A fear for many of us as we age is that our mind may fail us. By the time you are hitting 40 you are already walking into a room with absolutely no idea what you went in there for!! This is multifaceted – forgetfulness and brain fog can be caused by numerous things. Good brain function can also help us to manage mental stress better and help to balance emotions which may help to reduce anxiety.
Keeping our brains active is key as we age but what foods can help to keep the old brain cogs ticking so we can remain brain healthy for longer. Scientists have identified some foods as being excellent for keeping the brain healthy and preventing the downward slippery slope of poor brain function that may lead to dementia or other poor cognitive function. I have complied a list of food below that you can enjoy and tuck into to help.
Berries are delicious, but they also work wonders for cognitive function due to the high levels of powerful antioxidants they contain, specific. Anthocyanidin is one such antioxidant that has been shown to boost memory, neural function, and coordination. This results in improved communication between brain cells and increasing plasticity – the creation and strengthening of neural pathways. This leads to improved memory and learning and helps to reduce cognitive decline. The darker the berry, the higher the antioxidant content, with blueberries and blackberries coming out on top.
Nuts and seeds
Nuts and seeds have also shown to be effective in helping maintain a healthy functioning brain as we age. A study found that people who ate a diet rich in nuts and seeds had much better brain function in old age than those that didn’t. A scientific review in 2014 found that vitamin E may help to prevent Alzheimer’s disease. The nuts and seeds containing the highest levels of vitamin E are sunflower seeds, hazelnuts, and almonds. Reaching for a handful of nuts when you are feeling like a pick-me-up rather that sugary snacks like cakes, biscuits and sweet, when the slump strikes may help to give you more sustainable energy and help reduce the possibility of cognitive decline.
Oily fish, like salmon, mackeral, and fresh tuna, has been getting great press over the last few years because of its omega-3 contents. Omega-3 fats help build membranes around every cell in the body, including our brain cells. This helps to improve the structure of brain cells called “neurons” (I’m reminded of the TV programme my children watched called Nina and her neurons). One study concluded that people with high levels of omega-3s had increased blood flow in the brain. Out blood carries vital nutrients around the body and many of these are taken up by the brain. A lack of these nutrients will further reduce the brain’s capacity to function.
Soybean products like tofu are rich in a group of antioxidants called polyphenols, which are linked to a reduced risk of dementia and other age-related cognitive problems. The polyphenols they contain - isoflavones, including daidzein and genistein which are all important in helping remove toxins from the brain which help to prevent functional decline of the brain. Pick up a packet of frozen soybeans from the supermarket and use them in soups, stews, curries and stirfry.
I could dedicate an entire blog to the benefits of avocados. Not only are they delicious and compliment many a meal they are also chock-full of nutrient-dense monounsaturated fats, which help support the blood flow to the brain. They’re also helpful in reducing blood pressure, and high blood pressure is linked with cognitive decline. So go on, treat yourself to avocado with poached on bread for breakfast, guacamole with oatcakes for lunch or just chopped up in a delicious salad for dinner. ½-1 avocado per day is recommended along with a healthy diet.
Who would have thought that brain function can be improved by the humble cucumber, a staple in our household! Cucumbers contain an antioxidant called fisetin, which has shown to improve memory. Another study on mice discovered that a daily dose of fisetin may improve the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Let’s hope it has the same effect on humans. Fisetin is also found in strawberries.
Legumes like chickpeas, beans, lentils, and split peas are a rich source of folic acid. This is an important nutrient during pregnancy which pregnant women are strongly advised to supplement. Folic acid during pregnancy is vital for foetal brain development and helps to prevent neural tube defects. Therefore, it makes sense that folic acid may also improve verbal and memory performance and may help delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Other foods high in folic acid include dark green leafy vegetable, sunflower seeds, and peanuts.
