As we age, our cognitive abilities (how well our brain works) can start to decline. However, there are many researchers around the world who are studying the effects of diet on our brain health. And they have some welcome news – what we eat, the diets that we consume, can help to slow down and protect us from this natural age-related decline. Conversely, eating poorly can help to accelerate this mental decline. So, your brain health is in your hands! In our article this month we look at what how nutrition can improve your brain health.
The brain has many functions. Indeed, it coordinates pretty much everything that we do, from our heart beating, breathing, interpreting emotions and sensations, controlling movement, memory and concentration, to learning, reading and writing. Therefore, it takes a lot of energy to keep the brain functioning – some sources suggest it takes around 20% of our calories daily!
At La Crisalida health and wellbeing retreats we follow a plant-based diet, so we will focus specifically on things you can do if you are following a plant-based diet – if you eat meat and dairy then there are other things you can also include (like fatty fish or eggs). Looking at it from a nutritional point of view, there are some elements that we should look to include in our diet on a regular basis.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega 3 fatty acids – fats – are needed to build brain and nerve cells. Research indicates that omega 3 is essential for learning and memory, so make sure you get enough in your diet each day, to protect against decline. There is some indication that not eating enough omega 3 is linked to depression and learning problems, although more research is needed.
Good plant-based sources of omega 3 include:
- Nuts, in particular walnuts
- Seeds, like chia seeds and flaxseed
- Soy beans
- Vegetable oils, like olive oil, or flax oil – best eaten raw, not cooked
Antioxidants reduce cellular stress and inflammation. The three most common antioxidant vitamins are: Vitamin C, beta-carotene and Vitamin E. Vitamin C and beta-carotene have been shown in scientific studies to prevent against mental decline. Vitamin E protects cells from the effects of free radicals (free radicals cause stress on cells and cause them to age). You can tell if a fruit or vegetable has a high beta-carotene content by its colour – anything bright red, yellow or orange is likely to have a high content of this nutrient.
Great plant-based sources of antioxidants include
- Berries (like blueberries, strawberries, blackberries)
- Bell peppers
- Tomatoes (fresh or tinned)
- Wholegrains (for vitamin E), including oatmeal and wholemeal bread
- Nuts and seeds, in particular hazelnuts, sunflower seeds and almonds for vitamin E
- Carrots and peas (for beta-carotene)
Some research has shown that increased intake of nuts is associated with better brain function in older age. Berries, with their high antioxidant qualities, are said to help to improve communication between brain cells. Sprinkle them into your breakfast on a morning, or add into a juice – try our lovely berry juice recipe here.
B vitamins are a group of seven vitamins: thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), vitamin B6, folate/folic acid (B9) and B12. These B vitamins are needed to help produce neurotransmitters in the brain – this is the part that regulates mood and also conducts messages. They also help with energy production, so if you are feeling low in energy, consider whether you have been eating enough sources of B vitamins. These vitamins are water soluble, meaning you need to include them in your diet on a daily basis, as they cannot be stored in the body.
Good plant-based sources of B-vitamins include:
- Leafy green vegetables
- Wholegrains, like brown rice, millet, quinoa
- Legumes, including beans and lentils
- Nuts and seeds
All these vitamins are synthesised (made) by plants, except B12 (which is from bacteria). Consequently, B12 is not easily found in sufficient levels a plant-based diet, so if you do not include meat in your diet you should consider taking a small supplement.
If you want to read a summary of scientific research studies looking at the association between B-vitamins and cognitive decline try this one: The Role of B Vitamins in Preventing and Treating Cognitive Impairment and Decline (external link).
Vitamin K is a fat soluble vitamin, which means is it more easily stored in your body and you do not need to include it every day. One function of vitamin K is to form a type of fat called sphingolipids, which is found in dense quantities in the brain cells. One of their roles is to protect cells from harmful environmental factors.
Good plant-based sources of this vitamin include:
- Leafy green vegetables
- Brussel sprouts
Unsaturated fats have been shown to improve blood flow – improved blood flow to the brain means a better functioning brain.
