t aware of the importance of taking care of our mental health. Methods such as exercise and meditation are great for mental health, but another fundamental – healthy eating – also has a great impact.
By eating healthily to protect and ensure the health of our brains, we can reduce stress, improve mental function, and stay healthier and happier for longer!
Fatty Fish (aka ‘Oily Fish’)
Well, look who it is! These guys also made it into my Healthiest Foods For Longevity list!
At number one on our list to answer “What Is The Best Food For Brain Health?”, Fatty fish is one of my favourite foods! These include salmon, sardines, mackerel, kippers, and trout.
The benefits of these fish are plentiful, and supporting brain health is one of them.
Fatty fish are highly nutritious, containing protein, fats, and minerals such as
Believe it or not, the human brain is nearly 60% fat! These facts include omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which we need in about a 50:50 ratio. Fatty fish are the best possible sources of both DHA and EPA omega-3. These are arguably the most important types of omega-3, as they are the ones that we use most.
(P.S. most people already get plenty of omega-6 in their diet. In fact, many get too much without enough omega-3, which can create an imbalance and promote inflammation. Try to get more omega-3 whenever possible, and avoid seed and vegetable oils, and consume grass-fed, preferably pastured (or UK Free-Range, Grass-Fed) meat, eggs, and dairy).
Lowering Inflammation and Protecting the Brain
Studies1 have shown that omega-3 fatty acids may play a crucial role in lowering inflammation and protecting the cell membranes in the brain. They may also be needed for optimum visual function and for synthesizing neurotransmitters 2.
This is seen especially in infants, when brain development is most vital, as supported by many studies including the one above2. An inadequate in omega-3 during brain development may lead to multiple neurological deficits, according to this article3.
Depression is, of course, very detrimental to overall health. Body health and brain health are closely interlinked, so keeping both in top condition is best, and fatty fish can help with this.
There are a few plant sources of omega-3, including seaweed (technically not a plant), with small amounts of both DHA and EPA. Additionally, there are walnuts and chia-, hemp-, and flax-seeds. However, these contain an omega-3 known as ALA, and we cannot use it directly so need to convert to EPA and DHA. This conversion only occurs in small amounts however, so for those who do not eat animal products, supplementation is the next best form of omega-3.
Read on below to find my recommended vegan-friendly supplement.
Also on my aforementioned post, eggs are some of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet. They are a great source of protein, choline and other minerals, vitamins B6 and B12 (plus some B9), and the carotenoid lutein.
They also contain omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
Choline Is a Highly Beneficial Mineral
Many of us, unfortunately, do not get enough of this mineral in our diets.
It is essential for producing neurotransmitters and cell signalling molecules, and also plays an important role in cell structure and the transportation of lipids6. These are required for the function and development of the brain.
A study of nearly 1400 subjects7 (free from dementia) found increased cognitive performance in those with a higher intake of choline, and improve verbal and visual memory. The same study also found that those with a higher choline intake or less likely to suffer from white matter hyperintensities in the brain. Choline is thought to be beneficial in those with neurodegenerative illnesses and poor cognitive function8.
Lutein and Vitamins
Lutein has been shown to protect the cells and tissues in our brain and plays an important role in many brain regions. It is also vital for eye health and accumulates in macular tissues.
One study9 found that lutein improved the visual processing speed of young adults. And it has been shown10 to be a powerful antioxidant beneficial in the treatment of cataract and age-related degeneration.
Additionally, the bioactive form of B6 found in eggs and other animal sources plays an essentail role in amino acid synthesis and degradation, and thus also the synthesis of brain neurotransmitters. It also plays an imporant part in regulating brain glucose levels, and according to this detailed study10, vitamin B6 deficiency, even when mild, can lead to reduced hormone regulatoin, sleep, and cardiovascular function.
Vitamins B9 (or Folate) and B12 (or Cobalamine) are also essential for amino acid and cell metabolism, and are vital in the healthy functioning of the brain and amino acid systems. Such an example includes the regulation of homocysteine, which also protects the heart. According to some research11,12, vitamin B12 may also prevent neurological degradation (“brain atrophy”) in those with dementia.
