Healing Your Brain With Nutrition: 11 Foods to Support Cognition
One of the best ways to heal your brain is by fueling it properly with the right foods. Brain-healthy diets tend to be rich in fiber, antioxidants, healthy fats, and protein and low in sugar, added salt, preservatives, refined carbohydrates, and unhealthy fats (like trans fats and excessive saturated fats).
As no one wants to live into their 90s or beyond without their memory intact, many people are looking for ways to not only extend life but also maintain cognition into their later years. One of the simplest ways to do so involves what we eat today—like these 11 evidence-backed brain foods that can support cognition and heal your brain.
Top 9 Foods to Heal Your Brain
Whether you love them or hate them, sardines are an excellent source of the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA, and they are more sustainable and lower in heavy metals than larger fish. Omega-3s are vital for cognition—about one-third of the fats in our brains are made up of them—as they play a role in strengthening cell membranes, preserving nerve and brain cells, and improving neurotransmitter signaling.
Research with over 13,000 Japanese adults found that those with the highest fish intake had a 16% reduced risk of cognitive decline over six years compared to people with the lowest fish intake. People who eat fatty fish regularly also have more gray matter in their brains—the neuron cell bodies, dendrites, and synapses containing the majority of our nerve cells that control cognitive function, decision-making, memories, and emotion.
Per 4-ounce serving, sardines contain over 1,000mg of EPA and DHA and have lower mercury levels than larger fish. But if you’re not a fan of sardines, you can add herring, mackerel, anchovies, or salmon for similarly high omega-3 content.
Walnuts contain several beneficial compounds that make them a nutrient powerhouse for supporting overall cognitive health, including healthy fats and antioxidant-rich compounds called polyphenols.
One of the primary polyphenols in walnuts is ellagic acid, which supports a healthy inflammatory response and fights oxidative stress—an accumulation of damaging compounds called reactive oxygen species (ROS). Other beneficial compounds in walnuts include catechin, epicatechin (also found in green tea), and quercetin, a polyphenol linked to reduced inflammation. These compounds reduce oxidative stress and neuroinflammation—two leading contributors to poor brain health.
While all nuts contain health-promoting polyunsaturated fats, walnuts are unique because they also contain omega-3 fatty acids in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). ALA has been shown to strengthen the integrity of the blood-brain barrier by replenishing DHA levels in the brain and remodeling the membranes of brain endothelial cells.
In a 2019 study of Chinese adults, those who consumed the most nuts (10 grams per day, or just five walnut halves) had higher cognition scores, which translated to being 40% less likely to have poor cognitive function.
Many fruits in the berry family contain high levels of anthocyanins, especially blueberries. Anthocyanins are flavonoid compounds that provide berries (and many other fruits and vegetables) with their deep blue, purple, or red pigments and function as powerful antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents.
A randomized controlled trial of older adults who consumed purified wild blueberry extract for six months had significant improvements in episodic memory (the ability to recall specific episodes from one's past—what we typically think of as memory) and visual memory (the ability to remember activities, pictures, or words that have been viewed in the past).
Research with animals has found that blueberry supplementation supports cognitive health, including improving memory, increasing BDNF levels, reducing hippocampal neuron loss, protecting vulnerable brain regions, and reducing neuroinflammation.
Mushrooms are a unique kingdom with plenty of beneficial health properties from their antioxidant and bioactive compounds. A recent study with older adults found that those with a greater mushroom intake had better scores on some cognitive performance tests, including CERAD-WL and DSST, which assess learning ability for new verbal information and the presence of cognitive dysfunction, respectively.
While all edible mushrooms are beneficial in some way, functional or medicinal mushrooms like lion’s mane, chaga, and maitake may have even more benefits than typical grocery store portobellos. Lion’s mane mushroom is thought to benefit the brain and nervous system, as it contains bioactive compounds called erinacines that support nerve growth factors, cognition, and neurogenesis—the growth of new neurons.
Lion’s mane has also exhibited antioxidant activity, as it scavenges for free radicals, reduces oxidative stress, and lowers the production of pro-inflammatory signaling compounds called cytokines. A clinical study found that 50- to 80-year-old Japanese men and women with declining cognitive function who took lion’s mane powder for 16 weeks had significantly improved cognitive scores. Previous research has also found that lion’s mane mushrooms reduce neuroinflammation in worms.
