We now know it to be true—what you eat can have a big effect not only on your physical health but on your brain health, too.
In one recent study, researchers found that those participants who followed the Mediterranean or the MIND diets—which consist of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, olive oil, and fish—had a lower risk of memory problems. Those who regularly followed them scored significantly better on thinking and memory tests than those who ate less healthy diets.
In a recent survey by the AARP Foundation, adults aged 40 and over who reported eating healthy foods most of the time were twice as likely as those who rarely ate a nutritious diet to rate their mental sharpness as “excellent” or “very good.” Those who ate seafood just about every week, but not red meat, also reported better brain health and a higher average mental well-being score than those who ate red meat, but not seafood.
“Many of us have gotten used to the idea of heart-healthy foods,” said Sarah Lock, AARP senior vice president for policy and executive director of the AARP’s Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH), “but now we know that those same foods can make a big difference in our brain health, as well.”
So just what foods are best at helping to boost brainpower and reduce your risk of memory problems down the road? We list the top 10 below.
1. Orange Juice
Researchers from Reading University performed a small study on 24 young men, putting them through a series of mental tests on two different days. On one of those days, they gave them a glass of orange juice before they started the tests. On the other day, they gave them a flavored, sugary drink that tasted like orange juice.
Results showed that after drinking the juice—but not the sugary beverage—the participants perform better on tests of mental speed and attention. Better yet, they still felt alert even six hours later. Study author Daniel Lamport said: ‘Cognition and alertness were significantly improved up to six hours after a 240 ml serving of orange juice.”
2. Beet Root Juice
If you’d like a younger-looking brain, try drinking more beetroot juice. Studies have found that it can help improve exercise endurance, increase blood flow to the brain, and help lower blood pressure.
In one study, researchers recruited men and women who didn’t regularly exercise, and who had high blood pressure, for their study. They then had half of them drink beetroot juice one hour before a 50-minute walk, while the other half drank a placebo juice.
Results showed that the beetroot juice increased blood flow to the brain, to the extent that the brains of the older adults performed more efficiently, mimicking the operations of younger brains.
“We knew, going in, that a number of studies had shown that exercise has positive effects on the brain,” said W. Jack Rejeski, a study co-author. “But what we showed in this brief training study of hypertensive older adults was that, as compared to exercise alone, adding a beetroot juice supplement to exercise resulted in brain connectivity that closely resembles what you see in younger adults.”
You know blueberries are good for you. They’re full of healthy antioxidants that are known to be good for heart health. Some studies have shown that they are good for your brain, too. In animal studies, for example, researchers found that the antioxidants in blueberries tend to gather in areas of the brain necessary for intelligence. Further, they influenced communication between cells in the brain and central nervous system, positively impacting learning and memory.
Other studies have found that berries, in general, can help prevent age-related brain diseases and improve cognitive function. Regularly consuming blueberries improved markers of brain function, and helped delay cognitive aging.
Like beetroot juice, avocados help improve blood supply to the brain. In one animal study, a combination of avocado and soybean fats prevented free radical damage and protected against nerve damage, benefitting the brain’s prefrontal cortex (which is responsible for critical thinking and planning).
Another study from Tufts University found that eating avocados helped improve cognitive function in older adults. Those who ate one fresh avocado a day for six months experienced a 25 percent increase in “lutein”—an important antioxidant—and also improved working memory and problem-solving skills.
“The results of this study suggest that the monounsaturated fats, fiber, lutein and other bioactive make avocados particularly effective at enriching neural lutein levels,” said study author Elizabeth Johnson, “which may provide benefits for not only eye health, but for brain health.”
Egg yolks contain choline, an essential nutrient that provides structure for membranes, and acts as one of the brain’s messengers (neurotransmitters). Eggs also contain the omega-3 fatty acid DHA, and vitamins B-12 and D, which are all necessary for healthy brain function.
Indeed, eggs are so good for the brain that in a 2017 study, researchers found that feeding babies one egg per day for six months could significantly boost brain function. Another study found that lutein—which is also present in eggs—could help slow brain aging. They concluded that those with higher levels of lutein in their systems had younger brains.
Broccoli is a powerhouse of nutrition, full of vitamins and minerals as well as unique ingredients that have been linked to lowering inflammation and fighting off free-radical damage. Recent research has also indicated that broccoli may help stimulate brain regeneration, which is truly remarkable, as, for many years, scientists didn’t believe that was possible.
For the longest time, the general thinking was that once the brain was developed in childhood, that was it—it couldn’t regenerate itself. Once the nervous tissues were damaged, they were beyond repair. But newer research has turned that thinking on its head, showing that the brain is actually continually repairing and regenerating itself, relying on stem cells to repair and replace damaged and aged tissues.
Now, research is showing that “sulforophane,” a powerful molecule found in cruciferous veggies like broccoli and cauliflower, may help to protect and regulate stem cells and even help encourage tissue regeneration. We need more research, but it may be that eating your broccoli could help your brain to repair itself, staving off memory and cognitive problems that may develop with aging.
Want to preserve your memory as you age? Eat a handful of walnuts every day. They’re rich in protein and make the perfect snack as they help keep you full and satisfied. They’re also a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, which have been linked to lowering blood pressure and helping to decrease the risk of abnormal heartbeats.
According to a 2015 study, walnuts may also help us keep all of our brainpower as we get older, and perhaps even make it better. Researchers examined data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES), and found that regardless of age, gender, or ethnicity, those that had a higher walnut consumption achieved higher scores on a series of six cognitive tests.
A later 2017 study also found that eating nuts on a regular basis strengthened brainwave frequencies linked with cognition, learning, and memory.
8. Green Tea
Green tea has a list of health benefits so long that it takes quite a while to read them all. It has a high level of potent antioxidants that help protect various parts of the body, and has been linked to decreasing risk of cancer, improving dental health, lowering risk of infection, and protecting you from type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
One place green tea really shines, though, is in its ability to preserve brain function. Research has found that it may help decrease the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia and that it helps to improve brain function and stimulate alertness. In 2017, for example, researchers reviewed 21 studies and found that green tea not only reduced anxiety, but helped improve memory, attention, and overall brain function.
9. Dark Chocolate
If you’re looking for something a little sweet, choose dark chocolate. It’s a great source of healthy antioxidants and has also been found to improve memory and mood. In one review of eight studies, researchers found that it made people feel happier, and in another, it was found to help people feel more calm and content. Scientists have also found that when you eat dark chocolate, the helpful antioxidants tend to accumulate in the brain, particularly in those areas involved in learning and memory.
The flavanols in dark chocolate also help increase blood flow to the brain and enhance connections between the neurons. In one 2012 study, scientists found that elderly individuals with a mild cognitive impairment who drank a daily cocoa drink containing high levels of flavanols improved their performance on cognitive tests more than those who didn’t consume the drink.
The probiotics you find in yogurt and in other similar fermented foods like kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, pickles, and miso, can do more than just ease your digestion. They may help protect your brain, too.
Researchers from UCLA gave healthy women either a fermented milk product with probiotics, a nonfermented milk product or nothing twice daily for four weeks. They then used MRIs before and after the intervention to measure brain responses. The results showed that the women who consumed the probiotics had a different degree of responsiveness in their brains than those who didn’t, particularly in those areas that process emotion and sensation. In other words, the probiotics altered brain function in a positive way.
Other research has linked probiotics to easing depression and improving mood, and in a 2018 study, scientists also found that probiotics may have a beneficial effect on memory.
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