6 Key Nutrients to Protect an Aging Brain
Your brain is a powerful and complex organ that controls how you move, think, feel and experience the world around you. Ultimately, you are who you are because of your brain; therefore, protecting your brain's health is crucial for maintaining a vibrant and meaningful life.
Sadly, many individuals suffer from cognitive decline as they age. While many factors contribute to cognitive function, proper nutrition is a powerful way to safeguard the health of your brain.
Let’s explore the top nutrients for preserving brain health and where to find them so that you can take steps toward enjoying your most fulfilling life with a sharp and thriving mind.
How Does the Food You Eat Affect Your Brain?
When discussing the best nutrients for brain health, it’s important to understand the role diet plays in optimizing cognitive function.
Your brain primarily consists of two types of brain cells - neurons and glial cells.
Neurons connect to cells throughout your body, forming a vast communication network that transmits chemical and electric signals to direct your cognitive, motor, emotional, and tactile functions. The ability of neurons to continuously form and reorganize these connections – called neuroplasticity – is essential for brain health, learning and memory.
Glial cells work to protect neurons and their activities by clearing out waste and repairing wear and tear in brain tissue.
You can think of neurons as the engine that keeps everything running and glial cells as the mechanic that ensures the engine stays in top shape.
Keeping these cells strong, resilient, and active is the goal of maintaining brain health. Dysfunction in any of these cell activities can lead to cell damage and cognitive decline.
Your diet impacts how these cells function in two main ways.
First, your brain cells need energy and specific nutrients to do their jobs, and they depend on the food you eat to provide this. Deficiencies in these nutrients impair brain function.
Secondly, your diet influences the overall health of your body. An unhealthy diet can lead to inflammation, blood vessel damage and chronic conditions that damage your whole body and, consequently, your brain.
So which nutrients should you include in your diet to fuel healthy brain cells and protect the overall health of your body? Let’s review.
Top 6 Nutrients to Boost and Protect Brain Health
No single nutrient will ensure the health of your brain. Maintaining a balanced diet in line with health recommendations is the basis of good cognitive health. That said, the following nutrients are particularly important for boosting brain health.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
About 60% of your brain is comprised of fat, nearly half of which are omega-3 fatty acids. Two types of omega-3 fatty acids - EPA and DHA - are critical for maintaining brain function throughout all stages of life.
These fatty acids build brain cell membranes, keeping your brain structurally strong while facilitating communication between neurons.
EPA and DHA also have potent anti-inflammatory functions, which may help prevent and reduce stress-related cognitive dysfunction.
Lastly, omega-3 fatty acids protect blood vessels that transport nutrients and oxygen to brain tissue.
While it’s still unclear whether or not omega-3 fatty acids slow age-related cognitive decline, research has linked low levels of DHA in the blood with smaller brain sizes in older adults, a marker of waning brain health.
The best way to get EPA and DHA from your diet is to eat plenty of fatty fish like salmon, trout, tuna and mackerel. But, many people struggle to get enough fish in their diet to benefit brain health.
In this case, plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids - like walnuts, olive oil and flaxseed - can provide some EPA and DHA. These foods contain a different type of omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which your body can convert to EPA and DHA. However, this conversion is inefficient, with only about 10% of ALA becoming EPA and DHA.
Ultimately, you may find it easiest to increase your EPA and DHA intake using a fish oil supplement, and this option should be discussed with your doctor.
Antioxidants are specific nutrient components that protect cells throughout your body from damage by neutralizing free radicals. Free radicals are unstable molecules produced during normal cell metabolism. Left unchecked, they cause oxidative stress, which leads to cell damage and death.
Your brain is particularly vulnerable to oxidative stress, especially as you grow older, which can lead to the development of a range of neurodegenerative conditions.
Antioxidants are abundant in plant-based foods, which is why diets high in fruits and vegetables have been linked to better cognitive performance.
