Top 10 Brain Foods

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Biohacker Center will release later this year an anticipated new book: the Biohacker’s Brain Nutrition Book. It is a scientifically state-of-the-art book on the best foods for brain health, nootropics, brain-gut-microbiota, and habitual things that will guide your diet to be the best possible for brain health and neurodegenerative disease prevention. The book will be about 300 pages with over 750 scientific references and with a beautiful graphic design.

Introduction

Several things affect the condition of the brain and mental control; one of them is your diet. Thinking is fast, fluent, and easy when your diet provides the brain with optimal building blocks for energy production, important neurotransmitters, brain cells and protective tissue such as myelin sheath and glial cells. “Brain food” is a non-scientific term which means everyday foods that have scientifically been shown to improve brain function when they are frequently consumed. Some people call these “smart foods” or even “genius foods”

Diet affects these every-day processes which are linked to brain health:

  • Energy levels
  • Happiness and positive emotions
  • Emotional balance and calmness
  • Brain relaxation and recovery
  • Memory
  • Brain immunity
  • Brain cell protection and thinking speed
  • Behavior
  • Motor memory and movement

Better functioning brain can mean for example: 

  • Having a better memory for information relevant at work and home
  • Remembering the faces and names of the people you’ve met (especially when they remember your name!)
  • Remembering meetings and relevant tasks
  • Having energy throughout the working day and until the evening when you spend time with your family
  • Having calmness, focus, and concentration during presentations, lectures, and conversations
  • Having energy for exercise and trying out new hobbies
  • Being able to enjoy and savor the most beautiful life experiences by maintaining balanced mood and relaxed mental state
  • Having a more growth-oriented and positive outlook on life
  • Having deeper sleep and better overall recovery
  • Being more resilient to stress and sudden challenges in life

Generally, brain foods are high in the following nutrients:

  • Antioxidants – fight against oxidative stress and free radicals in the brain
  • Polyphenols – beneficial plant compounds with antioxidative abilities
    • Flavonoids (e.g. flavan-3-ols, flavones, flavanones, and flavonols) 
    • Phenolic acids (e.g. rich in seeds and skin of the fruits)
    • Polyphenolic amides (e.g. capsaicinoids in chili peppers and avenanthramides in oats)
    • Isoflavones, neoflavonoids, and chalcones (e.g. genistein and daidzein in soy and chalcones in the apple)
    • Anthocyanidins (i.e. the red, blue and purple pigments in blueberries, grapes, and beets)
    • Non-flavonoid polyphenols (e.g. resveratrol in grape peels and curcumin in turmeric)
  • Unsaturated fats (such as omega-3 fatty acids in seafood and fish, and oleic acid in extra virgin olive oil)
  • Amino acids

1. Eggs

As is the case for most containers of a new life, an egg is close to a perfect food. Eggs are rich in protein, vitamins, minerals and other beneficial nutrients (including phospholipids, lutein, zeaxanthin, and choline). Eggs also contain one particularly important nutrient, choline, which helps cells to detoxify from harmful toxins and thus protect from fatty liver disease.

Vivid yellow egg yolk.

Beneficial nutrients for brain health in eggs:

Eggs are also abundant in vitamins B6, B12 and B9, which are linked to better energy levels, and slower neural loss and cognitive decline in old age.

One hard-boiled egg has 150 mg of choline, which is about 30 % of the daily recommendation of choline. Egg yolk is best to be left raw or just slightly cooked since heating destroys some of the healthy xanthophylls such as lutein. Buy local fresh eggs when possible. Organic eggs contain more vitamins than non-organic. When the yolk is vivid yellow, it is richer in carotenes and fat-soluble vitamins

2. Dark leafy greens & wild greens

Dark leafy greens are an integral part of a diet that supports optimal brain function and overall health. Usually the darker the color the more vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and antioxidants the leafy green contains. Wild greens are hardier than cultivated plants. It means that they can survive better in adverse growing conditions and contain more antioxidants, vitamins and trace elements. They are also free from pesticides. For example, wild nettle contains five times more iron than cultivated spinach.

Finnish wild herb salad.

Foraging is a term that refers to searching wild foods from nature. It is a great way to find nutrient-dense, healthy herbs and plants to support brain health, as well as to connect with nature, relax and recover.

