Food 

The Best Nutrients to Boost Your Brain Health

January 17, 2021 5 min read

Celery, turmeric, and legumes, all important nutrients for brain health

Quality of life is closely tied to optimal brain functioning. If you can improve the health of your brain, you stand to improve your life as a whole. Nutrition is one factor that plays a major role in keeping the brain healthy and young

Keep reading to learn what science has to say about the best nutrients for brain health, along with other vitamins and minerals to keep you feeling (and thinking) your best.

Brain health starts with heart health

Eating for brain health begins with the heart. Though it only makes up 2% of the body by weight, the brain uses 15–20% of its cardiac output. Whereas some parts of the body can survive without oxygen for a few days, cells in the brain can only live for a few minutes without oxygen. Without an adequate supply of blood carrying oxygen and nutrients, your brain function will suffer. 

Exercise also plays a major role in heart and brain health because it can increase blood circulation and oxygen delivery to the brain from 25% to 70-80% during maximal exercise. Therefore, your efforts to maximizing brain health should encompass nutrition, exercise, and quality sleep

Essential nutrients for brain health

Whether your goals are to increase memory, boost creativity, improve concentration, or slow cognitive decline, focusing on your nutrient intake is an excellent place to start. Here are the essential nutrients for brain health.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids  

Omega-3 fatty acids are heart-healthy unsaturated fats with benefits linked to reduced blood pressure and increased “good” HDL cholesterol.These fats are equally beneficial for brain health, too. 

Of the 11 omega-3 fatty acids, three are essential for brain health: alpha-linolenic-acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). 

  • ALA can help reduce the protein beta-amyloid that forms clumps in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s. Studies have linked higher ALA consumption to improved cognition scores and reduced cognitive and functional decline. ALA is found in plant foods, especially kale, spinach, walnuts, chia, flax, and hemp seeds.
  • EPA studies show a link to reduced levels of depression. It’s also suspected to help the body’s inflammatory response. EPA is found in herring, salmon, eel, shrimp, and algae.
  • DHA may be the most important omega-3 in terms of brain health. Deficiencies have been linked to learning disabilities and ADHD in children, along with Alzheimer’s disease later in life. Like EPA, DHA is found mostly in seafood, especially fatty fish like albacore tuna, salmon, herring, mussels, and anchovies.
Nuts as a source of omega-3s for brain health

Vitamin D

When you think of vitamin D’s health benefits, you probably think about healthy bones and vitality. However, early studies suggest deficiencies can increase cerebral beta-amyloid peptides, sticky compounds that disrupt neural communications over time. These peptides are associated with the development of dementia

Vitamin D also plays a role in mental health by buffering excess calcium in the brain, fostering the development of new neurotransmitters. It’s also believed there are vitamin D receptors in parts of the brain associated with depression, supporting this relationship. 

Fortified foods provide the majority of vitamin D in Western diets, with some meeting their requirements from sun exposure. Of note, UV exposure increases the risk of skin cancer, so protective measures like sunscreen are still advised. If you’re concerned about your vitamin D intake, supplementation is an option. 

Vitamin B12

Surprisingly, more than a third of psychiatric admissions suffer deficiencies in folate or vitamin B12. Moreover, reproduction and sleep-wake cycles are related to the brain through the hormonal activity of melatonin. Vitamin B12 plays a vital role in the folate cycle that produces melatonin and its precursor, serotonin. 

Vitamin B12 also plays a critical role in the formation of red blood cells and neurological function. Deficiencies often present as anemia, confusion, depression, and difficulty maintaining balance. 

Animal products are the primary source of dietary B12, so vegans and vegetarians should be mindful of their B12 levels. Non-animal sources of this vitamin include fortified foods and plant milk or regular supplementation.

Flavonoids and antioxidants

Why are berries so bright and colorful? It’s because of flavonoids that provide plants with their vibrant pigments. Flavonoids are a type of antioxidant essential for combating the harmful effects of oxidative stress, which include memory loss and cognitive decline. 

In one study, women who consumed two or more servings of strawberries and blueberries each week delayed memory decline by up to 2.5 years. However, the king of flavonoids and brain health just might be dark chocolate, which contains the flavonoid cacao. 

Dark chocolate with more than 70% cacao has been associated with neuron and blood vessel growth in the brain’s temporal, parietal, and frontal lobes. It may also hold promise for improving brain plasticity and learning abilities. 

Berries in containers, an excellent source of flavonoids for brain health

Supplements

As much as 92% of Americans are deficient in one or more nutrients, and more than half of the general population is deficient in vitamin D. Because of this, supplements are likely to play a significant role in maintaining brain health. 

To determine which vitamins and minerals you may want to supplement in your diet, an excellent place to start is with Vitamin and Mineral Supplement Fact Sheets provided by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). These fact sheets break down the recommended daily amounts, dietary sources, and supplementation information for each essential nutrient to help you meet your body’s nutritional needs. 

Nutrition tips for a healthy brain: 

  • Eat fish at least twice a week, or take a fish oil supplement. Salmon, cod, canned light tuna, and pollack are rich in EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids and are low in mercury.
  • If you’re plant-based, supplement with a vegan omega-3 capsule sourced from algae.
  • Eat flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts for ALA omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Eat monounsaturated fats from nuts, olives, olive oils, and avocados to lower LDL “bad” cholesterol and prevent arteriosclerosis that can decrease blood flow and oxygen to the brain.
  • Eat beans, legumes, fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines, rainbow trout), high-fiber fruit, flax, avocados, nuts, and chia seeds to increase HDL “good” cholesterol.
  • Eat berries, especially elderberries, blackberries, and goji berries, to boost antioxidant levels and immune system functioning. 
  • Eat dark chocolate with more than 70% cacao to improve brain plasticity and learning capacity.
  • Maintain a regular exercise routine to prevent high blood pressure, diabetes, and strokes, which can cause severe deprivation of oxygen to the brain.

In summary

Quality of life is closely tied to brain health. How well you move, learn, and respond to every experience in life involves brain functions that require various vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. 

Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, vitamin B12, antioxidants, and flavonoids are the most critical vitamins and nutrients to include in your diet for cognition, memory, mental health, and more. Make sure to eat lots of healthy fats, nuts, seeds, berries, and dark chocolate to keep your brain at its best.

Siphiwe Baleka - Contributing Writer, Physician’s Choice