Imagine a world where you can prevent age-related decline, enhance your cognitive abilities, and supercharge your memory—all by noshing on a specific culinary lineup. Fortunately, that world is within reach! The pathway to optimal brain health starts with your grocery basket. With that in mind, we’re sharing scientifically-proven foods for brain health, a carefully curated selection of everyday eats to unlock your mental potential. Ultimately, every bite is an investment in your cognitive well-being. Why not give it the nourishment it deserves?
From razor-sharp focus to overall mental agility, our brains are the command centers of our lives. But like any powerful machine, it needs the right fuel to perform its best. Enter: brain-protecting foods. Mindful munchies never tasted so good.
Featured image from our interview with Remi Ishizuka by Michelle Nash.
The Importance of Brain Health
This goes without saying, but protecting your brain health should be top priority. After all, it’s the HQ that orchestrates our entire existence. Our brains enable us to think, feel, create, and participate in our lives. They govern our memories, emotions, and decision-making abilities. Prioritizing brain health means prioritizing longevity. And who doesn’t want to live a long, fruitful life?
Additionally, a strong brain improves memory and concentration and enhances emotional stability and resilience. Moreover, it serves as a fortress against age-related cognitive decline—i.e., neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia—and other mental health conditions.
How Brain Health Declines With Age
To help set the stage, what does normal aging look like—as opposed to steep cognitive decline? Research shows that most of us experience peak thinking abilities around age 30, and then this capability (very subtly) declines with age. This manifests in overall slowness when processing information, difficulty sustaining attention or multitasking, etc. These age-related changes are due to brain structure shifts: decreased hippocampal, frontal, and temporal lobe volumes.
However, not all thinking abilities decline with age! In fact, vocabulary, reading, and verbal reasoning remain unchanged or even improve during the aging process.
Risk Factors for Cognitive Decline
As mentioned, normal age-related declines are subtle—and most commonly affect thinking speed and attention. But in abnormal aging, declines in cognition are more severe. They can include rapid forgetfulness or difficulties solving common problems, expressing yourself in conversation, or behaving outside of social norms. Often, it’s difficult to determine exactly when you should be concerned with cognitive changes, given that symptoms vary. Ultimately, this list of risk factors isn’t meant to instill fear. Rather, it’s meant to empower you to take your brain health into your own hands.
- Type 2 diabetes
- High blood pressure
- Midlife obesity
- Minimal mental activity
- Little or no physical exercise
Lifestyle Habits That Improve Your Brain
By caring for your brain health—through diet and lifestyle choices—you can navigate the world with better clarity and more vitality. A win-win. Before we dive into foods for brain health, let’s talk about lifestyle choices. What are habits, routines, and actions that improve the health of your brain? Start with these:
1. Exercise regularly
Engaging in physical activity promotes healthy blood flow to the brain, stimulates the growth of new neurons, and enhances cognitive function. Everything from yoga to boxing, walking, and strength training counts!
2. Get quality sleep
Getting sufficient and restful sleep is crucial for cognitive function, memory consolidation, and overall brain health. Aim for 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night.
3. Stay stimulated
Keeping your brain active and challenged through activities such as reading, listening to educational podcasts, or playing musical instruments can help maintain cognitive abilities and promote neuroplasticity.
4. Incorporate brain exercises
On that note, engaging in activities that specifically target cognitive skills, such as puzzles, brain training apps, memory exercises, or learning a new language, can help keep the brain sharp and improve cognitive abilities.
5. Manage stress
Inevitably, chronic stress can negatively impact brain health. Implementing stress management techniques such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, yoga, or engaging in hobbies can help reduce stress and improve brain function.
6. Spend time in nature
Spending time in nature (or gardening!) has profound positive effects on brain health. Nature exposure reduces stress levels, enhances mood, and improves cognitive function. Being surrounded by green spaces, fresh air, etc. promotes relaxation, boosts creativity, and provides a break from the constant stimuli of modern life. In turn, this gives your brain the opportunity to recharge.
