We’re asking a lot of our brain these days.

The brain only weighs about three pounds and its texture is like that of firm jelly (Mmm…), yet it’s our most powerful organ, directing everything we do on a daily basis without our conscious awareness. Most of us are constantly on the go, stimulated by multiple inputs and distractions, demanding our brain to constantly think, learn, process, concentrate, focus, remember, feel, and problem solve, among other things. It’s like our brains are always on, given little to no downtime to relax, recharge, and rest. It’s a struggle for me, too.  I know I don’t give my brain the rest it needs, but I do try my best to give it premium fuel to help it operate effectively.

Our brains are nourished by a vast network of blood vessels, and when we are thinking hard and demanding a lot of ourselves cognitively, our brain may use up to about 50% of the oxygen and fuel in those blood vessels. That’s a key reason we want to nourish our brain with the highest quality fuel available to us, so we can continue to function at a high level.

Many of us have personal experience or exposure to different conditions affecting the brain, including everything from anxiety and depression to brain fog, trouble concentrating, memory loss, and dementia. Over 20 years ago, my great-grandmother passed away from complications due to Alzheimer’s disease. I remember going to visit her in the hospital as a young girl and wondering what was happening. As someone who has always prided myself on my intellectual abilities and capacity, I felt confused and a bit frightened as I watched her brain power diminish over time. It’s a fear many of us have – that we will one day not know where we are or who our loved ones are or that we will lose the ability to recall a lifetime of memories and experiences.

It’s tempting to hear all of that and assume that it’s inevitable we will succumb to some health condition that will impair our brain, but I’ve got good news!

We can influence our brain health by changing what we eat and upgrading our diets to include brain-boosting foods. If you are looking to enhance your memory, improve your focus, get a boost in mental energy, sleep better, concentrate better, and think more clearly, keep reading. Physical activity and mindfulness / meditative practices are both important for optimal brain functioning, but for today, we’re going to focus primarily on the role of food and nutrition in optimizing our brain function.

Our brain is connected to the rest of our body by nerves and blood vessels, so anything we do to support brain health will enhance our overall health. You don’t have to remember a different diet for every body system because everything is connected 🙂

The Best Diet for Brain Health

Each year, U.S. News and World Report publishes its ranking of the best diets. I’m generally not a fan of diets because of their tendency to be restrictive and deprivation-oriented, but if you just think of a diet as a way of eating, you can use the information they publish as a helpful guide. I like to think of what I’m about to share as a way to upgrade your eating habits to enhance your brain power.

From a list of 40 different diet, the MIND Diet ranks among the top five. The MIND Diet is a hybrid of the DASH Diet, which is aimed as preventing or reducing the risk of high blood pressure, and the Mediterranean Diet, which draws on the dietary practices of people living in countries that border the Mediterranean Sea.

Photo by Michal Sevcik

Research published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia suggests that people who follow the MIND Diet have substantially slower cognitive decline with age than those who eat the Standard American Diet (SAD).

The top 10 foods recommended by the MIND Diet are green leafy vegetables, other vegetables (especially non-starchy ones like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, etc.), nuts, berries, beans, whole grains (think oats, quinoa and brown rice), fish, poultry, olive oil and some red wine (optional – if you’re not already consuming, starting won’t necessarily benefit you, but if you already drink red wine, a 5-ounce glass daily is recommended).

If you’re looking to avoid foods that have been linked to an increased risk of cognitive decline, reduce intake of butter and margarine to about 1 tablespoon daily (especially margarine because of its trans fats) and limit cheese consumption to less than once per week (Hey, I didn’t do the research; I’m just sharing it!) because of its high saturated fat content. Keep red meat at no more than three services a week and limit fried food consumption to less than once a week because of its pro-inflammatory nature and limit processed sweets to no more than four times a week.

The goal isn’t perfection – just add in a few more servings of the brain-boosting foods as often as you can. Fortunately, even moderate adherence to the MIND Diet has been linked to slower rates of cognitive decline. To learn more about the MIND Diet, click here.

Now, let’s take a look at a few others ways to fuel and boost our brain health!

7 Ways to Fuel a Healthy Mind

1) Hydrate

We know that our body needs water to function, and for optimal brain functioning, making sure we are properly hydrated is critical. Even a small amount of dehydration can significantly impact our body.

