Dec 21, 2017; Written By: Dr. Steven Masley, MD, FAHA, FAAFP, FACN, CNS
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Your brain is what makes you human. It brings you pleasure, memories, solves your problems, and connects you with Mother Nature. Without memory, we require constant care from family, friends, or total strangers, and we become a burden on the people we love the most, and none of us want that to happen. You can live with a transplanted heart, liver, or other organ, but not without your brain.
And likely the most important factor that impacts whether you brain is functioning optimally, or declining and shrinking, is the food you choose to eat every day.
Do you or your loved ones find yourselves forgetting names of people you know? Where you put your keys, wallet, or glasses? Maybe not able to recall items on your to-do-list after a meeting? How about not able to remember where you parked your car? Even worse, do you have trouble concentrating when you read, so that you have to re-read a passage? If you or a family member have these symptoms, it’s concerning.
Part of the reason memory loss is so scary is that the rate of Alzheimer’s disease is increasing at alarming epidemic rates. In fact, studies show that the number of victims is predicted to increase by 200 percent in just the next 12-14 years! That means double the risk, so when you forget something, naturally your first thought may be, am I losing my memory?
So let’s make sure you take steps to boost your brain function, and prevent memory loss—by starting with foods that nourish your brain.
Let’s focus on seven amazing foods that improve brain function:
1. Green leafy and other nutrient dense vegetables
2. Omega-3 rich seafood
3. Olive oil
4. Organic berries and cherries
5. Cocoa and dark chocolate
6. Brain boosting beverages
7. Spices and herbs
FOOD #1: VEGETABLES
Did you know that eating 1 cup of green leafy vegetables every day makes you, on average, 11 years physiologically younger than someone who skips them? Delicious greens are packed with fiber, folate, and anti-oxidants. They decrease inflammation body-wide, and because they provide fiber with little to no sugar, they improve blood sugar control. Green leafy veggies are fantastic for your brain, arteries, and waistline. Good options include foods like kale, broccoli, spinach, and other greens, and if you are not a fan of green leafy vegetables, a really easy way to eat enough of them every day is to add them to a berry smoothie (because you won’t even taste them).
Beyond leafy greens, eat other rainbow-colored vegetables, loaded with their protective pigments to slow cellular aging (including brain cells). Try to eat at least 3-4 cups of vegetables every day.
In particular, vegetables rich in nitrates improve blood flow to the part of your brain that enhances cognitive performance. By far, beets are the best source of brain-enhancing-nitrates, but other options are: arugula (also called rocket salad), spinach, and dark green lettuce.
FOOD #2: OMEGA-3 RICH SEAFOOD
You should eat at least 2-3 servings of omega-3 rich seafood every week. After all, your brain is 40 percent by weight made from these fats. Not only do these healthy fats nourish your brain, they also decrease inflammation and improve your cholesterol. Choose foods such as wild salmon, sardines, herring, mussels, and oysters, or if you are vegetarian, have a seaweed salad daily.
If you don’t enjoy this type of seafood, then I’d strongly recommend that you take a high-quality form of fish oil daily, and if you are vegetarian, take a seaweed source of a DHA supplement.
FOOD #3: EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL
Another fat that is really good for your brain is extra virgin olive oil. Olive oil has been a culinary star for thousands of years, adding an irresistible flavor to food. It’s a staple in the Mediterranean diet, and famous for decreasing the risk of heart attack and stroke. People who consume more olive oil have lower rates of cognitive decline and better brain function.
The acclaimed Mediterranean Diet study from Spain, is considered one of the most conclusive studies comparing the health benefits of a standard low-fat diet to a Mediterranean diet with liberal amounts of olive oil. The study showed that people in the low-fat diet group developed higher rates of cognitive impairment and dementia than the olive oil group. And people who ate extra olive oil, had better cognitive scores than the low-fat eaters. This is why I recommend one or more tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil daily. Toss it in a salad, use it in place of butter, and drizzle it on food after you’ve cooked it.
