Nutritional Support for Brain Health and Memory Function
The brain is a very busy organ that works even while we are asleep. Our body functions are influenced by healthy functioning of the brain and the nervous system, including the way we breathe spontaneously, without even thinking about it, the way our moods change, and the way we behave. However, we think of our brain function, most of the time, only in terms of our memory, reasoning, and our ability to make decisions. Furthermore, we tend to think of improving our brain function mostly in terms of training and learning, while neglecting the nutritional aspect of brain health.
Just like all the other parts of our body, the brain’s health is dependent on proper nutrition to support its function. The primary source of energy of the brain cells is glucose, but many other nutrients are needed to maintain its health, support its function, and protect it from disease. Research shows that a deficiency in certain nutrients can affect normal brain function. For example, it has been found that many elderly individuals and psychiatric patients have deficiencies in B-vitamins, particularly thiamin (vitamin B1), riboflavin (vit B2), niacin (vit B3), pyridoxine (vit B6), cobalamin (vit B12), and folic acid. Severe deficiencies in these vitamins have also been associated with abnormal electrical activity in the brain as seen on electroencephalogram (EEG), impaired memory, irritability, anxiety and depression. In children, iron deficiency is associated with impaired attention, decreased learning, apathy, and hyperactivity. Low iron levels in young adults leads to impaired memory and reduced alertness. At the same time, our brain functions may also be affected by what we eat and our eating habits. For example, eating too little or skipping breakfast can lead to poor concentration and irritability, while eating too much sugar can cause hyperactivity. Studies show that eating a meal that is high in carbohydrate, but low in protein on an empty stomach can increase the synthesis of the brain chemical (neurotransmitter) called serotonin. This leads to several behavioral effects such as impaired attention, slowed reaction times, increased fatigue, sleepiness, and lower pain sensitivity.
Nutrition and Brain Health
Many studies have suggested that certain foods and nutrients can help improve brain function, delay the effects of aging, and prevent diseases such as stroke. Health experts recommend eating a healthy, balanced diet that includes a variety of nutrients to promote not only physical, but mental health as well. Most experts also advise eating whole foods, instead of depending on health supplements to obtain a healthy balance of micronutrients and antioxidants, which can help prevent disease. Here are some of the foods that are believed to promote brain health and support the memory:
- Fruits and vegetables contain powerful antioxidants that help protect the brain from damage caused by free radicals. Free radicals are by-products of normal metabolism that can promote aging and cause disease, including heart disease, stroke and cancer. Antioxidants help prevent age-related mental decline, so eating up to six servings of fruit and vegetables daily can help boost the memory and other mental functions.
Foods that have been studied for their effects on mental health include:
- Blueberries, which are believed to lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease
- Spinach, which helps enhance memory and learning skills, contains magnesium, a nutrient that has been found to be low in people with ADHD, or suffer from confusion or lack of focus.
- Apples, which contain antioxidants that help to raise levels of a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, and is essential to memory.
- Avocados, which are similar to blueberries in promoting brain health, contain monounsaturated fat, which improves blood flow and lowers blood pressure.
- Fatty fish, nuts and seeds are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids. These are essential for healthy brain function, especially docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), the principal omega-3 fat in the brain. Studies show that memory increases with DHA supplementation and helps improve the symptoms of ADHD, promoting better concentration and attention.
- Eggs are a rich source of choline, a B-vitamin, which promotes acetylcholine production. A lack in acetylcholine is associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Choline is also important for normal fetal brain development.
- Grass-fed beef is rich in zinc and iron, which can help promote brain health and memory. Iron also helps increase the distribution of oxygen throughout the body, including the brain.
- Nuts and seeds are excellent sources of vitamin E, which is linked with less age-related cognitive decline. An ounce a day of hazelnuts, walnuts, Brazil nuts, almonds, cashew, peanuts, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, and flax seed is recommended. Unhydrogenated nut butters like peanut butter, tahini, and almond butter also provide vitamin E.
- Whole grains from whole-grain breads, oatmeal, and brown rice are known to reduce the risk for heart disease, but they also promote good blood circulation to the brain.
- Beans help stabilize blood sugar levels and provide long lasting fuel and energy for the brain.
- Freshly brewed tea, which contains modest amounts of caffeine, can boost brain function by enhancing your memory, attention, and mood. It also provides potent antioxidants, which promote healthy blood circulation.
- Dark chocolate has antioxidant properties and contains natural stimulants, such as caffeine, which enhance concentration and focus. It also stimulates the production of brain chemicals called endorphins, which help improve mood.
Herbs and Supplements for Brain Health
Aside from a balanced diet that promotes optimal brain function, some evidence shows that certain health supplements may be beneficial for memory and mental function. These include:
- Ginkgo, which boosts blood circulation to the brain and other vital organs, enhances mental alertness, reaction time, memory, and mental clarity.
- Ginseng, which may increase mental efficiency, enhance memory, and boost energy levels.
- Acetyl-l-carnitine, which is believed to help support energy function in the brain and reduce oxidative stress, may help improve memory in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
- CoEnzyme Q10 or CoQ10, which is a naturally produced enzyme, is necessary for the production of energy. It decreases with age, so supplementing with CoEnzyme Q10 may help maintain overall health.
- Fish oil supplements, which contains omega-3 fats, provide both EPA and DHA without the potential harm from mercury contaminants.
- Resveratrol, which is a powerful free radical scavenger, may improve blood circulation to the brain and support brain health.
- Huperzine A, which is also known as Chinese club moss, is a natural medicine that works similarly as Alzheimer’s drugs.
- Vitamin E, which is believed to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s.
Consult your doctor about taking health supplements for brain health. Take them only in recommended doses and avoid taking them in high doses.
This information should not take the place of medical advice. We encourage you to talk to your health care providers (doctor, registered dietitian, pharmacist, etc.) about your interest in, questions about, or use of dietary supplements and what may be best for your overall health.
WebMD. Fortifying Your Memory with Supplements. http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-and-supplements/lifestyle-guide-11/fortifying-your-memory-with-supplements
CNCA Health. Improving Memory Function and Focus with Nutrition. http://www.cncahealth.com/explore/learn/healthy-aging/improving-memory-function-and-focus-with-nutrition
Health Guidance. Nutrition, Brain Function, and Behavior. http://www.healthguidance.org/entry/6266/1/Nutrition-Brain-Function-and-Behavior.html
WebMD. Brain Foods that Help You Concentrate. http://www.webmd.com/add-adhd/slideshow-brain-foods-that-help-you-concentrate
WebMD. Eat Smart for a Healthier Brain. http://www.webmd.com/diet/features/eat-smart-healthier-brain