As humans, our most important bodily endowment isn’t our claws, sharp teeth, powerful haunches, iron grips, prehensile tails, venomous secretions, or aerosolized musk. It’s the brain. We use it to shape the world around us, to bend physical reality to our will, to manipulate matter and create powerful technological terrors. These days, the human brain is more important than ever. If you want to enjoy life, pursue and succeed at your passions, to conquer your little corner of reality—you need a healthy brain. Brain health is key to total health—and quality of life.
By some analysis at least, however, neurogenerative diseases remain on the rise and take an ever more extreme emotional and economic toll. So, how do we keep our brain health intact? While much of it comes down to doing the things that keep your brain healthy and avoiding the things that harm it—exercising instead of sitting on the couch, breathing exclusively fresh air instead of tobacco smoke, sleeping instead of staying up—another big variable is the food we eat.
First, I’ll list the most important nutrients for brain health and function, keeping things brief to get through them all. To be honest, this isn’t even “all.” It’s likely that every single micronutrient we’re supposed to be consuming plays a role in brain health, so central is the brain to our basic functioning.
Then, I’ll highlight some of the most critical food sources of these nutrients.
Precursor to acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter involved in focus, memory, and processing.
Reduces oxidative stress and inhibits oxidation of fragile polyunsaturated fats in the brain. Also reduces lesion formation in brain white matter, a strong risk factor for cognitive decline.
Vitamin D is one of those compounds that interacts with seemingly every pathway in the body. Whether it’s immune function, hormonal production, musculoskeletal maintenance, or even UV protection, vitamin D plays an important role. Dementia patients tend to have very low vitamin D levels, and good vitamin D levels predict strong executive function ten years down the road. High-dose supplementation may even improve visual memory in D-deficient subjects. For those who need more in their lives, sun is key. Quality supplementation can help.
Magnesium and iron are two more nutrients that are involved with everything, including the brain. A recent study found evidence that patients with either mild cognitive decline or full-blown Alzheimer’s tended to have lower magnesium and iron levels and higher oxidative stress loads.
Regulates absorption of copper and prevents overloading, which can inhibit cognitive function. Along with magnesium and vitamin D3 (among others), helps testosterone production. Testosterone is critical for cognitive function, especially mental energy and drive.
Typically valued for their beneficial effects on eye health, these plant-derived carotenoids are also linked to cognitive function. Seniors with low levels of both exhibit lower neurological efficiency—their brains work harder during cognitive tasks. And a year of luten and zeaxanthin supplementation slows cognitive decline in community-dwelling adults. Even young healthy adults see improvements to memory upon supplementation, if their baseline levels are low.
Creatine doesn’t just enhance physical performance. Creatine is also found in the brain, where it maintains cognitive function by recycling ATP, the basic energy currency of the body. Studies show that vegetarians who supplement with creatine enjoy improved cognition and physical performance. Vegan brains and muscles, which have even less (small amounts of creatine are present in eggs), should benefit even more from supplementation. Creatine also provides quick ATP for intense, short-lived physical feats.
Having a good ratio of omega-3:omega-6 in our tissues sets us up for a healthy inflammatory response to oxidative insults—not too little, not too big. There’s evidence that balanced omega-3/omega-6 ratios can actually prevent the “initiation and progression” of many neurological disorders by improving the efficiency of our inflammatory response.
A great source of creatine, zinc, iron, and B vitamins. Its even got a little-known nutrient called carnosine, which acts as a brain antioxidant.
A great source of monounsaturated fat, which is critical for stable cellular membranes in the brain and other parts of the body. Spicy or peppery EVOO indicates the presence of high levels of olive phenols, which show efficacy in slowing the onset of dementia and preserving brain autophagy.
They’re rich in vitamin E, lutein and zeaxanthin.
A great source of minerals like magnesium and carotenoids like lutein and zeaxanthin. Also, we can’t just eat multiple avocados every single day (can we?).
They’re rich in every B-vitamin except for thiamin (still have thiamin, just not as dense as the other B-vitamins). They are loaded with zinc and iron. They’re a good source of cholesterol, which can help repair damaged brain junctions. And despite being an organ meat, they’re very mild. I like marinating chicken hearts in lime juice, garlic, onion, cumin, and olive oil, spearing them with skewers, and roasting over open flame.
The intense red color indicates the presence of astaxanthin, an “animal carotenoid” with . Farmed salmon producers even dose their flock with synthetic astaxanthin; otherwise, the fish will be grey. Salmon is also a good source of (highly bioavailable) vitamin and, of course, long chain omega-3 fatty acids. Those omega-3s and that astaxanthin probably have a synergistic relationship, each increasing the effect of the other. Here’s a quality option for those who prefer a supplement to regular fish intake or want the added assurance a supplement provides.
Not only do they have tons of choline and additional folate and other brain-supportive micronutrients, they contain long-chain omega-3 fatty acids bound up in phospholipid form. When an egg is formed inside a bird, many of the fats come embedded in phosopholipids—highly bioavailable vehicles that deliver fats and nutrients directly to the brain. DHA-rich phospholipids enable faster, more fluid transmission of data across brain synapses. A good pastured egg will also have appreciable amounts of vitamin D in a form 5 times more bioavailable than vitamin D3.
A number of studies in both young and old, healthy and cognitively impaired, find that eating normal amounts of blueberries can improve cognitive function. Just a single dose of a blueberry drink (made with actual blueberries) triggers an acute boost to memory retention in children; a single dose of freeze-dried wild blueberries triggers boosts performance in children engaged in a cognitively demanding task. Older adults with cognitive impairment who eat blueberries improve their cognition. Older adults without cognitive impairment who eat blueberries improve brain activation. Plus, they taste great.
Look for blueberries that stain your mouth, an indication of high polyphenol content. Wild Boreal blueberries from Trader Joe’s have been the best I’ve found to date (and they’re quite affordable without being overly sweet).
That’s a pretty strong start. For further discussion of this topic, do your brain a favor and pick up a copy of Max Lugavere’s Genius Foods, in which he lays out a definitive guide to eating right for brain health. And be sure to check out his recent chat with host Elle Russ on the Primal Blueprint Podcast.
If you have any questions about supplements, nutrients I might have missed, supplemental foods, and brain health, feel free to ask down below. Thanks for reading!