Updated: Feb 5, 2019
Here are some foods that will nourish your brain for optimal functioning now and in the future.
(This is a blog May 2018 that was moved over from my previous website)
I was recently at a corporate wellness event for Mental Health Week and I was asked to display and discuss foods that are known to support the brain, improve our mood and reduce the impact of stress on our bodies.
Here's what was on the table:
A variety of raw nuts and seeds and seed oils
The brain is composed mainly of fats so it's important to fuel it with healthy sources. Nuts are also good sources of phenylalanine, a pre-cursor to the feel-good hormone dopamine. They also provide some tryptophan, which is needed for the production of seratonin. Nuts contain volatile polyunsaturated fats that are more likely to become damaged and oxidized when roasted, so opt for the raw ones!
We know salmon is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, but it's not the only fish option- mackerel, albacore tuna, sardines, herring are great sources too. The omega- 3 fatty acids DHA and EPA are integral to proper brain function and development at any stage of life so this is definitely one of the most important nutrients to include in the diet.
Leafy greens are a great source of B-vitamins, many of which are needed for nerve conduction and formation and since so many of us have busy and hectic lives, we need these nutrients even more-B helps increase stress tolerance. Though we can supplement with B-complex vitamins, food sources often allow for more bio-availability- leafy greens contain minerals that help convert B-vitamins to their active form. Leafy greens and other vegetables also promote a healthier microbiome in the gut which leads to better states of mental health.
The gut-brain connection is so strong, so when looking at brain health, we must travel downward to the gut. Adding probiotic foods to the diet is an excellent way of encouraging a healthy balance of bacteria in the colon. When the colon is healthy, it sends messages to the brain to release mood enhancing chemicals so it's important to nurture your digestive tract.
Soy is a good source of both tryptophan and seratonin both of which are believed to improve our mood and outlook. There is some controversy over whether we should be eating soy given its estrogenic effect in the body, and for this reason I think it's best to stick to tempeh, a fermented protein. The bacteria in tempeh help to reduce the phytoestrogens and make the soy a lot easier on the digestive system.
Blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries are great sources of polyphenols. These chemicals help to protect the plant but also provide protection to those eating the plant. Inflammation is known to be associated with cognitive decline and polyphenols support proper immune function thereby reducing the inflammatory response in the body. They also protect the body and brain from oxidative stress so you can stay sharp, look radiant and feel good well into old age!
Peppers and broccoli
While we tend to associate citrus fruits with vitamin C, peppers and broccoli are other good sources. Vitamin C supports brain health by helping to synthesize dopamine and by reducing oxidative stress.
As you've likely heard, the polyphenol in turmeric, Curcumin, is a powerful anti-inflammatory and that alone can be neuroprotective. But that's not all this amazing pigment does to promote longevity! It is also a powerful antioxidant and interrupts plaque formation in the brain. India, where its use originates, sees lower rates of cancer and Alzheimers and there's speculation that turmeric is involved. So Curcumin is the darling of the research at the moment, scientists are exploring its potential to fight cancer an disrupt cognitive decline. So far, the results are mixed, but what is clear is that its bioavailability is limited. Eating turmeric with pepper and omega-3 fatty acids can increase its bioavailability so be sure to add an Indian fish recipe to your weekly meal plan!
Did you know that countries with the highest consumption of chocolate also boast the most Nobel prize winners? Though there is no clear evidence that the polyphenols in chocolate actually make you smarter, but chocolate has been shown to improve blood flow in the brain, increase oxygen levels, and improve nerve function. Chocolate also stimulates the release of endorphins and seratonin so it can be a mood enhancer, as many of us already know! Of course, if you're eating large amounts sugar-laden chocolate, you're likely cancelling out the benefits, so it's better to stick to 80% or higher and only 1-3 squares per day- go for quality, not quantity!
No, I didn't actually have this on my table but it does need to be mentioned when talking about brain health! Vitamin D is known to improve mood and outlook, improve memory and increase acuity in problem-solving skills. We do get some vitamin D from foods like mushrooms and fish but the majority of the vitamin D needs to come either from sunshine or from supplementation.