The human brain is incredibly complex. It takes a symphony of vitamins, nutrients, minerals, acids, and healthy fats to help your brain reach and maintain peak performance. There are also many healthy foods that can prevent and reverse the effects of brain-related disease.
Perhaps you are looking for dietary guidance that can help defend, reduce, and reverse the effects of age-related cognitive ailments. Maybe you are simply looking for ways to optimize your brain power throughout the day through a healthy diet.
If you’ve already read my deep dive on the benefits of blue, purple, and black foods, you know that many natural brain foods exist in that area of the food rainbow. However, there are plenty of foods in other parts of the rainbow that can improve your memory, fight against diseases and free radicals that affect your brain, relieve feelings of stress and anxiety, and strengthen your overall brain health.
Best nutrients for your brain
Omega-3 fatty acids: Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats, and they are vital building blocks for your cognitive control center. The human brain is composed of nearly 60 percent fat, and two of the three omega-3 fatty acids – DHA and EPA – are closely related to memory, cognition, and healthy brain development. DHA helps improve mood and overall brain health, and omega-3 fatty acids also play a role in the production of dopamine, which regulates the pleasure and reward centers of the brain. Some studies have found that the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and fish oil may help prevent symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and age-related memory loss. Chia seeds, flax seeds, soybeans, walnuts, and avocados are plant-based foods high in omega-3 fatty acids. If you choose to eat meat, salmon, mackerel, herring, oysters, sardines, and anchovies are great sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
Anthocyanins: Anthocyanins are flavonoids, a type of phytonutrient and natural pigment that has strong antioxidant properties. They’ve been found to increase cognitive function by protecting the brain against free radicals. Blue, purple, and black foods are often high in anthocyanins. The “cyan” in “anthocyanins” comes from the Greek word for “blue,” and these compounds help give some fruits and vegetables their vibrant deep colors. Blueberries, blackberries, purple grapes, plums, purple cabbage, purple cauliflower, and raisins are particularly high in anthocyanins.
Vitamin A (Retinoic acid): Vitamin A contains retinoic acid, which acts as a vital messenger – a signaling molecule – within the brain. Vitamin A also acts as an antioxidant, promoting cellular health within the brain by defending it against free radicals. Your body produces vitamin A from carotenoids, which are found in many orange and green fruits and vegetables. Sweet potatoes, winter squash (butternut squash, acorn squash, pumpkins, and spaghetti squash, for example), carrots, dark leafy greens (kale, collard greens, turnip greens, swiss chard, and spinach), mangoes, and cantaloupes are high in carotenoids.
Vitamin B1 (Thiamin): Thiamin deficiencies in the brain have been linked to certain forms of brain damage, and alcohol abuse can deplete the amount of thiamin in your system. Macadamia nuts, black beans, lentils, edamame, asparagus, and spirulina are foods that are rich in thiamin.
Vitamin B9 (Folate): Folate, also known as vitamin B-9 or folic acid, is essential to the vital functions of the nervous system, and it’s an important building block for neurotransmitters and cellular health in the brain. Lentils, pinto beans, chickpeas, black-eyed peas, kale, collard greens, peas, and spinach (cooked) are particularly high in folate.
Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin): Cobalamin is another B vitamin that is vital for proper brain function, and it also helps the body utilize folate. Vitamin B12 deficiencies have been linked to depression and memory loss, and severe deficiencies have even been linked to serious brain-related diseases such as dementia, mania, and psychosis. Because vitamin B12 is only found naturally in animal products, many vegetarians and vegans run the risk of not getting enough vitamin B12 in their diet. Fortified nutritional yeast, fortified cereals, fortified vegan milks (soy milk, almond milk, oat milk, cashew milk), and vegan vitamin B12 supplements can be good sources of cobalamin if you are vegetarian or vegan. If you choose to eat meat, shellfish (clams), tuna, sardines, trout, salmon, beef, and eggs are good sources of vitamin B12
Vitamin C: Vitamin C is vital to the health of your neurons and neurotransmitters, making it an important brain-booster. It also helps your body convert dopamine into norepinephrine, which can improve your mood and reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. On top of all that, vitamin C is also a powerful antioxidant that helps fight against free radicals in the brain and throughout the body. Guavas, kiwis, bell peppers (especially red ones), strawberries, oranges, papayas, pineapples, cantaloupe, grapefruits, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, tomatoes, and leafy greens are particularly high in vitamin C.
Vitamin D: You may know vitamin D as the vitamin your body produces from exposure to sunlight. Vitamin D is an important building block for the architecture of the brain, and just as importantly, vitamin D is needed for your body to properly absorb calcium – another important nutrient for cognitive health. Some studies have shown a link between vitamin D and reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, but more research must be done in the area. Getting some sun is one of the best ways for your body to produce vitamin D, but there are certain foods that also contain significant amounts of vitamin D. Like vitamin B12, vitamin D is mostly found in animal products, which means some vegetarians and vegans may risk of not getting enough vitamin D in their diets. Mushrooms, fortified orange juice, and fortified vegan milks can be good sources of vitamin D if you are vegetarian or vegan. If you choose to eat animal products, salmon, egg yolks, sardines, herring, tuna, and fish oil are good sources of vitamin D.
