5 Brain-Boosting Kitchen Staples This Integrative Doc Swears By
Good nutrition is about more than just weight loss. The food you eat affects your hormones, your energy levels, your gut health, and—perhaps most importantly—your brain.
Your brain is just 2% of your body weight, but it uses up 20% of your calories each day. You're constantly shuttling nutrients to your brain to keep it running well, and the quality of those nutrients makes a huge difference in how you think and feel.
Eating the right foods will turn on your brain and can even reduce your risk of degenerative diseases like Alzheimer's, helping you stay mentally clear throughout your entire life.
Here are five of my absolute favorite brain-boosting foods, all of which are widely accessible. Chances are, you have most of them in your pantry, fridge, or freezer right now!
1. Extra-virgin olive oil
Healthy fats are amazing for your brain, and extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) is one of the healthiest fats out there. EVOO is packed with monounsaturated fatty acids and precious antioxidants.
People who eat more olive oil have less risk of cognitive decline, and several of the anti-inflammatory polyphenols in olive oil are protective against Alzheimer's disease. A recent study in mice found that olive oil reverses Alzheimer's symptoms. The researchers discovered that olive oil turns on autophagy, which is like spring cleaning for your brain cells. During autophagy, your cells get rid of old or damaged parts and replaces them with shiny new versions, keeping you healthy and biologically younger.
Pro tip: Extra-virgin olive oil is one of the best fats you can eat for your brain. Just make sure you don't cook with EVOO, as heat can destroy those valuable antioxidants and may denature the monounsaturated fats it contains. Instead, drizzle extra-virgin olive oil over foods you've already cooked. I like tossing roasted veggies in olive oil, lemon juice, and freshly ground black pepper.
2. Frozen blueberries
Who doesn't want an excuse to eat more of this tart, brightly colored superfood? Blueberries are the holy grail of anti-inflammatory polyphenols. They're filled to the brim with antioxidants that support your brain, and they're also low in sugar and a great source of fiber, making a serving a day acceptable even if you're on an ultra-low-carb diet like keto.
Blueberries are particularly rich in a class of antioxidants called flavonoids that fight brain inflammation and protect your brain from stress-related damage. They've also been shown to improve short-term memory and attention in healthy adults, and blueberry extract has even been shown to reverse Alzheimer's progression in rats. In addition to reducing inflammation, one way blueberries work their magic is by increasing blood flow throughout the brain, providing more oxygen and nutrients to your brain cells so they can work efficiently.
Pro tip: Blueberries are the ultimate brain food. Add a cup of blueberries to your daily nutrition routine, or make them into a smoothie with almond milk, chia seeds, and a nut butter of your choice. Bonus: Frozen blueberries are just as loaded with nutrients as fresh, so there's no excuse not to keep your kitchen stocked up.
3. Canned wild-caught fatty fish
High-fat fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines, and anchovies are nature's best source of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s are great for your skin and hair, and they're also essential for brain function. Fatty fish are rich in DHA, the most important omega-3 for brain health. In fact, about 60% of your brain is actually made up of DHA. Your brain uses DHA to repair your brain cells, and DHA helps to insulate your neurons the way rubber insulates a wire, making sure signals travel quickly across your brain and keeping you mentally sharp.
Pro tip: You won't find DHA in plant sources of omega-3s, so your best bet is to get it from salmon, sardines, anchovies, mackerel, and other low-mercury fatty fish. Avoid fish that are higher up on the food chain, like swordfish or tuna, because they accumulate mercury. One of the most cost-effective ways to get a regular dose of quality omega-3s into your diet is by keeping a supply of wild-caught, canned sardines or anchovies in your pantry.
Eggs are one of the most nutritionally complete foods you can eat. Don't just eat the whites! Egg yolks, in particular, are a dense source of all kinds of unusual nutrients, several of which are great for your brain.
Egg yolks contain choline, which protects your brain cells from oxidative stress. People who eat more choline also tend to have better cognitive performance that continues into old age. Yolks are also a great source of B vitamins, which ward off cognitive decline and keep your brain metabolism running strong, and they even contain the omega-3 DHA, which your brain uses to build and repair cells.
Pro tip: Add an egg or two to your breakfast each morning to boost your brain health. Look for pasture-raised eggs with deep, golden-orange yolks; the richer the color, the more nutrients the egg contains.
Turmeric is a powerful anti-inflammatory herb and its main antioxidant compound, curcumin, has been extensively studied for its disease-fighting potential and ability to protect your cells from stress and damage. A recent study found that curcumin from turmeric increased antioxidant activity in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s Disease. Curcumin has been studied for its potential to boost brain health by increasing and supporting healthy levels of a hormone called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which plays a key role in long-term cognitive function.
Pro tip: While turmeric is tasty when incorporated into a spice blend for fish or chicken, it's also delicious in the form of golden milk—made by combining either turmeric powder or fresh grated turmeric root with the milk of your choosing. Often, several more flavor-boosting ingredients are added to the recipe such as black pepper, ginger, cinnamon, and honey. Black pepper, specifically, contains piperine and has been shown to boost curcumin absorption by 2000 percent!
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