Superfoods for brain health

You are what you eat, the saying goes—and that goes for the neck up. Just as diet plays an important role in the health of the heart, skin and other organs in the body, what you put in your mouth can affect the health of your brain.

For one thing, healthy foods help keep blood vessels healthy. These tiny tubes transport nutrients throughout the body, including to the brain. “Our brain is fed by blood vessels and the delivery of nutrients and oxygen to our brain cells depends on the integrity of [these blood vessels]says Irwin Rosenberg, MD, professor emeritus of nutrition and medicine at Tufts University’s USDA Human Nutrition Aging Research Center (HNRCA) and the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.

Accumulating research also points to a powerful connection between the brain and the digestive system (commonly called the gut), which is happiest when fed nutrient-dense foods. “As teenagers who like to text each other all the time, [the brain and the gut] are constantly sending chemical messages back and forth,” says Uma Naidoo, MD, director of nutrition and lifestyle psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and author of This is your food brain. “And the health of one reflects the health of the other.”

It’s also possible that certain diets can trigger inflammation, cell and tissue damage, and other biological processes linked to poor brain health, says the National Institute on Aging.

The good news: Eating to support your brain is “actually very simple,” says Shelley Wegman, a clinical nutritionist at UNC REX Nutrition Services in Raleigh, North Carolina. “It’s choosing minimally processed or unprocessed foods,” Wegman adds, and minimizing consumption of salty, sugary, ultra-processed options, which are linked to higher risks of dementia and depression.

And while there’s no one silver bullet to boost the brain (“It’s really the diet,” Rosenberg emphasizes), there are a few food groups that stand out.

Fish 

Many fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, an essential type of fat that decades of research has linked to better cognitive health.

What is cognitive health?

Mental processes that are collectively known as cognitive include:

  • Ability to learn new things
  • Intuition
  • sentence
  • language
  • remembering

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

More recently, a study published in Neurology found that middle-aged adults who ate a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids had larger hippocampus volumes (the hippocampus is the part of the brain that plays an important role in learning and memory) and were better able to understand complex concepts.

“Studies are looking at this relationship in older populations. The new contribution here is that even at a younger age, if you have a diet that includes some omega-3 fatty acids, you are already protecting your brain for most of the indicators of brain aging that we see in middle age,” said Claudia Satizabal , the study’s lead author and assistant professor of population health sciences at the Glenn Biggs Institute for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases at UT Health San Antonio, reports the study in a newsletter.

Cold-water fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring and sardines are great sources of omega-3s, according to the National Institutes of Health. You don’t eat fish? You can find omega-3 fatty acids in walnuts, kelp, flaxseeds, and chia seeds, Naidoo says.

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