Most people don’t think too much about the importance of nutrition for brain health. Eating more whole foods and less processed foods is important for overall health. What do you think blueberries, salmon and coconut all have in common?? The answer is… ALL are BRAIN Foods! That’s right, eating these foods can actually protect your brain. We often understand that our diet can impact nearly every chronic condition, but what we may not realize, is that it can impact our brain health as well. Eating more foods that contain high levels of phytonutrients, antioxidants and omega 3 fats, can increase your cognitive health, improve memory and decrease inflammation. So how can you protect your brain through your diet and lifestyle?
Eating for Brain Health
- Eat breakfast daily- Start each day with a balanced, protein rich breakfast. People who eat breakfast weigh less and eat less over the course of their day. They also have better blood sugar control—important since obesity is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. Missing out on breakfast means missing out on the opportunity to maximize nutrition for the entire day! Think smoothies, eggs with avocado, oatmeal with fruit and nuts/ground flaxseed, and other foods that provide a variety of nutrients.
- Eat the rainbow – Choose colorful, nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables, which contain high levels of antioxidants and phytonutrients that can help decrease inflammation as well as oxidative damage associated with neurodegeneration (the breakdown of nerve tissue). In addition to eating a colorful diet, focus specifically on eating more berries. The protective effect of berries is likely due to the anthocyanins contained in them, antioxidants which give the berries their color and help protect cells from free radical damage and reduce inflammation. Research shows that high intakes of blueberries and strawberries can improve behavior and cognitive function.
- Chart a course for the Mediterranean – Studies have shown that a Mediterranean diet – long touted for its perceived heart health benefits – also may benefit brain health, as well. This eating plan emphasizes consumption of mono-unsaturated fats, such as olive oil, avocados and whole nuts and seeds, which calm inflammation and support the health of cellular membranes. Sixty percent of the brain is made up of fat, so its not surprising that eating more of these healthy fats can help support long term brain health!
The Gut-Brain Connection
The vagus nerve connects the gut to the brain. More and more evidence is coming to light that the make up of the gut microbiome impacts our brain health and mood. In fact, up to 80% of the serotonin you make is made in the gut, synthesized by your good bacteria in your microbiome. They also synthesize all the B vitamins, which are needed to make dopamine and serotonin. In a recent study, scientists found that a probiotic regimen for 30 days in humans reduced symptoms of anxiety, depression and anger. Probiotics are “good bacteria” that help with digestive health. Probiotic-rich foods include yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kombucha and kimchi. We prefer spore based probiotics like Microbiome Labs Megasporebiotic which has been clinically shown to recondition the microbiome and repair the intestinal lining. (use code RedApple105 to receive 10% discount)
Brain Boosting Nutrients
- Turmeric – Curcumin, which is found in turmeric, increases levels of BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor) in the brain which helps counter age related cognitive declines and enhance memory. It is also a potent anti-inflammatory agent. Many experts believe that neurodegenerative disease and depression are rooted in chronic inflammation in the body and the brain. Sprinkle turmeric on eggs or our golden milk latte recipe below! In some cases, supplementation with curcumin may be useful when therapeutic doses are warranted.
- Omega 3s –The essential fatty acids, EPA, DHA and ALA which are found in fatty fish like sardines, anchovies and salmon as well as flax seed, pumpkin seeds and walnuts are important for cellular health as they are the building blocks of cellular membranes. People who consume at least one serving of seafood weekly (like salmon) have been found to perform better on thinking skill tests than those who do not. Low levels of DHA in the blood are associated with smaller brain size. If you don’t eat a lot of fatty fish weekly, you might benefit from supplementing EPA and DHA from algae or fish oil.
- ECGC – The catechin ECGC in green tea is a potent antioxidant, helping to keep our cells healthy. Some studies support its ability to act directly on the brain, boost nitric oxide levels and support neuron growth which could benefit brain and cognitive function. Enjoy green tea throughout the day as a lower caffeine alternative to coffee.
- Coffee – Coffee is high in antioxidants. It has been shown to improve memory, vigilance and reaction time. Long term use has been shown to be protective against neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. Too much caffeine can impact sleep and adrenal health, so keep intake moderate and avoid after 2 PM.
- Choline – Choline is found in eggs and other animal proteins. It is used by the body to make acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter essential for nervous system functions including memory, muscle control and mood.
