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Foods for brain health best brain foods what foods are good for the brain boosting foods that improve memory

Foods for brain health- what in the Mediterranean diet changes your brain?

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The foods you eat can physically and chemically change your brain. The type of diet you follow today can determine your brain’s health in old age. A 27-years long study spanning 195 countries found that dietary habits were the biggest risk factor impacting preventable diseases [1]. Low intake of whole grains and fruits, and high intake of sodium had the highest impact [1].

A typical western diet is high in sugar, saturated and trans fats and sodium. It is low in fibre and plant-derived vitamins and minerals [2]. This diet is linked to increasing Alzheimer’s risk by increasing inflammation and production of harmful compounds [3]. A high sugar diet increases Alzheimer’s risk by 20% [4] and regular intake of processed meat increased its risk by 52% [5].

The good news is diets like the Mediterranean diet and the MIND diet are rich in brain boosting foods that improve memory and protect against brain disorders. Following a Mediterranean diet can lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by up to 40% [6] and following the MIND diet can lower its risk by 53% [7].

What foods are good for the brain?

The Mediterranean and MIND diets recommend increasing intake of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, olive oil, nuts, fish, and beans. These are the best brain foods because they are rich in nutrients that promote optimal brain structure and function and protect against damage. Some of these nutrients include DHA, flavonoids, B vitamins like folate and Vitamin B6, and magnesium.

DHA for a resilient brain

Omega-3 fats are a group of healthy fats, one of which is DHA. Your brain is a fatty organ, and 25% of its structure is made of DHA, making it the most important brain fat [8]. DHA directly impacts the resilience of the protective covering of the brain, which determines what can enter and exit the brain [9].

  • Increasing DHA increases size of the brain areas involved in memory and learning [12]. This also led to creation of new brain cells and connections.
  • Improvement in connections and quality of the protective layer of the brain leads to better cognition.
  • DHA also increases brain compounds that improve processing speed of information [12].
  • Since DHA is a structural part of brain cells, it plays a role in reducing inflammation. DHA decreases production of inflammatory compounds at a genetic level and inactivates them. It also contributes to producing compounds that resolve inflammation [13].

DHA must be taken from the diet to support brain health. The European Food Safety Authority recommends intake of DHA at 500mg/day to meet needs [10]. Fish is one of the best sources of DHA and it was found that those who consumed 1 portion fish per week had 60% lesser risk of Alzheimer’s [11]. The following are food sources of DHA:

 

 Flavonoids improve blood flow to the brain

Flavonoids are nutrients found in fruits and vegetables that have shown to provide brain benefits. Recommended intake of flavonoids are yet to be set and current intake in the UK is estimated to be around 180 mg/day [14]. High intake of flavonoids (around 400mg/day) was associated with 40% lower risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia [15]. Supplementation with 300-400mg anthocyanins (type of flavonoids found in berries) has shown to improve memory and attention [16]. Flavonoid-rich foods like berries, citrus fruits, green tea, and apples are often labelled as foods that improve memory. Flavonoids contribute towards brain health and enhanced memory by:

  • Decreasing oxidative stress: Flavonoids can stop damage by trapping and removing compounds that cause oxidative stress and decreasing inflammatory compounds [17]
  • Increasing blood flow: Flavonoids can increase blood flow to the brain by increasing compounds that can dilate blood vessels allowing easier blood flow [18]. It was found that blood flow increased up to 2 hours after flavonoid intake [21].
  • Promoting new connections: Flavonoids increase the density of brain cells involved in memory and protect energy-producing areas. They also prolong the action of brain chemicals involved in learning and attention [19][20] 

Foods (per 100g)

Flavonoid content [27]

% of 400mg dose

Raw elderberries

518mg

130%

Unsweetened cocoa powder

271mg

68%

Raw parsley

233mg

58%

Raw red cabbage

211mg

53%

Raw wild blueberries

150mg

38%

Raw blackberries

147mg

37%

Raw cranberries

140mg

35%

Green tea, brewed

138mg

35%

Raw kale

93mg

23%

Raw eggplant

86mg

22%

Raw fennel leaves

84mg

21%

Raw broad beans

67mg

17%

 

B-vitamins for a protected brain

Folate and Vitamin B6 are two B-vitamins that play a major role in normal brain functioning. The brain contains 4 times the amount of folate compared to the blood [22]. These vitamins are activators of enzymes (compounds that speed up chemical reactions).

  • Due to its involvement at the genetic level, folate is involved in DNA repair, development of brain cells and their protective layers, stability of learning and memory areas of the brain [22].
  • As enzyme activators, micro amounts of folate and Vitamin B6 are part of the cycle that produces brain chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, GABA, and melatonin [22].
  • Folate and Vitamin B6 convert harmful compounds to healthy compounds in protein metabolism. Lack of B-vitamins will lead to accumulation of the harmful compound. This is connected to many brain disorders, with high levels increasing risk of dementia by 35% [23]. Folic acid supplementation was associated with 20% reduction in dementia [23].

