Often we choose food based on far more than its nutritional properties – when we’re feeling stressed we might reach for the biscuits, if we’re on the move a packet of crisps can become our first choice and when we’re tired we’ll find ourselves making a cup of coffee.
We all know how our food choices are dependent on, and influence, our mood, actions and emotions. But have you ever stopped to consider the impact of food on your brain?
After all, it is your brain which governs mood, action and emotion. The food we choose, and therefore the nutrients we put into our bodies, has a huge influence on brain health and function, including things like memory and concentration.
There is no fix-all food which promises to keep your brain healthy, but there are lots of simple changes we can all make to keep our brains in shape.
How does food affect our brains?
Essentially, every meal and snack we eat gives us nutrients which in turn affect how chemicals are produced in the brain.
Neurotransmitters, which include serotonin and dopamine and are often referred to as chemical messengers, need certain proteins and amino acids in order to be produced. Other nutrients, like B vitamins, magnesium, zinc and iron are also needed to process these.
Eve Selhub, MD, explains it in simple terms, saying, “Your brain requires a constant supply of fuel. That ‘fuel’ comes from the foods you eat — and what’s in that fuel makes all the difference. Put simply, what you eat directly affects the structure and function of your brain and, ultimately, your mood.”
Eating food which is good for your brain therefore has the potential to change how you think and feel too.
Serotonin – the happy hormone
While serotonin isn’t found in foods, something called tryptophan is. Foods high in protein, iron, riboflavin, and vitamin B6 all tend to contain large amounts of this amino acid.
Include a little carbohydrate alongside these foods as carbs cause the body to release more insulin, enhancing absorption of tryptophan, which can then be converted into serotonin.
How changing your diet could prevent cognitive decline
Increasingly, adopting a brain-boosting diet is seen as a preventative measure. Christine Bailey, a nutritional therapist, functional nutrition practitioner and chef, says she now sees a lot of people who are hoping to not only improve cognitive function, but also stave off any decline.
“I think it’s one of those scary things that a lot of people think about,” she adds. But diet, it seems, can do a lot to help.
There is some evidence to suggest that following a brain-boosting diet, rich in vitamin D, folate and B vitamins, can prevent or delay the onset of dementia.
There is also known to be a strong link between type two diabetes and the onset of Alzheimer’s. Therefore following a diet which is lower in sugar can reduce your risk of developing either disease. Christine supports this, explaining that, “sugar is actually very toxic to the brain – it’s very inflammatory”.
What diet is best for the brain?
While there is little conclusive research to suggest that particular foods have an overwhelmingly positive effect on the brain, there are studies which reveal the best general diet for good brain function and health.
Adherence to a Mediterranean diet is associated with better cognitive functioning in old age
According to Dr. Michelle Luciano, of the University of Edinburgh, “One dietary pattern that has repeatedly shown positive effects for health is the Mediterranean diet. Research is now also indicating that increased adherence to this diet is associated with better cognitive functioning in old age, and lower risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.”
Mediterranean diets generally include lots of vegetables, beans, cereals and healthy fats, like olive oil, as well as moderate amounts of fish and nuts. Vitally, it also includes a low intake of meat and dairy products and practically no processed foods.
Healthy fats are particularly good for brain function. Christine explains, “Your brain is 60% fat and it needs that fat for cell membranes, neurons and the myelin sheath which covers the nervous system and protects it – they are all made of fat, particularly omega-3 fats and phospholipids.
“Eating more of these helps your brain work quicker and more effectively, so don’t be fat-phobic when it comes to brain health.”
How exercise can prevent physical and mental decline
Whether you’re hoping to increase concentration and memory or prevent cognitive decline, exercise is a another brilliant way to boost your brain function.
It is easy to see how just the act of exercise can improve mood, reduce stress and help us to sleep well – each of these reduce our risk of cognitive impairment.
More than this, exercise increases something called brain-derived neuropathic factor. Christine explains that this is, “like a growth hormone for your brain.” It acts as a revitaliser, prompting the growth of new blood vessels and helping to increase the survival of new brain cells.
Combine exercise and a few diet changes and your brain will be in the best shape ever.
Avocados are packed with monounsaturated fats, known to lower inflammation. They also contain high levels of tyrosine, an amino acid that increases feelings of reward and motivation. They provide B vitamins which reduce anxiety and depression, and omega-3 fats for a mood boost.
Berries are loaded with antioxidants which are known to boost brain function and to promote brain and nervous system health. Berries are also low in sugar and calories and packed with fibre, which helps to balance blood sugar and energy levels, helping us to avoid that irritable ‘hanger’.
Wild-caught salmon is a lean protein that’s rich in vitamin B12, which has been shown to reduce feelings of depression. It also provides omega-3 fats which help optimise brain function and production of neurotransmitters. Salmon is also rich in tryptophan, the amino acid required to boost serotonin levels.
Studies suggest that lycopene, a powerful anti-oxidant most commonly found in tomatoes, can help to protect your brain against the damage which occurs in the development of Alzheimer’s and dementia.
These mushrooms are ideal if you are struggling with stress. Known as the “queen of mushrooms”, they contain adaptogens, (compounds that regulate stress). Reishi mushrooms help to balance hormones and lower cortisol, which helps the body relax and unwind and promotes better sleep.
Your brain needs energy to function, so slow release energy from a healthy source is vital. Choose wholegrain cereals, bread, rice and pasta in the place of more refined white versions to keep sugars low.
Yogurt and kefir
Probiotic-rich foods like yogurt and kefir are a must for a healthy brain. Packed with beneficial bacteria, researchers have found that probiotics can help to fight depression and anxiety. It is thought that these bacteria may decrease inflammation in the body and increase levels of tryptophan.
Dark leafy greens like spinach, kale and cruciferous vegetables, including broccoli and cabbage, are packed full of vitamins and nutrients which are great for a healthy nervous system and improved memory. Eating a salad every day keeps your brain 11 years younger.
The protein in eggs, particularly the protein found in the yolks, can significantly boost your blood plasma levels of tryptophan and tyrosine – the building blocks to mood neurotransmitters. They also contain choline and omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to improve memory too.
Bananas contain the amino acid tryptophan as well as vitamins A, B6 and C, fibre, potassium, phosphorous, iron and carbohydrate. Carbohydrates aid in the absorption of tryptophan in the brain, and vitamin B6 helps convert tryptophan into the mood-boosting hormone serotonin, which will also aid sleep.
A recent study found that eating 40g of dark chocolate daily for two weeks reduced levels of stress hormones in anxious individuals. The study showed that compounds within it affected beneficial gut bacteria, which then changed the metabolism of stress hormones, reducing anxiety.
Recipes to boost your brain power
Following a brain-boosting diet doesn’t have to be quite as simple as it may seem. Cutting out processed foods and eating a more Mediterranean diet full of fresh fruits, vegetables and healthy fats is the easiest route to a healthy brain but there are plenty of treats you can cook up too. Christine shares some of her favourite healthy but tasty recipes with us below.
These delicious crunchies are a great low-sugar alternative to shop-bought cereals.
Photos by Alex Suter, Alexander Mils, Andrew Ridley, Charisse Kenion, Chiara Canti, Dan Gold, Dani Redina, David Papillion, Erik Brolin, Jakub Kapusnak, Kelly Sikkema, Michael Dam, rawpixel and Travis Yewell on Unsplash.