Nourish Your Brain: 10 Foods for Optimal Cognitive Health

January 16, 2024

By Anna Varriano

Sadly, almost half a million people in Canada live with dementia, which impacts not only their own lives, but also the lives of their loved ones and caregivers. It is estimated that this number will double by 2030. While the risk of dementia increases with age, it is not an inevitable part of aging, even if it ‘runs in the family’; in fact, some studies suggest that a healthy diet, such as the Mediterranean Diet, can reduce genetic risk by 25%.

Our brains are powerful organs that require proper nourishment to function at their best. Just as our bodies need the right nutrients for physical well-being, our brains benefit from a diet rich in foods that support cognitive health. In this blog, we’ll explore 10 foods that contribute to optimal brain function.

1 – Cold-Water Fatty Fish

Cold-water fatty fish such as salmon (wild is best!) are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, particularly DHA & EPA. These essential fatty acids play a crucial role in building and maintaining the structure of brain cells, supporting optimal communication between nerve cells, and reducing inflammation. Salmon isn’t your only option! Remember the acronym SMASH when looking for cold-water fatty fish. SMASH = Salmon, Mackerel, Anchovies, Sardines, Herring.

2 – Blueberries

Blueberries are one of the highest antioxidant-rich foods you can eat – especially wild blueberries like the ones in the photo that I picked in Newfoundland last summer :)  Blueberries are a great source of gallic acid – an antioxidant that has been shown to support neuropsychological health by protecting the brain from oxidative stress. 

3 – Broccoli

Broccoli is a nutritional powerhouse, containing high levels of antioxidants, vitamin K, and choline. Vitamin K is essential for forming sphingolipids, a type of fat densely packed into brain cells, contributing to overall cognitive health. Choline is an important brain-health boosting nutrient. Broccoli is a cruciferous veggie – a class of veggies associated with brain health. Cauliflower, Brussels sprouts,  cabbage, kale and many other types of dark leafy greens, are also part of the cruciferous veggie family. 

4 – Pumpkin Seeds

Pumpkin seeds/pepitas are a good source of several brain-boosting minerals. Magnesium plays a crucial role in learning and memory, while iron helps deliver oxygen to the brain. Zinc and copper are essential for nerve signaling.

5 – Dark Chocolate

Dark chocolate, in moderation, can be a treat that offers cognitive benefits. Cocoa is rich in flavonoids, which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Studies have shown that cocoa can enhance memory and improve mood by increasing blood flow to the brain. The darker the chocolate (at least 70% cocoa) the better – and some brands are healthier than others

6 – Eggs

Eggs, specifically egg yolks, are an excellent source of choline – a nutrient that is a precursor to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is crucial for mood and memory regulation. Choline deficiency has been linked to neurological disorders, making eggs a valuable addition to a brain-healthy diet. To get the most benefit from the choline in eggs, leave the yolks runny/soft. Eggs are one of Mother Nature’s  most perfect foods, so enjoy the whole egg – yolk and egg whites … and don’t worry about the cholesterol. Cholesterol is a vital nutrient for brain health (and virtually every cell in the body!), and studies show that eating eggs typically has no effect on cholesterol levels of healthy folks and might even help to support good cholesterol levels. Whenever possible, buy free range/pastured eggs.

7 – Nuts

Nuts, particularly walnuts (ever notice they look like a brain?), are rich in DHA, a type of omega-3 fatty acid. Additionally, they contain antioxidants, vitamin E, and folate, contributing to overall cognitive function and protection against age-related cognitive decline. Choose raw and unsalted nuts, and practice variety and moderation.

8 – Beets

In addition to being a good source of nutrients with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant powers, beets also contain natural nitrates. Nitrates are vasodilators, which means they dilate (or open up) blood vessels, including those that supply the brain. This leads to improved blood flow, which means increased delivery of nutrients and oxygen to the brain.

9 – Avocados

Avocados are rich in monounsaturated fats, which contribute to healthy blood flow, a critical aspect of cognitive function. They also contain potassium, vitamin K, and folate, all essential for brain health and neurotransmitter function.

10 – Herbs and Spices

Many herbs and spices support brain health. Rosemary and turmeric are often cited as protecting the brain from neurodegeneration thanks to their strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory powers.

Closing Thoughts

Always remember VARIETY and MODERATION when it comes to foods. Variety in the foods we eat translates into variety in the nutrients we absorb that are potentially critical to supporting cognitive health. Including these 10 brain-boosting foods in your regular meals and snacks can contribute to better memory, improved concentration, and long-term brain health. Note that maintaining a healthy lifestyle that includes regular exercise, proper hydration, and sufficient sleep complements the positive impact of these brain-nourishing foods. OH! And one more thing! There’s a very strong connection between gut health and brain/mental/cognitive health, so anything that supports gut health is good for the brain! Think probiotic supplements and properly fermented foods and drinks, such as whole fat, plain, organic yogurt and kefir, sauerkraut, and kombucha.

Take control of what you can!

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