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.
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.
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 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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