Brain health is key to optimal physical and mental performance. There are many supplements on the market aimed at increasing mental clarity, alertness, and cognitive function. For most people, the best way to improve cognitive function is to change your diet, exercise, and get more sleep. However, as we age, many suffer some form of cognitive decline. For these people, preserving function is especially important. Several foods and herbs have been studied for their beneficial effects on cognitive function in adults with decreased cognition or memory issues.
Walnuts contain high levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) like ALA, which has been linked to improved learning and memory in animal studies. Walnuts and other nuts also contain other healthy fats, fiber, and antioxidants that have been shown to improve insulin sensitivity, decrease inflammation, and improve cardiovascular health.
The great thing about walnuts is that you do not need a large quantity to get these benefits. In one study, older women who ate walnuts up to three times per month had better overall cognitive function than those who did not eat walnuts. Adding walnuts to salads, soups, or other dishes is an easy way to incorporate them into your diet without coming up with fancy recipes.
Obviously, every food is not good for everybody. If you have nut allergies or do not digest nuts well, do not eat walnuts because that would be a bad idea.
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is an omega-3 fatty acid that is especially beneficial for brain health. DHA can be synthesized in the body from other fatty acids, like the ALA found in walnuts, or can be obtained through diet from fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines, herring, and anchovies.
Fish oil supplements can also help increase the amount of DHA in your diet. In a recent randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, elderly participants with mild cognitive impairment were given DHA or placebo every day for a year. The group that received DHA showed significant improvement in working memory, short-term memory, and verbal memory. This was a small trial, but the results are promising. Eating fatty fish a couple times a week or supplementing with fish oil may be a way to improve brain health.
Berries, including blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, bilberries, mulberries, and strawberries, contain high levels of antioxidant flavonoids. Berries can modulate inflammation, specifically inflammation in the nervous system. Research shows that berries can improve cognitive function and memory in animal studies. Not much human research has been completed with berry supplementation but there are numerous epidemiological studies showing an association between diets high in flavonoid-rich foods like berries and delayed Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and neurological aging.
Small additions to the diet with nuts, berries, and fish may help maintain and improve brain health. Make sure any supplements you take come from reputable sources. Most importantly, talk to a naturopathic doctor at Northwest Integrative Medicine before starting any supplements to make sure they are right for you.
- O’Brien J, Okereke O, Devore E, Rosner B, Breteler M, Grodstein F. Long-term intake of nuts in relation to cognitive function in older women. J Nutr Health Aging. 2014;18(5):496‐502. doi:10.1007/s12603-014-0014-6
- Lee LK, Shahar S, Chin AV, Yusoff NA. Docosahexaenoic acid-concentrated fish oil supplementation in subjects with mild cognitive impairment (MCI): a 12-month randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2013;225(3):605‐612. doi:10.1007/s00213-012-2848-0
- Subash S, Essa MM, Al-Adawi S, Memon MA, Manivasagam T, Akbar M. Neuroprotective effects of berry fruits on neurodegenerative diseases. Neural Regen Res. 2014;9(16):1557‐1566. doi:10.4103/1673-5374.139483