If you can’t remember where you left your keys, or your checkbook or your phone, you’re not alone. Nutritional deficiencies; eating the wrong foods and the free-radical damage and inflammation that result; aging; and even conditions such as hypothyroidism and Lyme disease can affect our ability to think clearly and remember important things and can sometimes lead to chronic diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. The good news? You can improve the way your brain functions by choosing a better diet for your brain, along with helpful herbs, supplements, and other natural remedies.
Foods full of trans and saturated fats contain omega-6 fatty acids, and these encourage the production of inflammatory chemicals called prostaglandins in the body, resulting in free-radical damage to the brain and leading to conditions such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease, ADHD, and depression. Unfortunately, most of us don’t get the antioxidants we need to combat oxidative damage. Research shows that most of us get half of our veggies by eating nutrient-poor potatoes, iceberg lettuce, and canned tomatoes.
Foods that are said to best enhance mental alertness are green leafy vegetables (rich in chlorophyll, which helps the body better utilize oxygen), coffee, flax, walnuts, cauliflower, blueberries (high in antioxidants), and cold saltwater fatty fish like salmon, cod, sardines, herring, and mackerel; are all rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fats are essential because your body can’t make them—instead, you have to get them through food or supplements.
The specific foods and the nutrients here can make a difference in brain health by improving mental function, clarity, and memory:
1. Coconut oil
Your brain is fueled by glucose converted by insulin into energy. If you don’t have enough glucose, your brain just doesn’t function as well. Coconut oil can help. That’s because the ketones in the body that help convert fat into energy (as opposed to glucose) come from medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) found in coconut oil. In fact, coconut oil contains a whopping 66 percent MCTs. Start with 1 teaspoon a day with food and gradually build up to 1 tablespoon (14 g) daily for maximum benefit.
2. Green tea
It contains phytochemicals (from the Greek word meaning “plant”) called catechins, potent antioxidants with powerful antiinflammatory properties that prevent damage to nerve cells that is characteristic of such conditions as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
Neuroscientists at the University of Illinois-Chicago found that nuts, in particular, almonds, prevent mental decline as we age. Almonds contain good fatty acids like those in olive oil, with plenty of monounsaturated fat. Almonds contain 10 IU of the antioxidant vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol) per ounce and are also good sources of nutrients such as magnesium, copper, calcium, and riboflavin.
4. Purple and red foods
When you eat blueberries, dark cherries, pomegranates, black grapes, and beets, you tap the power of anthocyanins, strong antioxidants that protect blood vessels, and enhance communication between nerve cells. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2005) showed that the phytochemicals such as anthocyanins in blueberries may enhance signaling between nerve cells. Blueberries may also make nerve cell receptors more effective when binding with the brain’s chemical messengers.
5. Green foods
Dark green veggies contain magnesium that lowers levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a blood marker of inflammation. Their antioxidant properties help protect the central nervous system from the damage caused by oxidation. They also improve memory.
6. Dark chocolate
This treat is high in antioxidants. Choose organic dark chocolate because it is free from pesticides. It is also lower in sugar, which promotes inflammation in the body.
7. Sesame seeds
These work as an antioxidant to protect the fats that make up the walls of our cells. Studies show that black sesame seeds popular in Japan are even more effective than white sesame seeds in protecting cells against free-radical damage.
A study in the Journal of Biological Chemistry shows that this natural, anti-inflammatory yellow powder found in curry could be an effective enhancer of an enzyme that protects the brain against oxidative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. You can also take it as a supplement.