The Top 10 Best Foods For Brain Health
In my telehealth functional medicine clinic, I see just how widespread brain problems are in our society. From brain fog to depression and everything in between, chances are you or someone you know is suffering with brain health problems that can significantly impact daily life.
While brain health problems can be overwhelming, there is hope when it comes to healing. In fact, the foods we eat can drastically improve brain function. But before we get into the best foods for brain health, let’s talk a little bit about the connection between the food you eat and its impact on brain function.
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Brain health and diet
Your gut and brain are governed by the same two proteins - occludin and zonulin - that control the permeability of your brain and your gut. When your protective blood-brain barrier is damaged it can lead to increased inflammation levels that have been linked to brain fog, depression, anxiety, and more.
There are many things that can lead to a damaged blood-brain barrier but one of the most offensive is a poor diet. If you are constantly fueling your body with inflammatory foods, your gut and brain are going to be left defenseless.
And that’s just one way your diet contributes to poor brain health. The other way is by not getting enough of the nutrients your brain needs to thrive. Your brain requires a specific set of nutrients that facilitate the growth of new brain cells to improve memory, cognition, and more.
One example of this is healthy fats. Your brain is actually 60% fat and contains more cholesterol than any other area of your body. Therefore, it only makes sense that you would want to fuel your brain with the very thing it is made of instead of depriving it.
The best foods for brain health
So what foods help repair the brain? It all starts with choosing foods that contain nutrients that fuel specific pathways in the body involved in optimal brain function instead of damaging, inflammatory foods. While this is certainly not a comprehensive list, these are my favorite staple foods that I try to incorporate on a regular basis into my own life and my patients’ lives to enhance cognitive function.
1. Wild-caught fish
Instead of depriving your brain of its very makeup, look for foods high in essential fatty acids like wild-caught fish. Salmon and sardines are some of the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids which are necessary for nerve growth and brain function.
The incredible edible egg may have gotten a bad rep in the past but it’s one of the most nutrient-dense foods you can eat for brain health! Eggs are high in choline, (1) which is responsible for facilitating the synthesis of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine and supporting cell-membrane signaling.
In general, most nuts are great for brain health but walnuts stand apart from the rest due to their high alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) content - a type of omega-3 fatty acids. ALA from walnut consumption has been shown (2) to alleviate oxidative stress and inflammation in the brain associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
4. Hemp hearts
While healthy fats are necessary for optimal brain health, the ideal ratio is 1:1 of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. An imbalance of omega-6 fatty acids can lead to unwanted inflammation. That’s why I love hemp hearts because they are the only plant-based food that has a perfect 1:1 ratio and the same omega 3:6 ratio as fish oil.
Even if you aren’t plant-based, hemp hearts are great to add to your diet as they are just generally higher in healthy fats with 6 times more omega 3s than tuna and 14 grams of fat per serving. Plus, hemp hearts are high in magnesium - a common nutrient deficiency - that plays a significant role in learning and memory. (3)
As we mentioned above the combination of healthy fats and magnesium are a powerhouse duo for brain function and avocados are abundant in both. You don’t have to tell me twice to load up on avocado toast and guac!
6. Coconut oil
This amazing food contains the best possible fat for brain health: medium-chain triglycerides, or MCTs. One study (4) found that medium-chain triglycerides improved cognitive function among older folks with memory problems and Alzheimer’s disease. The amazing thing about this study was that cognitive function improved almost immediately following ingestion of the medium-chain triglycerides, not just after continued use.
7. Functional mushrooms
Lion’s mane mushrooms are also a top choice of mine due to their uber-powerful nerve growth factors (NGFs) that help to regenerate and protect brain tissue. Research has shown that cognitive function improves with the addition of this adaptogenic mushroom. (5)
This bright yellow spice is abundant in curcumin, the active compound that has been connected to improved brain health due to its ability to cross the blood-brain barrier. Not only is curcumin able to enhance memory (6) in cases of Alzheimer’s, it can also boost (7) brain-derived neurotrophic factor that facilitates the growth of new brain cells.
