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  • Writer's pictureTiffany Langabeer

Essential tips about nutrition for brain health

Updated: Aug 9, 2023

Where did I leave my keys? Do I have a meeting this morning? Did I call my mother this week? Do you have trouble remembering important things? Does your memory seem to be worse when you are under stress, aren’t eating well, or haven’t slept well? Is this occurring with greater frequency with every trip around the sun? Would you like to sharpen your cognition and brain health?


When my children were young, my mother would often giggle when I would look for my glasses (when they were on my face) or ask the same question over and over again. I just couldn’t process information as quickly as I had prior to having children. That is when I learned the term “mommy brain”. Ugh - I still don’t like that term. There are arguably hormone connections that prevent us from being super sharp at various times in our lives – post-partum and peri-menopause (word-searching, anyone?); however, there are lifestyle practices you can take to sharpen your cognition (how you think) at any point in your life.


We know from extensive research that - along with genetics - there are direct connections to certain activities that can keep your brain healthier for longer and also what contributes to a decline in function. There are ways you can improve your ability to think clearly and quickly. While feeding your brain the right foods is certainly essential, nutrition is but one of the six pillars of brain health. Here is what you need to know about feeding your brain. The six pillars of brain health include nutrition, exercise, stress reduction, sleep and relaxation, socialization, and medication and supplements.



Brain healthy mango salad
Mango salad


The Brain as Control Center

Your brain is sometimes referred to as the “control center” of your body. Beyond helping you to think and remember clearly, your brain helps to regulate the rest of your body, like your breathing, temperature, hunger, and hormones. Keeping our brains as healthy as possible for as long as possible is important to prevent chronic diseases like Alzheimer’s, which currently has no cure.


Your brain’s health is influenced by six fundamental pillars:

  • Exercise

  • Stress reduction

  • Sleep and relaxation

  • Socialization

  • Medications and supplements

  • Food and nutrition


Let’s take these one-by-one to better understand how each contributes to our overall brain health.


Exercise for brain health

We have been told this over and over again – exercise is great for our body! But, did you know that exercise is one of the most beneficial things you can do to stay sharp? Exercise is incredibly beneficial for physical and mental fitness, to de-stress, improve sleep, as well as keep your heart, lungs, and muscles healthy. What’s more, being physically active is a fundamental pillar of brain health. There are several types of exercise and all are beneficial.


Aerobic exercise, which sometimes is referred to as “cardio” exercise, helps to get your heart rate up and your muscles warm. Examples of aerobic exercises include biking, swimming, running, and climbing stairs. This type of exercise benefits your brain, because it helps to preserve existing brain cells and also promotes the growth of new ones.


Another type of exercise is strength training such as pushing or pulling weights or other heavy objects (like groceries, hello, mammas!). Strength training helps to build muscle and maintain strong bones. Strength training also helps your brain by enhancing your concentration and improving your decision-making skills.


Stress reduction for brain health

Once the threat is gone, the stress response relaxes, and your body and brain can regain their normal balance. However, sometimes that stress lingers on for days, weeks, and months (or longer) and becomes long-term or chronic stress. It’s this chronic stress that can negatively impact your brain. Chronic stress can effectively shrink the part of your brain responsible for memory and learning (your prefrontal cortex) and can increase the part of your brain that is receptive to stress (your amygdala).


We cannot eliminate stress, and hey – this is how we get things done in life. A little stress, in the form of a deadline, can be a great thing. However, prolonged stress that keeps you in a state of near constant panic, high anxiety, and elevated heart rate is understandably not a good thing. In another post, we will discuss the negative effects of high stress and high blood sugar. (It’s not a good picture.) Here is the good news: you have more control than you think and can learn effective techniques to better manage your stress and preserve your brain health. One very practical strategy (that comes with practice) is to just say no to things you don’t actually have to do. Turning down unnecessary opportunities to take on more responsibility may help reduce the amount of stress you feel.


