In the 1980s, an organization called The Partnership for a Drug-Free America aired a TV commercial that intended to deliver a message; with maximum shock value (relative to the era) that drugs are bad. ”This is your brain on drugs” was so well-known, it eventually became a favorite parody for comedians and others in Hollywood, poking fun at its over-the-top message.
Nearly forty years later, the importance of brain health is centered more around how to take care of your brain, to improve brain health, rather than attempting to scare you into holding onto your brain cells by refusing to take drugs. When it comes to what you should feed your brain, are there foods that are considered “bad” for the brain? Yes. What about foods that are considered brain health foods? Well, yes to that too. Foods that are considered harmful to the brain, can create an unhealthy inflammatory response and can be responsible for other detrimental health effects. But there are also foods that provide the brain with particular nutrients that help it function optimally. When it comes to brain health, eating for a healthy brain is crucial, especially as we begin to age.
Let’s look at how to eat for your brain along with other, proven, brain-health tips such as engaging in regular exercise, how brain games can help keep your brain sharp, and the critical role supplements can play in keeping our internal computers operating without a glitch.
Brain Food: The Good and the Bad
Quite a few foods make the list of not-so-good for brain health. Here are some to avoid:
Foods containing trans fats. Trans fats are a type of unsaturated fat. During a process called hydrogenation, trans fat is created. Hydrogenation changes a liquid vegetable oil into an (almost), solid-at-room-temperature oil, a state known as “partially hydrogenated.” This is an artificial process (though hydrogenation can also occur naturally in meat and dairy products.)
Trans fats can make their way into brain cell membranes, which can disrupt the ability of neurons in the brain to communicate, interfering with mental abilities. Consuming trans-fat in the diet has been associated with a risk of depression and has also been shown to negatively affect heart and blood vessel function.
Foods containing trans-fat include:
- Canned frosting
- (Some) Microwave popcorn
- Non-dairy creamer
- Fried foods i.e., doughnuts, french fries
- Fast food i.e., fried chicken
The Impact of Trans-Fat
Not all studies have found an undesirable connection between trans-fat intake and brain health. It’s critical that you avoid trans fats due to their negative impact on heart health and ability to increase inflammation in the body. It probably won’t come as a surprise to hear that alcohol is not a brain-healthy choice. While a glass of wine here and is not likely to have a detrimental effect on your health, alcohol affects specific areas in the brain that are responsible for motor control and mental function. With regular alcohol use, these areas of the brain operate more slowly. Alcohol interferes with judgment, affects memory and coordination, and disrupts sleep. Used in excess over a long period of time, alcohol can even cause permanent brain damage.
A prominent Nutritionist once said, “You can eat any food in moderation but there are two foods you should never eat; trans-fat and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS)”. Sugary drinks, sodas, and many processed foods contain high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a specific type of sugar. HFCS may cause brain inflammation and can impair memory and learning. Drinking lots of sugary drinks can increase the risk of dementia as well. This artificial, chemical concoction is also associated with obesity, diabetes, and mental decline and it may be responsible for damaging memory capability in the brain.
HFCS is made by breaking down corn starch into molecules of glucose. Glucose is a basic sugar. Then half of those glucose molecules are chemically altered to become fructose. Fructose is a naturally occurring sugar contained in fruit. However, without the added glucose and chemical alteration, pure fructose is entirely different from high fructose corn syrup. High fructose corn syrup has also been shown to be damaging to the liver, contributing to non-alcohol fatty liver disease.
It’s a good idea to check your labels. Foods containing high fructose corn syrup can be hidden and may include:
- Baked goods and frozen desserts
- Jams, jellies, and condiments
- Processed fruits
- Sugary drinks
The Dangers of Processed Foods
Most people realize that eating a lot of fried and processed foods is bad for their health. But did you know that eating a lot of fried, processed food can cause you to score lower on tests that measure cognitive or “thinking” ability? Fried and fatty foods could be the culprits here as these foods are pro-inflammatory. Meaning they can damage the blood vessels that supply the brain with blood and nutrients.
Processed foods may negatively impact the brain by reducing the production of something called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF.) Found in different parts of the brain, BDNF is an important molecule that’s involved in processes like learning and memory. BDNF plays a role in a process called neural plasticity, where it supports the brain’s ability to change and adapt based on experience. It is important for long-term memory, learning, and the development of new neurons. Therefore, any reduction can potentially damage these functions.
There are many fried and processed foods available to tempt us. Here are some of the collective American favorites:
- Some types of cheese
- Chips, crisps, pies, pasties, and cookies
- Meat products i.e., bacon, sausage, ham, and salami.
