Brain Boost

Nutrition to improve memory, focus, cognition and even mood!

People turn to a healthier diet for many reasons; to lose weight, lean out, manage diabetes, improve energy levels and prevent heart disease. However, nutrition’s impact on mental health and mood is often overlooked. Certain nutrients have actually been shown to battle depression, decrease seasonal affective disorder (SAD), improve memory and prevent dementia. On the other end of the spectrum, certain eating habits can leave you feeling foggy and down in the dumps.

The MIND diet, which stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay, was developed by a nutritional epidemiologist at Rush University Medical Center based on a study funded by the National Institute on Aging. The extensive research trial found subjects who adhered to the MIND diet significantly lowered their risk of developing Alzheimer's disease and dementia.

The MIND diet encourages consumption of certain foods and food components that have been directly linked to improved neurological function or reduced Alzheimer’s disease biomarkers in the brain. The diet focuses on 10 brain-healthy foods including leafy greens, vegetables, nuts, berries, and beans and limits potentially damaging ones like red meat, pastries, and fried foods. In addition to reducing incidence of Alzheimer’s disease, following the MIND diet is also linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular conditions like hypertension, heart attack and stroke.

Before delving into specific brain-boosting foods/nutrients there are a few general eating strategies that can help with improving mood and mental clarity.

  • Eat at frequent intervals. Skipping meals and going too many hours without eating nutrient-dense foods causes drastic spikes and drops in our blood sugar levels. This can lead to hormonal imbalances, including stress hormones, that make us irritable, cranky or ‘hangry’ (hungry angry!) Hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, is linked to fatigue, dizziness and difficulty concentrating. Consuming complex carbohydrates, protein, fat and fiber at 3-4 hour intervals helps stabilize blood sugar levels to keep your mind clear and a smile on your face.

  • Stay hydrated. Dehydration can lead to dizziness, headache and fatigue making it difficult to function at optimal mental capacity. Aim to drink about half of your body weight in ounces of fluids to stay well hydrated. Fluids include water, herbal teas (naturally free of caffeine) and plain or naturally flavored seltzer (carbonated water).

And now for the main event! These foods have been highlighted for their mental health benefits.

  • Salmon. Fatty fish like salmon is rich in polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids which have been proven beneficial for our health in multiple ways. Fatty acids EPA, DPA and DHA have shown neuroprotective effects in aging and neurodegenerative disorders. The American Heart Association recommends eating two 3.5 ounce cooked servings of fatty fish weekly for heart health. Other fatty fish include mackerel, herring, lake trout, sardines and albacore tuna.  And if you’re not a fish fan look for a high quality omega-3 supplement. A therapeutic dosage, shown to reduce inflammation and thus more likely to yield brain health benefits, is 3 grams (3,000 mg) total of DHA and EPA.

  • Dark Leafy Greens. Kale, spinach, collards and other greens are packed with a range of nutrients and bioactive compounds, including vitamin E and K, lutein, beta carotene and folate, beneficial to brain health. Researchers found that six or more servings a week provide the greatest brain benefits. One serving of leafy greens is ½ cup cooked or 1 cup raw. The MIND diet study discovered that including greens in addition to other vegetables made a difference in reducing the risk of Alzheimer's disease. Try throwing a few handfuls of kale or spinach into a morning smoothie, using arugula as a base for healthy tuna or chicken salad platters and mixing a variety of greens to build a scrumptious salad.

  • Berries. Martha Clare Morris, the main nutritional epidemiologist behind the MIND diet says “Blueberries are one of the more potent foods in terms of protecting the brain.” Strawberries have also performed well in past studies of the effect of food on cognitive function. Berries can likely thank their high antioxidant content for these brain health benefits. Antioxidant compounds (such as  phenols, flavonoids and anthocyanins) protect against brain cell damage implicated in a range of mental disorders including depression and dementia. Add a serving of berries to your post-workout protein smoothie, sprinkle over oats to naturally sweeten breakfast and mix with plain Greek yogurt for a tasty parfait.

  • Nuts. Nuts contain healthy fats, fiber and antioxidants. They are also rich in the mineral magnesium which is involved in many brain chemistry reactions. A deficiency in magnesium has been linked to symptoms of depression and anxiety. The MIND diet recommends eating a serving of nuts at least five times a week. Dry roasted or raw almonds, walnuts, brazil nuts, cashews and pistachios all make for a healthy portable snack. They also add a nice crunch to salads, oatmeal and yogurt.

  • Beans. Beans contain a healthy dose of fiber, magnesium and folate. The MIND diet recommends eating beans three times a week to help reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease. Mix beans into soups, rice dishes and vegetable stir frys.

  • Olive Oil. High quality extra virgin olive oil is made up of monounsaturated fatty acids, like oleic acid, that fight oxidative stress. It also contains biologically active phenolic compounds shown to positively impact multiple biomarkers.  Including olive oil in your daily diet has an array of benefits spanning from decreased rates of inflammation, heart health, and protection against cognitive decline. Due to its low smoke point, olive oil is ideal for drizzling on foods after cooking or using in salad dressings. Other healthy oils better suited for high heat cooking include coconut and avocado oil.

  • Wine. You heard it right!  Research shows that a very moderate amount of alcohol is associated with reduced risk of dementia and cognitive decline. More research is needed to understand the mechanism but alcohol increases HDL cholesterol–the good cholesterol that helps to clear harmful cholesterol from the arteries. Wine in particular may offer the best protection due to its high polyphenolic contents. While a small amount of alcohol can benefit brain health it’s important to note that the opposite is true once you exceed the limit. Excessive drinking can lead to a host of health problems including high blood pressure, cirrhosis of the liver, bone loss, and various cancers. So what is considered a “moderate” amount? The American Heart Association recommends that men limit alcohol consumption to two drinks daily and women to one drink per day. A drink equals one 12 oz. beer, 4 oz. of wine, 1.5 oz. of 80-proof spirits or 1 oz. of 100-proof spirits.

Health and wellness is multifaceted. Brain health and mental wellness are not obtained solely by eating the above foods but through a healthy balanced lifestyle that includes a varied nutrient-dense diet, physical activity, mindfulness and fulfilling social connections.