When it comes to keeping your brain healthy as you age, your diet plays an important role. Eating a variety of foods is key to getting the vitamins and nutrients your brain needs to keep functioning at its best.
“A large body of literature found that certain nutrients, flavonoids, unsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids are associated with slower cognitive decline and a reduced risk of dementia,” says Puja Agarwal, Ph.D.nutritional epidemiologist and assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at Rush Medical College in Chicago.
Eating whole foods is the best way to get these nutrients. Brain health supplements don’t work as well, but may not be a helpful option in specific circumstances (more on that later). When you eat a balanced diet, the combination of vitamins, minerals, healthy fats (and more) helps the body better absorb the nutrients it needs.
“Food and nutrients can definitely help support healthy brain function and may even be able to slow age-related decline in brain function,” says Robin Foroutan, MS, RDN, a functional dietitian. “We all want our brains to resist aging, so this is great news.”
So, which vitamins promote brain health? And what foods can you find them in? Ahead, experts share everything you need to know.
omega-3 fatty acids
If you’ve ever wondered why fatty fish like salmon and tuna are always touted as part of a healthy diet, here’s a reason: they’re high in omega-3 fatty acids, a type of unsaturated fat that protects the brain. anti-inflammatory effect and is a building block of cell membranes in the brain.
Omega-3s also have been bound to reduce levels of beta-amyloid, a type of protein found in the brains of people with lesions linked to Alzheimer’s disease. “Omega-3 fatty acids easily penetrate the blood-brain barrier and are essential for brain structure and function,” says Dr. Agarwal.
Foroutan adds that there have been some research which indicates that high doses of omega-3 fatty acids after concussion or other traumatic brain injury may have protective effects on lasting damage
Where to find it: Besides fatty fish, good sources of omega-3s include nuts and seeds and certain fortified foods like eggs and yogurt. If you’re someone who doesn’t eat seafood often, talk to your doctor about taking an omega-3 supplement if blood tests indicate you’re deficient, says Mirella Diaz-Santos, PhD, assistant professor at the Mary S Easton Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research in the Department of Neurology at UCLA and Alzheimer Women’s Movement partner.
This vitamin functions as an antioxidant in the body, and it protects cells from oxidative stress, a type of damage caused by free radicals (unstable molecules in the body), even in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. The brain is particularly susceptible to oxidative stress, which increases with aging and is a major contributor to cognitive decline.
Vitamin E is also anti-inflammatory, which helps keep DNA healthy and replicating properly while maintaining healthy brain cell membrane structure, Foroutan adds.
Where to find it: Vitamin E is found in dark leafy greens, avocado, red pepper, asparagus, mango, pumpkin, nuts and seeds.
When it comes to brain health, focus on the three Bs: vitamins B6, B12, and B9 (folate). “These three types of B vitamins are necessary for the normal brain function“, explains Dr. Agarwal, “and any deficiency in them can increase the risk of memory loss and other forms of cognitive decline.
The reason: these vitamins help stimulate the production of neurotransmittersor brain chemicals, which carry messages between the brain and the body.
Where to find them: Beans are one of the best sources of B vitamins across the board. You can find B6 in bananas, oranges, papaya, cantaloupe, tuna, salmon, poultry, and dark leafy greens. Folate is found in broccoli, green vegetables, whole grains, eggs, peanuts and sunflower seeds.
Vitamin B12 is only found in meat and fish products; for vegans and vegetarians, nutritional yeast is a good way to stock up. People on a plant-based diet have a much higher risk of true B12 deficiency, so talk to your doctor or dietitian about whether or not a B12 supplement is right for you.
This Antioxidant Is Known For Its Immune Powers, But So Are Vitamin C And Other Flavonoids support the brainpotentially by taming brain-damaging inflammation.
In a studyby researchers at Rush University, including Dr. Agarwal, people who ate vitamin C-rich strawberries at least once a week were less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease during the study period closely 20 years old.
Where to find it: Get plenty of vitamin C from kiwi, red and green peppers, citrus fruits, berries, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and tomatoes.
Brain Health Supplements
Overall, there is a lot of research and mixed feelings among experts when it comes to taking supplements for brain health. Most experts agree that it’s always best to spend your money on nutritious food, but there are exceptions.
Díaz-Santos says that if you have an allergy or aversion to a large food group (like seafood or dairy) or if your doctor discovered a deficiency during a blood test, you might want to consider to take a dietary supplement. Otherwise, a well-balanced diet for the average person should suffice.
“In general, supplements aren’t often helpful for brain health unless you’re deficient in certain nutrients, which happens but is rare,” agrees Gill Livingston, MDprofessor of psychiatry at University College London whose research focuses on the prevention, intervention and care of dementia.
If you choose to take a brain health supplement, it’s important to work with a health or nutrition professional knowledgeable about supplements, suggests Foroutan. Many of these products have mixed research or fancy advertising that makes promises that the capsule can’t deliver, and the supplements aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.
If your doctor or dietitian determines that a supplement is right for you, there are high-quality options. Look for a seal of approval from a third-party certification program like Consumer Lab, NSF International, or the US Pharmacopeial Convention (USP), which means the product has been tested for quality, purity, and potency, in addition to it actually contains the ingredients it claims.
If you choose to go with brain-boosting supplements, Foroutan says there are a few categories to consider.
- Supplements that can improve blood circulation (such as Gingko Biloba).
- Nutrients that support the building blocks of the brain (like omega-3 fatty acids).
- Nutrients that help the body make neurotransmitters (like L-theanine).
- Longevity nutrients that help reduce the risk of age-related cognitive decline (such as B vitamins and vitamins C, D, A, E and K).
In addition to the forms of brain health nutrient supplements we have already mentioned, some common brain health supplements include:
This amino acid helps calm neurotransmitters, which is great for mood and stress. Because stress negatively impacts brain function, it can be helpful with mindfulness techniques to reduce stress levels, Foroutan says. Other research suggests that the supplement may improve cognitive functioning.
Research has been mixed, but the mitochondrial nutrient is known to improve cognition and neurotransmitter function, Foroutan says.
Foroutan says research suggests that certain mushrooms, such as Lion’s Maine, Reishi, and Chaga, have been linked to brain health. These supplements are thought to protect the brain from neurodegeneration and inflammation and may improve attention, concentration, mood, memory, and cognition.
This fun-sounding supplement has been shown to improve memoryand Foroutan adds that it promotes healthy blood flow to the brain for even more health benefits.
Sometimes called “smart drugs”, nootropics They are said to boost mood, increase creativity and improve intelligence, energy and concentration. There is no fixed ingredient that makes a supplement a nootropic other than providing brain-boosting benefits, so Foroutan says only certain types can help, depending on the ingredients.
Foroutan loves this brain health supplement because it encourages focus and concentration.
The bottom line
To keep your mind sharp, focus on eating a healthy, nutrient-dense diet. And remember: diet is right a piece of the puzzle. Maintaining other healthy lifestyle habits, such as exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and staying socially active, will go a long way to improving cognitive function and lowering your risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
Díaz-Santos adds that you should always pay attention to your body, and if you think something is wrong, talk to your healthcare provider and speak up for yourself.
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