Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food - Aristotle
When we think of food as more than just pleasure but also as medicine, we develop a whole new relationship with what we are eating and start to choose foods that support our health instead of hinder it.
In today's society we tend to reach for medications and supplements to improve symptoms or health conditions but did you know food can be just as effective?
Today we are talking about how food can improve memory and cognitive function so you can stay sharp and focused!
The brain is the organ that utilizes the most energy of the entire body which is why it is so reliant on a steady source of nutrition. It governs the whole body as the control center and must be supported optimally throughout every stage of life if we want to feel good and perform at our best.
Unfortunately, neurodegenerative diseases are on the rise and most basically refer to brain cells starting to die and the brain actually starting to shrink. The most common of these illnesses involving the brain include Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease. Of course these are diseases we all want to avoid as we age and nutrition is starting to show promising protective effects against degeneration of the brain (1)(2)(3).
In fact, Alzheimer's disease is now commonly referred to as type 3 diabetes or diabetes of the brain as it is thought to be associated with insulin resistance in the brain. Though this is not widely accepted at this time research is ongoing to uncover the real causes of these diseases of the brain.
Inflammation and oxidative stress are also influencing contributors to degeneration of the brain (4).
When it comes to reducing our risk of insulin resistance, oxidative stress, high levels of inflammation and ultimately neurological diseases, diet is our best friend.
So where can we start? Feed your brain with the right fuel!
Memory boosting and brain friendly foods
Known for its anti-inflammatory effects, turmeric is a well known cooking spice and medicinal herb used extensively in Indian cuisine. Research suggests that one of the contributing reasons for the lower rates of Alzheimer's and cognitive decline in India compared to western countries may be due to the population's regular consumption of turmeric (5).
So how does turmeric benefit the brain?
Turmeric has been shown to improve brain function and even mood. This may be due to the potent anti-inflammatory effects of the medicinal spice but also its many medicinal compounds.
For instance, the main active compound, curcumin, found in turmeric has been shown to increase levels of BDNF. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor is a protein involved in neuronal growth, meaning it can stimulate new brain cells to grow. Higher levels of BDNF are associated with increased neuroplasticity and improved memory.
Decreased levels of this protein are associated with cognitive decline and even depression and Alzheimer's (6)(7).
Though using turmeric as a spice for cooking can definitely deliver benefits, for more potent therapeutic effects supplementation will often be necessary.
Wild blueberries in particular have significant research supporting their cognitive benefits. Blueberries provide potent antioxidants which actually have been shown to accumulate in the brain (8).
In addition, the flavonoids found in blueberries exert anti-inflammatory effects and metabolic improvements which we know can help to counteract oxidative stress and damage to the brain (9)(10).
Higher intake of berries in the diet has been associated with slower rates of cognitive decline (11). Studies suggest that cognitive aging could be delayed by up to 2.5 years in the elderly population who consume greater amounts of the flavonoid-rich berries (12).
Wild Fatty Fish
Did you know your brain is comprised of nearly 60% fat? This means fat is an important dietary component for a healthy brain. But not just any fat. The brain is mainly made up of omega 3 fats, which are known for their anti-inflammatory and cognitive supporting effects. Omega 3 fats help the brain in a number of ways:
- preserve cell membrane health
- enhance communication between neurons (13)
- support learning and memory
- help to slow cognitive decline
- reduce inflammation
The omega 3 fatty acid, DHA in particular, is concentrated in the brain and required for optimal brain function.
Omega 3 fats are essential, which means we must obtain them from our diet, our body cannot manufacture them. Some of the top food sources for omega 3 fats are wild fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, and anchovies.
Research has shown those following a diet rich in omega 3's, such as the Mediterranean diet, show a lower risk of cognitive decline as they age (14).
Just another reason to enjoy your cuppa in the morning!
Due to the antioxidant and caffeine content, coffee can benefit the brain in various ways:
- Boost neurotransmitters such as serotonin associated with improved mood and lowered risk of depression
- Increase alertness and concentration
- Reduce inflammation and oxidative stress
Regular consumption of coffee is associated with a lower risk of cognitive decline and even neurological disease such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s (15).
According to emerging research, phenylindanes seem to be behind the preventative effects of coffee. These are compounds that are formed during the roasting process of coffee and help to prevent the buildup of toxic proteins in the brain linked with neurological conditions.
Have you ever stopped to think about why a walnut kinda looks like a brain? This is also known as the Doctrine of Signatures, a concept that supports the notion that fruits and vegetables give clues to their own medicinal properties and what they can treat in the human body.
Nothing in mother nature is ever random!
Jam packed with brain healthy omega 3 fats, walnuts also provide a variety of anti-inflammatory chemicals and antioxidants such as vitamin E which can help to reduce oxidative stress on the brain (16)(17).
But it's not just walnuts! The consumption of nuts has been associated with increased cognitive function and reduced risk of neurological disease (18)(19).
More good news! Chocolate is good for you, but it depends on the type..
Studies consistently show the benefits refer to dark chocolate as it has high amounts of antioxidants. In fact, according to the ORAC scale (measurement of antioxidant status in foods) raw unprocessed cocoa is among the richest foods in antioxidants.
Loaded with antioxidants such as flavonoids, shown to accumulate in the brain region associated with learning while increasing blood flow to the brain and as a result can improve memory (20)(21).
Dark chocolate provides a small amount of caffeine which can boost cognitive function and improve alertness, concentration, and energy.
Dark chocolate is also associated with elevated mood states and may increase certain feel good hormones such as serotonin, no wonder we can't seem to get enough of it!
The caffeine in green tea is only one factor that can contribute to its effects on cognitive function such as increased alertness, focus and memory (22).
Unlike coffee, the caffeine found in green tea is counterbalanced with the amino acid l-theanine which provides a calming effect, hence why you don't feel as wired as with coffee. This can provide a greater state of mental alertness alongside a relaxing effect by increasing GABA and other brain chemicals (23).
But that's not all. Green tea is also a rich source of antioxidants which can help to combat oxidative stress associated with increased cognitive decline (24).
As you can see green tea provides a variety of compounds and constituents that can contribute to improved brain function and the preservation of brain health (25).
About the Author
Laurence Annez is a Certified Nutritional Practitioner and Health Coach, specializing in PCOS and women's hormones. She also holds a degree in Creative Writing and has extensive experience writing on health and wellness topics. Laurence's mission is to inspire and motivate individuals to take control of their own health and reach their ultimate health goals.