Brain health is so important to all of us. Whether you’re in a position where you have, for example, an acute injury that you’re working on recovering from, such as a concussion or another type of head injury, or you want your brain to be as functional as possible in terms of your memory and cognitive ability, there are things you can do.
Optimal brain health doesn’t have one set definition. Instead, brain health is a general term to refer to your ability to perform mental processes of cognition. Mental processes of cognition include the ability to learn, make judgments, use language and create and recall memories.
There are different types of neurological disorders that can interfere with brain health.
There are brain diseases that come from damage to the structure of the brain, such as traumatic brain injuries. There are functional disorders that destroy brain connections. These include neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and other types of depression. There are also disorders that don’t have an impairment that’s detectable, like sleep disorders and migraines.
Much of how we age as humans is reflected in the breakdown of brain function. It’s important to work to preserve the health of your brain as much as possible because people with neurological disorders often develop physical, mental and cognitive disorders as well.
What you eat and the nutrients that you have in your diet can help or hurt the health of your brain.
The following are things to know about a brain healthy diet.
The Effects of Obesity on the Brain
Before going into the specific links between what you eat and the health of your brain, it’s interesting to talk about the relationship between being overweight and obese and your brain.
Recent studies have found links between obesity in the midsection, in particular, and smaller brain size. The gray matter volume in particular was lower.
Another study found that the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is what controls self-control, planning, and complex thinking, isn’t as active in people who overeat. That could contribute to weight gain and obesity.
There was also research that found there are certain neurons that can prevent overeating when they’re active.
Older studies have found there is a potentially higher risk of dementia and cognitive decline among people with obesity.
Inflammation may be at play. Scientists have theorized that inflammation related to obesity can affect brain tissue.
The MIND Diet
Doctors are not only seeing links between obesity and brain health, but they’re also putting together the relationship between what you eat and your risk of dementia and cognitive decline.
Eating certain foods has been shown to slow brain aging by 7 ½ years and reduce the chances of developing Alzheimer’s.
With that in mind, researchers combined elements of the DASH and Mediterranean diets into the MIND diet. The MIND diet puts an emphasis on foods that influence brain health.
- Try to eat as many vegetables as you can, but in particular, green, leafy vegetables may reduce the risk of cognitive decline and dementia. Green leafy vegetables include spinach, lettuce and collards. Greens are high in nutrients like folate, flavonoids and carotenoids, all of which can help the health of your brain. Try to eat at least six servings of greens a week.
- Indulge on berries. In a 20-year student looking at more than 16,000 adults, the ones who ate the most strawberries and blueberries had the slowest cognitive decline rates. It’s probably because berries have high amounts of flavonoids.
- Nuts are high in fat and calories, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. They also have nutrients like vitamin E, which protect our brains.
- Try to cook primarily with olive oil rather than other types of oils or butter and margarine.
- Don’t eat too much meat. Instead, try to occasionally have meatless meals. In the MIND diet, you should try not to have red meat any more than four times a week. You can get your protein from beans, soybeans, and lentils.
- Put fish into your meal plan at least once a week. Adults who are 65 and older and eat fish at least once a week have been shown to score better on memory tests and number games than adults who ate it less often.
- It’s okay to have a little wine every once and a while, as long as you don’t overindulge. Alcohol helps your blood flow, which may reduce the risk of dangerous blood clots, and light to moderate drinking could reduce the risk of dementia.
Pay Attention to Your Spices and Seasonings
Along with the foods you eat, the way you season them can also help your brain.
For example, turmeric is a brain-healthy spice. It is an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant that may help improve your memory. It can also clear the amyloid plaques that contribute to Alzheimer’s. The active ingredient in turmeric, curcumin, can cross the blood-brain barrier. That means it can enter your brain cells to benefit them.
Turmeric can help new brain cells grow because it boosts something called brain-derives neurotrophic factor, and it can also improve your dopamine and serotonin levels which can reduce symptoms of depression.
Pair turmeric with black pepper, which helps with its absorption.
Snack on Seeds
Seeds can be a great snack, and pumpkin seeds, in particular, are good for the health of your brain. Pumpkin seeds are rich in zinc, iron, copper and magnesium. They also have antioxidants that protect the brain.
Treat Yourself to Chocolate
Finally, dark chocolate, as well as cocoa powder, are good for your brain because they have antioxidants, caffeine and flavonoids.
Flavonoids are antioxidant plant compounds, and they gather in the parts of your brain that are associated with learning and memory. Researchers think flavonoids like the ones found in dark chocolate can help give your memory a boost, and they may slow age-related mental decline.