A healthy, energized brain is only a few forkfuls away.
Make no mistake, all foods are not created equal. Some act more like cyber-charged energy rockets with the macro potential to optimize your heart function and improve blood circulation. Others, our experts say, can also help lower your blood pressure, fight macular degeneration, and improve insulin sensitivity in diabetics. In fact, specific foods can stimulate brain chemicals, such as dopamine and serotonin, and directly affect your mood and your energy levels, says clinical researcher Dr. Steven Lamm, faculty member at New York University School of Medicine in New York City, and author of No Guts, No Glory. “Eating a heart-healthy diet high in fiber and low in saturated animal fats does wonders for your brain and your attitude,” says Diane M. Becker MPH, ScD, director of the Center for Health Promotion at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. Here are important “brain foods” to make sure and keep on the menu.
Fish Oils, Flaxseed, Walnuts
Recent research highlights the importance of a fish-rich diet for maintaining optimal brain health and preventing the onset of dementia. Famously high in polyunsaturated fatty acids essential to both brain function and cardiovascular health, oily varieties such as wild salmon and trout provide rich sources of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which naturally decline with age.
The American Psychiatric Association recommends adults eat two or more oily fish meals a week. (Sardines, tuna, mackerel and anchovies are excellent sources.) Omega-3s seem to have receptors in the brain that affect cognitive function, says Dr. Lamm. “We’re not talking about a deep clinical depression, but rather using food as a balancing act to keep you healthy and clear-thinking and improve your mood.” DHA, in particular, could be key in preventing Alzheimer’s disease.
Flaxseed, walnuts and hemp oil all contain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids as well. Research at the University of New Zealand reveals that people who had a lower dietary intake of fish and seafood, and were given a concentrated dose of a DHA fatty acid supplement for six months, showed improvements in memory. Study author and Associate Professor Welma Stonehouse says, “Highly concentrated fats play a vital role in the structure and functioning of the brain,” she says. “Maintaining brain health and getting your brain to perform at optimal capacity is just as vital as maintaining your cardiovascular health and well-being [with aerobic exercise].”
Chia Seeds and Cocoa Nibs
Touted for its high omega-3, omega-6 and omega-9 content, chia seeds and flaxseed oils have been found to keep arteries of the brain clear of plaque. Chia seeds are a complete protein that’s rich in fiber, potassium, calcium, iron, phosphorus and manganese, says Dr. Lamm. When you soak chia seeds, they absorb lots of liquid and create a gelatin-like substance, which helps move toxins along your digestive system expeditiously.
Chocolate is another super mood food. The main ingredient, cocoa, chemically lowers your bad cholesterol, LDL, and stimulates production of feel-good nutrients. “Cocoa may stimulate chemical endorphins in the brain that introduce feelings of pleasure and satisfaction,” says dietician David Grotto, RD, LDN, author of The Best Things You Can Eat (Perseus Books), and the former national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Rich in plant flavenols, both cocoa and carob powder have been found to boost absorption of antioxidants and it’s one of the best foods you can eat for your disposition. “Dark chocolate is rich in antioxidants, magnesium, iron, chromium, manganese, zinc, copper, vitamin-C, [and] phosphorus. It’s also rich in tryptophan, a powerful mood-enhancer which is crucial in the production of serotonin, a hormone-like substance that diminishes anxiety in the brain,” Grotto says.
According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, aromatherapy treatments involving lavender are used to supplement depression treatments because the scent is so universally relaxing. A new ingestible, natural lavender oil (in soft gel form) may be another simple strategy for taking the edge off occasional daily tensions.
“Randomized, placebo-controlled studies found that an orally administered lavender oil supplement may be as effective as some common interventions in managing the type of mild anxiety symptoms that we all encounter from time to time,” says naturopathic physician Dr. Don Brown, a leading authority on natural medicine. “It was also shown to improve sleep quality without causing any daytime drowsiness.” The lavender oil supplement used in both studies is available commercially as CalmAid.
Red Palm Oil
Of all mood-enhancing supplements, perhaps the newest superstar is red palm oil, an antioxidant-rich reddish oil found in Africa and Asia that is packed with tocotrienols, or nutrients that help maintain healthy brain-blood lipid levels and immune protection. Red palm oils (from red palm plants) are a natural source of carotenes in terms of vitamin A equivalents, providing 7,000 retinol equivalents (RE) per 100 grams. (That’s 17 times more than carrots.) Research from Ohio State University reports that lycopene and lutein, also vitamin A derivatives, are potent antioxidants that battle signs of aging, memory capacity and chronic stress.
Asparagus and Dark, Leafy Greens
Broccoli, kale, collard greens, mustard greens, rapini, brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, asparagus and turnips contain glucosinolates, cancer-fighting phytonutrients that support cell growth and brain function. They also pack a vitamin B wallop. Common side effects of Vitamin B deficiency include fatigue, excess hunger, and digestive distress, says Dr. Farris, co-author of The Sugar Detox (Da Capo Lifelong Books).
Eat a big, leafy green salad daily to induce serotonin production, and help reduce feelings of mild anxiety and irritability. According to Dr. Lamm, serotonin relays signals from one area of the brain to another. “While this chemical is manufactured in the brain where it performs primary functions, most of your serotonin supply is found along the digestive tract, and that’s why it’s so important to make sure your body absorbs nutrients from the good food you eat,” he says. If not, supplementation is recommended.
One thing all our experts agree on: A regimen of light stretching, yoga or meditation with breathing exercises is another main antidote for easing the occasional blahs. So eat your oily salmon twice a week, bump up your daily salad intake, remember your multi-vitamin and supplements—and eat your way happy in no time.