Researchers know that certain nutrients and other chemical compounds in our diet are essential to brain function. When we don’t get enough of these key nutrients, such as vitamin B12 and iron it can lead to impaired cognitive function. In fact, when we don’t eat right, including skipping meals or not eating a balanced diet, the first place we feel it is in our ability to think clearly.
So, careful attention to diet is key to supporting every facet of brain health--from thinking and reasoning, to focus and memory.
Based on current research we’ve put together a “shopping list” of nutrients in foods and supplements that support optimal brain health.
Antioxidants – Antioxidants help block oxidative damage caused be free radicals which can damage cells throughout the body—including your brain. Some believe oxidative damage may contribute to the aging process.
Among the most beneficial antioxidants are vitamin A, C and E as well as plant-based antioxidant compounds such as those found in brightly-colored fruits and vegetables. On the color wheel, the purple-blue-red-orange spectrum is home to the most antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables.
Vitamin A -- good sources of this vitamin include sweet potatoes, carrots, pumpkin, beef liver and spinach.
Vitamin C – high amounts are found in citrus fruits, berries, melons, tomatoes, bell peppers, broccoli, cauliflower and spinach.
Vitamin E – include almonds, sunflower seeds, and peanut butter in your diet to be sure you are getting enough vitamin E.
Vitamin D -- Vitamin D receptors are found throughout the brain and especially in the hippocampus. Low vitamin D levels have been linked to poor memory and cognitive function.
There are two sources of vitamin D: sun exposure and foods or supplements. Your body makes vitamin D when exposed to the sun, and some foods are fortified with vitamin D including milk and cereal. Still, as many as 70% of us are deficient in this important nutrient.
Essential Fatty Acids – Studies have found that Omega-3 fatty acids support mental clarity, concentration, and focus. Foods containing Omega-3 fatty acids include cold-water fish (bluefish, herring, mackerel, rainbow trout, salmon, sardines, tuna, and whitefish).
B-Vitamins – B vitamins, such as folate, Vitamin B6 and B12, support cardiovascular function which in turn supports brain health by maintaining a good flow of oxygen to the brain. B12 deficiency, which is common in older adults due to inadequate digestion, is associated with reasoning and memory problems.
B6 plays an important role in blood sugar metabolism which helps ensure a steady supply of energy to the brain in the form of glucose. B6 also directly supports the nervous system as it is needed to synthesize several neurotransmitters including dopamine, norepinephrine and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).
Folate can be found in leafy green vegetables, broccoli, beans, orange juice and avocados.
Good sources of B-12 are animal products such as salmon, beef, milk, yogurt and cheese. B12 may be added (fortified) in other foods such as soy milk and cereals.
B6 is found primarily in poultry, pork, beef and seafood and in smaller amounts in legumes such as black beans, leafy green vegetables, nuts, and whole grains.
Mulitvitamins – A number of recent studies have linked vitamin supplements (A, C, D, E and some B vitamins) as well as multivitamins and fish oil supplements to promoting brain function including cognition, mental alertness, focus and memory.
USDA - Agricultural Research Service
Office of Dietary Supplements
University of Maryland Medical Center
Linus Pauling Institute