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What to Know About Foods for Brain Health

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on March 29, 2021

Your diet affects your whole body, and especially your brain. Certain foods and nutrients help keep your brain healthy so it can power your body.

How Foods Help Your Brain

Of all your organs, your brain takes the most energy. Your body requires healthy food with certain nutrients and vitamins to fuel your brain. These nutrients help build brain structure, keep cells working, and help you learn, think, and do tasks.

Key nutrients and vitamins include:

  • B vitamins
  • Vitamin E
  • Omega-3 fatty acids
  • Antioxidants
  • Choline

B vitamins. Vitamins like folic acid and B12 are important for making brain chemicals. They’re also responsible for helping break down foods into energy the brain can use. Not enough B vitamins can cause:

  • Nerve damage
  • Low energy
  • Forgetfulness
  • Depression
  • Trouble learning
  • Trouble thinking

Vitamin E. Your brain needs vitamin E to protect cells from being destroyed by natural processes in the body. Not enough vitamin E can cause symptoms like:

  • Muscle weakness
  • Unsteadiness
  • Poor coordination
  • Damage to sensory nerves

Omega-3 fatty acids. Fatty acids are used to create the structure of cells and to help your nervous system work. Omega-3 fatty acids are important for children’s developing brains. Not enough essential fatty acids in growing children can have lasting effects on the brain and can cause learning problems. 

Antioxidants. Some fruits and vegetables have lots of antioxidants. They help protect the brain from damage. They might also help with memory loss and inflammation.

Choline. Choline is an essential nutrient that you need to get from food. It does many things for your body, including protecting your nerves and creating brain chemicals. Not enough choline can cause memory problems.

Best Diet for Better Brain Health

No single food is the key to a better brain. Certain diets and habits can help your brain and lead to better health. These include:

  • Mediterranean diet
  • DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension)
  • MIND diet (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay)
  • Low alcohol
  • Low sugar
  • Low processed foods

Experts aren’t sure these diets prevent brain diseases like Alzheimer’s disease. They help with better heart health and blood pressure, which could mean fewer problems with brain diseases.

The Mediterranean, DASH, and MIND diets are similar. These include eating foods like:

Best Foods for Better Brain Health

Following these diets is one way to support good brain health and heart health. You can also add specific foods that are especially high in important nutrients.

Wild salmon. Fatty fish like salmon are great brain food as they have lots of naturally occurring omega-3 fatty acids. Healthy fats help lower your chance of heart disease, which also lowers your chance of brain disease. Some people want to take fish oil supplements, but these don’t seem to help your brain. The best way to get omegas is through your food. 

Other types of fatty fish include:

  • Mackerel
  • Trout
  • Herring
  • Sardines 

Flax and chia seeds.  Nuts and seeds have lots of omega-3 fatty acids, too. Flax and chia seeds are high in vitamin E. You can also eat walnuts, almonds, and pistachios.

Avocados. These fruits are full of vitamin E, vitamin C, and folate. Avocados are also a great source of healthy fats and omega-3 fatty acids. 

Blueberries. These fruits have lots of flavonoids and antioxidants that help with memory and inflammation.

Whole grains. Grains are carbohydrates that can be a type of energy for the body and brain. They also have lots of vitamins and fiber that can help protect against heart disease and other health problems. Types of whole grains include:

  • Brown rice
  • Oats
  • Bulgur
  • Quinoa
  • Wild rice
  • Spelt

Other Lifestyle Changes for Better Brain Health

There are other things you can do that can help you have a healthier brain.‌

Avoid fatty and sugary foods. Eating sugar can cause brain fog, sluggishness, and tiredness. These symptoms come from the brain and not your gut. If you have a poor diet with lots of sugar, you can lose important structures and activities in your brain. This can lead to an aging brain and dementia.

Don’t drink alcohol. Alcohol changes your brain. It can make you feel more relaxed, but drinking too much can also make you depressed and anxious. Chronic heavy drinking can also cause permanent changes and brain damage.

Stay active. Exercise helps you keep a healthy weight, lowers your risk for heart disease, and helps you make brain chemicals that improve your mood.

Quit smoking. Smoking causes heart disease, stroke, and cancer. If you smoke, you should stop.

Take your medications. Sometimes you might have a mental illness or other conditions like thyroid disease that can affect your brain. Make sure to take your medications every day to keep your brain healthy.

Practice mindfulness. Learning to be in the present moment can help you be focused and calm. This can help you create a sense of well-being and better mental health.

A healthy diet is an important part of a healthy body and mind. Individual foods on their own aren’t the answer to better brain health, but an overall healthy diet and lifestyle can help. 

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Brain Health Is Connected to Heart Health.”

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: “Whole Grains.”

National Health Service: “Mindfulness,” "Underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism)."

National Institute on Aging: “What Do We Know About Diet and Prevention of Alzheimer's Disease?”

Oregon State University: “Cognitive Function In Depth.”

United Brain Association: “10 Superfoods to Boost Brain Power.”

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