How to protect your mind with brain foods

How to protect your mind with brain foods

Just as there is no magic pill to prevent cognitive decline, no single almighty brain food can ensure a sharp brain as you age. Nutritionists emphasize that the most important strategy is to follow a healthy dietary pattern that includes a lot of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. Try to get protein from plant sources and fish and choose healthy fats, such as olive oil or canola, rather than saturated fats.

Research shows that the best brain foods are the same ones that protect your heart and blood vessels, including the following:

  • Green, leafy vegetables. Leafy greens such as kale, spinach, collards, and broccoli are rich in brain-healthy nutrients like vitamin K, lutein, folate, and beta carotene. Research suggests these plant-based foods may help slow cognitive decline.
  • Fatty fish. Fatty fish are abundant sources of omega-3 fatty acids, healthy unsaturated fats that have been linked to lower blood levels of beta-amyloid—the protein that forms damaging clumps in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. Try to eat fish at least twice a week, but choose varieties that are low in mercury, such as salmon, cod, canned light tuna, and pollack. If you’re not a fan of fish, ask your doctor about taking an omega-3 supplement, or choose terrestrial omega-3 sources such as flaxseeds, avocados, and walnuts.
  • Berries. Flavonoids, the natural plant pigments that give berries their brilliant hues, also help improve memory, research shows. A study done by researchers at Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital found that women who consumed two or more servings of strawberries and blueberries each week delayed memory decline by up to two-and-a-half years.
  • Tea and coffee. The caffeine in your morning cup of coffee or tea might offer more than just a short-term concentration boost. In a 2014 study published in The Journal of Nutrition, participants with higher caffeine consumption scored better on tests of mental function. Caffeine might also help solidify new memories, according to other research. Investigators at Johns Hopkins University asked participants to study a series of images and then take either a placebo or a 200-milligram caffeine tablet. More members of the caffeine group were able to correctly identify the images on the following day.
  • Walnuts. Nuts are excellent sources of protein and healthy fats, and one type of nut in particular might also improve memory. A 2015 study from UCLA linked higher walnut consumption to improved cognitive test scores. Walnuts are high in a type of omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Diets rich in ALA and other omega-3 fatty acids have been linked to lower blood pressure and cleaner arteries. That’s good for both the heart and brain.

How to protect your mind with brain foods

For more on staying sharp as you age, read A Guide to Cognitive Fitness, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.

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How to protect your mind with brain foods

This causes inflammation in the brain and symptoms such as depression, brain fog, memory loss, and other brain-based symptoms and disorders.

The strategies for repairing a leaky blood brain barrier are similar to the strategies for repairing a leaky gut because the causes are similar. Some of the more foundations include balancing your blood sugar, removing inflammatory foods and chemicals from your diet and environment, and focusing on a whole foods diet that is abundant in produce.

However, beyond that certain nutritional compounds have been shown to help repair a leaky blood brain barrier:

Resveratrol. Resveratrol is a potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant (protects against damaging free radicals) known to help prevent development of neurodegenerative diseases.

Resveratrol can increase your brain’s growth hormone, support mitochondria, and protect and restore the blood-brain barrier.

Curcumin. Often used in conjunction with resveratrol, curcumin is the anti-inflammatory component of the spice turmeric.

Heavily researched, curcumin can:

  • Lower stress hormones
  • Increase the brain’s growth hormone
  • Reduce hyper-permeability of the blood-brain barrier
  • Reverse blood-brain barrier dysfunction
  • Improve integrity of the blood-brain barrier

Sulforaphane. A phytochemical found in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts, this antioxidant has anti-inflammatory qualities similar to curcumin.

Studies show it can prevent breakdown of the blood-brain barrier, reduce its permeability, and improve brain function after traumatic brain injuries and stroke .

If you take sulforaphane in supplement form, make sure it contains the co-factor myrosinase.

Vitamin D. Vitamin D is a powerful tool in managing inflammation and autoimmunity. Every tissue in your body has vitamin D receptors. Studies show it can help prevent leaky brain by reducing inflammation and reducing blood-brain barrier disruption .

How to protect your mind with brain foods

Ways our modern lifestyle contributes to a lack of vitamin D:

  • Modern diets lack vitamin D-rich foods such as liver and organ meats, seafood, butter, and egg yolks
  • Chronic stress and elevated cortisol (stress hormone) depletes vitamin D
  • Gut inflammation reduces absorption of vitamin D
  • Obesity contributes to vitamin D deficiency

While we think of direct sunlight as the best way to get vitamin D, not everyone can make enough this way. To maximize your vitamin D levels, get 15 minutes of sun on your skin every day and take care of your gut health to optimize absorption of dietary vitamin D.

