Foods to fuel your brain, increase your mental performance and sharpen your memory
by Amanda Box
Although each of us is a person made of parts, there is a single part of our body that defines who we are—the brain. It governs our personality, our thought processes and our memories.
The brain is by far the most complex organ within the human body. However, often in our quest to keep our body healthy, we overlook our brain. Typically, our focus concerning health centers on preventing things like heart disease, cancer and diabetes. When it comes to diet, most of our healthy choices have to do with the cardiovascular and digestive systems. The reality is we are ignoring the very part of our body that makes us who we are!
Giving our brain the nourishment it needs should really be our foremost concern. This will preserve our memory, give us the focus we need for daily tasks and keep us in good spirits. Even as we age, having a strong, energetic brain is possible with the proper nutrition!
The brain is a unique organ in that it does not have the ability to store nutrients. This makes it imperative that your daily diet contains the proper nutrition that the brain needs. The brain requires a constant stream of oxygen and nutrients from the blood. What you eat throughout the day directly affects the health of your brain and its ability to function at maximum capacity.
Basing your diet around your brain’s needs can improve your:
- Focus and concentration
Just think, the food you’re eating could be contributing to that foggy feeling, depression, or anxiety that you battle. Furthermore, what you eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner can directly act on your brain’s capacity to remember.
You have the power to change the way you think, simply by changing your diet!
Eating the right foods can provide anti-aging effects inside your brain keeping you alert, focused and mentally invigorated long past retirement!
Macro and Micro Nutrition
A healthy, optimal functioning brain needs nutrition from both macro and micro sources. Macronutrients include carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Micronutrients are much smaller molecules like vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. Though most foods contain some sort of macro and micro nutrition, only a specific combination of these two forms can create the perfect combination for brain health.
The Macronutrients of Brain Function
Carbohydrates are important for providing a steady stream of glucose to the brain. Glucose literally acts as a source of fuel by powering the brain and keeping brain cells alive. However, not all carbohydrates are created equal. It is only complex carbs like those found in whole grains and vegetables that keep your blood glucose levels stable. They provide a constant flow of glucose to keep the brain alert and functioning at maximum capacity.
However, simple carbohydrates like those found in refined grains and white sugar can lead to spikes in blood glucose. Over time, the brain can actually become damaged from chronically high glucose levels. Studies have shown that those with diabetes and unstable blood sugar are at risk for developing cognitive impairment and dementia! Another study found that high blood sugar led to brain shrinkage that resulted in loss of memory! Maintaining normal blood sugar levels is extremely important in preserving the brain’s functions and memory.
Interestingly there’s little evidence that consuming a lot of carbohydrates is necessary for fueling the brain. The brain can also run on ketone bodies, which are an alternative fuel when glucose is not available. However, you still must provide the brain with healthy fat in order to have ketones available.
Limit your carbohydrates to those found in whole grains, vegetables and fruits. Following the Barton Publishing Food Plate provides a great visual for how much of the diet should include carbohydrates, proteins and fats. The Barton Publishing Food Plate offers a great improvement over the outdated and unhealthy US Food Pyramid.
Proteins are important in the diet because they are the building blocks of amino acids. Amino acids from proteins are used to make neurotransmitters, which allow your brain to network and communicate.
A common neurotransmitter is serotonin, which is helpful for sleep patterns, blood pressure and a calm mood.
Eating protein also increases the levels of the amino acid tyrosine in the body. Tyrosine converts into dopamine and norepinephrine, which contribute to alertness and promote mental energy.
It is estimated that 86% of Americans have suboptimal levels of neurotransmitters. Eating adequate levels of protein increases neurotransmitters and therefore increases brain activity.
Great sources of protein include:
- Free range eggs
- Grass fed beef
- Free range chicken
- Unsweetened organic yogurt or kefir
- Quality whey, rice, or hemp protein powder
Most people require about 40-60 grams of protein a day according to their weight. Remember, although plant protein found in beans and nuts is beneficial, it is missing important amino acids. Vegetarian proteins are not complete proteins. Incorporate plenty of animal sourced complete proteins into your diet in order to maintain the levels of amino acids needed for the brain’s neurotransmitters.
As always, it’s a matter of balance. Eat foods that provide the full spectrum of amino acids your brain needs for an appropriate harmony of energizing and calming neurotransmitters. Pay attention to what you eat and how you feel afterward. Learn what works best for you according to your daily activities and need for rest.
Fat is the most important macronutrient needed by the brain. The human brain is composed of around 60% fat, making dietary fat incredibly important for brain health! The low fat diet trend in recent years has starved the brain of necessary fat and cholesterol. Instead, low fat diets promoted carbohydrates, which raised blood sugar causing both damage and atrophy of the brain.
