We all know eating more fruit and veg may help us lose a few pounds. But improving your diet has another beneficial effect — it can give your brain a huge boost. ‘Our brain is complex, connected to every part of our body,’ says Professor Hana Burianova, a neuroscientist at Bournemouth University.
‘Evidence is beginning to shape our understanding of how just food is linked to brain health and this includes thinking, memory, improved cognitive function and reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia.’ Not only will a nutrient-dense diet, rich in brain-friendly vitamins and fats make our minds sharper today, but it will also help our grey matter function better as we age.
‘The Mediterranean diet has been shown to protect the brain with its high intake of fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, herbs, extra virgin olive oil, lean meat and fresh fish,’ says Professor Burianova, who advises wellbeing and supplement brand Healthspan.
On the flip side, eating processed, salty, sugary and fatty foods will do the opposite to our brains. And smoking and drinking to excess both have extremely negative effects on the brain. ‘Ultra-processed foods, those high in sugar, bad fats and other compounds, can have a negative impact on brain health,’ she says.
‘These foods include processed meats, savoury snacks, sugary foods and drinks, and some pre-packaged meals. They are high in salt, which can increase blood pressure, and research shows high blood pressure in mid-life can increase your risk of developing dementia in later life, especially vascular dementia. A high intake of refined sugars can promote inflammation and oxidative stress – an imbalance of free radicals to antioxidants in the blood – which can also damage brain cells.’
So what do we need to eat to better our brain health? Here Professor Burianova and registered nutritionist Rob Hobson share their guide to the food we need in our shopping cart – and the good habits that will help our brains function at their best.
SALMON, MACKEREL AND SARDINES
The nutrients: Omega-3 fatty acids
The original brain food. Oily fish – including salmon, mackerel, trout, sardines, herring and anchovies – are rich in omega-3 fatty acids which support blood flow to the brain, encouraging memory and reducing the risk of cognitive decline. In fact, a large study of over 2,000 adults found eating fish twice a week appeared to reduce the risk of dementia by 44 per cent.
The most important omega-3 fatty acids are called EPA and DHA. ‘EPA is involved in the synthesis and activity of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, two feel-good hormones, and EPA also has anti-inflammatory actions which may protect brain cells from degeneration’, says Mr Hobson.
However, if you don’t eat oily fish regularly, omega-3 fatty acids in the form of ALA are found in avocados, nuts, seeds and plant oils such as flaxseed and olive oil, or in supplement form. ‘However, the conversion of ALA to the usable forms in the body of EPA and DHA is poor, which is why vegans may struggle to get enough,’ says Mr Hobson.
EGGS, PULSES AND LEAFY GREENS
The nutrients: B vitamins
The family of eight B vitamins – known as the B complex – play a key role in brain health. Found in foods including wholegrains, dark green leafy vegetables, eggs, meat, fish, beans, pulses and lentils, all B vitamins have a role to play in supporting brain health, acting together to enable our brain cells to work more efficiently.
‘Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid) contributes to normal mental performance, while vitamins B1, B3, B6, B12, biotin, and folate contribute to normal psychological function,’ says Mr Hobson. ‘These key vitamins are also needed for energy production in brain cells and to improve mood and clarity of thought.’
B vitamins also help to remove cell waste allowing cells to function at their best. If this waste is left it can form clumps that are toxic to the brain, he explains. A number of vitamins and minerals contribute to a healthy nervous system and the reduction of tiredness and fatigue.
Low levels of certain nutrients within this group – including B6, B12 and folate (B9) – may affect how well the brain functions with ageing. And there is some initial research suggesting that taking omega 3 in tandem with B vitamins may slow the progression of brain shrinkage in those exhibiting early Alzheimer’s symptoms. Vegans can struggle to get enough B12 so should also focus on fortified foods such as nutritional yeast, plant-based drinks (nut, soy, coconut, oat) and cereals, or take a supplement.
