Banish mental fatigue and strengthen your memory with these powerful bites.
The phrase “food for thought” has never been more true. “Experts now report that up to 66 percent of your brain power today and down the road is entirely in your control—if you eat right, move enough and engage in the right activities,” says Somer, M.A., R.D., author of Eat Your Way to Happiness. The results of your food choices can be as immediate as today, too: What you consume (or don’t) for breakfast has a direct relationship with how clearly you think or how well you recall information by mid-afternoon. Bonus: Dr. Fotuhi, Chairman & CEO, Memosyn Neurology Institute and affiliate staff at Johns Hopkins Medicine, tells us that BDNF, a healing protein found in some foods, can even help the brain grow new cells.
Luckily, you’ll find these smarter-faster-stronger nutrients in a slew of fruits, veggies and meats. Make a mental note of these bona fide brain foods.
The brain consumes more oxygen than any other body tissue, which exposes it to a large daily dose of oxygen fragments called free radicals. According to Somer, years of these free-radical attacks are thought to contribute to the gradual loss of memory associated with aging. However, antioxidant nutrients, including vitamins C and E and beta-carotene can help deactivate the harmful oxygen fragments. With both vitamin C and over 12,000 phytochemicals, colorful produce is the very best source of these antioxidants, says Somer. The research overwhelmingly shows that the more color-rich produce (broccoli, sweet potatoes…) you eat, the better you process thoughts—that’s an easy rule to remember, right?
At Tufts University in Boston, animals fed diets enriched with extra produce, such as blueberries and spinach, performed best on memory tests throughout their lives. The same holds true for people: “People who eat a diet rich in these foods score highest on memory tests, exhibit the best judgment and reasoning, maintain a youthful ability to learn new tasks and react quickly,” says Somer.
Omega-3 DHA is a fat commonly found in fish, and there’s growing research on how it benefits brain function. DHA accounts for 97 percent of the omega-3 fats in the brain. “It’s essential for brain function and is recommended in order to help keep your brain sharp as you age,” says Dr. Fotuhi. However, although many of us try to work salmon into our diets regularly, it can be difficult to consume the two to three recommended servings of fatty fish each week, which explains why 75 percent of the population consumes zero DHA on a given day. Some foods are fortified with omega 3s—the omega-3 ALA in walnuts, flax and soy is good for your heart, but won’t give you the “brain” boost that you get only from DHA (which fish get by eating DHA-rich algae). But keep an eye out for foods specifically fortified with algae-based DHA.
Those of you who can’t start the day without a cup will agree: “You think more clearly, are more alert, have a faster reaction time and can concentrate better after a cup of coffee,” says Somer. In fact, studies have found that people who drink a little coffee or tea every day were up to 70 percent less likely to show declines in memory as they aged. However, caffeine can have its drawbacks. For one thing, the stimulating effects of caffeine linger in the body for 12 hours. And a mid-afternoon cup of coffee or cola can disrupt sleep come 10 p.m., resulting in mental fatigue the next day. Essentially, caffeine is effective only up to your “jitter threshold”—adding more coffee after this point makes you too buzzed to think clearly. Somer recommends keeping your intake to a max of three cups a day, depending on the person.
Low iron levels are a consistent problem among women (as high as 80 percent for active women) and is the most common nutrient deficiency, says Somer. Iron is the key oxygen-carrier in the body and brain, making it critical to thinking. It’s also a component of numerous brain enzymes that help regulate brain function. When iron levels decrease, the brain and nerve cells are starved for oxygen, causing fatigue, memory loss, poor concentration and a shortened attention span. Along with spinach, more iron-rich foods include extra-lean red meat, cooked dried beans and peas, dark green leafy vegetables and dried apricots.
If you’re not a clam person, other B12-rich foods include chicken, lamb, milk and eggs. “Vitamin B12 is critical for maintaining the insulation sheath around nerve cells that allow messages to move quickly from one neuron to the next,” says Somer. “Low B12 levels are linked to memory loss.” Dr. Fotuhi adds that vitamin B12, particularly when paired with foods such as tomatoes, avocados and beets, help to increase blood flow to the brain, which leads to a healthier, sharper mind and reduces your risk of a stroke.