Just make sure you don’t cook with extra virgin olive oil at high heat, as it has a low smoke point and high heat destroys its beneficial properties.
FOOD #4: ORGANIC BERRIES AND CHERRIES
Many plant pigments, but especially blue, purple, and red are associated with increased brain blood flow and less memory loss. Berries and cherries will satisfy your taste for sweetness without the damaging effects of increasing blood sugar levels, so they’re a fabulous dessert.
In studies, blueberries have been shown to improve cognition and slow cognitive decline, and also to reduce the production of beta amyloid, the protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease. So please, enjoy a cup of cherries or berries every day.
One of my preferred desserts is a bowl of blueberries and raspberries with a dollop of organic, unsweetened yogurt. It’s terrific! Organic fresh berries are delectable when you can get them in season, but frozen berries are convenient, far less expensive, and just as beneficial.
FOOD #5: DARK CHOCOLATE AND COCOA
Another delicious source of brain healthy plant pigments is dark chocolate and cocoa. With functional MRI brain imaging, when scientists measure blood flow to areas of your brain, they can actually see how consuming cocoa improves cerebral blood flow, in particular to the memory center of the brain, the hippocampus.
More recent research has shown that eight weeks of drinking a few tablespoons of cocoa every day improved cognitive testing results in older adults, especially for those with early cognitive decline. And eating 1-2 ounces (28-56 grams) of dark chocolate daily has similar benefits.
For the best brain benefit, look for cocoa brands labeled “non-alkalized” to ensure maximum flavonoid content. And when it comes to selecting dark chocolate, don’t confuse milk chocolate with dark chocolate. It must be at least 74-80% cacao to make the cut.
FOOD #6: COFFEE, TEA, AND RED WINE
So, what about beverages like coffee, tea, and red wine?
Although most studies have shown that coffee is good for your brain, there has been some debate about the ideal amount, and whether the benefit is from caffeine, or the flavonoid pigments in the coffee. More recently, researchers published an article in Clinical Nutrition demonstrating that people who drank 1-2 cups per day, showed the lowest risk for memory loss. This was better than those who drank no coffee or, those who drank more. In Japan, a study with over 23,000 adults over age 65 showed a 20-30% reduction in advanced dementia in those who consumed 2-4 cups of coffee daily. Even decaf coffee has been shown in studies to improve cognitive function in men and women, so even that cup of decaf can have some benefits.
As promising as the science is linking coffee with brain benefits, tea looks even better. Tea provides flavonoids, caffeine, and something more, L-theanine, an amino acid that helps cognition. When you look at tea drinkers over the course of decades, they consistently show less cognitive decline than non-tea drinkers. And ladies take note, for some reason women appear to benefit more from drinking tea and coffee than men.
And if you like tea, what type should you drink? The best tea for your brain is a specific form of green tea called Matcha tea, as it has the highest quantity and absorption of L-theanine.
What about red wine? In multiple clinical studies, drinking 1-2 servings of red wine each day (4.5 ounces is a serving) has been shown to help prevent memory loss. Sorry, but beer and hard liquor did not have the same benefit. And drinking more than 3 servings of wine per day was not better, it did harm.
In one study, New York City residents over 65 sixty-five who drank wine (but not beer or liquor), had larger brain volumes, indicating less brain shrinkage, than those who didn’t drink. (Women had 1 serving per day and men had 1-2 servings.)
In Australia, researchers studied people aged 65 to 83 who had a Mini-Mental State Examination score of less than 23 out of 30 (indicating mild cognitive impairment). Those who had 2-4 drinks (any form) a day over 6 years had less cognitive decline than those who were abstainers or those who used alcohol infrequently.
A study in the Netherlands tracked people aged 43-70 over 5 years. Those who drank 2-3 servings of red wine per day showed less cognitive loss than those who abstained, or those who drank more than 3 servings per day.