Certain antioxidants, however, appear to be especially beneficial for brain health, including:
- Found in blue, red, and purple berries, anthocyanins perform potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory actions within your brain. Studies have linked berry intake with better functional memory and a reduced risk for cognitive impairment.
- Dark leafy greens are some of the best sources of lutein, which has been shown to improve memory and learning function. Researchers think this is due to lutein’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which improve neuroplasticity.
- Cocoa Flavanols. Found in cocoa beans, these antioxidants can improve memory and brain function by increasing blood flow to your brain. In doing so, more energy and oxygen are delivered to your brain cells while more waste is removed.
There are eight different B vitamins, each having a unique effect on your health. At least one type of B vitamin is involved in every process within your body related to breaking down nutrients into energy for your cells. Also, B vitamins have antioxidant properties and support chemical reactions involved in neurotransmitter function.
It’s unsurprising then that B vitamin deficiencies are linked with cognitive impairments and neurodegenerative conditions.
Getting enough vitamins B9 (folate), B12 and B6 is especially important for brain health since these vitamins help break down and recycle a protein called homocysteine. Increased blood levels of homocysteine contribute to poor health as we age.
Eggs, yogurt, beans, leafy greens and sunflower seeds are all excellent food sources of most B vitamins. Note that B12 is primarily found in animal-based foods. Therefore, individuals who are vegetarians, vegans or have limited intake of the above foods should consider supplementing these vital nutrients.
Magnesium is essential for many bodily functions, including nerve transmission and neuromuscular coordination.
Unique to brain health, magnesium helps regulate signals to our brain cells, protecting them from becoming overstimulated. Excessive stimulation of our neurons - called excitotoxicity - can lead to oxidative damage and cell death and has been connected to multiple types of neurological impairment.
While research linking magnesium intake to the prevention of cognitive decline is currently mixed, experts estimate that almost 50% of people are not meeting their minimum requirements for magnesium.
Therefore, increasing magnesium-rich foods in your diet - like whole grains, seeds, nuts, beans and leafy greens - should be a priority to ensure this nutrient is available to carry out its critical roles within your brain.
Adequate protein intake helps preserve muscle mass, and our need for this nutrient increases as we age.
A 2022 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that adults between the ages of 65 and 86 with low muscle mass experienced faster declines in executive brain function.
To maintain muscle mass, experts recommend combining strength training with 1 to 1.3 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight daily. For a 150-pound person, this would be about 68 to 89 grams of protein each day.
Beyond muscle mass, protein-rich foods tend to be reliable sources of other micronutrients beneficial to brain health, including zinc, copper and iron.
Choosing protein options low in saturated fat, like poultry, fish, low-fat dairy, beans and nuts, is best. Diets high in saturated fat from red meats and processed foods are associated with poor cognitive health.
Choline is a little-known nutrient that may significantly impact brain health. It is needed for producing acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter crucial for memory, muscle control and mood regulation. Additionally, choline is involved in constructing cell membranes and facilitating communication between neurons.
Recently, two large studies observed that people who ate choline-rich foods performed better on memory tasks involving words and pictures and had less age-related damage to brain structures.
Conversely, low choline intake has been associated with an increased risk for poor cognitive health. This is concerning when you consider that 90% of people are not meeting the recommended intake for choline.
You can ensure you get enough of this nutrient by including eggs, fish, poultry, low-fat dairy, beans, cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage), and sunflower seeds in your diet.
Protecting our brains is necessary for living a long, healthy, and fulfilling life and nutrition plays a key role in optimizing brain function.
While no single nutrient will guarantee good brain health, a balanced diet with plenty of omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, B vitamins, magnesium, lean protein and choline may significantly help improve brain function and reduce the risk for cognitive loss.
Building your diet around foods like fatty fish, produce (particularly dark leafy greens and berries), poultry, nuts, seeds, eggs, and low-fat dairy will ensure you get enough nutrients essential for supporting and protecting your brain cells.
In some cases, supplements may be your best option for getting enough of these brain-boosting nutrients, and you should discuss this option with your healthcare provider.
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