The nutrients: Caffeine and gingko biloba
A new generation of brain-boosting substances and supplements called ‘nootropics’ that can help people solve problems faster and be more productive are currently gaining traction. ‘As well as improving your ability to learn and recall, a nootropic may also help you to think more clearly,’ says Mr Hobson.
‘They won’t turn you into a genius overnight, but they may help you become more productive and resilient to stress.’
Caffeine is considered a nootropic, as it increases alertness and the speed of performing difficult mental tasks, such as arithmetic, as well as reducing the perception of fatigue. Ginkgo biloba, derived from the fan-shaped leaves of the ginkgo tree, is another one. It contains unique antioxidants which are thought to have neuroprotective effects, and there is some evidence that ginkgo can reduce the build-up of amyloid plaques which are linked to some forms of dementia.
Bacopa monnieri, which is also known as water hyssop, is packed with antioxidants which reduce inflammation, protect brain cells from damage, increase cerebral blood flow and boost the production of neurotransmitters.
Ashwagandha, which contains unique substances called withanolides, that improvises oxygen processing and energy production in the mitochondria, is another plant that has traditionally been used for its neuroprotective effects. Healthspan’s new Love Your Brain supplements include B vitamins, omega-3 and Bacopa monnieri.
OLIVE OIL, BROCCOLI AND NUTS
The nutrient: Vitamin E
Ensuring you’re getting adequate amounts of vitamin E will help protect your body and brain from the ravages of free radicals. Broccoli, spinach, seeds, nut butter, nuts and butternut squash, and olive oil are all rich in vitamin E, an antioxidant that can help neutralise free radicals, which can damage cells and tissues. You can also boost your intake of vitamin E by eating whole wheat, avocado, kiwi fruit, trout and prawns.
RED CABBAGE, CHERRIES, GRAPES
The nutrient: Flavonoids
Plants that have a deep, rich colour are packed with flavonoids – plant compounds – which also have a protective effect on the brain. ‘Flavonoids are thought to be beneficial because they help to boost blood flow to the brain. This, in turn, helps to deliver more oxygen and nutrients, such as glucose – the main energy source for neurons,’ says Mr Hobson.
‘Research shows how eating plenty of foods rich in these compounds may help improve memory and learning while also slowing down age-related memory loss.’
You can boost your intake by loading up on citrus fruits, berries, red and purple fruits and vegetables, broccoli, dark leafy greens and asparagus. Other flavonoid-rich foods include dark chocolate, nuts, onions, ginger, green tea, celery, parsley, oregano and soy foods (including tofu, tempeh, miso and edamame).
MEAT, PULSES AND DRIED FRUIT
The nutrient: Iron
A lack of iron – anaemia – is linked with fatigue and tiredness, but it can also contribute to brain fog. Some 27 per cent of women are lacking in iron. ‘Iron is essential to produce healthy red blood cells which carry oxygen and nutrients around the body. Aside from delivering oxygen, iron also helps with brain health,’ says Mr Hobson.
You can boost your intake of iron by eating meat, beans, pulses, lentils, dark green leafy vegetables, dried fruit and dried spices. ‘Iron absorption from plant-based foods can be increased by partnering them with a source of vitamin C while also avoiding tea with meals,’ he says.
The nutrient: Fibre
Foods that your gut loves are also good for your brain – so start adding fibre to your daily diet. Found in whole grains, fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and dried fruit, fibre can nourish our beneficial gut bacteria, which in turn can improve our overall health and mood.
‘We’re starting to realise how important these microbes are because they can help us regulate gut-brain communication in a way that is beneficial for our brain and mental health,’ says Mr Hobson.
Aim to eat whole grains (wheat, spelt, brown rice, barley, rye, oats, quinoa, buckwheat) with two of your three main meals, plus your five-a-day of fruit and veg. Snack on seeds, nuts and dried fruit to increase your fibre intake even more. Probiotic supplements are also a useful way to add beneficial bacteria to the gut.