Authored by Dr. Clarence Li, MD.
September 22, 2020
Many Americans focus on eating better to stay in shape and control their cholesterol, heart health, and overall stamina, but what about our brains? Keeping your brain healthy includes more than just sudokus and crossword puzzles; there are a variety of foods you can add to your diet to increase cognitive function. It is critical to have a broad and balanced diet that includes omega-3 fatty acids to even dark chocolate.
From a neurologist’s point-of-view, here are the top nutritional tips for enhanced brain function and health:
What are the top foods that people should eat if they want better brain function, and why they are important?
Fish and other sources of omega-3 fatty acids can help keep your brain cells healthy by maintaining their structure
Nuts and seeds also contain omega-3 fatty acids
Dark chocolate contains antioxidants that can help limit oxidative stress, which contributes to cognitive decline over the long term
Berries also contain antioxidants
Some herbs and spices such as turmeric (antioxidants) and sage–some research shows sage can benefit memory and Alzheimer disease
Green leafy vegetables are rich in nutrients used in brain function such as Vitamin K, folate, etc.
Tea, coffee–caffeine might help solidify new memories and improve recall in moderation
What is the patient’s goal in eating healthier for better brain function?
The brain needs nutrients to maintain structure of its cells (neurons). Some of these nutrients are best obtained by eating the above mentioned foods.
The brain suffers oxidative stress over time just from living life (getting hit in the head, eating unhealthy or smoking, or just normal aging). Taking in antioxidants such as above can mitigate that damage and limit oxidative stress over time, perhaps curbing risk of dementia and memory loss in the long run.
Some of the foods above such as coffee and tea can improve concentration in the immediate future but use with care as there is risk of withdrawal when they run out, migraines for some.
What kinds of food/added substances should people avoid, that don’t provide many health benefits to their brain?
Artificial sweeteners (especially high fructose corn syrup, aspartame) such as in sweetened beverages–risk of diabetes, which leads to increased risk of stroke and damage to blood vessels in brain; artificial sweeteners can also increase overall brain inflammation and risk of dementia in long term
Foods high in trans fats (butter, frosting, snack foods, ready-made cakes) and saturated fats (pizza, cheeses, red meat in excess)–increase risk of Alzheimer disease and worsening memory over time
Alcohol in excess–can cause deficiencies in key nutrients the brain needs such as Vitamin B1 (thiamine) and can lead to loss of brain volume and disruption of neurotransmitters, changes in emotional regulation, sleep disruption (and impaired clearance of oxidative stress)
What are some other ways people can keep their brain functioning besides diet?
Exercise regularly–reduces risk of cognitive decline
Maintain a regular sleep schedule (7 – 8 consecutive hours a night)–clears abnormal protein and repairs inflammatory stress
If you smoke, quit!
Maintain emotional health–stress and anxiety can be harmful to memory in long term, so having good social network is key
Maintain mental activity to keep brain in shape–crossword puzzles, Sudoku, reading, cards, board games, anything that requires thought or strategy