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.

Pomegranates have been shown to have a host of brain-boosting compounds, including polyphenols and resveratrol, which have antioxidant and anti-aging effects in the brain. Early studies suggest that the compounds in pomegranates may be useful in treating Alzheimer’s disease. Pomegranate juice has also been shown to protect the fetal brain.

Quinoa is a seed that’s rich in all of the essential amino acids-especially lysine. Lysine may play a key role in regulating anxiety and stress. Studies have shown that those with a lysine deficiency manifest significantly elevated anxiety levels and higher concentrations of stress hormones. Quinoa also offers a large dose of magnesium, which has been demonstrated to reduce inflammation-related brain injury and lessen the brain’s likelihood of hemorrhage.

We hear a lot about the brain benefits of blueberries, but red berries and cherries also have a lot of brain-boosting powers. Strawberries are an excellent source of fisetin, an antioxidant that has been shown to improve memory and the symptoms of Alzheimer's.  Cranberries have been identified as one of the most excellent dietary sources of high-quality antioxidants. Antioxidants have been shown to prevent and ameliorate oxidative stress in the brain and body and maintain healthy cognitive functioning. And recent research has shown that the antioxidants in tart cherries may help stave off the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

Sage has long been thought to have medicinal properties, and current science has borne that out. Administration of sage or sage extracts has been shown to improve memory, attention, and mood in healthy young adults, and may improve outcomes in Alzheimer’s disease.

Lipophilic antioxidants such as those found in sesame seeds and sesame oil are expected to contribute to the prevention of age-related diseases. Sesame seeds are also a good source of the lignans found in flaxseed.

Beta carotene, which gives sweet potatoes their orange color, is a powerful antioxidant. Several studies suggest that a low level of beta carotene (a form of vitamin A) is associated with poorer cognitive function, and that increased intake of beta carotene may protect against cognitive decline in older adulthood. Adding sweet potatoes to your diet is a good idea even independent of its brain benefits—it’s high on the list for overall nutrition.

Tomatoes are one of few foods rich in lycopene. Low levels of lycopene have been associate with poor cognitive performance in older people. Lycopene has also been demonstrated as a potential therapeutic for those with Parkinson’s disease and diabetes-induced learning and memory impairment.

Turmeric is a root that is most commonly sold as a powdered spice. It is bright yellow in color, and is a predominant ingredient in Indian curry powder. Turmeric contains a compound called curcumin, which has been shown to have significant neuroprotective, anti-inflammatory, and anti-Alzheimer’s effects. Studies have shown that even relatively infrequent consumption of curcumin may be highly effective in preventing Alzheimer’s disease and reducing the physical plaques that accompany the disease.

Winter squashes (like butternut, acorn, kabocha, spaghetti, and Hubbard squash) and carrots are rich in beta carotene. A couple of large, long-term studies have found that people who regularly eat beta carotene-rich foods have significantly better memories and verbal skills than those who don't. Winter squashes and carrots also boast a healthy dose of vitamin C, folic acid, niacin, and antioxidants, which also offer brain benefits—with a very low caloric load.

While some bacteria can cause illness, our bodies are full of “good” bacteria that benefit us, too. (About five pounds of it, according to some estimates!) It's long been known that people who eat more fermented and cultured foods that contain beneficial bacteriatend to live longer and experience fewer intestinal issues throughout their lives. The best easily available food source of good bacteria is live-culture yogurt.

Recently, scientists have also discovered that your gut bacteria can communicate with your brain along the “gut-brain axis,” and that changing the body’s bacterial balance can alter brain activity, especially as it relates to mood—sometimes for the better. The details aren’t clear yet, but the first hints are here. For example, one study on women found that taking a fermented milk product with five specific bacteria changed the activity in brain regions that control emotion and sensation. Other studies have shown that changing gut bacteria has the potential to reduce anxiety and sadness.