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Best Brain Boosting Foods: What to Add to Your Diet Now

What foods are good for your brain? Luckily, the list is long and varied. If you want to eat for powerful brain function, you’ve got quite a list of delicious nootropic foods to choose from. You won’t have to go hungry if getting your brain in top shape is your goal. In fact, a well-rounded diet is exactly what your brain needs to function at its best. If you want to improve your mood, memory, cognition, and attention — focusing on your diet is a great move.

But designing a brain-healthy diet does take a bit of an intentional approach. 

When it comes to the best foods for brain health, amino acids, healthy fats, antioxidants, and water top the list. Make sure you’re getting plenty of each.

What Is The Blood-Brain Barrier?

In order to talk about what foods nourish your brain the best, we’ve got to talk about the blood-brain barrier.

What is the function of the blood-brain barrier?” you may ask. Well, the blood-brain barrier is essentially a protection system for your brain. It helps prevent potentially harmful substances in your blood from attacking your brain.

When it’s functioning properly, the blood-brain barrier stops pathogens and toxins from entering the brain but allows certain nutrients to pass through. The blood-brain barrier allows lipid-soluble molecules, water, and oxygen to get to the brain without any trouble. Glucose can also enter the brain by way of a special process.[1]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK519556/

Certain conditions can affect the functionality of the blood-brain barrier. For example, head trauma or stroke can damage the blood-brain barrier and make it behave abnormally.[2]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4292164/ 

The blood-brain barrier seems to prioritize allowing nutrients to pass through which are critical for brain function and not synthesized by the body. Eating a diet that’s packed full of these nutrients is thought to therefore help your brain function at its best.

Some of these key nutrients include[3]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK28180/[4]https://www.researchgate.net/publication/269283525_Role_of_the_Blood-Brain_Barrier_in_the_Nutrition_of_the_Central_Nervous_System

  • Glucose
  • Amino acids
  • Fats
  • Antioxidants

Let’s explore why each of these is important for powerful brain function.

Glucose Vs. Ketones

There’s a bit of debate as to which fuels your brain most effectively: glucose from carbohydrates or ketones (which are generated when you eat a low carbohydrate diet).

And really, there’s no definitive answer. If you eat carbohydrates, your brain’s main fuel source will be glucose. And if you are living a low-carb lifestyle, your brain will run on ketones.

Your brain and your body run most efficiently on whole foods. So when we’re talking about carbohydrates as brain fuel, we don’t mean packaged, processed food. Ideal sources of brain-healthy carbs include complex carbohydrates like vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, and truly whole grains. When you eat these types of carbs, scientists estimate your brain uses about 110-145 grams of glucose per day.[5]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC292907/pdf/jcinvest00272-0077.pdf

Keto For Brain Health

Some people rave about a ketogenic or keto diet, which is comprised of low carbohydrates, moderate amounts of protein, and lots of fats. This type of diet has shown promise in studies to help with neurological disorders like epilepsy and dementia. And some people use it to induce weight loss.[6]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2716748/ 

The keto diet is somewhat controversial since it incorporates many of the foods we’ve been taught are not ideal for health — like butter and red meat.

But there is some evidence to suggest keto has at least some cognitive benefit. One study showed it improved verbal memory in elderly patients after six weeks.[7]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21130529/ Another study saw cognitive improvement in Alzheimer’s patients who were given a ketogenic compound.[8]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19664276/ And Parkinson’s patients who were able to stick to the diet for 28 days saw improvements in their physical symptoms.[9]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15728303/

However, some experience complications like constipation, electrolyte disturbances, hypoglycemia, kidney stones, and dehydration when they eat this way.[10]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK499830/[ref][ref]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19049581/   

The important thing is to experiment and see what diet feels best for you. 

Amino Acids And Your Brain

Amino acids are called the building blocks of protein. When you eat protein, your body converts the protein into amino acids.

Some of these amino acids, notably tryptophan and phenylalanine, are critical for helping to synthesize neurotransmitters in your brain. Without amino acids, your brain wouldn’t be able to make dopamine or serotonin — neurotransmitters that help you feel happy and satisfied.[11]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK539894/

Amino acids also help in several other bodily functions, like building muscle. Additionally, they play a crucial role in the creation of certain hormones and enzymes.

There are 20 different amino acids. 9 of them are considered ‘essential.’ An essential amino acid is one that the body needs to function properly, but can’t make on its own — so you have to ingest it.

The essential amino acids include[12]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK557845/:

  • Tryptophan
  • Phenylalanine
  • Valine
  • Threonine
  • Leucine
  • Isoleucine
  • Lysine
  • Histidine
  • Methionine

Since amino acids come from proteins, the easiest way to incorporate them into your diet is to eat protein. 

