Boosting Brain Function: Food for Thought

There may be no cure for Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, but experts say diet can definitely make a difference

There’s eating mindfully, and there’s eating to keep a fully sound mind. Just ask the Columbia University researchers who determined that diet—particularly those high in calories and fat—is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.

“Food has a huge impact on the brain,” says Cal-a-Vie Health Spa registered dietitian, May Tom, MPH, RD. And that effect can show up immediately and cumulatively, she says, whether you’re consuming healthy or not-so-nutritious options. “Food greatly affects brain health and cognition and will either make us feel strong and clear-minded, or like we have brain fog,” explains London-based clinical nutritionist Simone Laubscher, PhD.

Make a mental note to boost brain function and fend off inflammation, oxidative stress and cognitive decline by adding these foods to your table.

Strawberries

Why: A few red berries a day may help keep brain diseases away, thanks to fisetin, a powerful antioxidant they contain.

How it helps: Studies conducted by Salk Institute’s Cellular Neurobiology Lab in La Jolla, California, (and published in the Journals of Gerontology Series A, June 2017) found that fisetin could reduce memory loss related to Alzheimer’s disease—and some of the cognitive effects of aging.

Egg yolk

Why: Surprising as it may sound, the sunny side of the egg is home to a nutrient with brain benefits galore. “Choline is really important for brain health, and eggs are one of the best sources,” Tom says, recommending no more than two servings per week. “Don’t be afraid of the yolk!”

How it helps: Not only does choline, a building block of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, help improve memory and learning, but also it protects against diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Walnuts

Why: A study conducted by the David Geffen School of Medicine at The University of California found that people who ate walnuts daily performed significantly higher on six cognition tests, regardless of age, gender and sex, than those who didn’t. “Eating around six to eight walnuts a day can greatly improve brain function,” Laubscher says.

How it helps: “Walnuts, in particular, are high in vitamin E, alpha-linolenic acid, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, which have now been shown to have great benefits for cognition and warding off Alzheimer’s,” she explains.

Leafy greens

Why: Greens like kale and spinach pack a laundry list of key nutrients, including folate, vitamin K and beta-carotene—and all have been shown to slow cognitive decline.

How it helps: “You can’t really OD on green leafy vegetables,” says board-certified gastroenterologist Roshini Raj, MD, associate professor of medicine at New York University School of Medicine and attending physician at NYU Langone Medical Center. “They protect your brain against oxidative stress and help the cells of the brain function better.”

Salmon

Why: Fatty fish like salmon is a supreme source of omega-3s, naturally occurring essential fatty acids the body needs but can’t make on its own. Omega-3 fatty acids are necessary for both cardiovascular and brain health—from memory to behavioral function and they are “important in brain neural development,” Dr. Raj says of the anti-inflammatory nutrients.

How it helps: Salmon contains omega-3 fatty acids, which are richer in eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) than less fatty fish. Both come mainly from fish sources, and EPA helps to relieve depressive symptoms while DHA is imperative for overall brain health, Tom says.

Legumes

Why: Plant-based sources of carbohydrates, protein and fiber like sprouts, beans, peas and lentils are a substantial part of the Mediterranean diet. They provide steady energy to the brain and body, keeping blood sugar and mood level balanced and are packed with the brain-boosting B vitamin folate, which also protects the brain. Some legumes, like peanuts and peas, contain folic acid, which can improve memory.

How it helps: “It’s clear that individuals following a dietary pattern aligned closely to the Mediterranean diet have better cognitive outcomes,” explains Lorenzo Cohen, MD, director of the integrative medicine at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. “In general, an anti-inflammatory diet which is based on whole foods—mainly plant-based—and low in sugar and processed foods could fend off memory loss and help maintain cognitive function into old age.”

Olive oil

Why: A cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet, there’s nothing better to drizzle on salad, salmon or legumes than extra virgin olive oil, a monounsaturated fat that has been shown to help remove the brain cell plaque buildup, a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease.

How it helps: A study conducted by the College of Pharmacy at the University of Louisiana at Monroe found that extra virgin olive oil helps lower the threat of Alzheimer’s or delay its onset because of a “neuroprotective effect” found in oleocanthal—a component of EVOO. The inflammation-reducing oil is also associated with a reduced risk of stroke (a disruption of blood flow to the brain) and heart disease.

Hummus, raw broccoli, and other crudité

Why: Hummus is rich in healthy fat, protein and carbs. “Snacks that combine healthy carbs with protein and/or fat help to stabilize blood sugars and also help to prolong satiety, which can be very strategic in preventing ‘hungry’ episodes that can wreak havoc on mood,” Tom says.

How it helps: “For overall health, including brain health, raw or lightly cooked food is superior to maintain maximum nutrient content and delivery of key nutrients to our 100 trillion cells. Eating high antioxidant foods, such as broccoli, daily are also key for brain function,” Laubscher says.

Yogurt (unsweetened greek, plain, or dairy-free)

Why: “Yogurt contains probiotics, live bacteria that thrive in the large intestines,” Tom says.

How it helps: “Studies have shown that consuming probiotics through food or supplementation helps to reduce both anxiety and depression,” she continues. Add berries for an extra antioxidant lift!

Dark chocolate/cocoa nibs

Why: The deepest, darkest and most cocoa-rich chocolate has a bright side. It can actually make people happier and protect the brain and body from inflammation.

How it helps: “Dark chocolate contains two compounds that actually help lower cortisol, ‘the stress hormone,’ and raise levels of serotonin,” Tom says. But that’s not all: Cocoa is also rich in polyphenols, particularly catechins and procyanidins, which are potent and protective antioxidants. And cocoa beans are high in flavonoids, which also have antioxidant powers, Dr. Raj adds.

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