In the absence of exposure to enough sunlight, it’s recommended to supplement with a minimum of 1000 IU of vitamin D3 (not D2) daily to maintain proper blood levels.

Some people need much higher doses, from 5,000 to 25,000 IU per day. If you take higher doses, have your blood levels tested periodically to avoid toxicity.

Emulsified vitamin D is best for those with poor digestion.

B vitamins. Several B vitamins support the health of the blood-brain barrier:

  • Vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency disrupts the blood-brain barrier and supplementation can restore it.
  • Vitamins B12, B5, and B9 (folate) can restore blood-brain barrier integrity.

Magnesium. A vital mineral for more than 300 biochemical processes in your body, magnesium affects brain neurotransmitters, enzymes, and hormones. Many people are deficient, so ask your healthcare practitioner of you should be tested.

Magnesium protects the brain by:

  • Protecting the blood-brain barrier
  • Supporting mitochondria
  • Increasing the brain’s growth hormone
  • Assisting in overcoming addiction and withdrawal

Strong dietary sources of magnesium include:

  • Spinach
  • Chard
  • Almonds
  • Avocado
  • Banana
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Dark chocolate

Omega 3 fatty acids. Essential fatty acids (EFA) are fats our bodies need but can’t produce on their own, so they must come from food sources or supplementation.

EFAs are critical for:

  • Dampening inflammation and autoimmunity
  • Supporting blood vessel and skin health
  • Production of hormones

It’s estimated that up to 80 percent of the US population is deficient in EFAs.

Primarily found in fish, Omega 3s are EFAS that support your mitochondria, increase brain growth hormone, and support the blood-brain barrier.

When consuming EFAs, it’s important to consume the proper ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 . Omega 6 is a necessary EFA but taken in the wrong ratio to Omega 3 it is highly inflammatory.

The average American consumes a shocking ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 of 25:1, contributing to the epidemic of inflammation-related health disorders.

Researchers recommend a ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 that ranges from 1:1 to 4:1. A recommended dose is 3,500 mg for a person eating a diet of 2,000 calories per day.

As you now know, it’s important to take great care of your precious blood-brain barrier. Many of the above suggestions also benefit other health issues, so by adopting them you are hitting more than one target at a time.

How to protect your mind with brain foods

Every brain changes with age, and mental function changes along with it. Mental decline is common, and it’s one of the most feared consequences of aging. But cognitive impairment is not inevitable. Here are 12 ways you can help maintain brain function.

1. Get mental stimulation

Through research with mice and humans, scientists have found that brainy activities stimulate new connections between nerve cells and may even help the brain generate new cells, developing neurological “plasticity” and building up a functional reserve that provides a hedge against future cell loss.

Any mentally stimulating activity should help to build up your brain. Read, take courses, try “mental gymnastics,” such as word puzzles or math problems Experiment with things that require manual dexterity as well as mental effort, such as drawing, painting, and other crafts.

2. Get physical exercise

Research shows that using your muscles also helps your mind. Animals who exercise regularly increase the number of tiny blood vessels that bring oxygen-rich blood to the region of the brain that is responsible for thought. Exercise also spurs the development of new nerve cells and increases the connections between brain cells (synapses). This results in brains that are more efficient, plastic, and adaptive, which translates into better performance in aging animals. Exercise also lowers blood pressure, improves cholesterol levels, helps blood sugar balance and reduces mental stress, all of which can help your brain as well as your heart.

3. Improve your diet

Good nutrition can help your mind as well as your body. For example, people that eat a Mediterranean style diet that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts, unsaturated oils (olive oil) and plant sources of proteins are less likely to develop cognitive impairment and dementia.

4. Improve your blood pressure

High blood pressure in midlife increases the risk of cognitive decline in old age. Use lifestyle modification to keep your pressure as low as possible. Stay lean, exercise regularly, limit your alcohol to two drinks a day, reduce stress, and eat right.

5. Improve your blood sugar

Diabetes is an important risk factor for dementia. You can help prevent diabetes by eating right, exercising regularly, and staying lean. But if your blood sugar stays high, you’ll need medication to achieve good control.

6. Improve your cholesterol

High levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol are associated with an increased the risk of dementia. Diet, exercise, weight control, and avoiding tobacco will go a long way toward improving your cholesterol levels. But if you need more help, ask your doctor about medication.

7. Consider low-dose aspirin

Some observational studies suggest that low-dose aspirin may reduce the risk of dementia, especially vascular dementia. Ask your doctor if you are a candidate.

8. Avoid tobacco

Avoid tobacco in all its forms.

9. Don’t abuse alcohol

Excessive drinking is a major risk factor for dementia. If you choose to drink, limit yourself to two drinks a day.

