There’s increasing evidence that we are what we eat. With memory loss due to dementia and Alzheimer’s on the rise, it is imperative that our diet should include foods that increase brain power and memory.
It may be argued that the longer lifespan enjoyed by our generation, thanks to advances in medical care, is responsible for the recent spike in age-related memory loss.
There could be some truth in that, but what’s quite alarming is that these neurodegenerative diseases are appearing at a much younger age now. There’s no doubt that our modern diet that mainly consists of highly refined and processed foods is at least partly to blame.
Here are some natural brain boosting and memory enhancing foods that you can make a part of your regular diet. They will not only enhance your memory but will make you a healthier person altogether. As they say in the philosophy behind yoga, “a healthy mind resides in a healthy body”.
Gluten-free grains including millet, quinoa, brown rice, buckwheat
Grains are mainly carbohydrates, the macronutrient that is the easiest for the body to digest and assimilate into the bloodstream in the form of glucose and other simple sugars. Normally, glucose is the only fuel brain cells can use; and they require a steady supply of it to function properly.
The brain is almost entirely made up of nerve cells or neurons that use up twice the amount of energy required by other cells in the body. They cannot be blamed because they are always at work, constantly sending and receiving a steady stream of electrical signals.
Weighing about 3 pounds, the human brain constitutes only 2% of the average mass of the human body, but it gobbles up 20% of the energy generated. Yet, it is in a constant state of starvation.
A diet rich in complex carbohydrates is the best for its optimal functioning because what the brain needs is a steady stream of glucose. Random spikes in supply will not do. But that is exactly what happens when we consume refined sugars. In fact, sudden surges take the brain cells to a state of excitement and then kill them off, much like narcotics do. That’s why white sugar is called the new opium.
Complex carbohydrates in gluten-free grains are bound to fiber that slows down their digestion. Even though carbohydrate digestion starts in the mouth with the enzyme ptyalin (also called salivary amylase), it gets completed only in the small intestine.
Tree nuts and seeds
Nuts and seeds are the most concentrated sources of nutrients in the plant world. They are rich in beneficial polyunsaturated fats, and contain some amount of plant proteins, minerals and vitamins. Let’s see how they can help increase brain power.
The fat soluble Vitamin E in the nuts is always credited with their beneficial effects on the brain, but that’s only part of the story. Vitamin E is indeed good for the brain because it is a powerful antioxidant that would readily mop up all the free radicals wreaking havoc in the brain. But the fats themselves are more significant for brain health.
On a cellular level, the brain is almost entirely made up of structural fats as well as functional fats essential for metabolic processes within the cell and communication between cells. All the nerve fibers are protected by a fatty layer called myelin sheath.
So it is not difficult to see why a steady supply of good fats, such as the omega-6s and omega-3s found in abundance in nuts and some seeds would benefit the brain and the nervous system.
You can get your fill of brain-healthy fats from an ounce of almonds, walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts or cashews, but the first two are particularly useful in enhancing memory and warding off neurodegenerative diseases.
Here’s an age-old recipe for memory power: Soak 10 almonds overnight in a cup of water and eat them in the morning along with the water in which they were soaked. In some Asian cultures, this is traditionally given to students to guarantee their excellence in academic performance.
Walnuts are in the limelight ever since it has been indicated that a walnut-rich diet can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s, if not prevent it. All nuts contain polyunsaturated fatty acids of the omega-6 type, but walnuts are particularly rich in the omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid or ALA. In fact, walnuts are among the few vegetable sources of ALA.
Our body can use ALA to make two other essential fatty acids called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) important for brain health and function.
Nuts are best eaten raw, but you can roast them lightly to enhance their flavor. Don’t roast them or fry them on high heat though; it will spoil the good fats and other nutrients.
Some nuts may not be available raw because they spoil very fast once taken out of their hard shells. Buy the roasted ones if you have to, but avoid salted nuts; they are no better than fast food.
Want to try raw almonds? You can pick up a large bag from here on Amazon for a very reasonable price.
The oil seeds that have a similar beneficial effect on the brain include sunflower flax seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds and peanuts (yes, peanuts are seeds not nuts). Use these seeds liberally in salads and as condiments. Flax seeds, in particular, are rich in omega-3s, but they have to be used freshly ground.
Oily fish such as wild-caught salmon, sardines and herring
Fish as a brain food needs no introduction. Oily fish such as salmon, sardines, and herring are rich in essential fatty acids, particularly the docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) mentioned earlier. What gives oily fish an edge over plant sources of omega-3s is that these two essential acids are found in their readily usable form in fish.
When you depend on plant sources, they have to be synthesized from their precursor ALA. Also, bioavailability of nutrients from animal sources is always higher compared to plant sources for the simple reason that they are already components of animal tissue which is very much similar to ours.
It has been shown that babies whose mothers received EFA and DHA supplements during pregnancy developed better mental processing capacity than their peers at 4 years of age. Preschoolers who had diets high in these fatty acids were not only better in academic performance, but it also seemed to prevent attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Mackerel, tuna and bluefish are also just as good. When you cut down meat in your diet because of the high amounts of saturated fats and cholesterol in them, substitute it with fish. It is a very good source of proteins and a storehouse of minerals.