Beneficial nutrients for brain health in dark leafy greens:

  • Vitamins A & C
    • Vitamin A maintains neuronal plasticity and cognitive function in adulthood
    • Vitamin C contributes to building neurons, neurotransmitters and the protective layer of myelin around neurons. It is also important for neurotransmitter balance such as converting tryptophan to serotonin. Vitamin C levels correlate with performance on cognitive tests, especially those measuring cognitive decline.
  • Vitamin K, β-carotene, nitrates, folate (vitamin B9), kaempferol, flavonoids, and α-tocopherol (a form of vitamin E)
  • Lutein, which is linked to improved cognition and processing speed
Source: Dreamstime.

A large meta-analysis from 2017 confirmed that consuming vegetables, such as green leafy vegetables protects from cognitive impairment and dementia. A study published in Neurology in 2018 found that eating at least one serving (half a cup cooked or one cup raw) of leafy green vegetables every day was associated with a slower decline in brain function.

3. Dark and raw chocolate 

Cacao is the key ingredient in chocolate. Due to its powerful ingredients, chocolate is also known as a “love drug” which can metaphorically open up the heart, decrease stress and increase happiness.

Chocolate was also used from the 16th century to the early 20th century as a medicine to alleviate many kinds of symptoms ranging from fatigue to digestive issues. The term chocolate originates from the Aztec word xocolatl, which means “bitter water”. Chocolate has been consumed at least since 460 AD made from the beans from the Theobroma cacao tree native to Central America and northern South America.

Commercial milk chocolate is not optimal brain food. Commercial chocolate often contains only low levels of cocoa and other ingredients such as sugar, milk and even gluten. Recently a healthier option (raw chocolate), has become a popular alternative for commercial chocolate products. Raw chocolate is made of (mostly) unroasted cacao beans, cacao butter (theobroma oil), and low levels of some sweetener that is not white sugar (such as stevia, cane sugar, coconut sugar, xylitol, or lucuma).

Biohacker’s functional “Work” raw chocolate.

Beneficial nutrients for brain health in dark and raw chocolate:

Choose high-quality raw chocolate (cacao) when possible with at least 70 % cacao content. This assures a low sugar and high antioxidant content in the product. As a rule of thumb, always check that cocoa/cacao is the first ingredient in the ingredient list. Use single-origin, organic chocolate to avoid artificial sweeteners and added chemicals.

4. Polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids (omega-3 PUFAs)

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2015) recommends consumption of 8 ounces of seafood per week. Fish is rich in essential healthy fatty acids, trace elements, vitamins and amino acids. Fish is also an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D. Wild fish has a higher level of omega-3 and more trace elements and vitamins than farmed fish. Fish oil and fish liver oil are recommended for individuals who do not eat enough fatty fish. Fish and other seafood contain polyunsaturated long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (PUFAs). The most important of these fatty acids are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

Compared to other organs in the human body, the highest DHA contents are found in the eye (60 %) and the brain (40 %). In the eye, DHA is found in the retina where it contributes to vision. In the brain, DHA is mainly found in the grey matter, where it has an important role in cell signaling (for example speed of thinking, neuroprotection, and memory). Nearly half of the nerve cell membrane weight is DHA.

Brain benefits of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids:

Good sources of EPA and DHA are for example:

5. Blueberries and bilberries

Blueberries, also called highbush blueberries, are native to Americans. They are normally planted and grow in a height of 6–8 feet. Bilberries, also called lowbush blueberries, grow naturally in heaths, meadows and moist coniferous forests. They are smaller and darker than blueberries and have a long history in the human diet. A 2018 study found that wild bilberries contain a higher content of trace elements such as calcium, sodium, magnesium, manganese, and zinc compared to cultivated high-bush berries. 

Blueberries / highbush blueberries

The wide range of bioactive plant compounds found in blueberries and bilberries have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anticancer and antimicrobial properties. In the brain, they seem to protect neurons from aging and improve cell signaling and cognition. The compounds include flavonols, tannins, ellagitannins, and phenolic compounds, and most importantly high amount of anthocyanins, which give the berries their dark blue (almost black) color.

Bain benefits of consuming blueberries and bilberries:

Finnish wild bilberries.
Photo: Jarkko Remahl/ Yle.

Pick up wild bilberries from the forest during their harvest season. Whenever possible, choose bilberries over blueberries because they contain more nutrients and less sugar. Look for berries that are firm, dry, plump and smooth-skinned, with a silvery surface bloom.

