10 foods to boost your brain health

It’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of brain health. Your brain is the control centre for your whole body: it keeps your heart beating, your lungs breathing, your limbs moving, and allows you to think, feel and speak. When focusing on our overall health and wellbeing, it’s easy to overlook the importance of looking after the physical health of our brains.

Diet has been shown to be a great help with maintaining healthy brain matter and  there are plenty of foods that have been shown to help keep our brains healthy, enhance memory and focus, and even improve our ability to do certain tasks. Here are 10 foods that can help boost your brain health.

1. Broccoli

Broccoli is packed full of powerful plant nutrients. It’s a great source of vitamin K – just 100g of broccoli contains more than 100% of the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA). Vitamin K has been shown to improve cognitive function and brain power, and several studies in older adults link an increased vitamin K intake to improved memory. Broccoli also contains compounds called glucosinolates, which help to keep our central nervous system healthy, and in turn, keep our brain and memory sharp.

Broccoli is packed with plenty of other vital vitamins and minerals, too, and its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties may also help protect the brain and keep it functioning at its peak. The beauty of broccoli is that it’s incredibly versatile, and can be served with pretty much any cuisine or dish – from soup to salads or pasta. If you’re looking for some broccoli based inspiration, check out some of these tasty broccoli recipes on the BBC Good Food website.

2. Oily fish

Oily fish are a good source of omega-3 essential fatty acids. Essential fatty acids can’t be made by the body, which means they must be obtained through our diet. Because they help build membranes around each brain and nerve cell, omega-3 fats can improve the structure of neurons, which are the basic working units of our brain.

Omega-3 fats may help reduce the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, slow cognitive decline, improve memory, reduce stress, and even produce more serotonin – the chemical that’s responsible for keeping us feeling happy. A 2017 study found that people with higher levels of omega-3s saw improved blood flow to the brain, and had better cognitive abilities. The most effective omega-3 fats are found in oily fish like salmon, trout, mackerel, herring, sardines, pilchards and kippers. You can check out some delicious oily fish recipes here.

If you don’t eat fish, you can get your omega-3 fats from plant sources like flaxseed, soya beans, pumpkin seeds and walnuts (more on these later). Alternatively, you can take an omega-3 supplement, which can be purchased from stores such as Holland and Barratt*, or Amazon. These are usually made from fish oils, but if you’re vegetarian or vegan, you can take a plant-based omega-3 supplement made from micro-algae. If you’re thinking about taking an omega-3 supplement, it’s always a good idea to speak to your GP first. They can advise you on whether taking a supplement is the best course of action for you, based on your individual circumstances – and if so, how much.

3. Berries

Berries like blueberries contain anthocyanins, a group of plant compounds that have powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. Antioxidants help prevent inflammation, which can decrease your chances of suffering from neurodegenerative diseases. A 2014 study also found that the antioxidants in berries can improve communication between brain cells and increase plasticity (the brain’s ability to rewire itself). Improved communication and plasticity can help brain cells to make new connections, which not only enhance learning and memory, but can also help to reduce or delay cognitive decline.

The natural plant pigments that give berries their vivid colour are called flavonoids, and they can also help improve memory. Blueberries are generally seen as the ‘best’ berry for boosting brain health (one study at an American university found that eating blueberries may improve or delay short-term memory loss), but other deep-coloured berries, like strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, blackcurrants and mulberries are also considered great brain foods. A helpful way to make sure you eat berries regularly is to sprinkle them onto your breakfast cereal or porridge, or make a daily smoothie. Alternatively, a handful of berries make a delicious and healthy snack.

4. Avocados

Avocados are a great source of healthy unsaturated fat, which has been shown to reduce blood pressure. High blood pressure is associated with cognitive decline, and this study showed that people over the age of 50 who ate one avocado a day for six months saw significant improvement in both their memory and problem-solving skills. The same study also found that a control group who didn’t eat an avocado a day, didn’t see the same improvements in brain function.

Another benefit of avocados is that they’re also packed with many of the nutrients that are most valuable for the brain, such as folate, vitamin C, vitamin E, and copper. Avocados are delicious in sandwiches, salads, dips like guacamole, or simply on toast – the latter of which has become a modern cult food classic.

5. Dark chocolate

There’s good news for chocoholics too: dark chocolate can be effective for boosting your brain health. Dark chocolate contains cacao, which is packed with brain-boosting flavonoids, caffeine and antioxidants. The flavonoids found in dark chocolate are especially good for the brain, as they stimulate blood flow and encourage the growth of blood vessels and neurons in the areas of the brain that handle memory and learning.

There are several studies that show just how good dark chocolate can be for your brain. One study found that people who regularly ate dark chocolate performed better in mental tasks than people who rarely ate it. Another study found that eating dark chocolate containing at least 70% cacao may improve plasticity in the brain, which is vital for learning.

While eating a few squares of dark chocolate each day is health-boosting, you should be careful not to eat too much, because of its high calorie content – around 30–60g (in a day) is the recommended advice. The higher the cacao content, the better, so ideally try to look for chocolate that’s at least 70% cacao. Unfortunately, milk and white chocolate don’t quite have the same benefits!

