Discover what to eat to reduce anxiety, overcome depression, and improve your memory.
Certain foods deserve a regular place in our diets for their brain-boosting prowess. Brightly coloured produce – think: berries, broccoli, grapes, butternut squash, tomatoes – along with superfoods like garlic, green tea and cacao, all improve concentration and decision-making because they contain a wide range of antioxidant compounds that improve blood flow to the brain and reduce cell damage. One study has shown that eating a cup of blueberries daily for two weeks had a measurable effect on performance in classroom tests; the berries’ antioxidants actually increased the number of brain cells in the hippocampus, the area responsible for memory and spatial navigation.
But it’s not all about antioxidants. Three other key nutrients you need to protect and support your brain are potassium (found in potatoes, leafy greens, sunflower seeds), folic acid (carrots, avocadoes, melons, apricots, pumpkins, leafy greens), and omega-3 fatty acids (oily fish, walnuts, flaxseed). A new French study has shown that a long-term deficiency of omega-3s can cause depression and harm the brain’s synaptic function (transmission between nerve cells), while the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Ageing recently announced that folic acid reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s. An American study shows people with the highest blood levels of the omega-3 fat DHA had a 47 percent lower risk of developing dementia.
What to eat …
Memory loss is thought inevitable with old age, but an informed nutrition plan can actually reduce your risk, and maybe slow or prevent it altogether. Here’s how:
* Choline – Abundant in eggs and green veggies, this supports nerve impulse control and function, especially those used in the formation of short- and long-term memory. Choline supplements are sometimes used as a support treatment for Alzheimer’s.
* Calcium – Better known as a bone-booster, calcium also improves neural function and alertness.
* Magnesium – This mineral is essential for the correct functioning of nerves and muscles; an anti-stress nutrient, it keeps your mind calm. Green veggies, apples, figs, nuts and seeds are all good sources.
* Flavonoids – A Journal of Neuroscience study showed that free radical damage is responsible for much of the cognitive decline seen in elderly patients, and this can be significantly improved or even prevented by eating flavonoid–rich foods – this study showed that spinach was particularly helpful in preventing age-related cognitive and behavioural problems.
* Lycopene – All antioxidants are beneficial for brain health, but a report published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine suggests tomatoes may be a trump card when it comes to preserving cognitive function, thanks to their especially powerful key antioxidant, lycopene. Unusually for vegetable-derived nutrients, lycopene is better absorbed when tomatoes are cooked, especially in olive oil; most other produce is more nutritious when eaten raw.
* "Brain berries" - This is a nickname for blueberries, because studies at the USDA’s Human Nutrition Research Center have shown that eating them dramatically slows age-related impairment in memory and motor coordination. Blueberries also help lower cholesterol, promote urinary tract health, and protect against glaucoma.
Eat to boost your brain power
Apples - An Australian study has found that the flavonoids in apples help to lower blood pressure and reduce pulse rates.
Beans - Studies show that green beans – thanks to their riboflavin content – help reduce headache frequency by helping to recycle the antioxidant glutathione.
Beetroot - The choline that beetroot contains can be instrumental in reducing inflammation that has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease.
Chocolate - Contains phenylethylamine, a chemical neurotransmitter released by our brains when we are in love, increasing motivation and making us feel blissful.
Eggs - Rich in choline, the building block for a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, which is important for memory.
Ginger - In one study, middle-aged women reported significantly enhanced cognitive function after taking ginger for two months.
Grapes - A powerful source of antioxidant phytonutrients that lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s.
Salmon - Studies link a high intake of this, and other cold-water fish, to less depression and anxiety.
Spinach - long with other leafy greens, spinach provides memory-boosting antioxidants that reduce age-related deterioration in the brain.
What to avoid …
Even the most health-conscious amongst us may feel their halo slipping when under pressure, and be tempted to grab something on the go or skip a meal altogether. Resist, resist, resist! Convenience food, laden with sugar, salt and fat, is a one-way ticket to low blood sugar, fatigue, and poor concentration. Five minutes in the morning to toss together a couple of boiled eggs, fresh salad and couple of oatcakes or some leftover couscous or brown rice with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, plus some berries or grapes, and you will skip that 3 o’clock slump.
Avoid all processed foods, added sugar, and caffeine in excess, especially refined white flour products which actually causes brain fog by creating a blood sugar surge, followed sharply by a crash. Give alcohol a miss, especially during the day, as it only encourages sleepiness and lapses in concentration. Instead, choose whole foods to keep blood sugar levels steady and provide consistent fuel for your brain. Complex carbohydrates also aid production of the mood-enhancing hormone serotonin.