Blueberries are rich in antioxidants that fight against inflammation and oxidative stress. The antioxidants in blueberries have been shown (8) to protect your brain against neurodegenerative diseases by increasing communication between brain cells with multiple studies confirming their ability to improve memory in both children and adults. (9)
10. Green tea
Yet another reason to love green tea, this beverage is high in protective antioxidants (10) as well as L-theanine, an amino acid that is able to cross the blood-brain barrier and increase neurotransmitter activity.
There’s no doubt about how important your brain health is to your everyday life. By being proactive in our choices today, including the foods we eat on a daily basis, we can ensure better brain health and function for years to come.
If you are struggling with brain fog, depression, anxiety, or other brain health problems and feel like you’ve reached a plateau with your healing, check out our telehealth functional medicine consultation.
In my telehealth functional medicine clinic, we go the extra mile to uncover all areas of your health that can be contributing to your brain health problems. We run extensive labs to discover what is happening underneath the surface and take lifestyle and diet into consideration when putting together a plan to overcome brain health problems.
Even though brain health problems can be overwhelming, we aim to walk with you on your journey to better health, naturally.
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- Zeisel, Steven H, and Kerry-Ann da Costa. “Choline: an essential nutrient for public health.” Nutrition reviews vol. 67,11 (2009): 615-23. doi:10.1111/j.1753-4887.2009.00246.x
- Chauhan, Abha, and Ved Chauhan. “Beneficial Effects of Walnuts on Cognition and Brain Health.” Nutrients vol. 12,2 550. 20 Feb. 2020, doi:10.3390/nu12020550
- Hoane MR. The role of magnesium therapy in learning and memory. In: Vink R, Nechifor M, editors. Magnesium in the Central Nervous System [Internet]. Adelaide (AU): University of Adelaide Press; 2011. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK507270/
- Reger, Mark A et al. “Effects of beta-hydroxybutyrate on cognition in memory-impaired adults.” Neurobiology of aging vol. 25,3 (2004): 311-4. doi:10.1016/S0197-4580(03)00087-3
- Mori, Koichiro et al. “Improving effects of the mushroom Yamabushitake (Hericium erinaceus) on mild cognitive impairment: a double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial.” Phytotherapy research : PTR vol. 23,3 (2009): 367-72. doi:10.1002/ptr.2634
- Reddy, P Hemachandra et al. “Protective Effects of Indian Spice Curcumin Against Amyloid-β in Alzheimer's Disease.” Journal of Alzheimer's disease : JAD vol. 61,3 (2018): 843-866. doi:10.3233/JAD-170512
- Sarraf, Payam et al. “Short-term curcumin supplementation enhances serum brain-derived neurotrophic factor in adult men and women: a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials.” Nutrition research (New York, N.Y.) vol. 69 (2019): 1-8. doi:10.1016/j.nutres.2019.05.001
- Kalt, Wilhelmina et al. “Recent Research on the Health Benefits of Blueberries and Their Anthocyanins.” Advances in nutrition (Bethesda, Md.) vol. 11,2 (2020): 224-236. doi:10.1093/advances/nmz065
- Hein, Sabine et al. “Systematic Review of the Effects of Blueberry on Cognitive Performance as We Age.” The journals of gerontology. Series A, Biological sciences and medical sciences vol. 74,7 (2019): 984-995. doi:10.1093/gerona/glz082
- Kakutani, Saki et al. “Green Tea Intake and Risks for Dementia, Alzheimer's Disease, Mild Cognitive Impairment, and Cognitive Impairment: A Systematic Review.” Nutrients vol. 11,5 1165. 24 May. 2019, doi:10.3390/nu11051165
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BY DR. WILL COLE
Dr. Will Cole, DNM, IFMCP, DC is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the globe, starting one of the first functional medicine telehealth centers in the world. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Dr. Will Cole provides a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is the host of the popular The Art Of Being Well podcast and the New York Times bestselling author of Intuitive Fasting, Ketotarian, The Inflammation Spectrum and the brand new book Gut Feelings: Healing the Shame-Fueled Relationship Between What You Eat and How You Feel.
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