We all know that we need to eat right to keep our minds sharp. But some foods really pack a punch when it comes to memory, learning and other cognitive abilities. Here, one of America’s top brain specialists reveals the seven super brain boosters…
1. Coconut water. It’s high in potassium, a mineral that is critical for brain health. Potassium causes nerve cells to “fire” at the right speed. People who don’t get enough potassium tend to have a slower rate of brain activity and may experience confusion and slower reaction times.
Potassium is particularly important if you eat a lot of salt. The body needs to maintain a proper sodium-potassium balance. You should consume roughly twice as much potassium as sodium.
A medium-sized banana has more potassium (about 450 mg) than coconut water (about 250 mg per eight-ounce serving), but bananas also are higher on the glycemic index, a measure of how quickly the food is converted into glucose. The brain works more efficiently when sugars enter the bloodstream gradually rather than “spiking.” Coconut water achieves this more readily than bananas.
Recommended: About one cup of coconut water daily. It has a light taste and is low in calories. If you want, you can add it to smoothies or mix it with milk and pour it over breakfast cereals.
2. Blueberries. Sure, blueberries are good for you, but you may not realize just how super rich in inflammation-fighting antioxidants they are. Their oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC, a measure of a food’s antioxidant ability) is 2,400, compared with 670 for cherries and 483 for pink grapefruit.
Studies at Tufts University showed that animals that had blueberries added to their diet performed better on cognitive tests than those given a standard diet. They also had increased cell growth in the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with memory.
Recommended: One-half cup daily. If you don’t like blueberries, opt for strawberries or acai berries (a purple, slightly tart berry available in many health-food stores).
Or try Concord grape juice. Researchers from the University of Cincinnati tested Concord grape juice versus a placebo beverage on 21 volunteers, average age 76, suffering from mild cognitive impairment. After 16 weeks, those in the grape-juice group scored better on tests of memory than those drinking the placebo. Also, MRI testing showed greater activation in key parts of the brain, suggesting increased blood flow.
3. Sardines. Salmon often is touted as a healthy fish that is high in omega-3 fatty acids, fats that protect the brain as well as the heart and arteries. Sardines are even better. They also contain generous amounts of omega-3s, but because of their small size, they accumulate lower levels of mercury and other toxins than larger fish.
The membranes that surround brain cells require omega-3s for the efficient transmission of signals. A Danish study that looked at the diets of more than 5,000 adults found that those who ate the most fish were more likely to maintain their memory than those who ate the least. Other research has shown that people who eat fish as little as once a week can lower their risk for dementia.
Recommended: At least two to three servings of fish a week. If you prefer salmon to sardines, be sure to buy wild salmon. It contains more omega-3s than farm-raised fish.
Also helpful: Avocados. They’re among the best plant sources of omega-3s.
4. Walnuts. All nuts are good for the brain (as long as they’re not roasted in oil and covered with salt). Like fish, nuts are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. They’re also loaded with vitamin E, which, in some studies, has been shown to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, nuts reduce LDL “bad” cholesterol (important for preventing stroke). Walnuts are particularly good because they have very high levels of omega-3s. Macadamia nuts are another good choice.
Bonus: The Adventist Health Study, conducted by researchers at Loma Linda University, found that people who ate nuts five or more times a week were about half as likely to have a heart attack as those who rarely ate nuts.
Recommended: About one-quarter cup daily. Nuts are higher in calories than most plant foods, so you don’t want to eat too many.
5. Sweet potatoes. They are another low-glycemic food that causes only small fluctuations in blood sugar. This can help you maintain energy and concentration throughout the day. We routinely advise patients to eat sweet potatoes because they satisfy a craving for carbohydrates, and they’re also high in beta-carotene and other important antioxidants that keep the brain sharp.
One sweet potato (when you eat the skin) provides more fiber than a bowl of oatmeal. Dietary fiber lowers cholesterol and improves brain circulation.
Recommended: Eat sweet potatoes two to three times a week. If you don’t like sweet potatoes, eat yellow squash or spaghetti squash.
6. Green tea. It contains the potent antioxidant epigallocatechin gallate that protects brain cells from free radicals caused by air pollution, toxins, a high-fat diet, etc. Green tea also contains compounds that increase levels of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that stimulates the brain’s reward and pleasure centers and makes you more motivated to make positive lifestyle choices.
Bonus: A double-blind study that looked at patients with mild cognitive impairment found that an amino acid in green tea, L-theanine, improved concentration and energy and reduced anxiety.
Recommended: Two cups daily.
7. Turmeric. The bright yellow color indicates high levels of antioxidants. People who use this spice several times a week have significant reductions in C-reactive protein, a substance that indicates inflammation in the brain and/or other tissues.
A study that looked at more than 1,000 elderly people found that those who ate curry—which includes generous amounts of turmeric—regularly did better on mental-status evaluations than those who rarely or never ate it. All spices with bright, deep colors are high in neuroprotective antioxidants. Examples: Both ginger and cinnamon appear to have brain-protective properties similar to those of turmeric. And sage improves memory.
Recommended: Add one-quarter teaspoon to one-half teaspoon of any of these spices to your food every day.
Sources: Daniel G. Amen, MD, and Tana Amen, BSN. Dr. Amen is medical director of Amen Clinics, Inc. He is a clinical neuroscientist, psychiatrist, brain-imaging specialist and author of Use Your Brain to Change Your Age (Crown). His wife, Tana Amen, is a nutritional expert and neurological intensive care nurse. www.AmenClinics.com