You probably know that protein is needed for muscles and fibre is good for your gut, but what foods support the health of your brain?
Our brain processes all our thoughts and interactions with the world, stores memories, controls communication, movement and most of the organs in our body. It requires about 20% of your energy needs, more than any other organ, yet we hardly register this mental heavy lifting nor what foods help to support it.
Most importantly, your brain is delivered oxygen, glucose and essential nutrients through your circulating blood so the foods that are good for your heart are also great for your brain. To support both of these, be mindful of your salt consumption and favour mono-saturated fats. These can be found in avocadoes, olives, olive oil, nuts and seeds.
There are certain nutrients that can support healthy cell repair and signalling, reduce cellular stress and inflammation, slow down brain ageing and improve cognition and brain plasticity. Inflammation seems to play a part in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease and brain plasticity describes the ability to make new neuron connections.
So what are these brain-boosting nutrients and in which foods are they found?
Your brain is 60% fat so it’s hardly surprising that the fat-soluble vitamin E and some fatty acids are essential to its good health. Nuts and seeds are excellent sources of vitamin E so enjoy a handful a day. The omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, are needed for early brain development and brain function throughout your life. EPA and DHA are found in fatty fish so include 2-3 serves a week of salmon, tuna, sardines or mackerel to get the amounts you need.
If you don’t eat fish, you can get some omega-3 fatty acids from walnuts, flaxseeds and chia seeds but at much lower amounts. Consult a health practitioner about possible supplementation in this case.
Flavonoids are beneficial plant chemicals (or phytonutrients) found in fruit and vegetables. Flavonoids are often responsible for giving fruit and vegetables their vivid colours so the best way to get your daily dose of them is to eat the rainbow. Eating your greens is great but adding yellow, orange, red, white, brown and purple produce to your shopping basket is even better for your brain.
A healthy gut with good levels of a range of bacteria seems to improve memory performance. It seems that the short chain fatty acids produced by good gut bacteria have neuroprotective effects. Including some high-fibre wholegrains and a serve of fermented foods daily can help both your gut and your brain thrive.
Finally, one of the simplest thing you can do to improve brain function is to stay hydrated. Even mild dehydration decreases mental performance so aim for 1.5-2lt water daily.
Kate Spina is a holistic nutritionist, award-winning chef, eating disorder survivor focussed on intuitive eating, mental health nutrition and gut health. Learn more about Kate’s recipes and nutrition hacks.
Silva, Y., Bernardi, A. and Frozza, R., 2020. The Role of Short-Chain Fatty Acids From Gut Microbiota in Gut-Brain Communication. Frontiers in Endocrinology, 11.