Vitamin E: Vitamin E is another powerful antioxidant that prevents the accumulation of free radicals in the brain. Some studies have shown that vitamin E can help improve cognitive function for people with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease, but more research must be done in the area. Vitamin E is fat-soluble, so it’s best to consume Vitamin E foods with a bit of healthy fat for optimal absorption. Many Vitamin E-rich foods, such as nuts, seeds, and avocados, have the healthy fats built right in. Others, such as leafy greens and broccoli, should be combined with healthy fats to aid absorption by the body. Sunflower seeds, almonds, hazelnuts, pine nuts, avocados, spinach, swiss chard, winter squash, kiwis, and broccoli are particularly high in vitamin E.
Calcium: Calcium is an important signaling molecule that relays messages from the body to the brain, making it a vital part of memory retention and learning. Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium in the most efficient way, so it’s best to pair calcium-rich foods with foods rich in vitamin D. Chia seeds, sesame seeds, tahini, poppy seeds, soybeans, chickpeas, white beans, pinto beans, cooked spinach, broccoli, figs, and fortified vegan milks are good sources of calcium.
Magnesium: Magnesium plays a critical role in the neural receptors in your brain, making it a vital element for cognitive development, memory retention, and learning. Studies have found that magnesium can help reduce the risk of aging-related memory loss. Pumpkin seeds, almonds, spinach, spirulina, cashews, peanuts, black beans, edamame, dark chocolate (raw cacao), avocados, and potatoes are all great sources of magnesium.
Zinc: Zinc plays a vital role in the healthy development of your brain, and it helps regulate dopamine levels in your brain. It’s also a building block for DNA and RNA and an essential component in your nervous system. Lentils, chickpeas, white beans, black-eyed peas, navy beans, black beans, tofu, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, pine nuts, cashews, shiitake mushrooms, peas, cooked spinach, and lima beans are great sources of zinc.
Choline: The amino acid choline is an essential nutrient for our brain. Choline is needed to produce the neurotransmitters we need to develop and maintain healthy cognition and memory, and some studies have found that it may help prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Shiitake mushrooms, soybeans, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, lima beans, kidney beans, and almonds are great sources of choline. If you choose to eat animal products, egg yolks, salmon, tuna, beef, chicken, and turkey are great sources of choline.
Serotonin: This “happy” hormone reduces feelings of stress, anxiety, and agitation in the brain, promoting a sense of peacefulness and well-being. Bananas, spirulina, pumpkin seeds, almonds, whole grains, and raw cacao (dark chocolate) aid the production of serotonin.
Curcumin: Curcumin is a compound with antioxidant effects that is found in turmeric. Studies have found a link between curcumin and a lowered risk of Alzheimer’s disease and depression. Turmeric and turmeric-based curcumin supplements are good sources of curcumin.
Theobromine: Do you feel a caffeine-like mental and physical rush when you eat dark chocolate? Theobromine is the reason! This stimulant and mood-enhancer increases blood flow to the brain. Raw cacao is the best natural source of theobromine. Please be aware that theobromine is what makes chocolate extremely toxic to dogs and cats.
Vegetables: Best brain foods by category
Spinach: Vitamin A, vitamin B9 (folate), vitamin C, vitamin E, calcium, magnesium, zinc.
Collard greens: Vitamin A, vitamin B9 (folate), vitamin C, vitamin E, calcium
Turnip greens: Vitamin A, vitamin B9 (folate), vitamin C, vitamin E, calcium, magnesium
Kale: Vitamin A, vitamin B9 (folate), vitamin C, calcium, magnesium.
Swiss chard: Vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, calcium, magnesium.
Purple sweet potatoes: Anthocyanins, vitamin A, magnesium.
Purple carrots: Anthocyanins, vitamin A.
Best brain foods by category: Fruits
Avocados: Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B9 (folate), vitamin C, vitamin E, magnesium.
Blueberries: Anthocyanins, vitamin B1 (thiamin), vitamin C, vitamin E, magnesium, various antioxidants.
Blackberries: Anthocyanins, vitamin B1 (thiamin), vitamin C, vitamin E, calcium, magnesium, zinc.
Strawberries: Vitamin B1 (thiamin), vitamin B9 (folate), vitamin C, magnesium.
Papayas: Vitamin A, vitamin B9 (folate), vitamin C, vitamin E, calcium, magnesium.
Cantaloupe: Vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, magnesium.
Bananas: Vitamin C, magnesium, serotonin.
Apricots: Vitamin A, vitamin C, magnesium.