Another strategy to reduce stress is to focus on the specific problem at hand in the present moment. This can help you see the current situation more clearly and make better decisions, to avoid turning it into an unmanageably large issue or perceiving the situation to be more difficult than it has to be.


Finally, calming the mind through meditation or guided imagery can help reduce the feelings of stress by refocusing your attention on something positive and soothing.


Sleep for brain health

Getting 7-9 hours of sleep each night helps your mood and ability to manage stress. Sleep also allows you to be better able to plan and run your busy life while ensuring that you can have the energy to do what you need to do to maintain and improve your well-being.


One of the most important ways you can get enough sleep is to foster a regular sleep schedule. By going to bed and waking up at about the same time every day - including weekends and when you’re traveling - you teach your body and brain to get on a healthy sleep schedule.


Another strategy to help you get more sleep is to create a relaxing bedtime routine. That routine can start an hour (or more) before you need to sleep and can include things like dimming lights, drinking a warm herbal tea, putting your screens away (no more TV, internet, or smart phones), listening to soothing music or reading a book, or having a warm relaxing bath.


Whatever helps you get your sleep is going to also help your brain.


Socialization for brain health

Staying connected to a network of people you care about can help reduce stress, improve your mood, and help you to feel more supported in life. Your social network can include your spouse and/or partner, immediate and extended family members, friends, or others in your community.


You can socialize informally or spontaneously (like walking or chatting with a neighbor) or you can join organized activities like yoga classes, sports teams, church or other volunteering opportunities. The brain benefits of socializing include your pets or other animals (if you enjoy them). Studies show that pets can help you feel calm, improve your health, and enhance your social life, all of which can benefit your brain.


Medications and supplements

Medical conditions that are associated with brain deterioration (such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity) may be controlled with medications and supplements. The need to take these products might be dictated by your personal health situation. Cognitive decline (reduced memory and ability to process concepts) and dementia can be influenced by high blood pressure, diabetes, and excess weight.


If your doctor, nurse practitioner, or other certified clinician is recommending medications or your registered dietitian is recommending supplements, be sure to take them as directed and go for routine monitoring or testing as required.


Nutrition for brain health

There are several foods and nutrients that promote a healthy brain by slowing cognitive decline and reducing your risk of Alzheimer’s disease. The MIND diet (short for Mediterranean-DASH Diet Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) was developed by researchers at Harvard Chan School of Public Health along with colleagues from the Rush University Medical Center and it emphasizes foods rich in antioxidants and critical brain nutrients - namely vitamins and other plant-based phytochemicals.


Here are a few of the key foods and nutrients to boost your brain health.


Omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are an important group of nutrients that support heart and cognitive function. Salmon, herring, and sardines are all great sources of omega-3s. The MIND diet recommends eating one serving of fish every week to stay healthy. Flax, chia, and walnuts are other excellent sources of omega-3s.


Plant sources

Fiber and antioxidant phytochemicals are found in plants, but they're also loaded with vitamins and minerals. Eating more plants has more benefits than just a smart brain, it also reduces the risk of heart disease and helps you maintain your weight.


Every day, at least six servings of leafy greens and at least two servings of berries are recommend on the MIND diet.


Spices and chocolate

Flavonoids found in spices and dark chocolate are antioxidants that may help improve blood flow to the brain and reduce inflammation. Turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, and dark and unsweetened chocolate are all excellent sources of flavonoids.


Coffee and teas

Did you know that coffee can help to improve your memory and ward off dementia? The MIND diet, however, recommends no more than three cups per day. When it comes to teas, black and green teas contain antioxidants for brain health.


Moderate consumption of red wine

Resveratrol is a polyphenol found in red wine and grapes that protects the brain against Alzheimer's disease, reduces cell damage, and prevents the formation of plaques. However, too much alcohol has the opposite effect. If you are a woman, we recommend drinking no more than one glass of wine per day, and men can drink up to two per day to keep your brain in good shape.