The recommended intake for folate is 200mcg/day. The following foods are the highest sources:

 Foods for brain health best brain foods what foods are good for the brain boosting foods that improve memory

The recommended intake for Vitamin B6 is 1.2mg/day. The following foods are the highest sources:

 Foods for brain health best brain foods what foods are good for the brain boosting foods that improve memory

Magnesium for a calmer brain

Magnesium is an activator of over 300 enzymes in the body [24]. Magnesium has the following roles in brain health:

  • Magnesium maintains a balance by preventing excitatory brain chemicals from going into overdrive [25].
  • Magnesium is an activator in the conversion of amino acid tryptophan to serotonin [26], which is needed for good mood. 5-htp, an intermediate of this conversion can be directly converted to serotonin.
  • It increases the relaxing chemical (GABA). By increasing sleep hormone (melatonin) and relaxing muscles, magnesium promotes better sleep [25].
  • It lowers stress by reducing release of stress hormones. This also protects the memory and learning area of the brain [25].
  • Magnesium promotes growth and development of new brain cells [26]

It is found in grains, legumes, and nuts, and those following a Western diet were found to consume less than 30-50% of the recommended intake [24].

The recommended intake is 300mg/day. The following are the highest sources:

Foods for brain health best brain foods what foods are good for the brain boosting foods that improve memory

References

  1. Afshin, A. et al. (2019). Health effects of dietary risks in 195 countries, 1990–2017: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017. The Lancet, [online] 393(10184), pp.1958–1972.
  2. Rakhra, V. et al. (2020). Obesity and the Western Diet: How We Got Here. Missouri Medicine, [online] 117(6), pp.536–538. 
  3. Więckowska-Gacek, A. et al. (2021). Western diet as a trigger of Alzheimer’s disease: From metabolic syndrome and systemic inflammation to neuroinflammation and neurodegeneration. Ageing Research Reviews, [online] 70, p.101397.
  4. Liu, L. et al. (2021). Dietary sugar intake and risk of Alzheimer’s disease in older women. Nutritional Neuroscience, [online] pp.1–12.
  5. Zhang, H. et al. (2021). Meat consumption and risk of incident dementia: cohort study of 493,888 UK Biobank participants. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. [online] 
  6. Fu, J. et al. (2022) Association between the mediterranean diet and cognitive health among healthy adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Frontiers in Nutrition.9:946361.
  7. Morris, M. C. et al. (2015). MIND diet associated with reduced incidence of Alzheimer's disease. Alzheimer's & dementia : the journal of the Alzheimer's Association11(9), 1007–1014.
  8. Guesnet, P. et al. (2011). Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and the developing central nervous system (CNS) - Implications for dietary recommendations. Biochimie, [online] 93(1), pp.7–12.
  9. Calder, P.C. (2016). Docosahexaenoic Acid. Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism, 69(1), pp.8–21. 
  10. European Food Safety Authority. (2012). Scientific Opinion on the Tolerable Upper Intake Level of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and docosapentaenoic acid (DPA). [online] 
  11. Morris, M.C. et al. (2003). Consumption of Fish and n-3 Fatty Acids and Risk of Incident Alzheimer Disease. Archives of Neurology, [online] 60(7), p.94
  12. Witte, A.V. et al. (2013). Long-Chain Omega-3 Fatty Acids Improve Brain Function and Structure in Older Adults. Cerebral Cortex, 24(11), pp.3059–3068. 
  13. Moro, K. et al. (2016). Resolvins and omega three polyunsaturated fatty acids: Clinical implications in inflammatory diseases and cancer. World Journal of Clinical Cases, [online] 4(7), p.155. 
  14. Rendeiro, C. et al. (2012). Flavonoids as modulators of memory and learning: molecular interactions resulting in behavioural effects. The Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, [online] 71(2), pp.246–262. 
  15. Shishtar, E. et al. (2020). Long-term dietary flavonoid intake and risk of Alzheimer disease and related dementias in the Framingham Offspring Cohort. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, [online] 112(2), pp.343–353.
  16. Medina dos Santos, N. et al. (2019). Current evidence on cognitive improvement and neuroprotection promoted by anthocyanins. Current Opinion in Food Science, [online] 26, pp.71–78.
  17. Waheed Janabi, A. H. et al. (2020). Flavonoid-rich foods (FRF): A promising nutraceutical approach against lifespan-shortening diseases. Iranian Journal of Basic Medical Sciences, [online] 23(2), pp.140–153.
  18. Benito, S. et al. (2002). A flavonoid-rich diet increases nitric oxide production in rat aorta. British Journal of Pharmacology, 135(4), pp.910–916. 
  19. Ayaz, M. et al. (2019). Flavonoids as Prospective Neuroprotectants and Their Therapeutic Propensity in Aging Associated Neurological Disorders. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, 11.
  20. Khan, H. et al. (2018). Flavonoids as acetylcholinesterase inhibitors: Current therapeutic standing and future prospects. Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy, 101, pp.860–870.
  21. Spencer, J.P.E. (2009). Flavonoids and brain health: multiple effects underpinned by common mechanisms. Genes & Nutrition, [online] 4(4), pp.243–250. 
  22. Kennedy, D. (2016). B Vitamins and the Brain: Mechanisms, Dose and Efficacy—A Review. Nutrients, [online] 8(2), p.68.
  23. Wald, D.S. et al. (2011). Serum homocysteine and dementia: Meta-analysis of eight cohort studies including 8669 participants. Alzheimer’s & Dementia, 7(4), pp.412–417.
  24. Fiorentini, D. et al. (2021). Magnesium: Biochemistry, Nutrition, Detection, and Social Impact of Diseases Linked to Its Deficiency. Nutrients, 13(4), p.1136.
  25. Wang, J. et al. (2018). Zinc, Magnesium, Selenium and Depression: A Review of the Evidence, Potential Mechanisms and Implications. Nutrients, [online] 10(5).
  26. Cuciureanu, M.D. and Vink, R. (2011). Magnesium and stress. [online]
  27. Bhagwat, S. et al. (2014). USDA Database for the Flavonoid Content of Selected Foods. [online]
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