- Ready-to-eat and microwave meals
Brain Health and Fish
Fish is one of the healthiest foods you can eat. But the kind of fish, matters. Salmon and other fish that contain a healthy fat called omega-3 fatty acids are best. Swordfish, ahi tuna, and other big fish tend to be high in mercury and that’s a concern. When someone ingests mercury, it spreads throughout their body, collecting in the brain, liver, and kidneys. Mercury is considered a heavy metal and a neurotoxin. A neurotoxin is a substance that is toxic to your brain. It can accumulate in body tissues creating long-term damage. Mercury poisoning interferes with the central nervous system, damages neurons, and fuels neurotoxins. All of which have a damaging effect on the brain. In pregnant women, it also concentrates on the growing fetus and the placenta. Mercury can disrupt brain development in fetuses and young children. This can lead to developmental delays and even to diseases like cerebral palsy.
High-mercury fish may include:
- Orange roughy
- King mackerel
Foods Linked to Brainpower
Now let’s focus on the good foods and end on a good note. Some of the healthiest foods to feed your brain are fresh, delicious, and easy to incorporate into your diet every day.
Coffee. It’s been praised and it’s been vilified. Fortunately, there is more scientific research supporting the benefits of drinking coffee than reasons why it might be detrimental to your health (which mostly revolve around just drinking too much). Coffee is one of the richest sources of antioxidants you can find. This is great news for the brain, especially since most coffee drinkers have at least one to two cups of coffee a day. Again, when consumed in moderation, the benefits outweigh the risks with our favorite beverage. Researchers have identified over one thousand antioxidants in coffee including compounds that activate antioxidants, that also protect blood vessels in the brain.
Caffeine can boost alertness and may also improve your mood by increasing “feel-good” chemicals like dopamine. It can help sharpen concentration as demonstrated in one study that revealed participants completing a brain-function test, experienced improvements in alertness and attention, in the short term. Long-term coffee consumption has been shown to reduce the risk of neurological diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s (perhaps due to caffeine and antioxidants). It is obvious, however, that many of coffee’s benefits can be canceled out by what you add to your daily Cup O’ Joe. You might want to consider trading sugars and high-fat creamers for stevia and non-dairy coconut creamer.
Blueberries are packed with antioxidants that may delay brain aging and improve memory. Add them to smoothies, oatmeal, and salads or just have them around to snack on.
Fatty fish have high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, a major contributor to brain health. Omega-3s play a role in improving memory and enhancing mood, as well as protecting the brain against decline. Omega-3s are known for their powerful anti-inflammatory effect on the body.
Nuts can improve heart health. Researchers have found that having a healthy heart has been strongly associated with having a healthy brain. So, the regular consumption of nuts is another good choice.
Nuts have been linked to a lower risk of mental decline in older adults. Nuts contain healthy fats, antioxidants, and vitamin E, all nutrients that have beneficial effects on the brain. Vitamin E, for example, fights free-radical damage that can contribute to mental decline. Walnuts are particularly beneficial as they contain antioxidants and also, omega-3 fatty acids which have powerful anti-inflammatory effects.
As with coffee, the caffeine in green tea can improve alertness, performance, memory, and focus in the brain -through equal amounts of both beverages, green tea will have about half the amount of caffeine as a cup of coffee. Green tea also contains good amounts of L-theanine, higher levels in fact, than other types of tea. L-theanine is an amino acid that can improve the body’s ability to use GABA, a compound that helps to reduce anxiety and improve relaxation.
Strategies to Improve Brain Health
Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease, and dementia can be debilitating conditions. All involve brain function. Science is finding that the risk of contracting one of these devastating neurological conditions may be lowered with regular exercise, lowered by about thirty percent -a significant number. Aerobic exercise, in particular, has been shown to provide neurological protection through all types of exercise provide some benefit. The popularity of word games like Wordle and number games like Sudoku show that Americans like a challenge. But what many people don’t know is that while they’re innocently struggling to find the right letter or, crunching numbers to complete a puzzle, they are training their brain. Brain games improve brain function by boosting short-term memory, through what is called the brain’s working memory. This part of the brain deals with understanding concepts and languages at a faster rate.
About the Author
Jini Cicero is a Los Angeles-based Strength and Conditioning Specialist with a bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology. With over 20 years of experience as a health, fitness, and nutraceutical professional, Jini is passionate about advancing natural medicine and optimal health. Whether she’s working with Hollywood celebrities or cancer patients, Jini uniquely combines exercise science, sports nutrition, and corrective exercise. As a speaker, presenter, and writer, her work has been featured in numerous publications, such as Shape, MindBodyGreen, and The L.A. Daily News.