By Florencia Tagliavini, The NutraMilk Nutritionist
A healthy and well-balanced diet will not only promote brain health but overall health. Some nutrients are particularly important and have been associated with improved cognitive function and delaying degenerative diseases of the mind like Alzheimer's and dementia, according to research.
As the global population ages, there is an increasing prevalence of cognitive decline and dementia. The World Health Organization (WHO), predicts that by 2050, it is estimated that there will be two billion people aged 60 years or over, of which 131 million are projected to be affected by dementia, while depression is predicted to be the second leading cause of disability worldwide by 2020. Due to the advancing worldwide prevalence, this has become a global concern and more and more research is being done to help prevent or delay the onset of these disorders.
Nutrition and diet can significantly contribute to cognitive decline or on the contrary, can play a significant role in supporting healthy cognitive function. Now, you don't have to wait till you are a senior to reap the benefits of these nutrients, they can help support overall brain function, improving your decision-making and problem-solving skills, your focus, and your memory.
So if you want to keep your mind sharp, make sure you include these nutrients as part of a healthy diet.
Omega-3 fatty acids and DHA:
DHA is the most abundant omega-3 fatty acid in our brains and critical for brain development, healthy function and slowing the progression of the aging brain. Omega-3s are available in fatty fish options like salmon, mackerel and tuna, egg yolks, walnuts, and chia seeds.
Folate & B-vitamins:
Folic acid, also commonly known as B9, plays an important role in many functions including cell repair and maintenance, brain function and DNA development. The other B-vitamins important for cognition are B6 & B12. These vitamins play an important role in the production of neurotransmitters, regulation of myelin sheaths, and the health of the hippocampus and other brain structures. They also tend to work together, which makes it even more important that all are taken in adequate amounts. Many brightly colored foods like avocados, papayas, and beets are rich sources of folate or leafy greens like romaine, and mustard greens. B6 is found in salmon and other fish, chicken, pork, beef, fortified tofu, sweet potatoes, bananas, potatoes, avocados, and pistachios. The best sources for B12 are shellfish, liver, fish, beef, fortified cereals, fortified tofu, low-fat milk, cheese, and eggs.
Natural Vitamin E:
Is a powerful antioxidant that protects us against free radical damage and inflammation. It is particularly linked to memory, vision and language development in the brain. A recent study shows the brain favors natural vitamin E over synthetic vitamin E. Another reason to get your nutrients from real foods and not supplements! Nuts and seeds are rich sources of vitamin E, vegetables including spinach and pumpkin, raw olive oil and seafood (salmon, shrimp, and oysters) are great sources.
Is an antioxidant which belongs to a group of plant compounds called flavonoids that give plants, fruits and vegetables their colors and that helps protect the body from excess inflammation which is linked to cognitive decline. Quercetin is available in foods such as apple skin peels, peppers, cherries, and berries.
Lutein & Zeaxanthin:
Are two carotenoids with different health benefits. Lutein is mostly known for its effects on eye health, skin health and cardiovascular health. Research suggests a combination of lutein and zeaxanthin can help improve processing speed and memory at any age. These two nutrients can be found in egg yolk, green leafy vegetables (kale and spinach being the best sources) and yellow fruits or veggies.
Is a micronutrient that isn't as well known but important for many functions in the body, including brain function. Eggs, beef, brussels sprouts, and lettuce are all good sources of choline.
Other nutrients are also important for brain health such as various polyphenols and vitamin D. There are also other factors that affect cognitive function such as sleep and stress, which is why not only a well-balanced and nutritious diet is vital but a healthy lifestyle is just as important. A diet that has been evaluated time and time again for the prevention and treatment of various conditions is the Mediterranean diet. It is typically characterized by higher intakes of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, fish, unsaturated fatty acids and a regular but moderate consumption of alcohol. There is accumulating evidence to support its potential role in preserving cognitive health and protecting against depression in aging. Not surprisingly, all the nutrients listed above are part of the Mediterranean diet!
Brain health and cognitive function are a hot topic of investigation, so stay tuned for future research and updates coming up!
- Gomez-Pinilla F. Brain foods: the effects of nutrients on brain function. Nature reviews Neuroscience. 2008;9(7):568-578.
- Moore, K., Hughes, C., Ward, M., Hoey, L., &; McNulty, H. (2018). Diet, nutrition and the ageing brain: Current evidence and new directions. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 77(2), 152-163.
- Perez, S., Du, K.,Rendeiro C., Et al. A unique combination of micronutrients rejuvenates cognitive performance in aged mice. Behavioural brain research, 2017; 320, 97-112.