10 Powerful Foods For Brain Power
What you eat directly affects how you think. Firstly, it’s important to make it clear that no specific diet is going to be best for everyone. Everyone has a different genetic profile and therefore different foods will work better or worse for you. However, there are some general rules you can adhere to in order to improve the way your brain works as certain biological processes are universal. Here’s how to fuel your brain for optimal performance.
The Food Brain Connection
The brain is vulnerable to oxidative damage because it has a high metabolic requirement.
Our diet is one of our most powerful tools we can use to alleviate damage via this oxidative degeneration.
Before I get into specific food choices, it’s important to understand that 90% of the benefits you desire will be fulfilled by simply eating a large quantity of minimally processed, organic (if you can stand that word) and locally grown foods.
The more packaging something has the less likely it’s good for your brain.
Vegetables and fruits are full of phytonutrients. These foods lower inflammation and the antioxidants inside will increase your energy.
Which Specific Foods Should You Consume To Fuel Your Brain?
Let me start off by saying that this isn’t the be all end all list of the 10 most effective foods for the brain.
What I’ve done is name the foods which I have found to have the most convincing evidence around as well as anecdotal experience from my personal life.
If anything isn’t on this list it doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t help with brain health. This isn’t a manifesto. It’s a starting point.
1. Green Tea
This magic green drink can actually make you more alert, increase your focus and even improve your memory.
The amino acid L-theanine crosses the blood-brain barrier. This means that L-theanine directly impacts the brain directly and increases, increasing gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), dopamine and serotonin (1).
All of these neurotransmitters are directly linked to our mood, our willpower and our ability to solve problems.
L-theanine specifically has been studied a lot on its own and has repeatedly been shown to increase our ability to solve problems and increase our attention span (2).
You can purchase L-theanine in pill form. Many people will consume L-theanine in combination with coffee. Caffeine and L-theanine together work synergistically.
Caffeine increases your ability to focus and stay awake, but this can also lead to jittery feelings and adrenal fatigue as caffeine increases cortisol secretion.
L-theanine seems to balance this adrenal effect of caffeine and creates an optimal state for focus and productivity.
Green tea has both of these compounds naturally and not in excessive amounts making it the perfect friend to bring along when you need a brain boost.
Blueberries are delicious and they’ve also long been symbolic of good health. These little blueberries are packed full of nutrients key for brain health.
Remember how we said that the brain is vulnerable to oxidation? Well, the antioxidants in blueberries are exactly what the brain needs to minimise oxidative damage (3).
Furthermore, blueberries reduce inflammation. Inflammation, as you know, is one of the key drivers of disease, much of which is associated with our ability to think at our best.
Finding ways to minimise inflammation can make a big difference in how you feel and blueberries do just that, as shown this study looking at blueberries and cognitive function in the elderly (4).
3. Dark Chocolate
Raw cacao is great for you, sugar-packed chocolate from your local convenience store is not. Chocolate or more specifically the raw untouched cocoa is actually extremely healthy, it’s only when we pack this natural brain food full of sugar when it comes degenerative for us.
Italian researchers came to the fascinating conclusion that the flavonoid-rich compounds inside dark chocolate have the ability to improve one’s memory and fight cognitive decline. This entails an increase in cognitive performance for those who consume it (4).
However, some are sceptical about whether it’s the compounds inside the chocolate which improve cognitive performance or whether it’s the delicious flavour which increases one’s mood, therefore indirectly increasing performance.
Well, according to Harvard Medical School the flavonoid compounds inside dark chocolate actually increase blood flow to the brain heart. The flavonoids actually help brain cell connections to form and to survive.
Curcumin is a bright yellow chemical which is produced by certain plants. Tumeric used in cooking has the active chemical curcumin inside it.
Curcumin has been shown to cross the blood-brain barrier. It’s the active chemical in turmeric which has been shown to cross the blood-brain barrier.
Tumeric doesn’t always sit with people flavour wise and so many people opt for supplementation instead of using it in their cooking.
I find turmeric to be easy to incorporate into soups and I’m also fond of the taste.
BDNF is a protein that is responsible for neurogenesis (growth of new brain cells). Increasing BDNF will increase your brain power, fight disease and potentially help alleviate cognitive decline as BDNF acts like the fertiliser for brain cells inside your brain (7).