Some examples of proteins to include in your brain-boosting diet:

  • Beans
  • Lentils 
  • Quinoa
  • Nuts
  • Soy 
  • Seeds
  • Yogurt
  • Cheese
  • Animal proteins like beef, chicken, eggs, or seafood
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Fats For The Brain

Over half of your brain is comprised of fat.[13]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20329590/ And as we’ve explored, eating more fat could potentially have neuroprotective benefits.

But choosing the right fats is important. Just like with carbs, not all fats are created equally. 

Fatty processed foods, fast foods, fried foods, and trans fats all tend to be less than ideal for powerful brain function.[14]https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnut.2018.00131/full 

What Does Omega 3 Do For The Brain?

Unsaturated fats and specifically essential fatty acids like DHA and EPA seem to have well-documented neuroprotective effects.[15]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6120115/ Essential fatty acids are those your body needs to function, but can’t make. Both docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EHA) are considered omega 3 fatty acids.

Omega 3s are widely celebrated as anti-inflammatory and health-promoting, especially when incorporated into the diet. Studies indicate the more omega-3s circulating in your body, the longer you might live.[16]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33888689/ Omega 3s appear to have a protective effect against many diseases, ranging from heart disease to diabetes and even cancer.[17]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10479465/

Benefits Of Omega 3 For The Brain

Omega 3s are also ideal for brain health.[18]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6116096/[19]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26795198/ DHA, in particular, appears to offer significant benefits for the brain.[20]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4404917/ Studies indicate that dementia patients tend to have lower levels of DHA in their bodies.[21]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17101822/ And kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) seem to benefit when they supplement with omega 3s.[22]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5603098/#:~:text=An%20Australian%20study%20found%20that,and%20cognitive%20problems%20%5B28%5D[23]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21961774/ 

Omega 3s can be found in the following foods:[24]https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-Consumer/

  • Seafood (notably fatty fish like salmon and mackerel)
  • Walnuts
  • Flax seeds
  • Chia seeds
  • Algae supplements
  • Plant-based oils

Antioxidants For Brain Health

Antioxidants are crucial to include in your brain-healthy diet. 

Antioxidants work to protect your brain and your body from oxidative stress. Oxidative stress causes cellular damage and is thought to be the cause of many diseases and signs of aging.

Flavonoids Benefits

Flavonoids are powerful natural substances found in plant-based foods. Flavonoids are a group of nutrients that are considered to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and even anti-carcinogenic properties. Flavonoids are grouped into 12 subclasses depending on their chemical structure. Only 6 are really considered of dietary significance, and these are the ones we refer to when we use the term ‘flavonoids’:[25]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5465813/

  • Flavones
  • Flavonols
  • Flavanones
  • Isoflavones
  • Flavan-3-ols
  • Anthocyanins

Flavonoids’ health benefits are impressive. When consumed on a regular basis, it is thought that flavonoids could help to reduce the risk of developing diseases like heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and cancer.[26]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15678717/[27]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25272572/[28]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7211351/

Flavonoids are also thought to be great for your brain. Studies suggest that eating plenty of flavonoids could improve cognition.[29]https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-76160-9 

There’s also great news when it comes to getting these antioxidants into your diet. There are tons of flavonoids in dark chocolate and cocoa’s packed with flavonoids, too.[30]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4696435/ 

Flavonoids can also be found in:[31]https://www.ars.usda.gov/ARSUserFiles/80400525/Articles/AICR06_flav.pdf

  • Tea
  • Onions
  • Peppers
  • Parsley 
  • Blueberries
  • Bananas
  • Oranges

Vitamin E For The Brain

Vitamin E’s another powerful antioxidant with a reputation for helping your brain be all that it can be.[32]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5466517/ 

In fact, studies indicate that the more vitamin E elderly people have circulating in their blood, the more likely they are to be free of cognitive impairment. And poor memory performance seems to relate to low plasma levels of vitamin E.[33]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4276978/

Foods with a lot of vitamin E include [34]https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminE-HealthProfessional/:

  • Wheat germ
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Almonds
  • Peanuts
  • Spinach

Water Benefits For Brain

When it comes to designing your diet to promote powerful brain function, don’t forget to hydrate. While there’s no definitive answer to how much water your brain needs, it certainly doesn’t benefit from dehydration. 

Even mild levels of dehydration could impair cognition and affect mood.[35]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21736786/[36]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29933347

And, one study even suggested that drinking plenty of plain water can help with depression and anxiety.[37]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6147771/ 

How Nootropics Can Support A Brain Healthy Diet

Whether you’re looking to sharpen your focus, put a stop to brain fog, or boost your creativity, eating a whole food diet that supports your brain is a great idea.

But, eating well might not be enough to see the results you desire.

After all, due to depleting soil nutrients, even whole foods aren’t as nutrient-dense as they once were.[38]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15637215/

So — if powerful brain function is your goal, eating right is an important part of your plan. But supplementing with nootropics could be the missing link that gets you all the way to the goalpost.

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