Who says you have to give up chocolate to be healthy. The brain is susceptible to oxidative stress, which contributes to age-related cognitive decline. To better understand oxidative stress think about cutting an apple in half and then leaving it for a while. Yes, it starts to go brown and looses its nutrients, this is oxidation. Foods containing high levels of antioxidants reduce the damage caused by oxidative stress by mopping up free radicals (destructive atoms which cause damage to cells). Studies have shown that cacao flavonoids in dark chocolate encourage neuron and blood vessel growth in the parts of the brain related to memory and learning. A 2018 study which researched what happened when people ate dark chocolate (over 70% cacao), concluded that it improved brain plasticity, which is crucial for learning. So go on enjoy a little dark chocolate after dinner or as a snack with some nuts or seeds for extra brain boosting.
There is often a lot of controversy around coffee because of its caffeine content. As we know coffee can help keep you alert when you’re flagging. Too much and it can affect your sleep. However, coffee may help increase your brain’s capacity to process information. Ground coffee is also a source of antioxidants that have been linked to the prevention of cognitive decline and brain conditions such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Unless it really affects you a little coffee every day may just be that boost you need throughout the day.
Good old eggs are up there with the best of the brain boosters. They are nature’s convenience food. Drop an egg into boiling water and within minutes you have a snack that you can take anywhere with you for a snack or as part of your lunch. Eggs are packed with vitamins B6, B12, and folic acid, and science shows these vitamins can prevent your brain from shrinking. Eggs are also rich in choline, a nutrient that help prevent against cognitive decline in old age.
I am a big fan of this cruciferous vegetable not only because it has so many health-promoting qualities, but kids love it. Broccoli contains glucosinolates, which break down in the body to produce an antioxidant called isothiocyanates. Isothiocyanates (also found in Brussels sprouts, bok choy, cabbage, and kale) may help reduce oxidative stress and lower the risk of degenerative brain conditions. Steamed is best but they also roast well too and are a great addition to a stir fry.
Cinnamon is one of my favourite spices which I use in savoury dishes like chillis and curries, and also in sweet dishes as it’s a natural sweetener. It goes great in porridge too and has evidence showing that it is helpful in managing blood sugars. Imbalanced blood sugars can lead to slumps and sluggish brain function so a little cinnamon may be helpful in reducing slumps. Some studies have shown that the compounds in cinnamon may be beneficial for Alzheimer’s prevention. In Alzheimer’s, produces “plaques” and “tangles” which damage brain cells, and cinnamon may help to prevent the formation of both plaques and tangles.
Curcumin is an anti-inflammatory compound found in turmeric. Some people take it as it can be effective in reducing the effect of arthritis or other joint aches and pains. There is further evidence to support that it protects against long-term cognitive function, memory, and mood, as well as combating degenerative processes in the brain. Inflammation is a major cause of aging and finding ways to reduce aging may help us stay fitter and healthier for longer. Curries are the most popular dishes for using turmeric but it can be used as a substitute for saffron in paella dishes and can be added to soups and stews if you need an extra boost.
Variety is the Spice of Life
Remember though that a “superfood” on its own won’t create a healthy mind. Variety is the key when adjusting your diet to make it more brain healthy. As you increase the good foods in your diet, remember to reducing the pro-inflammatory foods in the diet. Foods that are highly processed, full of sugar and/or processed fats and oils should be removed or greatly reduced if you want to help prevent long term degeneration of the brain’s function.
If you are struggling to know what to eat or what not to eat and would like some support in adjusting to a healthy diet that would work for you then you may find my 30 Day Revitalise Your Health Programme. This programme focuses on helping you step by step change your eating habits and educates you on the importance of good diet and a healthy gut. Use the link below to find out more and book in for a free 30 minute session.
Marie Jarvis has helped many people to re-evaluate their eating habits, and educated them to nourish their body, gut and mind. Her coaching skills help people to re-evaluate their thinking around food and specifically helps women over 40 take back control of their eating habits and create a healthier relationship with food.