Intermittent fasting, the ketogenic diet and exercise are other examples of practices which increase BDNF in the brain.
5. Coconut oil
Coconut oil is important for increasing the brain’s ability to use neurons for energy and reduce free radicals. Free radicals are a primary cause of damage in the brain.
Contrary to common belief is extremely important for the function of brain cell membranes. Coconut oil is rich in something called medium-chain triglycerides or MCT.
MCTs can either be consumed by eating coconut oil or even using butter and milk in your diet (which have less of it). A popular option is to buy MCT oil which is a concentrated version of the medium chain triglycerides in coconut oil.
What’s special about medium chain triglycerides is that they are able to be utilised for energy very quickly. They are broken down into ketone bodies in the liver and cross the blood-brain barrier giving the brain quick and efficient fuel (8).
6. Wild Salmon
Fatty fish is great for you and salmon, in particular, comes out on top. Salmon is a great natural source of omega-3 fatty acids which we all need more of. The fatty acids DHA and EPA, but DHA, in particular, is really important for neuroplasticity and overall healthy brain function.
Most people don’t get enough from fish and tend to supplement with fish oil. If you’re plant-based them algae is the best source of these fatty acids and if you have a little extra money then krill oil is optimal due to phospholipids making the DHA more bioavailable.
On a wider population scale, it’s been found that countries with more fish consumption have lower rates of depression (9). There are many variables which come into population studies, but it’s interesting to note nonetheless.
DHA has been repeatedly found to play an important role in the risk of one developing debilitating cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease (10).
One of the most common sources of choline comes from eggs! The yolk of an egg is packed full of the good stuff.
Most meat has choline (especially liver). Split peas, chickpeas and other cruciferous vegetables are great sources too.
Choline the precursor for something called acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is an important neurotransmitter.
Despite common belief, the cholesterol inside eggs is something we want some of. Cholesterol is a key component for the proper function of our cell membranes and is highly protective as an antioxidant for the brain.
The fight of cholesterol being good or evil has been a long one. It’s becoming more accepted that we may have been terribly wrong.
Dr Eric Berg does a great job explaining why cholesterol is labelled as the criminal when in reality cholesterol is just at the crime scene.
Walnuts actually look like human brains, so this is no surprise.
Ha! Jokes aside, walnuts have a lot of healthy nutrients for the brain. Some of these include omega-3 fats, walnuts having a high proportion of the brain healthy omega-3 in comparison to the omega-6 abundant in most nuts (12).
Walnuts also have fibre. Fiber affects the health of the gut and the health of the gut affects our brain.
Other nutrients in walnuts such as vitamin E. The vitamin E in walnuts are important to protect membranes from oxidation (which are fatty) and also oxidative damage.
Just a fun fact to get started on avocados: avocados are a berry. Yeah, no kidding!
Avocado is mostly fat and as we’ve established that’s important for brain health. Olive oil is another example of a fat similar to an avocado. Both of these fats are mostly composed of monounsaturated fat which is protected for brain cells (13).
Monounsaturated fat is also important for regulating optimal blood flow (14).
Avocados lower blood pressure mostly due to the potassium they contain which regulates blood pressure inside and outside of cells. Having high blood pressure is a problem for the brain.
10. Red wine
Red wine is controversial. Clearly, it’s important to recognise that alcohol is a drug and a depressant which in excess can be catastrophic for many people’s well-being.
Personally, I hardly drink alcohol and so I want to make that clear in order to avoid the perception that I’m justifying my own habits.
You’ve probably heard of the ‘French paradox‘. The French drink red wine, smoke, eat fat and yet have little to no disease in comparison to other countries.
Red wine has polyphenols which actually increases blood flow to the brain (15).
Polyphenols are micronutrients which are found in a variety of plant-based foods and are packed with antioxidants. Red wine has a dense quantity of these polyphenols which is why some studies speculate red wine is correlated with lower instances of cardiovascular disease (16).
Also, a glass of red wine may allow you to relax and perhaps get rid of the refrigerator hum of anxiety which wasn’t allowing you to be productive. This is just speculation.