Mayo Clinic research found that individuals who ate high carbohydrate diets had a remarkable 89% increased risk for developing dementia! Conversely, those whose diets contained the most fat had an incredible 44% reduction in risk for developing dementia.
Two forms of fat are necessary for the brain:
- Saturated fat
I understand that promoting these two forms of fat in the diet probably goes against everything you’ve been taught about a healthy diet. However, facts are facts.
Just think about it. What is human breast milk primarily comprised of? Saturated fat! An infant requires this high fat content to meet the needs of its brain growth and development. This form of fat is not enemy #1, rather the form of fat that nature provides to promote growth of the human brain!
Cholesterol is essential for the brain as well. Often demonized as the culprit behind heart disease and even strokes, cholesterol actually protects the brain! The brain contains 25% of the body’s total cholesterol.
Interestingly, those with the highest levels of cholesterol may have the lowest risk of dementia. Remember, cholesterol isn’t the bad guy! It actually keeps your brain healthy and young.
When incorporating fat into your diet, always stay clear of trans-fats and hydrogenated oils. These are not natural forms of saturated fats and can cause damage and inflammation throughout the body. Margarine, shortening, and many fried and fast foods contain this dangerous fat.
Don’t be afraid any longer to add healthy sources of saturated fat into your diet!
Some of the best saturated fats to include in your diet are:
- Extra virgin coconut oil
- Grass fed beef
- Free range eggs
- Pasture butter (Kerry Gold is a great brand)
Putting these brain-boosting fats onto your plate and into your body will enhance brain function, increase mental performance and preserve memory.
Specialized Micronutrients for Brain Power
There are 3 very important micronutrients that provide the brain with specialized nutrition:
- B vitamins
- Vitamin D
- Omega 3 DHA (technically, a fatty acid)
Each one of these specific nutrients has an important job in the brain by impacting the way we think, feel and remember.
B vitamins are often referred to as the “anti-stress vitamins” because of their ability to increase our tolerance for stress. This group of vitamins also helps lift our mood and provides mental energy for the brain.
However, that’s not all! A recent study revealed that B vitamins slow brain shrinkage that can occur with age. Furthermore, these vitamins specifically slowed shrinkage in brain regions known to be most impacted by Alzheimer’s disease!
Vitamin B12, in particular, is of greatest concern because deficiencies in this important vitamin are associated with dementia, memory loss, depression and even schizophrenia. Symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency include: fatigue, shortness of breath, diarrhea or constipation, problems concentrating and pale skin.
As we age, we often lose the ability to absorb B12 properly, so blood testing is important in maintaining proper levels. B12 shots may be needed to boost this crucial vitamin.
Vitamin B12 is solely found in animal products like meat, fish, dairy, and eggs. So it may be necessary for strict vegetarians and vegans to supplement B12, since it can be difficult for them to get enough of the vitamin.
Folic acid is another important B vitamin for the health of your brain. Folic acid is imperative for the nervous system at every age. However, folic acid deficiency contributes to aging brain processes, such as Alzheimer’s and dementia especially among the elderly.
- Leafy greens
- Many varieties of beans
Keeping healthy levels of all of the B vitamins is extremely important for brain health. If you have any concerns about your B vitamin levels, it is a good idea to get them checked.
Vitamin D, though not found naturally in many foods, is another important vitamin for the brain. Low levels of vitamin D can cause confusion, forgetfulness and difficulty concentrating. Many tissues in the brain contain vitamin D receptors, which when activated by vitamin D, encourage nerve cell growth. Some researchers believe that vitamin D also helps repair damaged neurons in the brain!
Increasing your vitamin D is done easily by exposing yourself to sunshine for just 20-30 minutes a day. However, supplementation is also helpful if your vitamin D levels are extremely low. Taking 35 IU per pound of body weight is a great daily dose to keep your blood levels within a healthy range. Free-range eggs are also a great source of dietary vitamin D.
Protect your brain against cognitive deficits with vitamin D.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Omega 3 fatty acids, specifically DHA, are the building blocks of the brain. Brain cells, otherwise called neurons, transmit messages throughout the brain and to other parts of the body. The membrane around these neurons is made up of fat, 60% of which is DHA.
In order for the neurons to communicate properly, these membranes need to be flexible. If these membranes become stiff, molecules cannot pass through the neurons correctly and can result in mood imbalances, difficulty learning, and impaired recall. Adding omega-3 fatty acids to your diet can restore the flexible nature of the neuron cell membranes. This results in increased cell communication, memory and brain function!