In France, researchers assessed alcohol intake in 3,088 middle-aged adults and measured their cognitive function 13 years later. Women who consumed 1-2 servings of wine and men who had 2-3 servings had better cognitive function than those who had none or who had it infrequently. Again, heavy drinking showed worse cognitive function.
So like coffee and tea, red wine in moderation is good for your brain. If you don’t drink alcohol, you may have good reason to avoid it, as many people are unable to consume alcohol in moderation, and some people don’t feel well when they consume alcohol. So if you avoid alcohol, don’t worry you do not need to start, instead focus on consuming more red and blue pigments (like red grapes, blueberries, and cherries).
FOOD #7: SPICES AND HERBS
Seasoning your food with herbs and spices makes your food taste fantastic and provides extraordinary health benefits. If you want to slow aging, protect your brain, and have fewer aches and pains, simply eat more herbs and spices.
The best-known mainstays of a Mediterranean diet are olive oil, heaps of vegetables and fruits, and even red wine—yet the diet’s distinct spices and herbs likely have just as many benefits. Italian herbs and fine herbs—feature rosemary, thyme, oregano, sage, basil, marjoram, tarragon, chives, and parsley—are used throughout Mediterranean cuisine. They are loaded with medicinal properties and eating them lowers inflammation. Eating these also reduces oxidation, and slows aging. As a bonus, they add fantastic flavors to our food.
Rosemary has been called a brain-boosting herb. Animal studies in mice and rats have shown that it slows cognitive decline and helps to maintain memory. In Italy’s southern regions, some locals eat rosemary-infused foods at nearly every meal. In one area near Naples, researchers have noted a very high rate of people who live into their nineties, with surprisingly low rates of dementia as well. I consider rosemary a terrific culinary herb; I grow it in my garden and cook with it several times per week.
Don’t limit your palate to Mediterranean cuisine when you’re searching out healthful, fabulous flavors. In southern India (where curry spices are used in abundance), studies show that they have one of the lowest rates of Alzheimer’s on the planet. Curry spices have amazing anti-inflammatory power. Eating them decreases joint pain, lowers cancer risk, and helps prevent memory loss. A typical blend of curry spices would include coriander, turmeric, cumin, and fenugreek, and may also include chili pepper, ginger, garlic, fennel seed, caraway, cinnamon, clove, mustard seed, cardamom, nutmeg, and black pepper. The potential varieties are nearly endless, and they don’t always have to be spicy hot.
Curry powder is a spice mix of varying ingredients based on South Asian cuisine. Curry powder and the very word “curry” are Western inventions and do not reflect any specific South Asian food, though a similar mixture of spices used in India is called garam masala. The word “curry” is derived from the Tamil word kari meaning “sauce for rice”, although most people think of it as the essence of Southern Indian food. Hot spicy curry-like mixtures have been used in Southern India for almost 4000 years (however, chili pepper spices, now an essential part of any curry powder, are a recent additions to the mix as chili peppers were brought to South Asia from the Americas in the 16th century.)
The best-known individual curry spice with brain benefits is turmeric, the yellow, ginger-like plant. Turmeric plays an essential role in curry spice blends. A variety of studies using turmeric have suggested that it slows cognitive decline and benefits cognitive function. The challenge is that it is generally poorly absorbed, and the quantities needed to show a benefit are big, as in you’d need to eat about 3 heaping tablespoons of turmeric every day. When I lived and worked as a volunteer in various hospitals in India, including at a leprosarium near Calcutta, I likely ate this amount daily. That was when I ate curry- flavored meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
If this quantity of intake isn’t realistic for you, the benefits of turmeric are also available as a supplement, called curcumin. The same brain benefits of turmeric can be had replicated by taking a 500-1000 mg capsule of curcumin daily, without any meaningful side effects (apart from occasional stomach distress noted with dosages higher than I normally recommend). However, curcumin also has very poor absorption. Some nutraceutical companies have added black pepper (bioperine) in supplement form to curcumin to enhance its absorption; but black pepper may have some modest negative gastro-intestinal side effects, and the level to which it increases absorption is controversial, some scientist claiming it has a minimal effect. Yet in studies, combining curcumin with medium-chain triglycerides and lecithin has been shown to increase its absorption dramatically compared to a dry standard form of curcumin. Some studies suggest a nearly 30-fold increase in absorption.
