You have probably heard about many foods that people claim are "brain healthy." Here are the ones that have the most research to back them up, with explanations of their proven benefits.
Artichokes are rich in luteolin derivatives, a type of antioxidant flavanoid. Luteolin has been shown to have positive effects in a wide variety of cognitive issues, including enhancing memory in neurodegenerative disorders, protecting synaptic function, and potentially improving outcomes in multiple sclerosis (MS), autism, and Parkinson’s disease.
Asparagus is an excellent source of vitamin A, vitamin C, and folic acid, all of which contribute to healthy cognitive functioning. Vitamin A has been shown to contribute to maintaining brain plasticity in adulthood. All three vitamins likely play an important role in cognition, and may have potential in the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease.
Bananas offer a significant daily intake of two key nutrients: vitamin B6 and vitamin C. Low intake of vitamin B6 has been associated with an increased risk of Parkinson’s disease, while increasing intake of vitamin C has been shown to slow cognitive decline in older people, and may decrease stress and improve mood in healthy adults.
Blueberries and dark berries
Perhaps more than any other food, blueberries are associated with better brain health. Blueberries are a rich source of antioxidants and anti-inflammatories, making them a popular subject of studies on cognitive functioning. Many of these studies suggest that eating blueberries may protect against oxidative stress, improve memory and cognition, and prevent cognitive decline.
Other dark berries also offer benefits. For example, blackcurrants may boost the brain as well. Comparing 2 types of blackcurrant juice and a matched placebo drink, the researchers saw improved attention and mood and decreased fatigue in the two blackcurrant groups but not in the placebo group.
Chicken is a great source of lean protein, offers a balance of brain-healthy compounds, and is a good source of dietary choline and vitamins B6 and B12. Choline and the B vitamins have been shown to play important roles in healthy cognition and provide neuroprotective benefits. Choline is an essential building block in acetylcholine, a brain chemical that helps memory.
Cinnamon may do much more than please your taste buds. Several scientific studies have shown that the brain may derive significant benefits from cinnamon. One study showed that smelling cinnamon can improve attention and memory in the short term. Other studies show that the compounds in cinnamon may be beneficial for Alzheimer’s prevention. A brain that suffers from Alzheimer’s has “plaques” and “tangles” that harm or kill brain cells. Different groups of researchers have shown that cinnamon may prevent the formation of both the plaques and the tangles found in the Alzheimer’s brain.
Cold water fish
Cold water fish--like salmon, sardines, mackerel, trout, and tuna--are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids and one of the best proven dietary sources for a healthy brain. They have particularly high concentrations of docosahexaenonic acid (DHA)—the omega-3 that seems to provide the most brain benefits. Studies suggest that increasing your intake of DHA and other omega-3s may provide neuroprotection throughout the lifespan, from the womb to old age. Among other things,omega-3s have been shown to protect brain health in newborns, improve cognitive performance in adults, and prevent or ameliorate age-related cognitive decline. One study even shows that mothers who get enough DHA have smarter kids. Omega-3s also show promise for brain-related diagnoses, including depression and epilepsy. Earlier evidence suggested omega-3s could help in Alzheimer’s, but more recent studies challenge that belief.
DHA isn’t just good for the brain, it’s good for the body, too—studies show many benefits of healthy DHA levels, including a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Shrimp, salmon, and sardines are also reasonably high in vitamin B12, which has been demonstrated to be one of the most important vitamins for cognitive health and neuroprotection.
Cruciferous vegetables & dark leafy greens
Cruciferous vegetables and dark leafy greens have proven brain health benefits. In a very large study in women in their 60s, researchers found that those who ate more leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables--like broccoli, cabbage, kale, and Brussels sprouts--showed less decline in memory, attention, and verbal abilities than women who ate less of those foods. Spinach, kale, chard, and other dark leafy greens are true superfoods, packing in almost 400% of the recommended daily value of vitamin A in just one cup, with healthy doses of vitamin C and E and folic acid as well. All of the foods in this category are fantastic sources of antioxidants.
Researchers who have focused on a particular antioxidant called fisetin had previously found that it seemed to improve memory. A new study has gone a step further and found that in mice, a daily dose of fisetin can improve the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Along with strawberries, cucumbers are the best dietary source of fisetin around.
