10 Healthy Foods that Protect Your Brain from 10 Healthy Foods that Protect Your Brain
10 Healthy Foods that Protect Your Brain
Have you ever stopped to think about how the foods you eat might affect your brain? Many of us know that certain fats provide heart health benefits or that protein is important for building and maintaining muscle mass, but the benefits that our brains acquire from eating nutritious foods aren’t discussed as frequently.
Knowing what types of foods will help support and protect your brain is actually pretty important, though — and especially when it comes to being proactive about preventing depression, Alzheimer’s disease and even cancer. For example, a recent study published in the journalAlzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association found that what researchers have dubbed the “MIND” diet — or the “Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay” diet — may have the ability to significantly reduce a person’s risk for developing Alzheimer’s.
To help highlight some of the most brain-friendly foods and their benefits, we recruited Dr. Michael S. Fenster, M.D., a board certified interventional cardiologist and author of The Fallacy of the Calorie: Why the Modern Western Diet is Killing Us and How to Stop It. He considers the following healthy foods (many of which are a part of the MIND Diet) some of the best for supporting brain health and maintaining excellent cognitive function all throughout life.
“[This] includes broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, bok choy and Brussels sprouts,” Fenster said. “These vegetables are rich sources of minerals, vitamins and many important phytochemicals; especially many sulfur containing compounds. As such, they help our bodies deal with oxidative stress by providing a natural source of antioxidants. This results in a lower risk of cancer as well as a significant cardiovascular benefit. The end result is a reduction in conditions that affect brain function, like stroke.” Fenster explained that diets rich in these types of vegetables have been associated with less decline in memory, attention and verbal abilities.
This category includes greens like spinach, chard and collards, which Fenster said in a one-cup serving provide nearly 400 percent of the recommended daily amount of vitamin A, plus a significant amount of vitamins C, E and folic acid. “Studies have shown that diets rich in leafy greens can help protect against Alzheimer’s type dementia,” Fenster said. “For this reason, leafy greens were one of the two food groups added to the traditional Mediterranean diet to create the neuro-protective ‘MIND’ diet variant.”
“Salmon is associated with a number of health benefits,” Fenster said. “Many of these are believed to be associated with the heart healthy, anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids that are present.” He explained that these compounds are also found in fish like trout, sardines, herring, mackerel and tuna, which is why diets rich in fish often correlate with lower blood pressure and, as a result, a lower risk of heart diseases, including strokes. “Because essential fatty acids provided by these foods are so critical for proper neurological function, consumption of fish several times a week is associated with preserved neurological function and less depression and dementia,” Fenster said.
“Walnuts and other tree nuts were once eschewed as part of a healthy diet due to their fat content,” Fenster explained. “But it turns out these fats are the type of healthy fats that our bodies need.” Cashews, almonds, macadamia nuts and pecans, Fenster mentioned are other tree nuts known for containing compounds that support brain health. “Regular nut consumption is part of the Mediterranean diet which is associated with less risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, stroke and early mortality,” he said. “There is also less risk of respiratory disease and certain types of cancers. Greater nut consumption also translates into less risk for such chronic disabilities as age-related memory deterioration.”
Fenster explained that dark chocolate contains flavonoids, which are some of the most potent antioxidants found in nature. “All types of chocolate, including milk chocolate, have been shown to be associated with a reduction in cardiovascular risk factors like hypertension and cardiovascular diseases like stroke,” he said. “However, dark chocolate tends to be higher in cacao than other types of chocolate and thus higher in antioxidants and benefits. These benefits include a boost in memory, attention span, reaction time, concentration and problem-solving skills.” According to Fenster, chocolate not only increases blood flow to the brain, but it makes us feel better because it stimulates our “natural pleasure centers” through the production of endorphins. “As an excellent source of magnesium, chocolate can aid in our ability to deal with stress and improve focus, mood and sleep,” Fenster added. “Regular consumption of moderate amounts of chocolate is also associated with less weight gain and a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s type dementia.”
Blueberries & Berries
“Along with leafy greens, berries are the other food group added to the traditional Mediterranean diet to create the hybrid MIND diet approach that is associated with a reduction in Alzheimer’s type dementia,” Fenster said. “Berries are some of the most concentrated sources of powerful antioxidants on the planet. Regular consumption of various berries several times a week is associated with less risk of diabetes, certain types of cancers, cardiovascular disease and dementia.” He explained that berries, like blueberries, blackberries, cranberries, and strawberries have the power not only to protect the brain from oxidation, but also to change the way neurons in the brain communicate with each other. “These changes are associated with less inflammation,” Fenster said. “Prevention of inflammation results in less brain cell damage and thereby improvement in overall neurological function.”
Fenster said that whole grains are necessary for obtaining many important vitamins and minerals and fiber. “Adequate intake of fiber is critical for the maintenance of a healthy gut microbiome,” he explained. “The gut microbiome is a symbiotic organ that is in constant communication and modulation of the other organ systems in our body including the gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, endocrine, neurological and immune systems. Avoid dietary choices that are produced from highly refined modern wheat bread and instead look toward ancient grains and seeds.”
“Eggs are one of nature’s most perfect foods, and this includes the yolk,” Fenster said. “And don’t worry about the cholesterol found in the yolk. Recent dietary guidelines removing cholesterol restrictions from the diet reflect what many have been saying for years: dietary cholesterol has little to no impact on blood cholesterol levels.” He explained that the yolk is a rich source of “conjugated linoleic acid,” or CLA, a beneficial fatty acid that has been associated with anti-tumor activity. “In addition to being the primary source of many beneficial B-complex vitamins, the yolk contains the anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids ALA, or alpha linolenic acid, and the conditionally essential fatty acid DHA, or docosahexaenoic acid,” Fenster added. “These polyunsaturated fatty acids are critical in helping the body reduce levels of inflammation and in the maintenance of heart and brain health.”
“The caffeine in coffee not only stimulates the brain, but it also blocks receptors for a chemical called adenosine,” Fenster explained. “The result of this one-two punch is an increase in energy and mental performance. Regular consumption of moderate amounts of coffee is associated with a lower rate of age-related mental decline and improved cognitive function.”
Fenster said that wine and other forms of moderate alcohol consumption are associated with a reduction in “neurodegenerative decline” and “preservation of mental function as we age.” “Moderate alcohol consumption, defined as one to two glasses of wine per day or the equivalent, associated with the Mediterranean diet is believed to be a significant contributor to the health benefits associated with this approach,” he explained. “Despite the well-known health (and social) complications of overindulgence, moderate alcohol consumption is associated with the preservation of attention and memory. In vino veritas; et vita!”