10. Care for your emotions

People who are anxious, depressed, sleep-deprived, or exhausted tend to score poorly on cognitive function tests. Poor scores don’t necessarily predict an increased risk of cognitive decline in old age, but good mental health and restful sleep are certainly important goals.

11. Protect your head

Moderate to severe head injuries, even without diagnosed concussions, increase the risk of cognitive impairment.

12. Build social networks

Strong social ties have been associated with a lower risk of dementia, as well as lower blood pressure and longer life expectancy.

Get the information you need to strengthen your intellectual prowess, promote your powers of recall, and protect the brain-based skills when you buy A Guide to Cognitive Fitness, a special health report by the experts at Harvard.


As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.

How to protect your mind with brain foods

What you choose to fuel your body with affects more than the number on the scale and how your jeans fit. Everything from your bone density to your memory can be supported by what you put on your plate. Specifically when it comes to brain health, the foods you eat have a major impact, says Dale E. Bredesen, M.D., a neurologist and author of The End of Alzheimer’s Program.

Two diets in particular are backed by science for boosting brain health and reducing your risk of dementia: the Mediterranean Diet and the DASH diet. The Mediterranean Diet focuses on eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, seafood, olive oil, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, and whole grains, while limiting red meats, processed foods, refined grains and oils, and high-sugar foods. Poultry, eggs, dairy, and red wine can be enjoyed in moderation. Research has found the diet has a slew of health benefits, like improving heart health, aiding in weight management, and supporting brain function.

In comparison, the DASH diet (which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) is similar to the Mediterranean diet, but includes slightly different serving suggestions, like capping sodium intake at 1,500 milligrams and allowing for more lean meats. The DASH diet boasts the same benefits as the Mediterranean diet, and was specifically developed to help lower blood pressure without medication.

But one diet has combined the best parts of each, particularly when it comes brain health: the MIND Diet, which is short for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay. One 2015 study published in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia found that the MIND diet can turn back the time on your cognitive age by seven and a half years. The study followed 900 men and women ages 58 to 98 for an average of four and a half years, assessing their diets with detailed food questionnaires and testing their cognitive function annually. Researchers found when participants followed the MIND diet very closely, while limiting less-nutritious foods like red meat, processed sweets, and fried foods, they reduced Alzheimer’s and dementia risk by 53%, and by 35% in those who followed the diet reasonably well.

To keep your brain in tip-top shape, Dr. Bredesen recommends limiting your intake of processed foods, red meat, and added sugar while loading up on the nutrient-rich, MIND diet-approved foods below.

How to protect your mind with brain foods

If most days start with a search for your keys, or you wander from room to room trying to remember why you’re in that room, you might be interested in this news: Research suggests that certain foods can help stave off age-related memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s disease.

A recent study published in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia found that a new diet—aptly named the MIND Diet—may reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s by 53%. Before you balk at the idea of having to hew to yet another eating plan, the research suggests you don’t have to follow every detail of the MIND Diet to benefit. Even study participants who only “moderately” adhered to the diet lowered their risk of Alzheimer’s by 35%. (Boost your memory and age-proof your mind with these natural solutions.)

So, what’s for breakfast, lunch, and dinner on this brain-boosting plan? It’s a combination of the Mediterranean and DASH diets (MIND stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay), both of which have received rave reviews for their heart-healthy benefits and call for lots of vegetables, fruits, healthy fats (such as nuts and olive oil) and lean proteins (such as fish and chicken).

“Typically, what’s good for the heart is good for the brain,” says Michelle M. Mielke, PhD, associate professor in the department of health sciences research at the Mayo Clinic whose research focuses on Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative conditions. After all, your brain needs about 20% of the blood your heart pumps in order to get enough oxygen and fuel—which means if your heart isn’t in tip-top shape, your brain cells may have trouble getting what they need to function optimally.

To fuel your body and brain, load up on the following key players in the MIND diet:

Fatty fish

Seafood offers at least two nutrients that help keep your mind sharp: Omega-3 fats and vitamin D. Tufts University research found that people who ate fish like salmon, tuna, and halibut three times a week reduced their risk of Alzheimer’s disease by nearly 40%. “Omega-3 fatty acids contain DHA and EPA, which are highly concentrated in the brain and are crucial for optimal brain function,” says Joy Dubost, PhD, RD, a dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Fatty fish are also a great source of vitamin D, says Dubost, and numerous studies indicate D can help protect the brain. “Just one 4-ounce piece of cooked salmon contains 600 IU of vitamin D,” she says, “which is pretty high for a food source of D.” (Give these 20 delicious salmon recipes a try.)

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