6. Medium-chain triglycerides (MCT oil), caprylic acid (C8) and exogenous ketones

Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) are a class of dietary fats (i.e. fatty acids) that have 6–10 carbon atoms. They are found in foods such as coconut oil and palm oil. After eating these, they travel to the cells’ mitochondria, where they are converted into ketones – a type of fuel, which cells can then use for energy production. Ketones have been shown to directly and indirectly benefit cognition, the function of mitochondria, and neurotransmitter levels, as well as ease symptoms of epilepsy and improve mental health. MCTs differ from other fats (such as olive oil or fish oil) according to the number of carbon atoms they have in their chemical structure.

Various fatty acids, food sources and their functions in the body.
Source: Inka Immonen

Compared to long-chain fatty acids, MCTs are absorbed better and faster from the portal vein and thus can be used rapidly as energy (see image). MCTs can also move into the mitochondria without carnitine, which is needed to deliver long-chain fatty acids into the mitochondria. MCTs can cross the blood-brain barrier and brain cells can convert them into ketone bodies. This rapid way of producing energy also seems to leave less metabolic waste in the brain cells than burning glucose. MCTs have also been shown to improve the function of mitochondria in the brain cells.

Brain benefits of adding ketones in the diet:

Best sources of MCTs and ketones:

  • MCT-oil (C8 & C10)
  • Extra-virgin coconut oil (up to 65 % of coconut oil is comprised of MCTs)
  • Exogenous ketones (a source of pure ketone bodies)
    • Ketone salts: 
      • Beta-hydroxybutyric acid (βHB)
      • These are ketones bound chemically to a salt (potassium, calcium or magnesium) and they are quite easy to use in powder form. Many different types of ketone salts exist on the market and they have also been widely studied.
    • Ketone esters: 
      • These are liquid esterified ketone bodies, used for example in sports to improve performance. Ketone esters are used particularly in scientific studies – the market of consumer goods in this regard is quite small.
      • D-Beta Hydroxybutyrate
PLEASE READ AND DOWNLOAD THE FREE BIOHACKER’S GUIDE TO KETOSIS HERE!

7. Cruciferous vegetables & broccoli sprouts (sulforaphane-rich foods)

Cruciferous vegetables are a widespread variety of vegetables that belong to the Brassicaceae family. The most well-known cruciferous vegetables are broccoli, cauliflower, kale, bok choy, brussels sprouts, and cabbage. Cruciferous vegetables, especially broccoli sprouts, contain a compound called glucoraphanin, which is a precursor for a healthy phytochemical sulforaphane (SFN). Cruciferous vegetables, in general, contain also other sulfur-rich compounds called glucosinolates, which have anti-cancer properties. Cruciferous vegetables are also high in vitamins K and C as well as folate, selenium, calcium, potassium, carotenoids, and fiber.

Brain benefits of consuming cruciferous vegetables (broccoli sprouts in particular):

Broccoli sprouts

Broccoli sprouts are the richest food source of glucoraphanin (a precursor to sulforaphane). They contain up to 100 times more glucoraphanin than mature broccoli. Studies have used about 9–60 mg dosages of extracted sulforaphane which is found in about 7–140 g of fresh broccoli sprouts. Boost the bioavailability of sulforaphane by adding mustard seeds or mustard powder to your meals. They contain myrosinase, which increases the availability of sulforaphane, especially in cooked vegetables.

 8. Turmeric (curcumin)

Turmeric is a popular root plant growing mainly in Asia. It is also called the golden spice or spice of life. Turmeric has been used in India for thousands of years both as a spice and medicine, however, its medicinal properties were not investigated until the end of the 20th century in the West.

There are hundreds of studies showing turmeric’s numerous health effects. It has been shown to improve the immune system, help cells to fight oxidative stress, increase longevity and boost brain cell growth. It also has remarkable anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-tumor, anti-aging and brain-derived growth factor (e.g. BDNF) boosting effects.

A) The 3 dimensional structure of BDNF
B) The mechanism by which BDNF binds to TrkB and initiate a cascade of signaling molecules throughout the cell that ultimately leads to change in gene expression.

The most studied ingredient in turmeric is a yellow-colored compound called curcumin, which is derived from the rhizomes (roots) of the turmeric plant. Curcumin can cross the blood-brain barrier and promote the health of brain cells in many ways. Curcumin contains beneficial substances called curcuminoids. In most dietary supplements there are three main forms of curcuminoids: curcumin (77 %), demethoxycurcumin (17 %) and bisdemethoxycurcumin (6 %).

