The brain is the most complex and yet most misunderstood organ in the human body. It is our “command central” where everything from emotions and thoughts to memory and movement is controlled. (28) The billions of neurons in the brain are constantly processing data as it also regulates blood pressure, body temperature, and breathing. It’s no wonder why cognitive health is top of mind for both patients and practitioners. Fortunately, there are many ways to enhance cognitive function through healthy diet and lifestyle habits as well as certain dietary supplements.
Diet for brain health
It’s well-known that a balanced diet that includes a variety of whole, minimally-processed foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, provides nutrients to support healthy aging; however, research indicates that anti-inflammatory dietary patterns, such as the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet, and the MIND diet may be particularly beneficial for brain health. (16)
1. Mediterranean diet
Neuroinflammation has been largely implicated in the progression of neurodegeneration and the onset of neurodegenerative conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease. Focusing on anti-inflammatory dietary components, such as antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, can help attenuate neuroinflammation. (16) Research shows that people who follow a Mediterranean diet have better cognitive performance and less chance of experiencing cognitive decline as they age. (27)
In addition to improving cognition and memory, the Mediterranean diet can reduce neuroinflammation and is neuroprotective. (16) A 2021 study looked at the abnormal proteins, amyloid and tau, that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease and found that the people who followed a Mediterranean diet had less protein buildup and less brain shrinkage compared to the people who did not follow the diet. (2)
2. DASH diet
The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet was developed to prevent and treat hypertension and has been shown to improve cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk factors, including blood pressure and cholesterol levels. (25) Similar to the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet focuses on the consumption of whole, plant-based foods. The DASH diet also limits the intake of cholesterol, fat, and sodium. (25) Studies indicate that adherence to the DASH diet is associated with better cognitive levels and heightened learning and memory. (25)
3. MIND diet
The Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) diet combines Mediterranean and DASH dietary patterns with a specific emphasis on brain-boosting foods. The MIND diet promotes an increased consumption of berries and green leafy vegetables, while limiting the intake of animal-based and high-saturated fat foods. (15) Individuals who strongly adhere to the MIND diet may decrease their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by 53%, while a moderate adherence can reduce risk by 35%. (18)
Physical activity provides so many health-promoting benefits, so it’s not surprising that it can also positively influence brain function. In fact, research shows that the brain-building benefits of exercise are profound and include increased growth of neurons and blood vessels in the brain, enhanced learning and memory, and reduced age-related cognitive decline. Research indicates that practicing aerobic exercise, such as biking or dancing, specifically benefits cognitive performance, brain function, and brain structure in older adults. Aerobic training in later years may also improve brain processes related to multi-tasking and planning. (26)
The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week for adults. (24) In addition to physical exercise, the brain needs an ongoing mental workout as well. In one study, simply doing a crossword puzzle regularly helped older adults delay the onset of memory loss by more than 2.5 years. (19)
2. Proactive stress management
Chronic, unmanaged stress can harm health on many levels, including brain health. Research demonstrates that over time, stress can negatively impact cognition, information processing, and memory. (20) The researchers of a 2017 longitudinal study concluded that perceived stress is associated with self-reported cognitive complaints and the risk of cognitive impairment can be significantly reduced by utilizing stress management interventions designed to reduce perceived stress and enhance sleep. (7) Stress management techniques can include deep breathing exercises, journaling, meditation, and yoga. (5)(21) As it turns out, proactive stress management may also help enhance sleep, which is definitely linked to brain health. (7)
3. Focus on sleep
Lack of sleep has been shown to be detrimental to decision-making, focus, and memory. (1) As it turns out, the brain is very active when we sleep. Getting enough sleep regenerates and strengthens neurons which helps enhance both learning and memory. (14) When we sleep, the glymphatic system (the brain’s waste removal system) is also hard at work clearing out toxins in the brain. (3) Lack of sleep actually causes toxins to build up which can negatively influence behavior, cognition, and judgment. (8)
Getting enough sleep is critical to brain function and so is being social. Research shows that social isolation is associated with poor brain function in the elderly. (9) According to a 2017 systematic review, increased social activities, networks, support, and relationships are associated with a wide range of brain benefits, including improved attention, executive function, reasoning, verbal fluency, and memory. (11)
Top supplements for cognitive health
Targeted dietary supplements can also help enhance brain function and reduce the risk of developing brain disorders.
Acetyl-L-carnitine is an amino acid that positively influences mitochondria, improves blood flow, protects against toxins, and helps transport fatty acids between cells. Research demonstrates that acetyl-L-carnitine is neuroprotective and may help slow the progression of mental deterioration. (23)
2. B vitamins
B vitamins are a group of eight different water-soluble vitamins that are critical to the central nervous system. A 2020 systematic review and meta-analysis demonstrated that taking B vitamins for three months improved episodic memory and global cognition. (22)
Citicoline is a natural compound found in all living cells with the highest concentrations found in the brain and liver. Supplementing with citicoline has been shown to improve attention span, blood flow, cognition, and memory. (4)
4. Ginkgo biloba
Ginkgo biloba extract has long been used as a medicinal herb to help with brain function. Many studies have demonstrated that Ginkgo biloba can benefit the brain, including a 2020 review of randomized clinical trials that concluded that Ginkgo biloba extract improved cognitive function in adults with mild dementia when used for more than 24 weeks. (13)
Ginseng is a herb that has been shown to increase neurogenesis and neurotrophin expression and decrease neuroinflammation. (10) Studies indicate that long-term use of ginseng can help improve cognitive function and reduce the risk of cognitive decline. (12)
6. Lion’s mane
Lion’s mane is a medicinal mushroom that supports cognition and memory via the enhanced production of nerve growth factor (NGF), which is a protein that plays a key role in the maintenance and regeneration of neurons. In a study that included seniors with mild cognitive impairment, lion’s mane improved cognitive test function compared to placebo. (17)
8. Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are critical to many aspects of health including brain function. A 2018 systematic review found that in addition to improving cognition and memory, omega-3 fatty acids also had a significant neuroprotective effect. (6)
The bottom line
The human brain is complex, and we continue to learn more about its intricacies and actions. We are also learning about how we can better enhance cognitive function. To maintain and enhance brain function and help reduce brain disorders, we can employ a comprehensive approach that includes diet, lifestyle, and dietary supplements.
If you are interested in using a natural approach to optimize brain function, consider enlisting the help of an integrative practitioner for further guidance.
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