Whole grains

Whole grains like oats and quinoa are rich in brain-healthy B-vitamins and fiber, making them an important part of the MIND diet. B-vitamins are essential so the brain can create energy, repair DNA, maintain the proper structure of neurons (nerve cells), and create essential neurochemicals for optimal function. B-vitamins also act as antioxidants to reduce the harmful effects of free radicals that can damage brain cells (or any cells).


Vitamin D

Vitamin D is also known as the “sunshine” vitamin because your skin makes it when it’s exposed to the sun. Low levels of vitamin D are associated with increased risks for brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s. You can increase your vitamin D levels by going in the sun for 5-15 minutes three times a week. You may need slightly more time if you have darker skin or live in a more northern latitude. Try not to get too much sun without sunscreen as it can increase your risk for skin cancer. Vitamin D supplements are also widely available. Talk to your certified nutritionist or dietitian to find the right one for you.


Limit red meat

Consuming too many foods high in saturated fats is linked with an increased risk for heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease. The MIND diet recommends no more than four servings of red meat per week. Try limiting red meat, butter, and dairy whenever you can and consider substituting with beans, lentils, and soy.


The bottom line on feeding your brain

There are many things you can do to boost your brain health. An array of healthy habits, including getting exercise, reducing stress, getting enough sleep, socializing with others (including with pets!), and following medication and supplement recommendations, are all part of a winning strategy. Additionally, try to eat plenty of omega-3s, fresh fruits, spices, chocolate, coffee and tea, vitamin D, and a bit of red wine. Reduce your intake of red meat.

If you’re interested in learning more about how you can implement these six essential brain health strategies into your life, schedule a consultation with me to discuss your unique plan.


Worried about your risks for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia? Want to know which foods, nutrients, and other lifestyle choices will help your brain stay healthy for years to come? Need a plan to help you embed these six pillars of brain health in your day-to-day life? Book an initial consultation appointment with me today to see how you can reach your goals.






References

Cleveland Clinic Healthy Brains. (2017, April 18). Controlling risk factors for brain disease.


Cleveland Clinic Healthy Brains. (2017, May 18). Exercise benefits the brain too. https://healthybrains.org/exercising-benefits-brain/


Cleveland Clinic Healthy Brains. (2018, April 6). Shining a light on vitamin D. https://healthybrains.org/shining-a-light-on-vitamin-d/


Cleveland Clinic Healthy Brains. (2021). 6 pillars of brain health. https://healthybrains.org/pillars/


Cleveland Clinic Healthy Brains. (2021). Food & nutrition. https://healthybrains.org/pillar-nutrition/


Cleveland Clinic Healthy Brains. (2021). Medical health. https://healthybrains.org/pillar-medical/


Cleveland Clinic Healthy Brains. (2021). Sleep & relaxation. https://healthybrains.org/pillar-sleep/


Cleveland Clinic Healthy Brains. (2021) Social interaction. https://healthybrains.org/pillar-social/


Dhana, K., James, B. D., Agarwal, P., Aggarwal, N. T., Cherian, L. J., Leurgans, S. E., Barnes, L. L., Bennett, D. A., & Schneider, J. A. (2021). MIND Diet, Common Brain Pathologies, and Cognition in Community-Dwelling Older Adults. Journal of Alzheimer's disease : JAD, 83(2), 683–692. https://doi.org/10.3233/JAD-210107


Kennedy D. O. (2016). B Vitamins and the Brain: Mechanisms, Dose and Efficacy--A Review. Nutrients, 8(2), 68. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu8020068



National Institute on Aging. (2020, November 3). A good night's sleep. https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/good-nights-sleep


National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. (2021, August 4). Omega-3 fatty acids. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional/


Pike, A. (2019, January 15). What is the MIND diet? Food Insight. https://foodinsight.org/what-is-the-mind-diet/


Touro University Worldwide. (2016, July 26). The mind and mental health: How stress affects the brain. https://www.tuw.edu/health/how-stress-affects-the-brain/




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