I don’t condone red wine or alcohol in general as a means to be more productive. However, for some, a moderate consumption of red wine can be part of a healthy lifestyle.
Foods To Avoid
There are some unhealthy foods you can have from time to time – you’re only human – but, there are some foods which you should avoid like the plague!
• High fructose corn syrup
• Diet soda
• Industrial trans-fats
• Lessen your gluten consumption
Don’t avoid carbohydrates completely. They have their place in a well-balanced diet unless you’re doing something like keto and even then there are strategic ways to incorporate them into your diet.
Eat slow carbs. These sorts of carbohydrates are better because the sugar released from the food is more gradual. This means your blood sugar isn’t going up and down constantly.
Examples of quality choices of carbohydrates include:
• Sweet potato
• Black beans
Eat More Fat
Your brain is made 60% from fat and has the highest metabolic load out of any other organ in the body.
Yeah, you heard that right. I’m not necessarily saying that everyone should be on a ketogenic diet.
Being in ketosis either by fasting and/or the ketogenic diet does have some potential advantages for the brain, yes, but it’s not necessary to improve your cognitive function. Simply eating more of the right fats can do wonders.
Here’s a video all about how the ketogenic diet may be advantageous for the brain:
This is why the Mediterranean diet has long been respected and studies as a way to treat Alzheimer’s disease. They’re relatively high in fat compared to many other diets.
Quality sources of fat include:
• Grass-fed butter
• MCT oil
• Coconut oil
• Extra virgin Olive oil
• Fatty fish
Remember, too much-saturated fat without enough polyunsaturated fat can cause a decrease in BDNF (16).
Saturated fat can be a good part of your diet, but don’t think it’s a free-for-all like green vegetables.
Healthy polyunsaturated fats high in omega-3 include:
• Wild salmon
• Chia Seeds
Organ meats are packed full of nutrients. With large amounts of B-12 and essential nutrients. B12 plays a vital role in optimal brain function.
Contrary to what most of us eat, the organs are the part of the animal which provides us with the maximal amount of nutrients.
Learn to cook some delicious dishes with the liver. You don’t have to eat it every day, but once in a while, it can be a great way to ensure you’re consuming all of the vitamins you need.
The alpha wolf in packs would always get first dibs on the organs of the animals they killed because organs have the most nutrients. Ironically we sell other parts of the animal at a more expensive price.
There are also certain supplements that help with brain function. These come under the classification of nootropics. One of my personal favourites that I use is called Gingko Biloba which increases blood flow to the brain.
These supplements are not necessary, but I’m just sharing my experience.
The gut is sometimes referred to as our second brain. The gut is intimately connected with both the heart and the brain.
Probiotics which increase good bacteria in the gut, therefore, are good for your brain.
Did you know that 90% of our serotonin is produced in the gut?
We actually have neurons inside our gut and so it’s important to increase the number of good bacteria we have in the gut compared to bad bacteria.
You can take a probiotic supplement and/or you can increase probiotic foods as listed below:
• Probiotic yogurt
Eating the fermented foods as listed above will help colonise your gut with a greater proportion of good bacteria to bad bacteria. Prebiotics (a special kind of fibre) lay the groundwork in your gut for probiotics to be able to flourish.
Getting enough fibre in your diet, especially if you’re on a ketogenic diet is essential.
One key tip I’ll leave you with is to leave the skin on fruits and vegetables where possible as they have a lot of this special kind of fibre.
Nutrition is more about what we don’t eat rather than what we eat. You can’t eat McDonald’s and then drink red wine with dark chocolate and then expect to get a brain boost.
What we eat directly affects how we think. The link is undeniable. Eat a burger at a fast-food restaurant one day and eat foods on the list above on another and you’ll see the difference.
Cut out the processed foods. Eat a balanced diet and in addition focus on some of the foods listed above if you need a cognitive edge.
Eat enough fat in your diet and focus on increasing omega-3. Consuming a moderate amount of saturated fat, decrease omega-6 and eliminate trans fats.
Reduce inflammation and oxidative stress in the body through eating minimally processed foods.
Eat probiotic foods such as kimchi, avoid sugar like the plague and be sure to be getting enough phytonutrients through consuming copious amounts of vegetables and some fruit and finally don’t forget to eat enough fibre.