Good plant-based sources include:
- Nuts, in particular almonds and cashews
- Pumpkin and sesame seeds
The biggest sources of saturated fats (so the items to avoid or only eat occasionally) include: pizza, meats products (like sausage, bacon, burgers), dairy (particularly cheese), many processed desserts and fast food items.
High blood pressure is associated with a decline in memory, so try to avoid eating items that raise blood pressure like processed foods that have high salt (sodium) content. Dealing with stress, worry and anxiety can also help. Read our articles about meditation and brain health or how to manage stress and feel lighter for more details.
Minerals for brain health
Our brain also needs a regular supply of minerals to keep it functioning. Iron is one such mineral – not enough iron can lead to brain fog (read our earlier article on tips on how to clear brain fog). Research has shown that both zinc and magnesium have beneficial effects on memory and mood. (Did you know zinc is the second most abundant metal in your body?).
Good plant-based sources include
- Green leafy veg like spinach and kale
- Legumes, like lentils, chickpeas, beans. Enjoy our lovely vegan lentil bolognese.
- Vegetables like peas, cabbage, asparagus and brussel sprouts
- Dark chocolate
So, what foods should I include in my diet to improve brain health?
After reading the above, it might seem a little complicated to think about what to eat. We therefore take a sensible approach and suggest that you consider including a wide variety of plant-based foods in your diet, that way you will receive all the nutrients you need. Remember, many of the items are listed in more than one of the sections above.
To summarise, some great items to include regularly in your diet are:
- Berries: blueberries, strawberries, any berries – add to breakfast, eat as a snack, or blend into your juice to make a lovely smoothie. One serving is 6 strawberries, or 16 raspberries.
- Broccoli – have a couple of florets either with dinner, in your salad or use the stem in your juice. Try this months juice recipe: Broccoli Power.
- Leafy green veggies: kale, spinach, lettuce, anything green and leafy! One portion is a big handful.
- Nuts and seeds, in particular pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts, once per day. Have a small afternoon snack of nuts and seeds, or add them to your breakfast cereal or porridge. One portion of almonds is a small handful (1/4 cup) or 23 almonds. This serving of almonds equates to around 160 calories.
- Avocado – one quarter to one half avocado per day, add to a juice, onto a salad, or serve on a slice of wholegrain toast for breakfast.
- Complex carbs: wholegrains (brown rice, oatmeal, millet), legumes (like lentils) – aim to include a few portions per day (2-4 portions). A portion is approximately half a cup (cooked).
- Turmeric: easy to add teaspoon into most cooked dishes! You can also add it to your juice, like our Turmeric Twist.
Other actions to improve your brain health
Making changes to your diet can certainly improve your brain health. However, the effects are boosted if you also have a healthy lifestyle:
- exercise regularly
- get good quality sleep
- eat regularly (and eat enough)
- drink enough water to keep hydrated
- reduce your stress, try meditation
- limit your alcohol intake
- do things you enjoy
- stay mentally active – crosswords, suduko, conversations, pub quiz, etc.
- balance left and right brain
Drink sufficient water. Remember it can also come in the form of herbal teas and through eating lots of lovely fresh fruit and vegetables, as these latter items are high in water content. Make time to participate in activities that keep your brain working and active. Spend time with people who inspire you or make you smile.
Improve your diet, improve your brain health
Making small changes to your diet, to include more of the items we list above, can help to make improve your brain health, as well as your overall health and wellbeing. The food we serve here at La Crisalida is packed full with all of these items and we are constantly looking for new recipes and exciting ways to deliver fabulously tasting, nutritious plant-based food. We regularly share recipes on the blog for you to make at home. You can also come here to the retreat and try our plant-based diet for yourself.
To your health and wellbeing.
About the author
- Lisa is one of the founders of La Crisalida Retreats. She is an Epidemiologist, therapeutic hatha and yin yoga teacher and also teaches mindfulness meditation. Lisa has studied NLP and hypnosis, as well as nutrition (she designs the menus).