They say that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but when it comes to the brain, scientists have discovered that this old adage simply isn’t true. The human brain has an astonishing ability to adapt and change-even into old age. This ability is known as “neuroplasticity”. With the right stimulation, your brain can form new neural pathways, alter existing connections, and adapt and react in ever-changing ways.
The brain’s incredible ability to reshape itself holds true when it comes to learning and memory. You can harness the natural power of neuroplasticity to increase your cognitive abilities, enhance your ability to learn new information, and improve your memory at any age.
Just as the body needs fuel, so does the brain. You probably already know that a diet based on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, “healthy” fats (such as olive oil, nuts, fish) and lean protein will provide lots of health benefits, but such a diet can also improve memory. For brain health, though, it’s not just what you eat-it’s also what you don’t eat. The following nutritional tips will help boost your brainpower and reduce your risk of dementia:
Get Your Omega-3s – Research shows that omega-3 fatty acids are particularly beneficial for brain health. Fish is a particularly rich source of omega-3, especially cold water “fatty fish” such as salmon, tuna, halibut, trout, mackerel, sardines, and herring.
If you’re not a fan of seafood, consider non-fish sources of omega-3s such as walnuts, ground flaxseed, flaxseed oil, winter squash, kidney and pinto beans, spinach, broccoli, pumpkin seeds, and soybeans.
Limit Calories and Saturated Fat – Research shows that diets high in saturated fat (from sources such as red meat, whole milk, butter, cheese, cream, and ice cream) increase your risk of dementia and impair concentration and memory.
Eat More Fruit and Vegetables – Produce is packed with antioxidants, substances that protect your brain cells from damage. Colorful fruits and vegetables are particularly good antioxidant “superfood” sources.
Drink Green Tea – Green tea contains polyphenols, powerful antioxidants that protect against free radicals that can damage brain cells. Among many other benefits, regular consumption of green tea may enhance memory and mental alertness and slow brain aging.
Drink Wine (or grape juice) in Moderation – Keeping your alcohol consumption in check is key, since alcohol kills brain cells. But in moderation (around 1 glass a day for women; 2 for men), alcohol may actually improve memory and cognition. Red wine appears to be the best option, as it is rich in resveratrol, a flavonoid that boosts blood flow in the brain and reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Other resveratrol-packed options include grape juice, cranberry juice, fresh grapes and berries, and peanuts.
For Mental Energy, Choose Complex Carbohydrates – Just as a racecar needs gas, your brain needs fuel to perform at its best. When you need to be at the top of your mental game, carbohydrates can keep you going. But the type of carbs you choose makes all the difference. Carbohydrates fuel your brain, but simple carbs (sugar, white bread, refined grains) give a quick boost followed by an equally rapid crash. There is also evidence to suggest that diets high in simple carbs can greatly increase the risk for cognitive impairment in older adults. For healthy energy that lasts, choose complex carbohydrates such as whole-wheat bread, brown rice, oatmeal, high-fiber cereal, lentils, and whole beans. Avoid processed foods and limit starches (potato, pasta, rice) to no more than one quarter of your plate.
When you think of food, you probably think of that dreaded four-letter word: DIET. Or maybe you think of fuel for your body… Or a source of happiness (or frustration!) in your life. What you probably don’t think of is a powerful influence that affects your emotions, your personality, the quality and quantity of your memories, and even WHO you are as a person. But surprise: What you eat directly impacts all of the above. This may sound hard to believe, but it’s true. Let me explain…
Your Brain: A Calorie Hungry Machine
Your brain represents only 2 – 4% of your total body mass, which is about 2 – 4 pounds for the average person. However, your brain also consumes about 20% of all the energy from your food. I’ll say that again: Your brain consumes 20% of the food energy you consume. Plus, the type of fuel you give your brain through food and supplements has a critical influence on how you think, feel and experience life. You-and your entire human experience-actually ARE what you eat. As Dr. Fotuhi put it: “What you eat will re-shape your brain… for better or for worse”. So, once again, we need to put our brains first when it comes to improving our health and happiness.
Which nutrients does my brain need… And how much? There are certain nutrients your brain absolutely needs, some you can consume in higher doses to increase performance… and some nutrients your body absolutely doesn’t want. Let’s start with what your brain absolutely needs each day: Fuel. To function properly and consistently repair cells, your brain needs the energy you get from food. This is a no-brainer (ha ha, pun intended). However, if you go on an extreme calorie restricting diet, not only are you restricting the fuel you’re giving your body- you’re also restricting the fuel you’re giving your brain. Why is this dangerous? While your intentions may be in the right place, you may effectively be starving your brain, which leads to brain fog, mood swings, anxiety, slower and more difficult learning, feeling unmotivated, etc. And most dangerously, malnutrition over prolonged periods can even physically shrink your brain. Calorie restrictive diets are NOT the way to go.
Let’s say you’re on a strict calorie restrictive diet that limits you to 70% of the actual caloric fuel you (and your brain) need on an average day. This means you’re not getting 30% of the vitamins, minerals and energy you need just to operate at baseline… which equates to about 6% direct malnutrition to your brain.
