Every bite of food you eat is a choice that either depletes or nourishes your brain. The wrong foods like sugar and trans fats can leave you feeling mentally foggy, anxious, and depressed, while the right foods help make you mentally sharp, positive, and productive. Certain foods are particularly high in the nutrients needed to create, protect, and repair brain cells. They also supply the building blocks of neurotransmitters — brain chemicals that
control how well you learn and remember, how happy and motivated you are, and how well you can relax and enjoy life. Foods that are rich in essential brain nutrients will protect against a variety of mental disorders now and degenerative brain diseases in years to come.
When people talk about brain foods, fatty fish is often at the top of the list. This type of fish includes salmon, trout and sardines, which are all rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids. About 60% of your brain is made of fat, and half of that fat is the omega-3 kind. Your brain uses omega-3s to build brain and nerve cells, and these fats are essential for learning and memory.
Omega 3-s also have a couple additional benefits for your brain. For one thing, they may slow age-related mental decline and help ward off Alzheimer’s disease. On the flip side, not getting enough omega-3s is linked to learning impairments, as well as depression. In general, eating fish seems to have positive health benefits. One study found that people who ate baked or broiled fish regularly had more gray matter in their brains. Gray matter contains most of the nerve cells that control decision making, memory and emotion.
Overall, fatty fish is an excellent choice for brain health. DHA is a major structural component of the brain and makes up 97% of all the omega-3 fats in the brain.
Eggs: For Memory and Learning
Eggs are packed with protein, vitamin B12, and can be a significant source of omega-3 fatty acids. Eggs are high in tryptophan, an amino acid that’s a building block of the “happiness” molecule (and neurotransmitter) serotonin. Whole eggs are the #1 food source of choline, a B complex-related nutrient that 90% of us don’t get enough of. eggs have gotten a bad rap for containing cholesterol but, in fact, your brain needs cholesterol. Your brain is your fattiest organ — it contains up to 60% fat and includes 25% of your body’s total cholesterol.
If coffee is the highlight of your morning, you’ll be glad to hear that it’s good for you. Two main components in coffee — caffeine and antioxidants — help your brain. The caffeine in coffee has a number of positive effects on the brain, including:
- Increased alertness: Caffeine keeps your brain alert by blocking adenosine, a chemical messenger that makes you sleepy.
- Improved mood: Caffeine may also boost some of your “feel-good” neurotransmitters, such as serotonin.
- Sharpened concentration: One study found that when participants drank one large coffee in the morning or smaller amounts throughout the day, they were more effective at tasks that required concentration.
Drinking coffee over the long term is also linked to a reduced risk of neurological diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s .
Blueberries provide numerous health benefits, including some that are specifically for your brain. Blueberries and other deeply colored berries deliver anthocyanins, a group of plant compounds with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. Antioxidants act against both oxidative stress and inflammation, conditions that may contribute to brain aging and neurodegenerative diseases .
Some of the antioxidants in blueberries have been found to accumulate in the brain and help improve communication between brain cells. Animal studies have shown that blueberries help improve memory and may even delay short-term memory loss.
Turmeric has generated a lot of buzz recently. This deep-yellow spice is a key ingredient in curry powder and has a number of benefits for the brain.
Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, has been shown to cross the blood-brain barrier, meaning it can directly enter the brain and benefit the cells there. It’s a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compound that has been linked to the following brain benefits:
- May benefit memory: Curcumin may help improve memory in people with Alzheimer’s. It may also help clear the amyloid plaques that are a hallmark of this disease.
- Eases depression: It boosts serotonin and dopamine, which both improve mood. One study found curcumin improved depression symptoms just as much as an antidepressant over six weeks.
- Helps new brain cells grow: Curcumin boosts brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a type of growth hormone that helps brain cells grow. It may help delay age-related mental decline, but more research is needed .
Broccoli is packed with powerful plant compounds, including antioxidants . It’s also very high in vitamin K, delivering more than 100% of the Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) in a 1-cup (91-gram) serving . This fat-soluble vitamin is essential for forming sphingolipids, a type of fat that’s densely packed into brain cells. A few studies in older adults have linked a higher vitamin K intake to better memory.
Beyond vitamin K, broccoli contains a number of compounds that give it anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects, which may help protect the brain against damage.
Dark Chocolate and cocoa powder are packed with a few brain-boosting compounds, including flavonoids, caffeine and antioxidants. Flavonoids are a group of antioxidant plant compounds. The flavonoids in chocolate gather in the areas of the brain that deal with learning and memory. Researchers say these compounds may enhance memory and also help slow down age-related mental decline .
In one study including over 900 people, those who ate chocolate more frequently performed better in a series of mental tasks, including some involving memory, than those who rarely ate it . Chocolate is also a legitimate mood booster, according to research. One study found that participants who ate chocolate experienced increased positive feelings, compared to participants who ate crackers .
Research has shown that eating nuts can improve markers of heart health, and having a healthy heart is linked to having a healthy brain . A 2014 review showed that nuts can improve cognition and even help prevent neurodegenerative diseases . Also, another large study found that women who ate nuts regularly over the course of several years had a sharper memory, compared to those who didn’t eat nuts .
Several nutrients in nuts, such as healthy fats, antioxidants and vitamin E, may explain their brain-health benefits . Vitamin E shields cell membranes from free radical damage, helping slow mental decline .
As is the case with coffee, the caffeine in green tea boosts brain function. In fact, it has been found to improve alertness, performance, memory and focus . But green tea also has other components that make it a brain-healthy beverage. One of them is L-theanine, an amino acid that can cross the blood-brain barrier and increase the activity of the neurotransmitter GABA, which helps reduce anxiety and makes you feel more relaxed . L-theanine also increases the frequency of alpha waves in the brain, which helps you relax without making you feel tired .
One review found that the L-theanine in green tea can help you relax by counteracting the stimulating effects of caffeine. It’s also rich in polyphenols and antioxidants that may protect the brain from mental decline and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Plus, green tea has been found to improve memory .