Brain Healthy Foods and Ingredients

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. If you click on the food, you will find recipes including that ingredient.

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.

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--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 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.