6. Soya products

Soya bean products like tofu, edamame beans, soya milk, tempeh and soya-based meat alternatives are packed with a special type of antioxidant called polyphenol. Multiple studies link polyphenols with both a decreased risk of dementia and enhanced cognitive abilities. The polyphenols found in soya products are called isoflavones, and these act as antioxidants and can provide a variety of powerful health benefits throughout the body.

Soya products are also good sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which are enormously important for brain function, maintaining a healthy heart, strengthening joints, and improving general well-being. They are also good sources of B vitamins, which have been shown to reduce the risk of stroke and cognitive impairment and dementia, as well as play a vital role in regulating normal brain function. Check out these delicious tofu recipes on the BBC Good Food site – or alternatively, you can check out some recipes made with tofu’s even healthier cousin, tempeh.

7. Whole grains

Just like the rest of your body, your brain needs energy to function. In order to concentrate and focus at its peak, the brain needs to have a steady supply of slow-release energy – and these are best sourced from whole grains. Low-GI whole grains like brown rice, barley, quinoa, bulgur wheat, oatmeal, and whole grain bread and pasta are best, as they release energy more slowly, helping you feel energetic and alert for longer – whilst avoiding sugar highs, and lows…

If you want to include more whole grains in your diet, the good news is that there are countless ways to do so. Simply swapping from white bread, rice and pasta to brown can make a difference. If you’d like to get more creative in the kitchen, check out this selection of whole grain recipes – from baked goods and breakfasts to sides and salads, there’s something for everyone.

8. Tomatoes

Tomatoes may also have serious brain boosting properties. They contain lycopene, which is a powerful antioxidant that can help to protect the brain  against free radicals, which are essentially unstable atoms that can damage brain cells. Free radical damage has been seen to occur during the onset of dementia – especially Alzheimer’s. Plus, tomatoes are a great source of vitamin C, which also acts as an antioxidant and supports general brain health as you age.

Because tomatoes release more lycopene when they’re cooked, it’s best to use them in cooked food rather than eating them raw in salads or sandwiches – although, raw tomatoes will still help boost your vitamin C levels, of course!

Adding a splash of olive oil to your cooked tomatoes helps your body absorb the nutrients better. You can check out some delicious tomato recipes here.

9. Nuts and seeds

There’s lots of evidence suggesting that eating nuts and seeds can boost your brain health. Research shows that eating tree nuts can improve heart health, which is strongly linked to brain health, and a 2014 review found that nuts can improve cognition and ward off neurodegenerative diseases. Another study found that women who regularly ate nuts had a better memory compared to those who didn’t.

Walnuts, flaxseeds and pumpkin seeds are especially good, as they contain plenty of health-boosting omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants. Pumpkin seeds, almonds and cashews are also very high in zinc, which is essential for improving memory and cognition. While all tree nuts are good for your brain, walnuts are probably best because of the high levels of omega-3 they contain.

Nuts and seeds are also high in the antioxidant vitamin E, which protects cells from free radicals. A 2014 review found that vitamin E might improve cognition and lower the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. The nuts and seeds containing the most vitamin E include sunflower seeds, almonds and hazelnuts. Nuts are great for snacking on, but there are also lots of tasty ways to include them in your cooking: have a look at this selection of nut recipes that take nuts to a whole new level.

10. Coffee

If you can’t fathom starting your morning off without a cup of coffee, there’s more good news. Coffee does more than just increase alertness and temporarily boost concentration; studies show that it can also improve memory and reduce the risk of stroke, as well as neurological diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Because coffee contains lots of antioxidants, it’s also been shown to maintain general brain health as we get older.

The caffeine in coffee also has powerful brain benefits. It blocks adenosine, a chemical that makes us sleepy, increasing alertness and making it easier to concentrate. Plus, it can also have a positive effect on mood thanks to the feel-good neurotransmitters it contains, such as serotonin. However, because it can adversely affect sleep and increase blood pressure, it’s important not to have too much coffee, or to have it too close to bedtime. Experts suggest having no more than four cups of brewed coffee a day. If you don’t drink coffee, green tea and black tea also contain antioxidants and caffeine.

Final thoughts…

Because the foods listed above are so diverse, there are plenty of ways we can include them into our normal diets and our favourite dishes. Perhaps, you might want to pick one or two of the suggestions and see how you can weave them into your normal routine. Often it’s much easier to build one or two small changes into your existing routine, than worry about trying to change everything all at once!

Eating a healthy, balanced diet is one important  way of keeping our brains healthy, but there are also other ways we can help optimise brain function. This Rest Less guide offers 8 different ways to help maintain your brain health – from getting regular exercise, to sleeping enough, staying hydrated, and reducing stress through practices like yoga or mindfulness.

Are you focused on improving your brain health?  Do you have any additional brain-boosting ideas? We’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences. Leave us a comment below or join the conversation on the health section of the Rest Less community forum.

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