Both choline and lutein appear to help the prevention of cognitive decline in late age through the consumption of the eggs during infancy, childhood, and in mid-to-late adulthood13.
Try to get pastured (UK Free-Range) eggs from chickens fed a grass-based organic diet for them to be most beneficial.
Here the emphasis is on vegetable consumption more than fruit. Many fruits are high in fructose and other sugars, whereas others are not as much so and are highly beneficial.
Eating a variety of colours when it comes to vegetable and fruit consumption is highly beneficial. This way, you can better ensure my house the intake of a range of phytochemicals, antioxidants and anti-inflammatory components.
Below is a list of some of the different vegetables and fruits for different colours.
White: Ginger, Garlic, Cauliflower, Onions, Potatoes
Red: Peppers, Raspberries, Tomatoes, Rhubarb, Beetroot
Orange/Yellow: Peppers, Carrots, Sweet Potatoes, Sweetcorn, Squash
Green: Peppers, Avocadoes, Broccoli, Brussel Sprouts, Cabbage, Courgette (or Zucchini), other Leafy Greens (Kale, Spinach, Microgreens)
Blue/Purple: Blueberries, Eggplant, Purple/”Red” Cabbage, Purple Carrots, Purple Potatoes
Every vegetable and fruit of course has its own benefits, most of them are great sources of antioxidants and are potently anti-inflammatory. They therefore protect the brain throughout life from damage and free-radical oxidation, and ensure healthy function in many other ways too.
This creates a neuroprotective effect, aiding in brain function for the long-term and short-term.
A Lot of Vegetables Are Also Great Sources of Vitamin C
Vitamin C supports the nervous system, reduces inflammation, improves nutrient absorption, prevent cell damage and ageing, and has many other essential functions in human health.
This makes Vitamin C an intensely studied and powerful nutrient, used in illness prevention, cure, and overall health 14.
It also benefits us by aiding in the repair of glutathione. Glutathione is used to create amino acids, which are used for DNA, protein, and cell formation.
This powerful compound is also useful in the detoxification of the brain such as by removing mercury, reactive oxygen species, and peroxides15.
Important Note: When consuming turmeric in any form, always add black pepper due to its piperine content (or a piperine supplement). Piperine is related to curcumin and may boost its absorption by up to 2000%! Without it, we do not absorb curcumin well.
Haldi (the Hindi name for turmeric) is an integral part of Indian culture, cuisine, and medicine (Ayurveda), this impressive spice is not to be overlooked. When I wrote a post about olive oil, I dubbed the oil a ‘Mediterranean Gold‘. In this context, just think of turmeric as the ‘South Asian Gold’.
Turmeric Is Truly Worthy of Being Coined a Superfood
Turmeric is rich in antioxidants including a highly beneficial and anti-inflammatory chemical known as curcumin. Curcumin is one of the active ingredients of turmeric, which gives it its distinct vibrant orange/yellow colour.
Plus, throwing some into your cooking like in my Wholegrain Turmeric Brown Rice recipe (below) adds a balancing, earthy flavour that really compliments aromatic and spicy foods.
This powerful ingredient greatly reduces inflammation and protects against oxidative damage, which both play major roles in the development of many chronic illnesses, diseases, and conditions.
Because of this, the consumption of curcumin (through turmeric), as suggested by many in-depth studies, is thought to be highly effective in the prevention and treatment of:
- Neurodegenerative diseases
- And much more.
You can read a commonly cited article summarising this here16.
As I just mentioned, turmeric may fight against neurodegeneration and the diseases caused by it. These include Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntingdon’s, and age-related cognitive decline. For all of which turmeric shows promising potential in prevention and treatment17.
One study18 compared the average occurrence percentage of Alzheimer’s in those aged 55 and above, from India (Ballabgarh) and the US. The researchers concluded that Alzheimer’s in India occured at approximately a quarter of the quantity found in the US.
Another supporting – but independent – study19 found the those who ate curry occasionally or often (and thus consumed more turmeric) scored significantly higher on a mental state examination that indicated cognitive ability, than did those who rarely or never consumed curry!
