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As brain disorders and mental illnesses reach an all-time high, gray matter – a type of neural tissue in the central nervous system that contains regions dedicated to memory, decision making and muscle control – matters more than ever. The numbers are staggering: Ten percent of people 65 years of age and older have Alzheimer’s disease, 75% of Alzheimer’s sufferers are women, 13% of adult men have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and one in six Americans experienced a mental illness such as depression or anxiety. It’s no wonder nootropics – so-called “smart drugs” designed to enhance memory, sharpen acuity and improve learning – are one of the fastest-growing categories in the supplement world.
Why is your brain in so much trouble? Studies point to environmental toxins, lifestyle and diet as the key factors. Pesticides, food additives and air pollution have been linked with Alzheimer’s. Other research has shown that a sedentary lifestyle increases the risk for depression, anxiety and neurodegenerative diseases. And a growing body of evidence seems to indicate that the modern Western diet – high in processed and refined foods – can lead to cognitive decline and dementia.
Related: Protect Your Brain with Fatty Fish
The good news is that you can improve brain function, prevent mood disorders and reduce the risk of neurodegenerative disease with a few lifestyle changes and a healthy diet that lowers inflammation, increases brain nutrients and focuses on antioxidants, omega-3 fats and probiotics. We’re featuring five top neuroprotective foods and showing you how easy it can be to eat for a healthier brain. Halt the brain drain now with these foods and simple steps.
Cocoa is an antioxidant powerhouse, and that’s good news for your brain. It’s high in flavonoids, mostly in the form of catechins and epicatechins, antioxidants that have been shown to preserve cognitive abilities during aging and reduce the risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease. Cocoa flavonoids can also enhance mood and improve mental fatigue and performance. Incorporate it into your diet regularly, but choose high-quality options: Look for dark chocolate bars with at least 70% cocoa content and ideally no fillers, artificial flavors or additives (such as soy lecithin). If using cacao powder, raw cacao powder has the highest concentration of flavonoids, but if you can’t find it, unsweetened cocoa powder is a fine substitute. Avoid Dutch-processed or alkalized varieties; the process makes the powder smoother tasting, but it also damages some of the antioxidants.
TRY: Mole Poblano with Chicken
Sardines may not be the first food that comes to mind when you think of brain health, but these fatty fish are brimming with docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), forms of omega-3 fats also found in salmon and mackerel. Flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts and other nuts and seeds contain omega-3 fats in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which the body must then convert to DHA and EPA. Because the conversion rate is extremely low – usually less than 5% – it’s important to get omega-3 fats in the form of DHA and EPA, either through foods such as fatty fish (at least two times per week is ideal) or supplements. Many studies have linked these healthful fats with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease prevention, and improved cognition and mood. Other studies have found evidence that fish consumption slows cognitive decline in later life, in part by reducing inflammation and oxidative stress, a major factor in age-related dementia.
TRY: Sardine & Zucchini “Pasta” with Grana Padano
Yogurt is rich in two main types of benefical bacteria, Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus, both of which help support a healthy balance between good and bad microbes in the gut. And the gut, as we now know, is of key importance to the health of the brain. About 90% of the body’s serotonin – a neurotransmitter that regulates mood and behavior – is made in the digestive tract. Low serotonin levels are associated with depression and mood disorders, including ADHD, anxiety disorders and schizophrenia. Probiotics support the healthy bacteria that help produce serotonin and help prevent low-grade inflammation. One study published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience found that probiotic consumption over the course of 12 weeks positively affected cognitive function in people with Alzheimer’s disease.
This simple trio of yogurt dips is wonderful for a party. Serve them with thinly sliced fennel, chilled steamed asparagus, endive leaves, purple heirloom carrots and radishes. You can also use them as sauces to top chicken, fish or grilled tofu, or thin them with lemon juice to make creamy salad dressings.
TRY: Curry Cashew Dip, Spinach Herb Dip, and Red Pepper & Feta Dip
Spinach is high in lutein, an antioxidant that protects the brain from free radical damage and inflammation. Keep in mind that brain cells are especially vulnerable to damage from free radicals, highly reactive molecules that can harm cells, damaging their DNA or cellular membranes and causing them to function poorly or die. People with mild cognitive impairment have reduced lutein status, and boosting it with foods like spinach has been shown to enhance learning and memory. In a recent study published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, a combination of lutein and zeaxanthin (another antioxidant found in spinach) significantly improved cognitive function in older adults. Studies have also shown that blood concentrations of lutein in Alzheimer’s disease patients were significantly lower than in control subjects.
TRY: Skinny Spanakopita
Turmeric is an inflammation fighter. The bright yellow spice contains curcumin, a compound with anti-inflammatory properties that has been shown to improve behavior and cognition in people with Alzheimer’s disease. It works by preventing the formation of plaques, clusters of sticky proteins that build up between nerve cells and impair brain function. Curcumin may also lessen impairment in patients with traumatic brain injury and stimulate new brain cell production. It may also be effective in treating depression.
TRY: Creamy Asparagus Soup with Turmeric Pesto
For additional tips, here are 6 Smart Ways to Protect Your Brain Now.