Cocoa is rich in flavonoids (sometimes called flavanols), compounds that have been linked to improved cognitive performance in older adults. Studies have shown that cocoa flavanols improve performance in healthy adults during sustained mental effort and may also protect against stroke.
Eggs are rich in choline, a nutrient that has been associated with long-term memory development. Choline is also a key ingredient in the neurotransmitter acetylcholine (ACh), which is necessary for healthy neurotransmission. Studies have shown that choline intake promotes recovery from learning memory disorders in the aging brain, and may even improve psychic function in those with senile dementia or Alzheimer’s. Egg yolks are also rich in omega-3 fatty acids, yielding additional brain benefits at a relatively low caloric cost.
Flaxseeds are full of ALA, a type of omega-3 fatty acid that the body may be able to convert to the brain-benefitting DHA. They’re also one of the best sources of lignans—an estrogen-like chemical. Studies on lignan intake and ground flaxseed consumption suggest that they have potential for improving cognitive performance, especially among postmenopausal women. One study showed that 40 grams of flaxseed a day cut hot flashes (caused when the brain’s hypothalamus gets confused) by 50%, though a later study refutes that.
Garlic has been shown improve memory and cognitive performance in healthy and impaired subjects, and may help to stave off Alzheimer’s. It also has strong antioxidant properties.
Kiwis pack a significant vitamin C punch—nearly 100% of the recommended daily value in just one fruit. Vitamin C is essential for healthy cognition and may influence mood and stress. Kiwifruits are also an excellent source of multiple types of antioxidants, and as such may prevent oxidative stress in brain and body cells.
Lamb is a rich source of niacin, which has been identified as one of the most important nutrients for optimal cognition and neuroprotection. A 9-year study of over 6,000 people aged 65 and over showed that regular intake of niacin-rich foods, such as lamb, may protect against Alzheimer’s disease and age-related cognitive decline. Lamb is also rich in vitamin B12, which is key for nerve cell development.
Legumes like garbanzo beans, lentils, and split peas are a rich source of folic acid. Studies have shown that folic acid can improve verbal and memory performance, and may delay onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Getting enough folic acid while pregnant is important for fetal brain development too—especially in early pregnancy. It can help prevent neural tube defects—a leading cause of infant mortality in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Many people think that eating nuts is good for your brain. This is true, but not all nuts are created equally. There is great variation in the health benefits to be found in different types of nuts, especially from a brain health perspective.
Walnuts are the top nut for brain health. They have a significantly high concentration of DHA, a type of Omega-3 fatty acid. Among other things, DHA has been shown to protect brain health in newborns, improve cognitive performance in adults, and prevent or ameliorate age-related cognitive decline. Just a quarter cup of walnuts provides nearly 100% of the recommended daily intake of DHA.
Almonds, pecans, and hazelnuts contain some of the most concentrated sources of vitamin E available, and vitamin E intake is generally associated with less age-related cognitive decline. In one study, participants who received vitamin E improved statistically and clinically in some memory and verbal measures, while participants who received a placebo did not. These 3 nuts also contain beneficial antioxidants
Peanuts have not been extensively studied as a brain healthy food, but there is good reason to believe that they offer brain benefits. Peanuts are high in niacin (1/2 cup of peanuts offers about 50% of the RDA for niacin.) Studies have correlated niacin deficiencies with a higher incidence of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s. There has also been preliminary research that suggests that eating peanuts may help stave off Parkinson’s.
Recent research on pistachios has found that they contain several types of antioxidant compounds that can be beneficial to the brain and body. Interestingly, from a nutrient perspective, pistachios have more in common with fruits and vegetables than with other types of nuts. You have probably noticed that as compared to other nuts, pistachios are a lot more colorful, with green, yellow, and purple shading. Those colors correlate with the beneficial antioxidants found in the pistachios. The purple color comes from anthocyanins, which are those powerful brain-boosting nutrients found in blueberries. The yellow color can be attributed to beta carotene, lutein, and polyphenols, which are found in olive oil, grapes, and many other healthy fruits and seeds.