These studies inspire a lot of interest. They may be good examples of human-based studies that demonstrate the brain-boosting powers of turmeric consumption!
Turmeric, just like eggs, may also lower the damaging effects of homocysteine. This is backed up by a study20 conducted on rats which showed promising results.
This works in part due to Turmeric’s effects on the FoxO-3 gene, which has benefits to neural stem cells (^)21. I covered this more in an entire post about the best foods for longevity (discover a full list here).
Bonus: Get your hands on your own FREE recipe book:
"Oat-my-goodness! A Step-by-step Guide to Six Savoury and Sweet Oatmeal Recipe".
Didn’t see this one coming, did you? It’s just too obvious, it’s fundamental. However, insufficient hydration may be surprisngly common (it is thought that in developed countries, over 70% of adults have mild, chronic, and fatiguing dehydration)!
Getting enough water should be emphasised in everyone’s daily life for optimum health!
Water actually comprises on average about 75% of the human brain!
I know some of you are thinking “but you said it’s 60% fat! Wait a minu-“, BUT, I can explain :). In dry weight, the brain consists of about 60% fat, that is true. In total volume, however, the brain consists of around 75% water. That’s why we can get away with saying it is both – because it technically is!
Water is essential for life. Without it, no known organisms could exist.
Think about that in this way: We are made up of trillions of cells and contain trillions of important bacteria. Each of those requires water in differing amounts, and even a 2% deficit in hydration may cause our brains and bodies to become fatigued.
That should put into perspective the importance of sufficient water intake. In the US, only about 2% of the water in the diet comes from food, and whilst this may differ in other places, drinking enough water cannot be underestimated.
Without enough water our brains don’t have the ability to function optimally. And, over time, dehydration can lead to serious adverse effects. The information here is strongly supported by this extremely detailed study review21 of over 140 independent studies and articles!
The final item on our list, in an attempt to answer “What Is the Best Food for Brain Health?”, is the modest but mighty nut! Most specifically I’d like to talk about Walnuts here, but they are all beneficial to overall and brain health.
Ever noticed that walnuts look like brains? Because many people have, and it’s a perfect representation of their benefits. The idea of “like-cures-like” is an interesting homeopathic principle, and sometimes it really can show through…
Walnuts are the fattiest of the common nuts and contain the most ALA omega-3, but are also great plant sources of omega-6.
An important note: Nuts contain mostly ALA, which we convert to the active DHA form of omega-3’s found in animal sources and algae. However, this conversion isn’t very efficient. So, eat animal sources, algae, or take a cold-pressed fish oil or algae oil supplement if you don’t want to eat animal products – (Amazon link to my vegan-friendly recommendation). Nonetheless, don’t undervalue the natural omega-3’s and omega-6’s in nuts.
Not only this, but phenolic compounds and phytochemicals found in nuts, as well as other monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, exhibit antioxidative and anti-inflammatory properties. Because of this, they can greatly benefit brain health.
As indicated by this study22, they may improve neuron generation (neurogenesis) and neuro-signalling, whilst also protecting the brain from damage, and helping to detoxify the brain.
Food for Thought (Pun Intended)
Basically, there isn’t one answer to our question!
Arguably, the most vital item in this list is water, as it is required for life as we know it. However, in order to ensure healthy brain development, function, and maintenance, it is also vital that we eat a healthy and balanced diet.
By incorporating these foods into your diet, you just may be doing yourself a big favour in the long run! 🙂
Aaaanywho, that’s it for this post. The research that went into this was very intriguing, and I enjoyed writing this article for you all. It is a very in-depth topic when trying to answer a question such as “What Is The Best Food For Brain Health?”. There is no definitive answer, and in order to understand which foods may be best to go on a list like this, there is a lot of interesting information out there to understand, debate, and conclude from.
I hope you enjoyed reading this, let me know if you commonly enjoy these foods!
(Personally, I love all of these!)
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Until next time, stay healthy
Bonus: Get your hands on your own FREE recipe book:
"Oat-my-goodness! A Step-by-step Guide to Six Savoury and Sweet Oatmeal Recipe".