The brain as the mastermind behind almost everything – our thoughts, memory, focus, movements, breathing, heartbeat – and certain foods can help make it stronger, sharper, and smarter. Our brain and diet also play a key role in longevity. What we eat can directly impact inflammation and oxidative stress in our bodies – both of which can affect our risk of neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Here are the foods that you can eat to sharpen your memory, focus and overall brain health.
Extra dark chocolate is full of antioxidants and cacao flavanols that help preserve the health of brain cells. It also contains fiber to help reduce brain inflammation and prevent cognitive decline. In a study done to look at how dark chocolate and white chocolate can affect the memory of healthy young adults, participants who were given dark chocolate had better verbal memory performances two hours after consuming the chocolate, compared to the group that received white chocolate.
Researchers suggested this was due to the higher flavonoid content of the dark chocolate, which can acutely improve cognitive function in humans. Extra dark chocolate should be at least 70% cacao or greater. Just don’t go overboard with the serving sizes. One meta-analysis suggests that the optimal amount of dark chocolate consumption for the health of our blood vessels – including the ones that supply blood to the brain – is about 45 grams per week.
Berries are packed with antioxidants, phytonutrients, fiber, vitamins and minerals. These nutrients help retain memory, and the fiber content helps feed microbes in the gut to reduce brain inflammation. You should choose from an assortment of red, blue and black-colored berries. Strawberries, for example, are rich in flavonoids and may help slow down cognitive decline; blueberries contain different types of flavonoids linked with preventing oxidative stress; and blackberries are great sources of antioxidants, which help brain cell health. Eating a variety of colorful berries can also reduce symptoms of anxiety and help fend off neurodegenerative diseases like dementia. You can typically go for a half or single cup in your daily serving.
3. Turmeric (with black pepper)
One of the major ingredients in curry powder, turmeric contains a compound called curcumin, which is the secret behind its brain-boosting benefits. Curcumin is a powerful anti-inflammatory substance. Consuming it, studies have found, can help reduce symptoms of anxiety and lower cognitive decline with age. Turmeric is good solo, but the benefits can be stronger when combined with black pepper. A pinch of black pepper in turmeric because piperine – the compound in black pepper – activates the curcumin and increases the bioavailability to the brain and the body. You can incorporate turmeric and black pepper into your diet by adding it to a hearty rice dish, a side of potatoes, a golden milk latte or some oatmeal.
4. Leafy greens
Leafy greens are a staple in brain-healthy diets because they contain folate, which is a B vitamin that supports neurodevelopment and neurotransmitter function. Folate deficiency has been tied to increased symptoms of depression as well as cognitive aging. Some of the leafy greens you should eat include:
- Dandelion greens
- Swiss chard
Not a salad fan? You can also enjoy them as creative ingredients in your favorite dishes, like pasta, burritos or as a pizza topping.
5. Fermented foods
Fermentation involves adding foods to a culture of microorganisms that then feed on the sugars in the food. This creates other products, such as lactic acid, that can generate gut-friendly bacteria. We have what’s called a gut-brain connection, so when we eat fermented foods and boost our gut health, we may also improve our cognitive function. You can eat homemade kimchi as a snack with celery sticks, or combine it with salads for extra texture and flavor. Some other fermented foods recommended:
However, large amounts of fermented foods can make you bloated. If you feel uncomfortable, cut back on your intake until your gut and body adjust. You’ll also want to double-check the food labels to ensure that what you’re buying is actually fermented. Typically, you’ll see a label that mentions “live active cultures”.