When asked, many people would jump at the opportunity for a better memory into their aging years. “Cognitive impairment” is a common and can involve memory loss, trouble with learning, difficulty concentrating, and challenges with decision-making. Symptoms can range from very mild to more severe dementia type and may result in loss of independence. According to a MetLife Foundation survey, Americans over 55 fear getting Alzheimer’s more than any other disease!1 Similarly, according to an article published in the London-based newspaper, The Telegraph, two-thirds of people over 50 are scared of developing dementia, while just one in 10 were frightened about getting cancer.2
The number of people living with cognitive impairment in the US is equal to twice the population of New York City!3 The baby boomer population is most at risk as age is a considerable risk factor. Other risk factors include genetic predisposition, being diagnosed with diabetes, high blood pressure, or obesity, or lifestyle factors like being a smoker, not exercising, or not being socially active. But what if there was something that could be done to help preserve and protect brain function? What if that something was at the end of your fork?
Most of us are aware of the things we shouldn’t eat such as fast food, packaged foods, and refined sugar. We know the impact overindulging on these types of foods can have on our body. But what many are less aware of are the things we should eat. That’s where The Naturopathic Kitchen resources are useful, to offer education on the health benefits of natural herbs and foods. When it comes to brain health and preserving important brain functions like memory, cognition, and concentration, the food we eat can play a big role in supporting both short- and long-term brain function. The brain requires a lot of energy to function optimally, using around 20% of the calories we eat each day to operate.4 The choices we make in the foods we consume each day can have a big impact on both the structure and health of our brains.
Some of the top plant-based foods to include in a brain-boosting diet include:
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts are low in saturated fats but contain higher levels of both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Scientific research has found that higher levels of nut intake were associated with better brain function as we age.5 Nuts and seeds are also rich sources of antioxidant powerhouses like vitamin E (found in higher amounts in sunflower seeds, almonds, and hazelnuts). Human studies have validated the critical role of vitamin E in protecting the central nervous system.6 Vitamin E has been shown to protect cognitive performance in terms of learning and memory as well as emotional response.6
Nuts and seeds are also important sources of minerals like selenium (especially high in Brazil nuts), zinc (found in pumpkin seeds), and many others. Selenium has shown to be involved in diverse functions of the central nervous system, such as motor performance, coordination, memory and cognition.7 Selenium is widely distributed throughout the body, however one particular attribute of selenium biology is that brain has the highest priority to receive and retain this nutrient even in cases of selenium deficiency.8 Studies have demonstrated the abilities of selenium to prevent oxidative damage, morphological changes, and cognitive decline.9
Berries such as strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and others are very high in antioxidants. Berries have particularly high levels of a subclass of flavonoids called anthocyanidins (the compounds responsible for the dark blues, purples, and reds associated with various berries), that have the ability to cross the blood-brain barrier where they localize in areas of learning and memory.10 Substantial experimental data have established that berry supplementation enhances nerve cell function and survival, and effectively reduces age-related cognitive impairment in experimental models.10 Blueberries have demonstrated an ability to improve measures of memory such as word recall after just 12 weeks of consumption.11
Most people will likely be able to tell you that green vegetables are good for you, but fewer may be able to explain why they are great for the brain! Greens such as kale, chard, spinach, bok choy, and broccoli are rich in vitamins and nutrients, many of which have demonstrated remarkable influence on brain structure and function. Green vegetables are a good source of vitamin K. While vitamin K may be most well-known for its role in blood coagulation, research has shown it also has an emerging role in brain health. Vitamin K is involved in the production of a specific type of fat-based molecule called a sphingolipid that is part of the cell membrane of all nerve cells in the brain.12 Other protein-based biomolecules that depend on vitamin K are also being discovered. These molecules play a number of roles in cellular communication as well as roles in the growth and survival of nerve cells and the specialized glial cells that are responsible for surrounding neurons and providing support for and insulation between them.13 Emerging data also point to unique actions of the K vitamer menaquinone-4 (MK-4) against oxidative stress and inflammation.12
Believe it or not, chocolate contains many compounds that are of important biological activity. Dark chocolate is a particularly rich source of antioxidants. The brain is highly susceptible to oxidative stress, which increases during aging and is considered a major contributor to the degenerative breakdown of nerve cells so having adequate antioxidant support available is vital to preserving health and function.6 Dark chocolate is a particularly rich source of antioxidants and may be uniquely helpful in supporting brain health. Research shows that consuming dark chocolate (at least 70% cacao) may improve brain plasticity, which is crucial for learning, and may also provide other brain-related benefits.14 Further research suggests that the flavonoids contained in chocolate may encourage neuron and blood vessel growth in areas of the brain involved in memory and learning as well as stimulate blood flow in the brain.15
Let’s try out some brain-healthy recipes!
For more tasty recipes and to learn more about the health benefits of natural foods, visit The Naturopathic Kitchen!
Summer Berry Salad
12 c mixed organic lettuce
1 c organic strawberries (sliced)
1 c organic blueberries
1/2 c organic raspberries
1/2 c organic boysenberries
1 1/2 c slivered almondS
1/2 c extra virgin olive oil
1/4 c organic rice vinegar
1/3 c organic raspberries
sea salt to taste
*Non-organic berries are often highly sprayed with pesticides. Choose organic berries whenever possible.
Chop lettuce into small bite-sized pieces and place in a large bowl. Mix in berries and almonds. Top with raspberry vinaigrette dressing.
Thank you to Like Mother Like Daughter and The Healthy Home Economist for theses delicious recipes!
Nut and Seed Granola
¼ c pure organic maple syrup
2 T extra virgin olive oil
1 c slivered almonds
½ c pecans, roughly chopped
¼ c unsweetened shredded coconut
3 T sunflower seeds
1 T sesame seeds
1 T ground flaxseed
¼ t sea salt
- Position an oven rack at the bottom of the oven and preheat to 325 degrees F.
- Whisk maple syrup and oil together in a large bowl. Add the almonds, pecans, coconut, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, flaxseed and salt then toss to coat.
- Spread the mixture out on a baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven, then scrape and toss mixture around and continue to bake until golden and still slightly sticky (about 10-12 minutes more) or for a deeper, toasted version, bake until deeply golden (about 13-15 minutes more).
Thank you to Food Network for this wonderful recipe.
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