Oats are rich in selenium, an antioxidant that has been shown to have protective effects in a variety of brain disorders and age-related cognitive problems. They also supply a sustained energy source to the brain, which may help people learn better. A study of school children showed that those who ate oatmeal before school performed significantly better on spatial memory and auditory learning tasks than those who ate a sugar cereal.
Olive oil is rich in polyphenols, a group of easily-absorbed chemicals with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. A diet rich in polyphenols may suppress the onset of Alzheimer’s by preventing oxidative damage, and because they chelate metals, their routine use may also be protective against the onset of Alzheimer’s. Olive oil is also a good source of vitamin E, which has been shown to delay the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, and which is generally associated with less age-related cognitive decline. Several observational studies on the brain benefits of the Mediterranean diet position olive oil consumption as one of the most important factors.
Unfortunately not all olive oils are created equally. There are many pitfalls to avoid when choosing, storing, and cooking with olive oil. Check out this in-depth article, 5 Rules for Olive Oil and Brain Health, to learn more.
Onions are rich in the antioxidant quercetin, which has been shown to protect against ischemic brain damage (a type of stroke) and may improve impaired memory. Quercetin has also been implicated as a potential anti-depressant.
Pomegranates have been shown to have a host of brain-boosting compounds, including polyphenols and resveratrol, which have antioxidant and anti-aging effects in the brain. Early studies suggest that the compounds in pomegranates may be useful in treating Alzheimer’s disease. Pomegranate juice has also been shown to protect the fetal brain.
Quinoa is a seed that’s rich in all of the essential amino acids-especially lysine. Lysine may play a key role in regulating anxiety and stress. Studies have shown that those with a lysine deficiency manifest significantly elevated anxiety levels and higher concentrations of stress hormones. Quinoa also offers a large dose of magnesium, which has been demonstrated to reduce inflammation-related brain injury and lessen the brain’s likelihood of hemorrhage.
We hear a lot about the brain benefits of blueberries, but red berries and cherries also have a lot of brain-boosting powers. Strawberries are an excellent source of fisetin, an antioxidant that has been shown to improve memory and the symptoms of Alzheimer's. Cranberries have been identified as one of the most excellent dietary sources of high-quality antioxidants. Antioxidants have been shown to prevent and ameliorate oxidative stress in the brain and body and maintain healthy cognitive functioning. And recent research has shown that the antioxidants in tart cherries may help stave off the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.
Sage has long been thought to have medicinal properties, and current science has borne that out. Administration of sage or sage extracts has been shown to improve memory, attention, and mood in healthy young adults, and may improve outcomes in Alzheimer’s disease.
Lipophilic antioxidants such as those found in sesame seeds and sesame oil are expected to contribute to the prevention of age-related diseases. Sesame seeds are also a good source of the lignans found in flaxseed.
Beta carotene, which gives sweet potatoes their orange color, is a powerful antioxidant. Several studies suggest that a low level of beta carotene (a form of vitamin A) is associated with poorer cognitive function, and that increased intake of beta carotene may protect against cognitive decline in older adulthood. Adding sweet potatoes to your diet is a good idea even independent of its brain benefits—it’s high on the list for overall nutrition.
Tomatoes are one of few foods rich in lycopene. Low levels of lycopene have been associate with poor cognitive performance in older people. Lycopene has also been demonstrated as a potential therapeutic for those with Parkinson’s disease and diabetes-induced learning and memory impairment.
Turmeric is a root that is most commonly sold as a powdered spice. It is bright yellow in color, and is a predominant ingredient in Indian curry powder. Turmeric contains a compound called curcumin, which has been shown to have significant neuroprotective, anti-inflammatory, and anti-Alzheimer’s effects. Studies have shown that even relatively infrequent consumption of curcumin may be highly effective in preventing Alzheimer’s disease and reducing the physical plaques that accompany the disease.
Winter Squashes & Carrots
Winter squashes (like butternut, acorn, kabocha, spaghetti, and Hubbard squash) and carrots are rich in beta carotene. A couple of large, long-term studies have found that people who regularly eat beta carotene-rich foods have significantly better memories and verbal skills than those who don't. Winter squashes and carrots also boast a healthy dose of vitamin C, folic acid, niacin, and antioxidants, which also offer brain benefits—with a very low caloric load.