Starving your brain makes you angry, short tempered, dull and emotional. And frankly, it never gets you to your goal. Do you know where the willpower comes from to stick with a healthy practice? It comes from feeding your brain the right fuel in the right amounts to stay strong.
I want to focus for a moment on one particular killer that is extremely dangerous for your brain: Sugar. WebMD even asks the question: “Is sugar worse for you than say, cocaine?” When up to 80% of all foods we can buy in a grocery store contain sugar, it can feel like a losing battle.
Not only is sugar proven to be highly addictive-meaning the more you eat, the more you want to eat-we’re finding that over time, sugar can contribute to the shrinking of your hippocampus (the memory sector of your brain), which is a hallmark symptom of memory problems.
How Does Sugar Affect Your Memory? Research out of the University of California, Los Angeles, suggests that sugar forms free radicals in the brain and compromises the nerve cells’ ability to communicate. This can have serious repercussions in how well we remember instructions, process ideas, and manage our moods, says Fernando Gómez-Pinilla, Ph.D., author of the UCLA study. In the short term, you’ve probably seen how sugar can mess with your emotions and adrenaline surges, a.k.a.: the stress hormone. So something to consider: Your memory issues may NOT be age-related. It might be what you’re eating. What happens when you eat sugar?
When you eat sugar, your insulin spikes, which briefly increases your dopamine levels. (Think of dopamine as the “happy chemical.”) For a short period, you feel happy and energized… perhaps a little hyper.
But this high quickly wears off (i.e. NOT a stable source of energy), and eventually you come crashing down. This familiar “sugar crash” produces the stress chemical adrenaline, which can leave you feeling anxious, moody, exhausted and even depressed in the aftermath.
The USDA recommends staying under 10 teaspoons (40 grams) of added sugar a day. This is about the equivalent of a bagel or one cup of your typical non-fat yogurt-which has a tendency to be surprisingly high in sugar. (Check the label of the yogurt in your fridge and see what I mean.) Now don’t worry: This daily sugar limit doesn’t include natural fruit and vegetable sugars in their pure forms like an apple. But DO avoid those mocha lattes at all costs.
Personally, I think sugar is the real reason why gluten-free diets tend to work so well for many people in terms of improving overall body and brain health. It’s not because they’re removing the gluten. (Only 1% of the population has Celiac disease, in which case the body can’t tolerate gluten). I believe it’s because most foods that contain gluten also contain a lot of added sugar: Breads, baked goods, etc. Removing the sugars alone can have a massive impact on your mood, memory and clarity of thought.
We also know though countless studies that obesity, high cholesterol and diabetes can shrink the size and performance of your brain. So if you want to cut the risk of memory loss, the first and fastest thing you can do is educate yourself on brain-healthy foods vs brain-shrinking foods- and immediately remove the dangerous foods from your diet.
What are the WORST Foods For Your Memory and Cognition?
Salt can be a big culprit, mainly due to excess. Salt is an essential mineral we need to survive, however the USDA recommendation is just 1,500 mg a day. The average American eats 3,400 mg/day, primarily because our culture tends to consume a lot of processed and packaged foods. These are the worst when it comes to unknowingly consuming extremely unhealthy doses of salt-which by the way, also increases your risk of stroke.
Trans fats are also dangerous to brain health. Typical trans fats are often found in fried foods, margarine, shortening, non-dairy creamers, ice cream, cake mixes, microwave popcorn, ground beef, frozen dinners, cookies and crackers.
The BEST Foods For Your Brain
To boost your memory, mood and cognition, you want to focus on a “healthy brain” diet. This involves eating foods that support the growth of new brain cells, as well as taking a quality daily supplement with the right quantities of specific nutrients, to give your brain the building blocks it needs to stay sharp. One of these nutrients is called DHA, found in Omega 3 fatty acids, which helps reduce inflammation in the brain. Many researchers have found that people with behavioral problems, children with ADHD and people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease have lower than normal DHA levels.
For example, in Gothenburg, Sweden, scientists conducted a study on over 9,000 students. They found that children who ate one serving of fish per week (a great source of DHA) did 15% better than students who ate less than one serving of fish per week. I recommend you aim for 1,000 mg of DHA each day through your food and/or supplementation.
Best Diets For Memory & Learning
As an overall eating style packed with healthy brain foods, most scientists recommend the Mediterranean diet as a great plan to give your body and brain the best quality foods, even if you’re trying to lose weight. For more tips, I also highly recommend following trusted food gurus like Mike Geary, aka: “The Nutrition Watchdog.” Need motivation? Here’s a fun fact for you: Those who follow a healthy diet combined with exercise have a whopping 65% LOWER chance of getting Alzheimer’s disease.
Here’s a Good List of Delicious Brain-Healthy Foods: Olive Oil, Garlic, Peas, Blueberries, Green Tea, Kale, Nuts and Seeds, Fatty Fish like salmon, trout, mackerel, herring, sardines, Tomatoes, Pumpkin Seeds, Blackcurrants, Broccoli, Sage, Eggs.
All of these foods are great for children and adults; for studying, improving memory, and just feeling great all-around.