3 main forms of curcuminoids

Curcumin’s bioavailability can be increased by piperine which is found in black pepper. Research suggests that piperine can increase curcumin absorption even by 2000 % by inhibiting the liver’s glucuronidation pathway. The problem with piperine, though, is the fact that it also increases the absorption of unwanted substances such as chemicals and toxins. Therefore the purity of the turmeric root or curcumin supplement is of utmost importance.

There are multiple other methods to ensure optimal absorption of curcumin such as: the use of adjuvants, liposomal curcumin, curcumin nanoparticles, curcumin phospholipid complexes, curcumin reformulated with various oils, conjugation of curcumin prodrugs and linking curcumin with polyethylene glycol.

Brain benefits of using turmeric in food and curcumin as a supplement:


Image source: Bhat, A. et al. (2019). Benefits of curcumin in brain disorders. Biofactors Epub ahead of print. Review.

The curcumin content (2–9 %, averaging 3.14 %) of turmeric depends on its origin and especially the fertility of the soil. Also climatic conditions have a significant impact on the curcumin content of turmeric root. Buy only trusted and laboratory researched sources of curcumin  and use turmeric as a spice from traceable and trusted sources and brands. BCM-95 (now goes by the name Curcugreen) and Meriva-SR, for example, are highly documented and researched highly bioavailable curcumin formulas that are safe and effective. According to the manufacturer (Thorne), Meriva-SR is the most clinically studied curcumin on the market. Several other patented curcumin complexes exist to increase its bioavailability – the highest bioavailability (compared to unenhanced curcumin) was observed with NovaSol (185-fold), CurcuWin (136-fold), LongVida (100-fold) and Cavacurmin (85-fold).

9. Avocado

Avocado is the fruit of the avocado tree (lat. Persea Americana) originated in Mexico, Central America or South America. Avocados have been used in traditional herbal medicine for the treatment of various illnesses such as hypertension, stomachache, diarrhea, and diabetes.

Avocado is quite an original piece of fruit: it contains no carbohydrates, but mostly fat, vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Overall, it is a very nutrient-dense food. Avocados vary in shape, color, texture, and taste. They can weigh anywhere from 200 grams to almost 1.5 kg. The Hass avocado contains about 136 g of creamy and smooth texture edible fruit covered by a thick dark green or blackish craggy skin. The avocado seed and skin comprise about a third of the total whole fruit weight. 

One-half an avocado consists of the following: dietary fiber (4.6 g), total sugar (0.2 g), potassium (345 mg), sodium (5.5 mg), magnesium (19.5 mg), copper (0.12 mg), calcium (9.0 mg), vitamin A (5.0 μg RAE), vitamin C (6.0 mg), vitamin E (1.3 mg), vitamin K1 (14 μg), folate (60 mg), vitamin B-6 (0.2 mg), niacin (1.3 mg), pantothenic acid (1.0 mg), riboflavin (0.1 mg), choline (10 mg), lutein/zeaxanthin (185 μg), cryptoxanthin (18.5 μg), phytosterols (57 mg), plenty of monounsaturated fatty acids (6.7 g / 71 % of total fat content) and 114 kcals energy. It also contains small amounts of zinc, iron and manganese.

Brain benefits of consuming avocados regularly:

  • The high amounts of various phytochemicals and antioxidants in avocados function as neuroprotectors in the brain protecting against neuronal damage caused particularly by oxidative stress
  • Eating one medium avocado per day has been shown to after six months increase neural lutein and improve cognitive function such as improved spatial working memory and problem approaching efficiency
  • Avocado is high in zeaxanthin and lutein, which are related to improved cognitive function in older adults
  • A high concentration of retinal carotenoids (such as lutein and zeaxanthin, rich in avocados) is associated with better attention, working memory, context processing, executive functioning, and processing speed

Prefer organic avocados whenever possible. However, because of their thick and protective peel, avocados typically don’t contain pesticides or other harmful chemicals inside their skins. Rinse and peel off avocado’s skin to avoid harmful bacteria and pesticides (rinse and peel even if you used organic avocados) and remove the seed.

