Food for Thought: Top 10 Brain Foods
Food is nourishment for our entire body, including our brain. Essentially, some nutrients provide basic brain-building blocks, such as omega-3 fats. Others are anti-inflammatories and antioxidants that protect our brains from free-radical damage, like quercetin and vitamin C.
The following is a list of foods that research suggests have brain-boosting properties.
10 Best Brain Foods
1. Fish (omega-3s)
Research shows that those who consume more fish are protected against dementia. (1) This is due to the high omega-3 fatty acid content in many types of fish, including salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, and sardines. The brain is the fattiest organ in the human body so it makes sense that healthy fats, such as omega-3 fatty acids, can greatly impact the brain. Omega-3 fatty acids:
- provide structure and stabilization to cell walls,
- have anti-inflammatory properties to reduce free radical damage (2), and
- have been found to reduce the risk of dementia. (3)
To learn more about the importance of omega-3 fatty acids and the brain see our blog, Be Mindful of Your Mind with 8 Brain-Boosting Nutrients.
2. Spinach (carotenoids)
This leafy green contains the important brain enhancing carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin. Lutein is an anti-inflammatory carotenoid, (4) while, zeaxanthin is a carotenoid with antioxidant properties. (5)
Together, these carotenoids appear to enhance cognition in both younger and older adults:
- In a study analyzing older adults, those supplementing with lutein and zeaxanthin over the course of a year had statistically significant increases in attention, executive function, and, in males, memory. (6)
- As for younger adults, supplementation with lutein and zeaxanthin was found to increase spatial memory, reasoning, and attention. (7)
3. Cocoa (flavonoids)
Cocoa beans contain high amounts of flavonoids as well as varying amounts of caffeine. These flavonoids can:
In another study, it was found that:
- flavonoids in cocoa can increase vasodilation by 29% up to 12 hours after ingesting a cocoa-rich beverage. (10)
Additionally, the caffeine content in cocoa influences the brain by creating feelings of alertness and decreasing feelings of fatigue. (11)
4. Coffee (caffeine + quercetin)
This popular beverage offers two potential mental stimulants: caffeine and quercetin. Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system, therefore increasing alertness and decreasing brain fog. (12)
Specific impacts brought about by caffeine are:
- improved visual attention,
- faster reaction times,
- better task-switching, and
- improved motor activity. (11)
Quercetin is also found in coffee and may have more impressive neuroprotective properties than caffeine. (13)
Whether it stems from the caffeine, the quercetin, or both, coffee appears to have neuroprotective effects. One study found that participants who drank 3 to 5 cups of coffee daily were 65% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. (14)
To learn more about the relationship between quercetin and cognition, check out our blog, Be Mindful of Your Mind with 8 Brain-Boosting Nutrients.
5. Green Tea (flavonoids + amino acids)
Green tea contains key elements that improve cognitive function, including the flavonoid, catechin, and the amino acid, L-theanine.
Epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) is the most abundant form of catechin in green tea. It has been found to have both anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. A 2017 study (15) shows that EGCG can:
- decrease stress,
- increase brain activity, and
- increase blood flow to the brain.
The same study showed that the L-theanine in green tea can:
- elevate blood pressure therefore increasing alertness,
- enhance attention during task switching,
- reduce tension, and
- decrease anxiety.
Overall, green tea appears to play a role in psychological symptoms and brain function.
6. Walnuts (omega-3s + vitamin E)
Like fish, walnuts are a great source of the neuroprotective nutrients, omega-3 fatty acids. (1)
They also protect the brain through the antioxidant activity provided by vitamin E. Vitamin E has been found to:
- promote plasma membrane repair, and
- fight free radicals. (16)
Research (17) suggests a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease when high plasma levels of vitamin E were present.
Studies on walnuts have shown:
- a positive association between nut consumption and cognition,
- prevention of cognitive decline (18), and
- increased cognition scores.
Women who did not consume any nuts compared to those who consumed five or more servings of walnuts every week had cognitive scores equivalent to two years of cognitive aging. (19)
7. Olive Oil (polyphenols)
Olive oil is rich in polyphenols, which have the following antioxidant effects in the brain (20):
- protection of neurons,
- reduction of inflammation, and
- promotion of memory, learning, and cognitive function.