Omegas also seem to ward off the cognitive decline that often comes with age. Omega-3 fatty acids with DHA are found in fatty fish such as:
Consuming a diet that promotes a healthy, focused and energized brain takes a diet that is balanced in both micro and macro nutrition. The Barton Publishing Brain Health Solution Kit contains a list of the top 20 memory boosting foods. This makes a great reference and shopping guide for those of you just beginning your journey towards a healthy, balanced diet.
Below are two recipes that incorporate foods that are low in carbohydrates, rich in healthy fats and brimming with vitamins and minerals. These foods will fuel your brain, increase your mental performance and sharpen your memory.
Start out your day right with a Brain Boosting Smoothie! This easy-to-make meal is great for breakfast or a quick on-the-go snack. It contains healthy fats, protein, vitamins and minerals, which nourish your brain cells and provide the mental energy it needs to focus.
Brain Boosting Smoothie
- 2 cups coconut milk
- ¼ cup coconut oil
- 1 scoop whey protein powder (no sugar or artificial sweeteners added)
- ½ tsp vanilla
- 1 banana (optional)
- ¼ cup frozen blueberries
- 2 egg yolks
- 1 cup ice
- Flavor of choice: 1 TBSP organic cocoa powder, ½ cup strawberries, 1 tsp cinnamon, etc.)
- Put all ingredients into blender and blend until smooth.
This recipe can be adapted to fit your preferences. You can use cold brewed coffee, tea, almond milk, or coconut water as the base and add other fruits or flavors.
Note on Egg Yolks: Many people feel uncomfortable using raw egg in any form. I believe you must trust the source of your eggs. However, do your own research before consuming any food raw!
This next recipe contains omega 3 rich salmon along with quinoa, a protein-rich grain. This healthy dinner provides you with the healthy fats, protein and vitamins to boost brainpower.
Salmon Kabobs with Quinoa and Grapefruit Salad
- 1 medium grapefruit
- ½ tsp ginger
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 3/4 cup quinoa
- 1 1/2 cups water
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
- 1 tablespoon apple cider
- 2 teaspoons honey
- 1 small serrano or jalapeno pepper, minced
- 2 scallions minced
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro leaves
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1 1/2 pound skinless, center-cut salmon, cut into 2-inch cubes
- Wooden skewers, soaked
- Rinse the quinoa in a bowl and drain. Put the quinoa in a small saucepan with the water and 1/2 teaspoon sea salt. Boil over high heat, and then reduce heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook uncovered for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside for 5 minutes. Transfer the quinoa to a bowl and fluff with a fork. Cool.
- Segment the grapefruit over a bowl, reserving the segments and juice separately. Whisk 3 tablespoons of the grapefruit juice with the vinegar, honey, ginger and salt to taste in a medium bowl. Gradually whisk in 3 tablespoons the olive oil, starting with a few drops and then adding the rest in a stream to make a slightly thick dressing. Season with pepper to taste.
- Toss quinoa with the dressing, chiles, scallions, and cilantro. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.
- Preheat a stovetop or outdoor grill to high heat. Thread the salmon cubes onto the skewers. Brush with the remaining 1 tablespoon grapefruit oil, and season with salt and pepper. Grill the skewers, turning as each side browns, while keeping the salmon moist, about 3 minutes.
- Toss the grapefruit segment into the salad, divide among 4 plates, and top with the salmon kebobs. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Are you looking to improve your brain function, preserve your memory and increase your focus and concentration? Begin by changing your diet! Your brain will respond to the macro and micro nutrients you feed it.
Incorporate healthy fats, protein, omega 3s, B vitamins and vitamin D into your daily life and feel your mind transform. If it is truly our brain that makes us who we are, then in fact we truly are what we eat.
If you liked this article, then you’ll love these:
- Better Your Cholesterol With Butter
- The Important Functions of Cholesterol
- Vitamin D: Effectiveness, Benefits and Safety
Amanda Box is a Traditional Naturopath and a graduate of Clayton College of Natural Health. She’s been in the health and wellness industry for over 12 years and currently practices naturopathic consulting in the Kansas City, Missouri area. Her passion is helping others achieve wellness of the whole person – mind, body, and spirit. If you don’t have a good local naturopathic practitioner to turn to for your personal needs, Amanda does phone consultations! She can help you with weight loss, detox/cleansing, acute and chronic illnesses, skin and body care, grocery shopping, pantry overhauls, and more! Visit her blog “My Life in a Healthnut Shell” at http://amandabox.blogspot.com/ for contact info.