Avocados and pomegranates
No two fruits can be as different as these, but both get on this list for their brain health benefits albeit in entirely different ways. The creamy, nutty-tasting flesh of avocado is full of good monounsaturated fats. These fats help reduce “bad” cholesterol that gets deposited on the arterial wall, clogging up the blood vessels and reducing blood flow. Including avocado in the diet may reduce the risk of stroke. It is a good source of folic acid, the deficiency of which is known to worsen the cognitive ability of people with Alzheimer’s.
An advantage with avocados is that it is still available–and widely used–as a whole food, not fried, roasted, juiced or otherwise processed out of its natural goodness. And, it is so versatile that you will have no difficulty eating a serving (half an avocado) everyday.
The pomegranate, with its bright red fruit kernels bursting with sweet and tart juice with a hint of astringency, contains tannins that are anti-inflammatory agents. They have an antioxidant capacity equivalent to that of Vitamins A and E. Tannins can reduce the free radical load and inflammation in the brain. Another way they can enhance brain health is by increasing the oxygen supply to the brain.
Originally coming from the Middle East, pomegranates have been traditionally used there as a blood purifier and for increasing circulation. Now they have been scientifically proven to increase arterial blood flow, particularly in the carotid artery that supplies oxygenated blood to the brain.
Try to get these benefits from eating fresh pomegranates, although they may look too complicated and messy to cut open and eat. The packaged juice that contains added sugars, and what else, cannot be guaranteed to have the same health benefits as the real thing.
Berries are inarguably the tastiest way to prevent memory loss and cognitive decline. Colorful berries are storehouses of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory phenolic compounds. The blue, purple, and red berries such as blueberries, mulberries, raspberries, strawberries, redcurrants and cranberries are rich sources of anthocyanins. In case you didn’t know, tomatoes are also berries; and they are rich in lycopene, a carotenoid which is an excellent antioxidant and free-radical scavenger.
Highly reactive radicals are formed in the body as metabolic byproducts or through radiation damage as in the case of UV ray exposure. They can cause aging of the cells and premature cell death. Antioxidants react with the free-radicals, neutralizing them in the process. Where the brain is concerned, they may help delay the onset of age-related memory loss. Blueberries in particular are considered a superfood for their potential for reducing the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
This light drink is the best beverage to perk you up when your brain becomes sluggish. It has plenty of antioxidant polyphenols, particularly catechins that can help improve circulation and reduce mental fatigue. Freshly made tea, whether it is green, white or black, can give you these benefits.
Although tea contains caffeine, a typical serving of 8 oz contains about 80 mg or less, while the same quantity of coffee has more than 110 mg. Over 1,000mgs of caffeine a day is considered overdose, but the toxic dose is 10gms a day. Hence it is perfectly safe to have 2 to 3 cups a day. Being a central nervous system stimulant, it can energize the brain and enhance mental acuity, concentration and memory.
Herbs & Spices
These are used in very small quantities to enhance the flavor of food, but they contain powerful volatile oils that can interact with our sense organs and hormonal pathways. In many cases, inhaling their scent is sufficient to increase alertness, improve focus and enhance memory and cognition. For instance, rosemary used in cooking can help improve cognitive function and memory even before the dish is tasted because the nasal lining absorbs the volatile oil particles directly. Alternatively, you can diffuse a few drops of rosemary essential oil in an aromatherapy diffuser to experience the memory enhancing benefits of rosemary.
Cinnamon is being studied extensively for its positive effect on people suffering from Alzheimer’s. Sage, thyme, cumin, black pepper, cloves, nutmeg and turmeric are a few of the spices showing memory enhancing power. When it comes to spices, a little goes a long way, so use them sparingly.
Chocolate is not exactly a whole food; it is processed from the roasted seeds of the cacao plant. But it is unfair to keep it off the brain foods list since it has been proven to have memory enhancing power. Perhaps it is best consumed in the form of chocolatl, the spicy drink of the Aztecs who first discovered the benefits of the cocoa bean, but the next best thing we can do is include some dark chocolate in our daily diet. It will not be as tasty as milk chocolate, of course, but it is better to skip all that sugar and go for the real stuff.
It is the flavanols in cocoa, especially the epicatechin that could be helping improve memory. It can lower the risk of stroke. In an experimental study where cocoa flavanols were given to subjects for 3 months, significant improvement in memory was observed. Brain scans showed increased activity in the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus that is associated with memory and recall.
Epicatechin is a strong antioxidant with significant cardiovascular benefits such as relaxing blood vessels, improving circulation, and reducing platelet aggregation. Theobromine, the alkaloid in chocolate that gives it the bitter taste also has a similar the effect on the blood vessels and circulation. It is a mild stimulant capable of increasing mental acuity, much like caffeine.
Our overall physical health definitely has a bearing on our brain power and memory. Keeping that in mind, all memory enhancing foods should be taken in optimum quantities as part of a healthy, well-balanced diet.