Think of the brain as the control panel behind almost everything — our thoughts, memory, focus, movements, breathing, heartbeat — and that certain foods can help make it stronger, sharper and smarter.
Our brain and diet also play a key role in how long we stay mentally agile. According to the National Institute on Aging, what we eat can directly impact inflammation and oxidative stress in our bodies — both of which can affect our risk of neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Dr. Uma Naidoo, a nutritional psychiatrist, faculty member at Harvard Medical School and author of “This Is Your Brain on Food,” recently told CNBC about what she eats to sharpen her memory, focus and overall brain health:
“Extra dark chocolate is full of antioxidants and cacao flavanols that help preserve the health of brain cells,” Naidoo told CNBC Make It. “It also contains fiber to help reduce brain inflammation and prevent cognitive decline.”
A 2020 study looked at how dark chocolate and white chocolate can affect the memory of healthy young adults. Participants who were given dark chocolate had better verbal memory performances two hours after consuming the chocolate, compared to the group that received white chocolate.
Researchers suggested this was due to the higher flavonoid content of the dark chocolate, “which can acutely improve cognitive function in humans.”
Extra dark chocolate should be at least 70% cacao or greater, according to Naidoo.
Then there are berries.
“Berries are packed with antioxidants, phytonutrients, fiber, vitamins and minerals,” Naidoo said in the interview. “These nutrients help retain memory, and the fiber content helps feed microbes in the gut to reduce brain inflammation.”
She suggests choosing from an assortment of red, blue and black-colored berries. Strawberries, for example, are rich in flavonoids and may help slow down cognitive decline; blueberries contain different types of flavonoids linked with preventing oxidative stress; and blackberries are great sources of antioxidants, which help brain cell health.
“Eating a variety of colorful berries can also reduce symptoms of anxiety and help fend off neurodegenerative diseases like dementia,” says Naidoo.
Elsewhere, one of the major ingredients in curry powder, turmeric contains a compound called curcumin, which is the secret behind its brain-boosting benefits.
“Curcumin is a powerful anti-inflammatory substance,” Naidoo explained. “Consuming it, studies have found, can help reduce symptoms of anxiety and lower cognitive decline with age.”
Turmeric is good solo, but the benefits can be stronger when combined with black pepper. Naidoo always adds “a pinch of black pepper in turmeric because piperine — the compound in black pepper — activates the curcumin and increases the bioavailability to the brain and the body.”
You can incorporate turmeric and black pepper into your diet by adding it to a hearty rice dish, a side of potatoes, a golden milk latte or some oatmeal.
“Leafy greens are a staple in brain-healthy diets because they contain folate, which is a B vitamin that supports neurodevelopment and neurotransmitter function,” Naidoo highlighted. “Folate deficiency has been tied to increased symptoms of depression as well as cognitive aging.”
Naidoo says her favorite leafy greens include:
- Dandelion greens
- Swiss chard
Not a salad fan? You can also enjoy them as creative ingredients in your favorite dishes, like pasta, burritos or as a pizza topping.