What does the brain do?
The brain is a powerful organ. It essentially controls everything the body does, and it doesn’t stop working, even while you sleep. It is made up of a lot of different parts, or sections, that each control various things that go on in your body such as movement, speech and digestion. As well as the benefits of regular ‘brain training’ and avoiding unhealthy habits such as smoking or consuming too much alcohol , the brain can also benefit from getting certain vitamins, antioxidants and nutrients from our diet.
Eating a balanced and healthy diet is important, but what specifically could you eat more of to benefit your brain? In this article, we’ll look at some of the diets that have shown the ability to improve brain function and focus on some of the specific foods that have come up in research on the subject.
The MIND diet
In the last 5 years, research into foods that can work to improve brain function and slow down ageing of the brain has discovered that certain foods can help. The MIND diet (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) involves eating "brain-healthy" foods, with particular emphasis on eating berries, such as blueberries, and green leafy vegetables, like spinach, but it’s actually a combination of two existing diet plans that are sometimes recommended by doctors. The DASH diet and The Mediterranean diet are both thought to aid the brain in keeping healthy and functioning well, plus DASH is recommended for lowering blood pressure. The two diets are explained in a little more detail below.
The DASH diet
The DASH diet stands for the Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension, and is recommended for people who need to lower their blood pressure. It focuses on limiting the intake of sugar-sweetened foods and drinks, foods that are high in saturated fat and full-fat dairy products. You can find out more about this diet and whether it could work for you here.
The Mediterranean diet
This diet varies a little depending on which country or region you’re talking about, but generally contains a lot of vegetables, nuts, cereals, fish, unsaturated fats and fruits. It also requires a reduced amount of meat and dairy products. It’s quite similar the UK Government’s healthy eating advice that’s outlined in the Eatwell Guide.
Food for thought
There are plenty of healthy foods out there, but some are thought to be especially good for improving brain function, increasing memory skills and even reducing the risk of developing problems like dementia or Alzheimer’s disease (the most common cause of dementia). Here are some of the top foods that are regularly suggested for boosting brain power:
- Blueberries – A study from Tufts University in America suggests that eating blueberries may be effective in improving or delaying short-term memory loss. Don’t worry if they’re not your thing though, dark red and purple fruits and veg (beetroot and pomegranate for example) contain the same protective compounds called anthocyanins which may increase blood flow to the brain and keep it healthy into older age.
- Dark chocolate – Even though chocolate is often high in sugar and fat, it also contains high levels of antioxidants. Brain cells are particularly vulnerable to oxidative damage, so these will help protect it from premature ageing.
- Green tea – A cup of green tea is considered by many to be the ultimate anti-ageing drink, especially in Okinawa, Japan, an area often associated with longer, healthier life spans. It is made with unfermented leaves, so they contain the highest level of antioxidants. In 2004, scientists at the University of Newcastle studied the effects of black and green tea on Alzheimer’s disease. Both teas prevented the breakdown of acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter strongly linked with memory. You can read more about this study, here.
- Avocados – This fruit has been incredibly popular lately, but it’s also full of nutrients that can affect brain health. Certain nutrients may also reduce the risk of stroke, which can occur when a clot forms in a blood vessel and blocks blood flow to the brain.
- Oily fish – Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are important for healthy brain function, but they cannot be made by the body which means you need them in your diet. Oily fish like salmon, mackerel, pilchards and kippers all contain the active form of these fats, EPA and DHA, in a ready-made form, which helps the body to use it easily. Low DHA levels have been linked to an increased risk of dementia, Alzheimer's disease and memory loss. Having sufficient levels of both EPA and DHA is thought to help us manage stress and helps make the chemical serotonin, which can lift your mood.
- Tomatoes – A powerful antioxidant found in tomatoes called lycopene could help protect against the kind of free radical damage to cells which occurs in the development of dementia, particularly Alzheimer's.
- Eggs – These are a vitamin B rich food. Certain B vitamins, like B6, B12 and folic acid have been found to reduce levels of homocysteine in the blood. Elevated levels of the compound have been linked to cognitive impairment in Alzheimer’s patients.
- Pumpkin seeds – Zinc is vital for enhancing memory and thinking skills, and these seeds are richer in zinc than many others. They also contain magnesium, thought to help you tackle stress, B vitamins and tryptophan, which helps form the good mood chemical serotonin
- Broccoli – Research has suggested that broccoli can help keep our brains and memory in tip top condition because it Is high in compounds called glucosinolates which slow the breakdown of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. It’s also rich in vitamin K which has been found to enhance and improve brainpower.
Want to get a healthier diet or find out what’s in your favourite fruits and vegetables? Read all about ‘superfoods’ here.
The information in this article intended as general advice only. If you or your family members require medical advice or have any medical concerns, please contact your GP.
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More information on brain food: Brain and Spine
MIND diet study: NCBI