The Goal? Strong concentration, sharp memory and super reasoning.
Your best move? Giving your neurons top-notch fuel.
It is not surprising that clean, fresh foods can make your brain work better and are healthy for your body in general. But how do they affect your thinking processes, exactly? Is there research supporting that building your diet around healthy foods actually help you solve problems more quickly, remember details and help you reason better? The answer is YES, years of research suggest that there is a link between food and cognition, and scientists are beginning to understand the mechanisms behind the process.
These mechanisms work at chemical and molecular levels to affect the way the brain cells function and communicate. They are involved in obtaining the energy the cells need to work. If these mechanisms perform at their best, your brain gets the fuel it craves to figure out a logic problem or to retrieve a memory. What make these mechanisms perform well? Certain nutrients from your diet.
Neurogenesis & neuroplasticity
A study in the journal Advances in Nutrition in 2017 mentioned that “many dietary components such as curcumin, resveratrol, blueberry polyphenols, sulforaphane, salvianolic acid, polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) … induce neurogenesis in adult brain”. Translation to foods? These components are present in turmeric, grapes, red wine, blueberries, cranberries, dark chocolate, broccoli, omega-3 fatty acids, and many other fruits and veggies.
Neurogenesis is a crucial factor in preserving cognitive function and repairing damaged brain cells affected by aging and brain disorders. Diets rich in polyphenols have been shown to induce neurogenesis in the hippocampal region, the “memory and learning” part of the brain. More brain cells mean more connections, more communication, more opportunities for neurons to pass along information. This is where neuroplasticity comes along, a phenomenon that works hand in hand with neurogenesis. Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to change its wiring to work more efficiently. Your brain is constantly pruning itself, getting rid of neural connections that are not being used while strengthening others. Plasticity is your brain getting smarter, and certain foods can help or hinder this rewiring process. For instance, studies have found that sugar consumption can decrease neuroplasticity, while a diet rich in certain compounds can support it. These compounds are similar to those that enhance neurogenesis: folic acid, vitamin E, omega-3 fatty acids, polyphenols.
Here come the helpers
Neurons form the brain, but they rely on an army of other substances that act as intermediaries in supplying them with fuel. These are neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine and serotonin, and proteins like BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). BDNF is multitasking, having jobs like metabolizing food compounds (breaking them down to be used as energy by neurons) and increasing neuroplasticity. The more BDNF you have circulating in your brain, the more your neurons can grow and communicate. What raises the level of BDNF? Certain food compounds, such as our friends, omega-3 fatty acids and polyphenols.
On the reverse side, there are some factors that decrease neuroplasticity and slow down your brain’s cognitive processes, for example inflammation and oxidation. Oxidation produces free radicals, waste products that accumulate and lead to “brain fog”. Free radicals are destructive particles, but can be neutralized by various compounds found in foods: curcumin, resveratrol (berries, grapes, red wine), and isoflavones (legumes, nuts, soy, some fruits).
In similar way, inflammation can disrupt your brain’s functioning. Inflammation has been a driver in all kinds of diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular disease and dementia. It can result from many different sources, including emotional stress, lack of sleep or exercise, having excess abdominal fat and unhealthy diet (high sugar, unhealthy fats and processed foods). Inflammation is important to health and aging, so it has been called “inflamm-aging”. Studies have shown that cytokines (inflammatory molecules) can disrupt the release of key neurotransmitters in the brain and that older people who have high blood level of inflammatory markers like IL-6, showed shrinkage of the brain – a sign of pre-dementia.
Good news? Healthy nutrients form foods come to the rescue! Polyphenols have ben shown to be neuroprotective against inflammation. One particular type of polyphenol, called isoflavone (abundant in soy, and other legumes, nuts) can cross the blood-brain barrier to fight cytokines and reduce neuroinflammation.
There are many other compounds in foods that can actively work to calm inflammation. The result? More plasticity, less brain fog, faster mental processing time.
Top 10 Inflammation fighter Foods
Fatty fish (omega-3 fatty acids)
Avocado (potassium, magnesium, carotenoids, B6, fatty acids)
Green tea (EGCG = polyphenol/catechin, a strong antioxidant)
Peppers (quercetin, vitamin C)
Grapes (anthocyanins, resveratrol)
Dark chocolate (flavonols)
Tomatoes (lycopene, potassium, vitamin C)
A very common complaint is brain fog or inability to focus & concentrate on a task. Again, your food choices play a huge role in keeping your cognitive faculties agile and high functioning in the long term.
Is there a right diet for protecting cognitive decline?
Research shows that Mediterranean diet is the most protective for brain health. If you are already familiar with this diet you must have seen the benefits already. If you have not adopted this way of healthy eating yet, here is what you need to know about it. It is a diet high in vegetables, fruits, olive oil, whole grains, fish (twice per week), nuts and seeds; lower in red meats and no processed foods. Studies show that people following this diet had improved function in frontal and parietal areas of the brain, which help you focus on tasks and follow goal-oriented behavior. This diet boosts the brain’s efficiency, creating better communications between neurons.
What is so special about the Mediterranean plan? Omega-3 fatty acids (found in fatty fish, nuts and seeds, olive oil) and polyphenols (present in fruits and vegetables) are key compounds for improving cognition and staying sharp. Omega-3 fatty acids are lipids/fats that make up the cell membrane and they are essential for normal brain function. Fruits and vegetables are abundant is polyphenols, compounds that are considered important in prevention of cognitive impairment. They have been shown to decrease the rates of Alzheimer’s disease, depression, and dementia.
Top anti-aging brain foods - Meet your neurons’ best friends:
Nuts & seeds
Leafy greens (kale, spinach)
Certain fruits – avocado, pomegranate, cocoa, tomatoes
Cruciferous veggies (broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cauliflower)
Other superfoods – asparagus, bell peppers, mushrooms, turmeric root
Chronic inflammation is your brain’s worst enemy. The best thing you can do to protect your brain is to reduce overall inflammation, and dietary choices are the most powerful tools for this. Inflammation is linked to progressive decline in vitality and functionality of brain cells, which are hallmarks of the aging brain, hence the term “inflamm-aging”.
There is a close relationship between blood glucose and brain function: while glucose is the brain’s favourite fuel, if you regularly eat a diet high in sugars and carbohydrates, you can set in motion a process that leads to insulin resistance. This in turn overstimulates the immune system, which sends out inflammatory molecules called cytokines that can injure the brain. Recent research shows that diabetes increases the risk of Alzheimer’s dementia, called now type 3 diabetes.
Both high blood sugar/diabetes and being overweight are part of a cluster of conditions called metabolic syndrome, which also includes high blood pressure, and elevated cholesterol levels. Metabolic syndrome induces systemic inflammation and weakens blood-brain barrier (BBB), letting in more toxins and inflammatory molecules and decreasing removal of waste products from the brain. This overtime leads to cognitive impairments.
So, what is the bottom line?
When it comes to the long, healthy life of your brain, what you eat now makes a difference to how clearly you will be thinking decades from now. Choose your foods wisely.
*** The content presented here is for informational purposes only. If you experience specific symptoms or brain fog, and if you are thinking about making radical changes to your current diet, talk to your health care provider first. You can easily create imbalances and nutritional deficiencies in the body.