A 1-2% loss of fluid levels in the brain has been linked to a wide range of mental impairments, including attention deficit, slower processing, and poorer short-term memory retention. Dr. Daniel Amen, one of the international experts and leaders in brain health, advocates for consuming half your body weight in water. If you weigh 140 pounds, that would mean 70 ounces of water each day. It’s not an exact science but more of a guidelines. What you need will vary based on your physical activity level, other foods you’re consuming with high water content, age, caffeine intake (it’s a diuretic and causes you to lose fluid) and medications you are taking that may interfere with hydration.

Water is the recommended drink of choice, and you can infuse it with fruits, vegetables and herbs to keep it exciting, but you can also consume things like herbal teas and throw in something like Spindrift, a sparkling water made without any artificial ingredients or “natural flavors” that is super low in sugar (about 1 gram per can).

2) Eat Probiotic and Prebiotic-Rich Foods

Your gut is one of the most important organs for the health of your brain.

Dr. Daniel Amen

I’ve written on my blog before about the top steps to optimize gut health, but most of us don’t think about how closely connected gut health and brain health are. The vagus nerve is one of 12 cranial nerves and is part of our involuntary nervous system that commands unconscious body procedures, like controlling digestion. Not only that, but our “gut” or digestive system is often referred to as our second brain because of how important it is in regulating things like mood and energy.

The foods we eat can either heal our digestive system or harm it, so being intentional about upgrading our diet by adding in gut-supportive foods is important. The bacteria in our gut are responsible for the production of neurotransmitters or brain messengers involved in mood, learning, and memory.

Believe it or not, gut bacteria produce about 95% of our body’s serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood, appetite, digestion, sleep, memory, and sexual desire and function.

If our digestive system isn’t getting the fuel it needs from bacteria-rich, fermented foods, it doesn’t produce the amounts of serotonin and dopamine that we need to feel and function at our best.

Some of my favorite probiotic-rich foods to consume are sauerkraut (my fave brands are Hex Ferments (#1) Farmhouse Culture, Jacob’s Raw and Wildbrine. I chop up sauerkraut and put it in all of my salads. You do NOT want your sauerkraut to be cooked. The beneficial living bacteria are only present in the raw forms. You can also try pickles (made without sugar – check the label), kimchi (a spicy Korean cabbage), kombucha (watch the sugar and don’t drink if you are prone to candida or other sugar imbalance issues), miso, tempeh, and tofu. Fermented foods may be an acquired taste, but think of them as medicine for your body and brain!

3) Focus on Folate

Folate is a naturally occurring form of Vitamin B9. Its Latin roots mean “leaf”, so it’s no surprise that leafy green vegetables are among the best sources of folate.

Folate is the naturally occurring form of the vitamin, while folic acid is the synthetic form found in fortified foods and in most supplements. B-vitamins like folate help support adrenal function and calm and maintain a healthy nervous system. Folate indirectly facilitates the production of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, three neurotransmitters involved in mood regulation.

Here are some top source of folate, as listed on one of my favorite resources for nutrition information – The World’s Healthiest Foods:

4) Eat from the Rainbow

If we know anything about nutrition, it’s that eating a diet rich in colorful, whole foods, especially plants, is one of the most important features of a nourishing diet.

Flavonoids are plant-based compounds with a wide range of health benefits that are present in varying levels in fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices. They have strong anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, and even anti-viral benefits. I like this handy chart from Dr. Mercola that highlights some of the top sources of flavonoids.

Some of these compounds help repair defective DNA, which is important because defective DNA can lead to cancer, chronic diseases, and aging-related health conditions. They are rich in antioxidants, which helps the body counter the oxidative effects of stress and a processed food diet. Think of oxidation as rusting. When metal is in contact with oxygen and water, it rusts, and too much oxidation inside our cells can cause premature aging and “rusting” from the inside out. In order to repair that damage internally, we want to consume large amounts of ANTI-oxidant-rich foods.

RECIPES: Take a look at some of Rebecca Katz’s top brain-boosting recipes from The Healthy Mind Cookbook. Also, for some of the Brain Warrior Way recipes, check out Tana Amen’s site here.

Veggies at the San Diego Farmer’s Market, including lots of kale!

5) Power Up with Protein

Most Americans are not protein deficient, despite what all of the current food advertising might lead you to believe. However, many of us do not consume the highest quality sources of protein or the amounts that are ideal for optimal brain health. If we are too focused on protein consumption, we will often neglect to fill enough of our plate with the antioxidant-rich foods we just learned about above.