More specifically, extra virgin olive oil may impact mitochondrial oxidative stress, which is linked to cognitive decline. (21) It was also found that olive oil restores the blood brain barrier function in rat models. (22) One study found that those who consumed moderate or high levels of olive oil were 17% less likely to suffer from cognitive deficits in verbal fluency and visual memory. (23)
8. Turmeric (curcumin)
Turmeric has both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. One particular component of turmeric, a carotenoid called curcumin, appears to have effects on cognitive function. In terms of Alzheimer’s disease, curcumin may:
- reduce inflammation caused by Alzheimer’s-inducing agents as well as specific aging processes in the brain, and
- decrease the presence of amyloid proteins which contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s disease. (24)
Regarding general cognition, a 2018 study (25) found that, compared to a placebo group, participants receiving curcumin supplements had better memory performance by 28%.
Given that 75% of the brain is made up of water, it is no surprise that water is an important substance for the brain. (26)
The brains of those who are dehydrated have to work harder than those who have had sufficient water intake. Dehydration affects younger adults by causing fatigue and mood changes. Dehydrated older adults experience poor cognitive performance in general.
Below are a few studies conducted on dehydration and cognition:
- A recent meta-analysis showed that those who were dehydrated to a point that was equivalent to a 2% decrease in body mass experienced attention issues, problems with executive function, and poor motor coordination.(27)
- Older women appear to be affected more by dehydration compared to older men. One study found that dehydrated older women performed worse on cognitive tasks pertaining to attention and processing compared to men of a similar age group. (28)
10. The Alkaline Diet
Overall, the key elements of an alkaline diet – antioxidants, anti-inflammatory compounds, flavonoids – can contribute to our whole-body health as well as to brain health. The alkaline diet does so by neutralizing chronic low-grade metabolic acidosis. If the body becomes too acidic, optimum cellular functioning is compromised.
Overall, high consumptions of vegetables and fruit positively impact cognition:
- Higher consumption of vegetables (more than two servings per day) is associated with a reduced rate of cognitive decline by 40% compared to those who ate less than one serving of vegetables a day. (29)
- Increased intake of vegetables is associated with a lower risk of dementia. (30)
Groundbreaking research suggests that not only may Alzheimer’s disease be dramatically influenced by pH as was seen in a study conducted by Johns Hopkins (31), but that intracellular brain pH may even predict IQ. (32)
Think about it!
As with everything else in your body, your brain needs the proper fuel to keep working at an optimal level. While cognitive decline may seem like a distant problem for some, thinking ahead and taking action now to prevent cognitive dysfunction could be greatly beneficial in the future. Consider including these brain foods in your diet and help maximize your brain power to the fullest!
- NIH (National Institutes of Health). 2021. Omega-3 fatty acids: Fact sheet for consumers. NIH Office of Dietary Supplements website. Accessed March 2022.
- Calder, P. C. 2010. Omega-3 fatty acids and inflammatory processes. Nutrients 2(3):355-374.
- Kyle, D. J., et al. 1999. Low serum docosahexaenoic acid is a significant risk factor for alzheimer’s dementia. Lipids 34(S1Part3):S245-S245.
- Buscemi, S., et al. 2018. The effect of lutein on eye and extra-eye health. Nutrients 10(9):1321.
- Alexis, A. C. 2021. Zeaxanthin: Health benefits and top food sources. Healthline Nutrition website. Accessed March 2022.
- Hammond Jr., W. R., et al. 2017. Effects of lutein/zeaxanthin supplementation on the cognitive function of community dwelling older adults: A randomized, double-masked, placebo-controlled trial. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience 9:254.
- Renzi-Hammond, L. M., et al. 2017. Effects of a lutein and zeaxanthin intervention on cognitive function: A randomized, double-masked, placebo-controlled trial of younger healthy adults. Nutrients 9(11):1246.