Garlic and ginger have additional anti-inflammatory benefits. Chili pepper spices, derived from any number of chilies containing the ingredient capsaicin, help rev-up your metabolism. Cinnamon improves blood sugar control and improves insulin sensitivity.
My challenge to you is to use more spices and herbs, at least 2 teaspoons dried or 2-3 tablespoons fresh daily.
FOODS YOU SHOULD AVOID
Now that we’ve covered some foods you should be eating every day, let’s quickly talk about foods that you should avoid to protect your brain. The key is avoiding foods that are considered ‘high glycemic load’ – because they cause your blood sugar levels to rise and that makes you insulin resistant.
To make this easy, choose foods with a low glycemic load. Glycemic means sugar in the blood, so choosing foods with a low glycemic load means you select foods that don’t raise your blood sugar levels, and eat these foods more often.
Let’s look at some examples of low glycemic load foods; they probably won’t surprise you:
· Nearly all fruits (including berries, cherries, pineapple, and watermelon) as well as veggies like carrots, beets, peas, and nearly every vegetable except the potato have a low glycemic load, so this helps kill the myth that you should avoid all carbs.
· Other foods with a low glycemic load include all forms of beans, dark chocolate, avocado, all nuts and seeds, and all forms of clean protein, like steak, chicken, fish, and eggs.
What we should all eat more of is clean protein, vegetables, fruits, beans, and nuts, along with spices and herbs, plus some extra virgin olive oil, to protect our brains and make our meals taste fantastic.
Now, you may not always be able to eat only low GL foods, so let me mention some common foods with a medium glycemic load (like starchy carbs) and with them, you’ll want to be careful about portion size. For better blood sugar control, avoid eating more than 1 cup of these at any meal. Foods like:
– sweet potatoes,
– tortillas, corn and flour
– whole grain pasta
– whole grain cereals (like muesli)
Finally, I want you to avoid high glycemic foods entirely. They’re refined carbs and sugars, foods such as:
– A donut, ice cream, chips, candy bars, and sodas.
Yet, short of celebrating a special occasion, here are additional high glycemic load foods you need to avoid that might surprise you, as all of these have a high glycemic load and they increase blood sugar levels, and insulin resistance:
· Gluten-rich foods such as whole wheat bread or a bagel,
· White rice
· Granola (sugar coated grains)
· Instant oatmeal
· Mashed or baked potato
· Any whole grain that has been processed into flour.
The bottom line is that you can improve your brain function starting right now (and prevent or delay future memory loss) by adding foods that boost brain function, and by avoiding foods that cause your blood sugar levels to surge.
My published studies show that you can improve your mental sharpness and, at the same time, prevent and even reverse heart disease, and decrease your risk for memory loss.
I wish you the best of health and Bon Appétit!
Steven Masley MD, FAHA, FACN, FAAFP, CNS is a physician, nutritionist, trained-chef, author, and the creator of one of the top health programs for Public Television, 30 Days to a Younger Heart. His latest book, The Better Brain Solution, provides an easy to follow plan to improve brain function and prevent memory loss. He is a fellow with three prestigious organizations: the American Heart Association, the American College of Nutrition, and the American Academy of Family Physicians, and is a Clinical Associate Professor at the University of South Florida. His research focuses on the impact of lifestyle choices on brain function, heart health, and aging. His work has been viewed by millions on PBS, the Discovery Channel, the Today Show, and over 500 media interviews. He continues to see patients and publish research from his medical clinic in St. Petersburg Florida, and he offers weekly blogs on his website, www.DrMasley.com.