By Jason Bosley-Smith, MS, LDN, CNS, FDN
Memory, focus, thought, creativity, analysis. Our brains perform these functions and many more in the daily processing of information. Perhaps even more essential, our brains regulate the bodily processes necessary for basic survival. Even the slightest impairment to brain function can be felt in dramatic fashion throughout our bodies whether it’s a lack of mental clarity, altered mood, or a downstream effect in the way we digest food.
According to Gómez-Pinilla, dietary factors can affect multiple brain processes by regulating neurotransmitter pathways, synaptic transmission, membrane fluidity and signal-transduction pathways.(1)
A nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory diet rich in colorful plant foods and healthy fats serves as the basis for brain-supportive nutrition. To truly target and enhance these various brain processes, research suggests that there are several nutrients that are of particular value:
Docosahexaenoic acid or DHA is a specific omega-3 fatty acid prominent in the cellular membranes of neurons. Broadly, omega-3 fats have been associated with learning and memory and dietary deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids in humans has been associated with increased risk of several mental disorders, including attention-deficit disorder, dyslexia, dementia, depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.(1) DHA as a particular omega-3 fatty acid might enhance cognitive abilities by facilitating synaptic plasticity and/or enhancing synaptic membrane fluidity; making neurons more resilient and adaptable.(2) DHA may also provide a protective effect against inflammation and oxidative stress which can impair the function of neurons and overall brain health.(3)
DHA can be obtained from eating cold-water, fatty fish including anchovies, herring, mackerel, wild-caught/sockeye salmon, sardines, and tuna. Set a goal to consume a 4 oz. serving of these DHA-rich fish 2-3 times per week or opt for a high-quality, omega-3 supplement that contains at least 500-750mg of DHA in triglyceride form.
Choline was officially recognized as an essential nutrient by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) in 1998. While not, by strict definition, a vitamin, it is an essential nutrient with functions involving a role in cell structure and neurotransmitter synthesis. Choline is also importantly involved in homocysteine reduction. Homocysteine is an amino acid compound that when elevated in the body, is associated with risk of cardiovascular and neurological disease. Moderately elevated plasma total homocysteine is a strong modifiable risk factor for vascular dementia and Alzheimer's disease.(4) Elevated homocysteine is associated with cognitive decline, white matter damage, brain atrophy, neurofibrillary tangles, and dementia.(4) In addition to vitamins B12, folate, and B6, choline represents a dietary element for prevention and intervention of high homocysteine levels, thereby reducing risk of brain-related disease. Choline can be derived from several foods in the diet, with the most concentrated amounts being found in eggs, liver, and wheat germ, while a related compound, betaine, can be derived from quinoa, beets, and spinach.
The colorful compounds of flavonoids have been studied extensively for their potent antioxidant capacity. Researchers have postulated that their specific effects in the brain are mediated by an ability to protect vulnerable neurons, enhance existing neuronal function, stimulate neuronal regeneration and induce neurogenesis.(5) Neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s share a common hallmark of neuroinflammation. Several inflammatory cytokines appear to contribute to neuronal death in these diseases. Flavonoids present in blueberry, green tea, and apples have shown the ability to inhibit these inflammatory molecules and their activity in the body.(6,7,8) In addition to their protective mechanisms, flavonoids exhibit the ability to positively influence memory and learning.(9)
Consuming a wide-variety of colorful fruits and vegetables each day is one way to ensure you gain the benefits from a number of different flavonoids. In my work with patients, I often leverage elements of the Phytonutrient Spectrum guide from the Institute for Functional Medicine which provides a detailed outline and practical tips for incorporating a rainbow of colorful, flavonoid-rich foods into the diet for optimal health.
Whether your goal is to improve your cognition or protect against neurodegeneration, implementing the dietary elements of DHA, choline, and a variety of flavonoids is an intelligent approach to optimal brain health.
Putting It All Together
Check out the recipes below for an example of how to put these nutrients together in a brain-boosting healthy meal!
Greek Lentil Stew
Makes 4 servings
About the Author: Jason Bosley-Smith, MS, LDN, CNS, FDN
Jason is a 15 year veteran in the health and wellness field. He has a Master of Science in Nutrition and Integrative health and is a Licensed Dietetic Nutritionist, a Certified Nutrition Specialist, and is Certified in Functional Diagnostic Nutrition. Additionally, he is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and a Certified Lifestyle Coach. He is a faculty member at the Maryland University of Integrative Health, a guest lecturer a George Washington University and at the Institute for Integrative Health, and a nutritionist with the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Read his full bio here. To schedule an appointment with Jason, call 410-448-6361.
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