Your brain is the conductor of your body. It keeps your lungs breathing air, your heart pumping blood, and makes sense of the world around you—and a lot more! Your brain needs fuel to work properly and, just like the rest of your body, that fuel comes from food. Ensuring you mix in some of the best brain foods into your diet will help provide your brain what it needs to work.
What are Brain Foods?
Sounds like a simple question right? Brain foods are those that contain compounds that support memory, learning, and general perception. Compounds that support brain function aren’t always found in food, at least not directly. Sometimes foods have to be processed a bit first by our digestive tract, get transformed by some enzyme, or bond to another compound before our body can use it.
Whole Foods vs. Supplements
Nootropic supplements contain isolated compounds known to provide cognitive support. This might be for memory, learning, or simply staving off age-related cognitive decline. In many cases, these types of supplements contain compounds that have been extracted from plants and herbs—many of which are commonly eaten as food.
One downside to this approach is that isolated nootropic compounds are often devoid of their natural cofactors or other commonly-paired compounds. When ingested in their whole-food forms our bodies are often more able to fully utilize the nutrients and maximize their overall positive impact on our brain. Some supplements, such as whole food multi-vitamins offer the best of both approaches.
List of Brain Foods
With that in mind, there are some well-studied foods out there that contain compounds that eventually support the brain—if not immediately. It’s also important to keep in mind that if your brain might not fully utilize the compounds found in brain foods if your digestive health isn’t great. Here’s a list of brain foods that have strong scientific support.
Long-chain fatty acids like Omega-3 and Omega-6 are crazy important for brain health. They help support cellular health in ways that are particularly beneficial to brain cells. Brain cells are mostly fat. When they go spring into action they produce free radical via oxidative processes. Omega fatty acids are godsends for antioxidation and spring into action here. Fish like salmon and sardines are rich in these compounds. Research also suggests that diets rich in fish oils may help reduce incident rates of neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s (R).
Foods like kale, spinach, and lettuce, are packed with compounds beneficial to brain health. Some of these include beta-carotene, alpha-tocopherol, and phylloquinone. A 2018 study published in the journal Nature found that, over a 10-year period of observation, participants with diets containing more leafy greens had higher measures of cognitive health (R). In other words, those who eat more leafy greens are likelier to have healthier brains!
Blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries—even mulberries—all help boost brain health. These berries contain compounds like ellagic acid, quercetin, and catechins which have been associated with optimal cognitive performance (R). These foods are rich in antioxidants and organic acids that help mitigate inflammation in the brain, improve neural signaling, and even lower the risk of age-related neurodegenerative disease. Try dropping some berries into your salad of brain-supporting leafy greens for added benefit!
Nuts & Seeds
Nuts contain monounsaturated and poly-unsaturated fatty acids that have shown a remarkable benefit to overall vascular health. This type of health benefit is directly associated with a lowered risk of strokes, improved cardiovascular health, and lower risk of metabolic disease (R). Vascular health isn’t always the first concern that surfaces when considering brain health—but it’s super important! Making sure your brain is receiving an optimal blood flow will help ensure it performs at its best!
Superfoods such as broccoli earn their status by containing wide spectrums of beneficial compounds. One of the most intriguing compounds in broccoli is called glucoraphanin. This compound ultimately gets converted by enzymes (myrosinase) into another compound called sulforaphane, which plays a tremendous role in cognitive health. This compound boosts antioxidant enzyme levels, inhibits inflammatory cytokines, and has shown the ability to protect against age-related cognitive decline (R). To fully maximize the brain benefit of broccoli, try eating broccoli sprouts with a little mustard powder sprinkled on them!
Avocados recipes have taken the alt-health community by storm. Snapshots of green-colored toast run rampant on Instagram and every day we hear imaginative new ways to slip these slimy green slices of fatty plant goodness into meals. Avocados, much like nuts, seeds, and fish, contain high amounts of healthy fatty acids like Omega-3’s. They also contain a wide spectrum of minerals, vitamins, and phytocompounds associated with optimal brain health. Some of these include choline, lutein, and phylloquinone (R). We’re not saying avocados will make you smarter—but they’ll definitely help!
The kind of chocolate that is beneficial to brain health isn’t the kind one finds at the checkout line at the grocery store—not most grocery stores anyway! Maybe Whole Foods, but certainly not Wal-Mart. The natural source of chocolate—cocoa—contains an assortment of powerful antioxidants and bio-active flavanoids like epicatechin (R). These compounds help protect brain cells and optimize blood flow to the brain. One fun fact is that some compounds in chocolate, such as epicatechin, accumulate in the body. That’s to say—eating some chocolate every day may help provide a bit of a fallback during times of stress. Don’t take that as a license to make chocolate a new macro in your diet though!
Oranges are rich in bioflavonoids rutin and lutein which have both demonstrated the ability to help support optimal neural health. Research has shown that consuming orange juice rich in these types of compounds (not “orange drinks”) for 8 weeks improves cognitive health (R). You could certainly create an orange-juice salad dressing but simply eating an orange or two every day is a great way to get this type of brain boost. Other citrus fruits like lemons, limes, grapefruits, and mandarin oranges all provide similar brain benefits (R).
Good health is about good balance and that mantra should extend into all aspects of life. Meal planning, exercise, and digestive health are all optimized via balance. The foods listed here are packed with brain-supporting compounds but shouldn’t be abused. Excusing yourself to eat three pounds of chocolate for “brain health” isn’t healthy at all. All the foods listed here should be utilized (when tolerated) as part of a well-balanced diet.
Digestive health is another factor that can greatly influence the benefit of these compounds. If your body isn’t able to fully-digest foods your brain won’t benefit as fully as it might otherwise. Probiotics, digestive enzymes, and herbal supplements like bitters can help this process. In some cases, such as with small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), these foods may indirectly cause more harm than good. It’s important to work closely with a medical professional to help design a meal plan catered to your unique needs.