- Vitamin B6/Vitamin B12/Folate – These B vitamins act as cofactors in biological pathways that make our feel-good neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. Deficiencies in these B vitamins may manifest as depression or mood issues. People with mild cognitive impairment who took a high-dose regimen of B12, B6 and folic acid experienced significantly reduced atrophy in the areas of the brain most seriously affected by Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, volunteers who took the B vitamins performed better on cognitive tests. Get more of these B vitamins by enjoying eggs, nutritional yeast, leafy greens, grass fed beef, dairy, avocado, oats, chicken, fish and bananas.
- Magnesium L-Threonate – This is the only form of magnesium known to impact brain health specifically because it has the ability to cross the blood brain barrier unlike other forms of magnesium. Research shows it positively effects memory, learning and enhances cognitive function.
- Coconut – Coconut oil contains high levels of medium-chain triglycerides (MCT), which are readily metabolized, forming ketones which act as brain fuel. It also is ideal for higher temperature cooking and baking because of its high smoke point.
Brain Boosting Recipes
Walnut Brownie Bites
1 cup dates, pitted and cut in half
1 cup raw walnuts
1 t. vanilla extract
1/3 c. unsweetened coconut flakes
3 T. unsweetened cocoa powder
1/8 t. sea salt
1 t. warm water
- Combine walnuts and dates in a food processor until combined, but walnuts are still a little chunky.
- Add remaining ingredients and process until dough forms.
- Form 1 T. of dough at a time into a ball and place on a parchment lined baking sheet. Chill for 15-30 minutes, then transfer to a container and store in fridge or freezer.
Golden Milk Latte
2 cup unsweetened coconut, almond, cashew or oat milk*
1 tsp turmeric
1/4 tsp freshly grated ginger (ground ginger will do!)
1/4 tsp cinnamon or 1 cinnamon stick
Pinch of black pepper
Dash cardamom (optional but amazing!)
1 tsp maple syrup, coconut sugar, stevia or monk fruit
- Combine everything but cardamom in small saucepan. Whisk together and heat on low until hot to the touch, but not boiling.
- Adjust seasonings as needed to taste.
- Pour in a cup and enjoy immediately!
*For DIY nut milk recipe, click here! For the creamiest version of this beverage, do not strain the nuts after blending!
Veggie Egg Muffins
¼ cup milk
1 tsp baking powder
1 cup fresh spinach
1 cup shredded potato
1 small tomato, diced
½ cup onion, diced
½ tsp garlic powder
½ tsp thyme
½ tsp rosemary
¼ tsp ground pepper
¼ cup feta
¼ cup Fresh basil, chopped
- Heat oven to 350 degrees F.
- Sauté tomato, onion, potato and spinach in a medium sauté pan with 1 tsp olive oil. Whisk together eggs, milk, garlic powder, thyme, rosemary, salt and pepper in medium bowl. Combine baking soda in 1 tsp warm water then add to egg mixture.
- Add veggies to egg mixture and mix well. Divide evenly into pre-oiled muffin pan and sprinkle feta cheese evenly on top of each muffin along with fresh basil. Place in oven for 20-25 minutes or until golden brown.
- Serve or freeze for later!
*For dairy free, swap the milk for nut milk or oat milk and omit cheese or use dairy free option like Violife
Cilantro Lime Salmon Cakes
16 oz wild caught salmon filet or canned salmon*
¼ finely chopped onion (red, white or yellow)
½ cup finely chopped yellow or red bell pepper
¼ cup shredded carrots
2 tbsp freshly chopped cilantro or 1 tsp coriander
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp cumin
¼ tsp pepper
2 tbsp lime juice (can use lemon as well!)
1 1/2 Tbsp cassava flour, smashed rice crackers or breadcrumbs
1 lime, cut in wedges (optional)
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
- Place salmon on a baking sheet with a tsp avocado oil and dash salt and pepper. Bake for 10 minutes. Remove and allow to cool.
- Meanwhile, combine everything but egg and flour. Add salmon when cooled and mix in egg. Add flour, crackers or breadcrumbs. Form into 6 patties. Place on baking sheet. Bake for 10 minutes and broil for 2 minutes. Remove and serve with a lime wedge.
*We Like Wild Planet!
**Can serve with a mango chutney or mango salsa. We like Trader Joe’s Mango Ginger Chutney