Best brain foods by category: Legumes and grains
Lentils: Vitamin B1 (thiamin), vitamin B9 (folate), zinc.
Whole grains: Vitamin E, magnesium, zinc, serotonin
Best brain foods by category: Nuts and seeds
Walnuts: Omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, magnesium.
Almonds: Vitamin E, magnesium, zinc, choline, serotonin.
Sunflower seeds: Vitamin B9 (folate), vitamin E, calcium, magnesium, zinc.
Flax seeds: Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B1 (thiamin), calcium, magnesium.
Pumpkin seeds: Omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, zinc, serotonin.
Best brain foods by category: Animal products
Eggs: Vitamin B12 (cobalamin), choline.
Salmon: Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B12 (cobalamin), vitamin D, choline.
Best brain foods by category: Other
Dark chocolate/raw cacao: Omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, serotonin, theobromine.
Olive oil: Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E, various antioxidants.
Coconut oil: Vitamin E, various antioxidants.
Spirulina: Vitamin B1 (thiamin), magnesium, serotonin, various antioxidants.
Healthy Brain Foods: Fast Facts
Greens, sunflower seeds and lentils are high in B-vitamins, which may slow the rate of brain shrinkage and the onset of Alzheimer’s.
Foods rich in vitamins A and E – including orange and green natural foods, almonds, and sunflower seeds – act as powerful antioxidants and prevent the accumulation of free radicals in the brain.
The DHA omega-3 fatty acids found in healthy fats improve mood and overall brain health.
Bananas, spirulina, pumpkin seeds, almonds, whole grains, and raw cacao aid the production of serotonin. This “happy” hormone reduces feelings of stress, anxiety, and agitation in the brain, promoting a sense of peacefulness and well-being.
Dopamine regulates the pleasure and reward centers of the brain. Walnuts, avocadoes, and olive oil are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which play a role in dopamine production.
Supplements are sometimes used to reduce irritability and improve mood. Select products made from high-quality whole, plant foods.
Can Brain Foods Help Prevent Alzheimer’s and Age-Related Cognitive Decline?
One of the biggest topics of discussion in the medical community at the moment is the Bredesen Protocol. The Bredesen Protocol is a program developed by Dr. Dale Bredesen at Apollo Health, author of the book “The End of Alzheimer’s,” that has shown success in treating and reversing the cognitive decline and dementia associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
The Bredesen Protocol is a highly personalized program that begins with an assessment of the patient’s metabolism, medical history, and other key factors. Once that critical information is determined, each participant in the program is asked to adopt transformative changes in their diet, daily supplements, exercise regimen, sleep routines, and cognitive exercises that are tailored to their own personal situation.
The program has seen some promising success, but as with any form of treatment, more research is needed to prove a definitive link between the program and the prevention of Alzheimer’s symptoms. However, the Bredesen Protocol’s dietary guidelines are firmly rooted in solid nutritional science, and many of the program’s nutritional recommendations are based on the known benefits of so-called brain foods.
For example, the Bredesen Protocol recommends a diet built mainly around whole plant-based foods. The specifics of the Bredesen Protocol diet can be very different for each patient, as the program is personally tuned to each patient’s medical situation. However, foods high in omega-3 fats, B vitamins, vitamin C, vitamin E, magnesium, zinc, choline, and antioxidants are the cornerstones of the protocol’s nutritional guidelines.
Sound familiar? Those are the same nutrients found in many of the “brain foods” listed on this page!
So, is the Bredesen Protocol a legitimate treatment that can help prevent and reverse the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease? As I wrote in my article on the duality of nutrition, my mission is to give you the full story on every dietary topic: The good, the bad, and the gray areas. So here we go:
On the nutritional front, the Bredesen Protocol has solid roots in science, and the dietary guidance in the program aligns with the nutrients we’ve long known are beneficial to the brain. It also centers its nutritional guidance on recommendations that can be beneficial to nearly everyone, such as focusing your diet on nutrient-dense, whole plant-based foods.
However, more research and more trials are needed to fully prove the program’s effectiveness.
There is no such thing as a 100% effective treatment for any ailment. No matter how effective a form of treatment may be for one person, there is no guarantee that it will be effective for everyone.
Furthermore, the Bredesen Protocol highlights the importance of seeking personal guidance from a medical professional before adopting any major lifestyle changes. The program is based on the individual medical needs and history of every patient, and its recommendations are based on those unique diagnoses.
The Bredesen Protocol is controversial for a few good reasons. For one thing, it isn’t cheap, and it is a complicated and time-consuming process. For another, it makes bold claims about treating a terrible disease that has no known medical cure. However, the program’s dietary guidance makes sense and is rooted in solid nutritional science.
Ready to explore more healthy foods that will elevate your mind, your mood, your body, and your immune system? Visit the articles below to learn what whole, plant-based foods can do for you.