Eating well is good for your mental as well as your physical health. But which foods are particularly important to keep your grey matter happy and healthy?
Whether you want to optimise your nutrition during exam season or stay sharp in your next work meeting, paying attention to your diet can really pay off. Although there's no single 'brain food' to protect against age-related disorders such as Alzheimer's or dementia, thinking carefully about what you eat gives you the best chance of getting the nutrients you need for cognitive health and mood.
Eating a healthy, balanced diet that includes these 10 everyday brain-boosting foods may help to keep your memory, concentration and focus as sharp as can be.
May improve concentration and focus
Like everything else in your body, the brain cannot work without energy. The ability to concentrate and focus comes from an
adequate, steady supply of energy (in the form of glucose) in our blood, to the brain. Achieve this by choosing wholegrains which have a low-GI, which means they release their energy slowly into the bloodstream, keeping you mentally alert throughout the day. Eating too few healthy carbs, like wholegrains, may lead to brain fog and irritability. Opt for 'brown' wholegrain cereals, granary bread, rice and pasta.
2. Oily fish
May promote healthy brain function
Essential fatty acids (EFAs) can't be made by the body which means they must be obtained through food. The most effective omega-3 fats occur naturally in oily fish in the form of EPA and DHA. Good plant sources include flaxseed, soya beans, pumpkin seeds, walnuts and their oils. These fats are important for healthy brain function, the heart, joints and our general well-being. Although studies are at an early stage there is some suggestion that adequate amounts of omega-3 fats in your diet may help to relieve depression.
What makes oily fish so good is that they contain these active fats in a ready-made form, which means the body can use it easily. The main sources of oily fish include salmon, trout, mackerel, herring, sardines, pilchards and kippers.
Low DHA levels may be linked to an increased risk of dementia, Alzheimer's disease and memory loss, whilst having sufficient levels of both EPA and DHA is thought to help us manage stress and make the good mood brain chemical, serotonin.
If you're vegetarian or vegan, you may wish to add seeds like flaxseed, hemp and chia to your diet, or consider a plant-based omega-3 supplement from micro-algae. If you are considering taking a supplement speak to your GP first. It’s worth remembering that vegetarian or vegan mums-to-be, or those who are breastfeeding, should consider a supplement because of the important role omega-3 fats play in the development of the central nervous system of your baby.
May boost short-term memory
Evidence accumulated at Tufts University in the United States suggests that the consumption of blueberries may be effective in improving or delaying short-term memory loss. They're widely available, but you can also achieve the same effect with other dark red and purple fruits, like blackberries, and veg, like red cabbage. These contain the same protective compounds called anthocyanins.
May prevent free radical damage
There is good evidence to suggest that lycopene, a powerful antioxidant found in tomatoes, could help protect against the kind of free radical damage to cells that occurs in the development of dementia, particularly Alzheimer's. Favour cooked tomatoes and enjoy with a little olive oil to optimise your body's absorption and use. Other foods supplying this, and similar protective phyto-nutrients, include papaya, watermelon and pink grapefruit.
May delay brain shrinkage
Certain B vitamins – B6, B12 and folic acid – are known to reduce levels of a compound called homocysteine in the blood. Elevated levels of homocysteine are associated with increased risk of stroke, cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's disease. A study of a group of elderly patients with mild cognitive impairment found that after two years of intervention with high doses of B6, B12 and folic acid there was significantly less brain shrinkage compared to a subset given placebo treatment.
Other B vitamins including vitamins B1, B3 and choline play an important part in regulating normal brain function. Choline, which is rich in egg yolk, is essential for the memory-boosting brain chemical, acetylcholine.
Opt for B-rich foods like eggs, chicken, fish, leafy greens and dairy. If you're vegan, look to fortified foods, including plant milks and breakfast cereals, for vitamin B12 or consider a supplement. Other useful vegan sources of B vitamins, including B6, include nutritional yeast, avocado, soya, nuts and seeds.