The building blocks of proteins are called amino acids, and they make up our neurotransmitters, enzymes, muscles, tissues, and hormones. We need to consume quality sources of protein in order to give our body the raw materials it needs to function at its best.

Dr. Amen suggests a ratio of 70% plant-based foods and 30% high quality protein as a way to structure our plates. Some of his top recommended protein sources include beans, meat (wild caught fish, pastured poultry and grass-fed beef), eggs, nuts and seeds (especially pumpkin and sesame) and high-protein vegetables like broccoli and spinach.

IMPORTANT BRAIN HEALTH NOTE ABOUT VITAMIN B-12: Animal-based proteins are one of the best sources of B-vitamins, which are essential for energy, so if you are vegan, you will most likely need to supplement with B-vitamins, especially B-12. This is important from a brain health perspective because deficiencies in vitamin B-12 have been linked to an increased risk of dementia. If you or someone you know has been on acid blockers for a while, make sure to have your B-12 levels checked. Those medications interfere with your body’s ability to synthesize B-12 and often lead to deficiencies.

6) Focus on Feel Good Fats

Despite what the 1990s ingrained in us about fearing fat, we need fat to be well. The solid mass of our brain is 60% fat, and the fats we eat directly impact the functionality of our brain. Consuming enough healthy fats reduces the risk of depression and helps brain functions like memory, speaking ability, and motor skills. We need a variety of omega-3 fatty acids, including ALA, DHA and EPA as well as some omega-6 fatty acids. However, we want the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats to be less than 4:1 for optimal health. Ratios much higher than that indicate elevated inflammation in the body, which can trigger a cascade of physical, emotional and mental health issues.

Top sources of omega-3 fatty acids include mackeral, salmon, cod liver oil, herring, oysters, sardines, anchovies, caviar, flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, soybeans. Other decent sources of omega-3 fats are pastured eggs, omega-3 enriched eggs, meats from grass-fed animals, grass-fed dairy products, hemp seeds, and some vegetables like spinach and Brussels sprouts.

Sources of omega-6 fats (which are inflammatory in excess) include vegetable oils, many processed salad dressings, mayonnaise, fast foods, fried foods, cookies and cakes, processed pork products, and dairy. These fats are also found in eggs to some extent and in nuts and seeds. While nuts and seeds do contain healthy fats, it’s possible to overdo it. You can ask your doctor to test your omega 6:3 ratio the next time you have blood work done to find out what your levels are.

If you don’t consume seafood or adequate amounts of the other omega-3-rich foods, consider investing in a fish oil supplement. To get the best recommendations, check out this fish oil buyer’s guide by Chris Kresser (one of my favorite nutrition experts!).

7) Herb and Spice It Up!

For many of us, herbs and spices can seem like an afterthought. After all, most people simply use salt and pepper and the occasional sprinkle of garlic or chili powder to flavor food. We are missing out on a world of flavor and antioxidant power when we don’t use herbs and spices regularly.

I love what Dr. Amen has to say about the healing power of herbs and spices:

Herbs and spices contain so many health-promoting substances that it almost makes sense to store them in the medicine cabinet rather than the spice cabinet!

Photo by Pratiksha Mohanty

Believe it or not, herbs and spices like cloves, oregano, rosemary, thyme, cinnamon, turmeric, sage, and parsley have some of the highest ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) values of any foods – even more than blueberries! To give you a sense of just how powerful herbs and spices are, the ORAC value of oregano is 1750,000 compared to 9,000 for blueberries. Think of the ORAC value as the antioxidant power of the food. Remember how important antioxidants are to brain health and fighting inflammation and DNA damage?

The next time you’re at the grocery store, spend a little more time in the herbs and spices aisle (we opt for the self-serve jars of herbs and spices at MOMs Organic Market) and in the produce aisle, where you’ll find fresh herbs. Use dried herbs and spices at the beginning of the cooking process to infuse their flavors and medicinal properties into your meals. Finish off your meal prep by adding in some chopped herbs to enhance the brain-boosting power of a dish.

Another one of my favorite ways to easily add herbs and spices into my diet is to drink herbal tea daily. My favorite brands are Traditional Medicinals, Choice, Pukka, Buddha Teas, Organic India, and Yogi teas. Black tea is also an excellent source of plant-based compounds that support health.

So, there you have it, friends! Everything you could ever want to know about how to use food to nourish and fuel your brain. Let me know what you think in the comments below!

To learn more about how to boost your brain, check out the books below: