You are what you eat, the saying goes – and that goes for the neck up. Just as food plays an important role in the health of your heart, skin, and other body organs, what you put in your mouth can affect your brain health.
For one thing, healthy foods help keep blood vessels healthy. These tiny tubes carry nutrients throughout the body, including to the brain. “Our brain is supplied by blood vessels, and the supply of nutrients and oxygen to our brain cells depends on the integrity of [these blood vessels]says Irwin Rosenberg, MD, professor emeritus of nutrition and medicine at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center in Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts University and the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.
Accumulating research also points to a powerful connection between the brain and the digestive system (commonly known as the gut), which is happiest when fed nutrient-dense foods. “Like teenagers who love to text each other all the time, [the brain and the gut] are constantly sending chemical messages back and forth,” says Uma Naidoo, MD, director of nutritional and lifestyle psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and author of It’s your brain on the food. “And the health of one reflects the health of the other.”
It’s also possible that certain diets trigger inflammation, cell and tissue damage, and other biological processes linked to deteriorating brain health, according to the National Institute of Aging.
The good news: Eating to support your brain is “actually very simple,” says Shelly Wegman, clinical dietitian at UNC REX Nutrition Services in Raleigh, North Carolina. “It’s about choosing minimally processed or unprocessed foods,” adds Wegman, and minimizing the consumption of salty, sweet and ultra-processed options, which have been linked to higher risks of dementia and depression.
And while there isn’t a single miracle food that gives the brain a boost (“It really is the diet,” Rosenberg points out), there are a few food groups that stand out.
Many fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids, a type of essential fat that over decades of research has been linked to better cognitive health.
What is cognitive health?
The mental processes that are collectively known as cognition include:
- Ability to learn new things
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
More recently, a study published in the journal Neurology found that middle-aged adults who ate a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids had larger hippocampal volumes (the hippocampus is the part of the brain that plays an important role in learning and memory) and were better able to understand complex concepts.
“Studies have examined this association in older populations. The new contribution here is that even at a younger age, if you have a diet that includes omega-3 fatty acids, you are already protecting your brain for most of the indicators of brain aging that we see in middle age” , said Claudia. Satizabal, lead author of the study and assistant professor of population health sciences at the Glenn Biggs Institute for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases at UT Health San Antonio, in a newsletter about the study.
According to the National Institutes of Health, fatty cold-water fish such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring and sardines are excellent sources of omega-3s. You don’t eat fish? You can find omega-3 fatty acids in walnuts, seaweed, flax and chia seeds, says Naidoo.