- Francis, S. T., et al. 2006. The effect of flavanol-rich cocoa on the fMRI response to a cognitive task in healthy young people. Journal of Cardiovascular Pharmacology 47:S215-S220.
- Sokolov, A. N., et al. 2013. Chocolate and the brain: Neurobiological impact of cocoa flavanols on cognition and behavior. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews 37(10):2445-2453.
- Nehlig, A. 2013. The neuroprotective effects of cocoa flavanol and its influence on cognitive performance. British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology 75(3):716-727.
- Brunyé, T. T., et al. 2010. Caffeine modulates attention network function. Brain and Cognition 72(2):181-188.
- Einother, S. J. L., and T. Giesbrecht. 2013. Caffeine as an attention enhancer: Reviewing existing assumptions. Psychopharmacology 225:251-274.
- Moonhee, L., et al. 2016. Quercetin, not caffeine, is a major neuroprotective component in coffee. Neurobiology of Aging 46:113-123.
- Eskelinen, M. H., et al. 2009. Midlife coffee and tea drinking and the risk of late-life dementia: A population-based CAIDE study. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease 16(1):85-91.
- Mancini, E., et al. 2017. Green tea effects on cognition, mood and human brain function: A systematic review. Phytomedicine 34:26-37.
- Howard, A. C., et al. 2011. Promotion of plasma membrane repair by vitamin E. Nature Communications 2:597.
- La Fata, G., et al. 2014. Effects of vitamin E on cognitive performance during ageing and in Alzheimer’s disease. Nutrients 6(12):5453-5472.
- Barbour, J. A., et al. 2014. Nut consumption for vascular health and cognitive function. Nutrition Research Reviews 27(1):131-158.
- Chauhan, A., and V. Chauhan. 2020. Beneficial effects of walnuts on cognition and brain health. Nutrients 12(2):550.
- Vauzour, D. 2012. Dietary polyphenols as modulators of brain functions: Biological actions and molecular mechanisms underpinning their beneficial effects. Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity 2012:914273.
- Klimova, B., et al. 2019. Effect of an extra-virgin olive oil intake on the delay of cognitive decline: Role of secoiridoid oleuropein? Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment 15:3033-3040.
- Al Rihani, S. B., et al. 2019. Oleocanthal-rich extra-virgin olive oil restores the blood-brain barrier function through NLRP3 inflammasome inhibition simultaneously with autophagy induction in TgSwDI mice. ACS Chemical Neuroscience 10(8):3543-3554.
- Berr, C., et al. 2009. Olive oil and cognition: Results from the three-city study. Dementia and Geriatric Cognitive Disorders 28(4):357-364.
- Mishra, S., and K. Palanivelu. 2008. The effect of curcumin (turmeric) on Alzheimer’s disease: An overview. Annals of Indian Academy of Neurology 11(1):13-19.
- Small, G. W., et al. 2018. Memory and brain amyloid and tau effects of a bioavailable form of curcumin in non-demented adults: A double-blind, placebo-controlled 18-month trial. The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry 26(3):266-277.
- Pietrangelo, A. 2019. Left brain vs. right brain: What does this mean for me? Healthline website. Accessed April 2022.
- Wittbrodt, M. T., and M. Millard-Stafford. 2018. Dehydration impairs cognitive performance: A meta-analysis. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 50(11):2360-2368.
- Bethancourt, H. J., et al. 2020. Cognitive performance in relation to hydration status and water intake among older adults, NHANES 2011-2014. European Journal of Nutrition 59:3133-3148.
- Morris, M. C., et al. 2006. Associations of vegetable and fruit consumption with age-related cognitive change. Neurology 67(8):1370-1376.
- Loef, M., and H. Walach. 2012. Fruit, vegetables and prevention of cognitive decline or dementia: A systematic review of cohort studies. The Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging 16(7):626-630.
- Johns Hopkins Medicine. 2018. pH imbalance in brain cells may contribute to Alzheimer’s disease. Johns Hopkins Medicine Newsroom New Releases. Last accessed April 2022.
- Rae, C., et al. 1996. Is pH a biochemical marker of IQ? Proceedings of the Royal Society B 263(1373).