When I was younger, my mother told me that fish was ‘brain-food’. Many of you probably had similar experiences. It’s a part of childhood, along with being told that carrots help you see in the dark and spinach will make you strong like Popeye. But while the beta-carotene in carrots doesn’t actually help your night vision and the link between spinach and strength is based on a century-old typo by a German chemist (Erich von Wolf who printed the iron content of spinach at ten times its actual value), there may be something in the link between fish and the brain.
You see, just as there are foods that can help us to maximize muscle growth, improve fat loss, or even help to manage glucose tolerance, there are foods which can help specifically with the health and overall function of your brain. Here is my breakdown of the most essential nutrients for brain health and cognitive function.
It turns out my mother was on to something. Fish oil is recommended by a variety of health professionals for various reasons, including joint pain and its benefits for cognitive function. However, over the last few years, evidence has emerged that fish oil doesn’t work the way many people thought.
It was believed that Omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) were responsible for many of the supposed benefits but that doesn’t seem to be the case in large meta-studies.1
Further examination reveals that the link between fatty acids and brain health was discovered by asking large groups of people about their diet habits and then correlating with various forms of cognitive impairment.
It turns out that phosphatidylserine, a compound similar to dietary fat, may actually be the hero of this story. The Journal of The International Society of Sports Nutrition found benefits from phosphatidylserine for healthy young adults in the areas of mental processing speed and accuracy, as well as helping with stress and with cognitive impairment.2,3
This doesn’t mean that you need to switch your supplements, but it may indicate that eating oily fish several times a week may be significantly better than taking supplements, as you would then be ingesting highly bioavailable forms of both compounds.
2. Green Tea
It seems as if Green tea is good for everything. EGCG, or green tea catechins, are able to cross the blood-brain barrier and have been studied for their effects on learning, memory, mood, and anxiety.
Links have been found between green tea catechins and improved memory.4 The Journal Of Medicinal Food also noted improvements in memory and concentration resulting from a combination of green tea catechins and L-theanine, another green tea compound.5
Once again it seems as if extracts such as EGCG may be helpful, but natural green tea may give you the best bang for your buck in terms of stacking benefits for your brain health and function.
3. Folic Acid
Folic acid (also folate or vitamin B9) is essential for cognitive function and deficiency in this key nutrient can lead to various forms of impairment. Folate has been shown to be uniquely beneficial, both alone and taken with other B vitamins, in improving memory performance and may also help to prevent cognitive impairment related to aging.6,7
Fortunately, folic acid is not hard to find. It occurs naturally in many vegetables (especially the dark green, leafy varieties), fruits, and fruit juices. Avocados, liver, and yeast also contain high concentrations. There are also various supplements available, though it certainly seems as if food sources provide more benefits in general.
These three key nutrients can help improve cognitive performance and delay age-related impairment. But the real message here is that it is mostly not individual molecules that result in these benefits. Instead, it is mostly the interactions of these nutrients within whole-food sources.
The best nutritional advice for improving brain health and cognitive function is to eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables for their antioxidant and nutritive benefits, drink plenty of water to maintain your metabolic health and function and to prioritize the key nutrients in this list to give you a little extra boost.