Arugula is a peppery leafy green high in nutrients, fiber, and phytochemicals. One of the primary bioactive compounds in arugula is erucin, which exhibits strong anti-inflammatory properties.
Arugula is also one of the best sources of dietary nitrates, which are vasodilating compounds that convert into nitric oxide in the body and are beneficial for both cognitive and cardiovascular health. Nitric oxide has been described as an unconventional neurotransmitter, as it plays a role in neuronal cell signaling but is not stored in synaptic vesicles like others. Studies show that nitric oxide can benefit learning and memory processes, as it relaxes blood vessels and increases blood supply to the brain.
Other leafy greens are also beneficial, including spinach, kale, beet greens, cabbage, microgreens, collard greens, swiss chard, and more. A study from 2018 found that eating 1.3 servings of leafy greens per day led to better brain health, with the equivalent of being 11 years younger cognitively. In this research, consumption of the compounds phylloquinone, nitrate, kaempferol, and lutein were all highly associated with slower cognitive decline—all of which are found in arugula.
The pomegranate fruit is rich in the potent antioxidant ellagic acid, which is metabolized in the body to urolithin A—a compound that boosts mitochondrial function. It primarily does this by increasing mitophagy, the cellular recycling of damaged mitochondria to make room for healthy ones. This quality control mechanism is essential for protecting brain health with age.
Ellagic acid also supports cognition by strengthening the integrity of the blood-brain barrier, reducing neuroinflammation, and protecting against neurotoxins.
In research with older adults with memory loss, those who drank eight ounces of pomegranate juice daily for four weeks had significant improvements in verbal and visual memory tests combined with increases in functional brain activity.
Native to Southeast Asia, ginger (Zingiber officinale Roscoe) is a flowering plant, but the most commonly consumed part of ginger is its root. Although there are hundreds of bioactive compounds in ginger, the most prominent are gingerols, shogaols, paradols, and zingerone, which contribute to ginger’s anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties—and its spicy flavor.
Of the various compounds in ginger, researchers have found gingerenone A and 6-shoagal to be the most potent for protecting brain health, as they act as senotherapeutics—compounds that kill off senescent cells selectively. Gingerenone A also reduces levels of many pro-inflammatory cytokines and other detrimental molecules.
In a study of healthy middle-aged women, supplementing with 400 or 800 mg of ginger extract for two months led to significant improvements in working memory and overall cognitive function.
Garlic is rich in potent anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial organosulfur compounds—especially allicin, an antioxidant that has been studied for its role in preserving cognitive and immune function with age. In animals, chronic garlic consumption enhances memory function and brain serotonin levels, which are known to support cognitive performance.
Aged garlic extract may be particularly beneficial for brain health. Made by soaking garlic in ethanol for months, then filtering and concentrating it, aged garlic extract contains concentrated versions of the bioactive compounds in garlic, like allicin, S-allyl-L-cysteine, di-allyl-disulfide, and other flavonoids.
Research has shown that aged garlic extract lowers blood pressure in adults, which is a risk factor for cognitive decline. In preclinical studies, aged garlic extract reduces oxidative stress, inflammation, and neuronal loss while improving neuronal connections and cognitive function.
9. Dark Chocolate
Dark chocolate (which contains 70% or more cocoa powder) is loaded with antioxidants that can benefit the brain. Cocoa is one of the best dietary sources of polyphenols, primarily the flavanol compounds epicatechin and catechin.
Studies have found that cocoa and cocoa-derived products like dark chocolate effectively improve general cognition and working memory in older adults at risk of or with cognitive decline.
A systematic review of 12 clinical trials indicates that memory and executive function can increase significantly after consuming a moderate dose of cocoa flavanols. Plus, a study with young, healthy adults found that eating a dark chocolate bar just once led to better verbal memory performance two hours after eating it. Similarly, a review of young adults concluded that one-time consumption of cocoa products increased cerebral blood flow, while chronic cocoa flavanol consumption increased brain neurotrophin levels and cognitive performance.
Keep in mind that milk chocolate and white chocolate do not have the same benefits—and the higher the percentage of cocoa, the better.
Your brain health is not set in stone—no matter your age, there are steps you can take to heal your brain. Many foods contain bioactive compounds that support cognition, including sardines and other oily fish, walnuts, blueberries, mushrooms, arugula and other leafy greens, pomegranate, ginger, garlic, and dark chocolate—start filling up your plate today!
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