Source: Biohacker’s Handbook

10. Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO)

Olive oil is the main product from olive trees (lat. Olea europaea). Olive trees are cultivated globally but the Mediterranean area with its dry summers and mild winters offer the trees the best climate for optimal growth and harvesting. Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is a key element in the Mediterranean diet because of its usefulness in a huge variety of different foods and cooking and of course due to its delicious taste.

The Mediterranean diet is widely associated with a lower incidence of chronic degenerative diseases and higher life expectancy. These beneficial health effects are partly due to EVOO content of hydrophilic components such as polyphenols (hydroxytyrosol, tyrosol, and oleocanthal, in particular), which are known for their remarkable antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity. The notable health effects of consuming a traditional Mediterranean diet were first reported in the Seven Countries Study, and these findings have been subsequently observed in further investigations.

You can read more about the general health effects of olive oil from the Biohacker’s Handbook’s Nutrition Chapter.

Brain benefits of consuming Extra Virgin Olive Oil regularly:


Source: Omar, S. (2019). Mediterranean and MIND Diets Containing Olive Biophenols Reduces the Prevalence of Alzheimer’s Disease. International Journal of Molecular Sciences 20 (11): 2797. Review.
  • Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) contains lots of antioxidants (such as polyphenols) that are anti-inflammatory and function as antioxidants. Most of the fat in olive oil is monounsaturated (mainly oleic acid, 73 %), which is known for its all-around beneficial effects in the body.
  • Polyphenol-rich foods (especially olive oil) in the Mediterranean Diet are associated with better cognitive function in elderly subjects at high cardiovascular risk
  • The polyphenolic compounds in EVOO protect microglia (first line of defense in the brain) from neuroinflammation
  • An intervention with EVOO-rich Mediterranean Diet is associated with better cognition especially across fluency and memory tasks. The participants also had less MCI (mild cognitive impairment) compared to controls (a low-fat diet) after 6.5 years of nutritional intervention.
  • Replacing dietary vegetable oils (such as sunflower, soybean and rapeseed oils) with extra virgin olive oil has been shown to protect the brain especially in the older population.
  • In older population, a Mediterranean diet supplemented with EVOO is associated with improved cognitive function compared to control diet (a typical Western diet with low overall fat content)

Source: Gorzynik-Debicka, M. et al. (2018). Potential Health Benefits of Olive Oil and Plant Polyphenols. International Journal of Molecular Sciences 19 (3): 686. 

Buying, storing and using extra virgin olive oil:

  • High-quality olive oil is made by picking and selecting the olives by hand
  • The olives are pressed within 18 hours of picking
  • The pressing occurs at a temperature below 27 °C (80 °F), retaining all of the natural antioxidants of the olives 
  • Always choose extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) – it has a darker color, more intense taste, and much higher polyphenol content than other olive oils
  • When buying olive oil, make sure it is in a dark glass bottle
  • Frying with extra virgin olive oil produces the least amount of harmful HCAs (heterocyclic amines) compared to other oils such as rapeseed oil
  • Olive oil has a moderately high smoke point (190–207 °C or 374–405 °F), which means that it is suitable for most frying with moderate temperatures
  • Olive oil contains mostly monounsaturated fatty acids (70–75 %), which are largely resistant to heat. Olive oil also contains very little polyunsaturated fats, which on the other hand oxidize easily.
Souce: Gray, S. (2015). Cooking with extra virgin olive oil. ACNEM Journal 34 (2): 8–12. 

Conclusion

The brain is the seed of your energy, emotions, and behavior. The potential to improve your mood, productivity and energy levels lie in the positive signals you feed your body and mind each day. Science has revealed general links between nutrition and brain function.

A healthy and rich diet usually equals a healthy brain. In this article, we went through Top 10 foods for brain function, which you can easily add to your diet. Even better effects for the brain are harvested when you replace inflammatory and harmful foods with these anti-inflammatory and brain-boosting true superfoods. For example, replacing a sugary morning latte with a sugar- and dairy-free option, or enjoying a daily green shake. Once you have made one healthy swap or added something nutritious to your diet, it is easy to gradually implement more steps that benefit you and your brain.

The brain is an organ of tremendous flexibility and it’s designed to re-wire. Therefore, give your body and mind a chance to try new dietary habits even if it takes a little bit of time. Gradually, the habits that first seemed effortful, will become your new normal. When you notice that building new habits is possible and your brain rewires and becomes healthier, you may also unlock other potentialities in yourself, such as heightened creativity.

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