7. Engage Socially
Maintaining your friendships (as well as networking, attending in-person events, etc.) is key to supporting brain health. Interacting with others, engaging in conversations, and being part of a supportive community can keep your brain sharp.
8. Limit alcohol consumption
Excessive alcohol intake can have detrimental effects on brain health (especially for women). Moderation—or avoidance of alcohol—is best to protect the brain.
9. Avoid smoking
Like alcohol, smoking and drug abuse can lead to cognitive decline and damage brain cells. Quitting smoking (and avoiding recreational drug use) is essential for maintaining a healthy brain.
10. Manage chronic health conditions
Conditions like hypertension, diabetes, and obesity can exacerbate brain decline. Work closely with your healthcare provider to help protect your brain.
Prioritize the Mediterranean Diet
Did you know the Mediterranean diet is considered one of the best eating styles for brain health? Aim to eat plenty of fresh fish, seasonal fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, olives, and seeds. With antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids at the forefront, this dietary pattern is associated with improved cognitive function, reduced risk of neurodegenerative diseases, and more. Additionally, the Mediterranean diet emphasizes whole foods while limiting ultra-processed foods, added sugars, and unhealthy fats. In turn, promoting optimal brain function and long-term well-being.
When in Doubt, Keep Blood Sugar Stable
Along with prioritizing whole, minimally processed foods, maintaining stable blood sugar levels is crucial for optimal brain health. After all, fluctuations in blood glucose can have significant impacts on cognitive function and overall brain function. When blood sugar levels are too high or too low, the brain isn’t receiving a consistent (and steady) supply of glucose—its primary source of energy! Ultimately, stable blood sugar levels support brain health in several ways:
- Enhanced cognitive function. Stable blood sugar levels promote better cognitive performance, including memory, attention, and concentration. As mentioned, the brain functions optimally when it has a constant supply of glucose.
- Improved mood and mental well-being. Sharp fluctuations in blood sugar often lead to mood swings, irritability, and anxiety. But by maintaining stable blood sugar, the brain can regulate neurotransmitters responsible for mood regulation.
- Reduced risk of neurodegenerative diseases. Chronic high blood sugar levels are linked to an increased risk of neurodegenerative diseases—like Alzheimer’s disease. However, stable blood sugar reduces oxidative stress and inflammation in the brain.
- Enhanced brain cell communication. Neurons in the brain require stable blood sugar levels to effectively communicate and transmit signals. When blood sugar is unstable, communication between brain cells may be disrupted, leading to impaired cognitive function.
How to Keep Blood Sugar Balanced
So, how can you maintain stable blood sugar levels? First and foremost, focus on meals that include non-starchy carbohydrates (leafy greens, tomatoes, eggplant, asparagus, mushrooms, etc.), fiber, healthy fats, and plenty of quality protein. Additionally, regular meals and snacks—spread throughout the day—provide a steady supply of glucose to the brain. Aim to eat a protein-rich breakfast within 60 minutes of waking, and try not to go more than 3-4 hours without eating. Additionally, engage in regular physical activity. Short walks do wonders for blood sugar! Lastly, manage stress levels and clock your zzz’s. All of these habits help maintain stable blood sugar levels and promote optimal brain health.
10 Foods to Eat for Brain Health
Armed with brain health insights—including lifestyle tips to improve cognitive function—it’s time to take things to the next level. Eat these brain-boosting foods to nourish your noggin.
Fatty fish—such as salmon, trout, and sardines—are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids, specifically EPA and DHA. These omega-3 fatty acids play a crucial role in maintaining the structure and function of brain cells. They’re associated with improved cognitive function, reduced risk of age-related cognitive decline, and may even help protect against neurodegenerative diseases! Aim to eat wild-caught, fatty fish 2-3 times per week. For an economical option, opt for canned, tinned, or frozen fish.
Recipe: Hot Honey Glazed Salmon
Blueberries are a brain-boosting (and skin!) superfood, thanks to their antioxidants. These antioxidants— flavonoids and anthocyanins—accumulate in the brain, improving communication between brain cells. In turn, this reduces inflammation and protects against oxidative stress. Nosh on these berries for enhanced memory and improved cognitive function. They’re a delicious and nutritious choice for maintaining optimal brain health.
Here at Camille Styles, we find any excuse to add turmeric to sweet or savory dishes. A true superfood, turmeric contains a compound called curcumin, which has powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Curcumin can cross the blood-brain barrier, accumulate in the brain, and help combat inflammation—a known contributor to neurodegenerative diseases. Sprinkle turmeric on your eggs, add it to roasted veggies, or toss a small nub of fresh turmeric into your smoothie—your brain and body will thank you.
Recipe: Carrot Turmeric Hummus
Raw, steamed, sautéed, or roasted—what’s your favorite way to eat broccoli? A nutrient-dense powerhouse, this veggie offers several brain-boosting benefits. It’s rich in antioxidants, including vitamin C and flavonoids, which help protect the brain from oxidative stress and inflammation. Additionally, broccoli contains compounds like sulforaphane, which may have neuroprotective properties to support brain health.
Recipe: Spicy Chili Lime Miso Broccoli
Small but mighty, pumpkin seeds are packed with essential nutrients like antioxidants, magnesium, iron, zinc, and fatty acids. These nutrients help protect brain cells from oxidative stress, support cognitive function, and promote healthy brain aging. Their fatty acids (omega-3 and omega-6), specifically, play a role in maintaining proper brain function. Include pumpkin seeds in your diet for overall cognitive well-being. Need inspo? You can easily add them to salads, oats, soups, avocado toast, and Greek yogurt bowls.
All nuts are known for their brain-boosting properties! But walnuts, in particular, are rich in nutrients that benefit the brain. Walnuts’ omega-3 fatty acids support brain function, reduce inflammation, and promote healthy cognitive aging. Their antioxidants and polyphenols help protect brain cells from oxidative damage, while vitamin E provides additional neuroprotective effects. Like pumpkin seeds, you can add raw (or toasted) walnuts to salads, oats, trail mix, and smoothies.
Recipe: Apple Walnut Salad
Packed with vitamin C—a powerful antioxidant that plays a vital role in brain health—oranges protect brain cells from oxidative stress. Citrus also supports neurotransmitters involved in cognitive function. Lastly, oranges aid in the absorption of iron, which is necessary for proper brain function. From adding lemon to your morning water, to enjoying orange slices as a snack, up your citrus intake for a healthier brain.
Recipe: Chaat Masala Citrus Salad
Eggs are a brain’s bestie. They’re an excellent source of nutrients such as vitamins B6 and B12, folate, and choline, which are essential for brain development and function. Choline, specifically, is crucial for memory and cognitive function. Eggs also contain antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids that support brain health and protect against cognitive decline. To get the most bang for your buck, aim for pasture-raised eggs. Whip up a weekly frittata, fry up a couple of eggs with avocado toast, or scramble them into a fried rice.
Say hello to our go-to brain-boosting fruit. Yes, fruit! Avocados are rich in healthy fats, including monounsaturated fats—which support brain health. They promote steady blood flow and reduce inflammation, improving cognitive function. Avocados also contain vitamin K, vitamin E, and folate, which have been associated with enhanced memory. Additionally, their antioxidants help protect brain cells from oxidative stress.
Recipe: Tuna Nicoise Avocado Toast
Last but not least, leafy greens. Spinach, kale, and Swiss chard are excellent for brain health. They’re rich in important nutrients like antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals—all of which support brain function. Leafy greens are particularly rich in vitamin K, which is linked to improved cognitive abilities. Additionally, these veggies are packed with antioxidants, reducing inflammation and oxidative stress. Beyond salads, add leafy greens to your egg (or tofu) scrambles, smoothies, or stir-fries.