Diet

3 Powerful Brain-Protecting Foods

Upgrades you can make to your diet during COVID-19 to reverse brain aging.

Posted Nov 02, 2020

 Conssuella/Shutterstock
Ingredients for a brain-healthy breakfast, quinoa with blueberries, figs, and nuts.
Source: Conssuella/Shutterstock

According to the International Food and Information Council's 2020 Food & Health Survey, Covid-19 has transformed the way we shop for food and what we eat.1 Since the start of the pandemic, 85% have changed the food they eat or how they prepare it, with 60% of people cooking from home. Not surprisingly, 58% of the respondents say their overall health has more emphasis on their food selection decisions than over a decade ago. The primary motivation behind healthier eating is attributed to weight loss (47%), followed by wanting to feel better and increasing energy (40%), improving physical appearance (39%), and protecting long-term health while preventing future health concerns (37%).

When it comes to preventing the diseases of aging, embracing a brain-healthy lifestyle is a wise strategy. According to the World Health Organization, 50 million people are living with dementia worldwide, with that number expected to triple by 2050 as the global population ages. With 1 out of 10 people over the age of 65 living with Alzheimer's dementia, it's worth taking the time to proactively engage in the dietary and lifestyle changes we can make now to protect our cognitive health. Why? Because changes in brain function happen years or even decades before the onset of cognitive impairment,2 making the choices you make today essential to the preservation of your memory.

Given that we have no cure for dementia, our best chance of living a vibrant, joyful life staying as mentally sharp as the centenarians who hail from the Blue Zones is to embrace a healthy lifestyle. This means being aware of the modifiable risk factors within our control to protect our brain health including adherence to the Mediterranean diet, regular physical exercise, cognitive training, restorative sleep, and managing stress levels. We must also be aware of and address the risk factors that accelerate cognitive decline, including mid-life obesity, hypertension, diabetes, smoking, and a history of exposure to traumatic brain injuries.

Dietary influences on cognitive health

The Mediterranean diet has persuasive and robust evidence for the reduced incidence of cardiovascular disease and mortality and in the protection of cognitive function.3,4 This diet emphasizes the consumption of fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, olive oil, and seafood while limiting dairy, meat, and poultry. 

The MIND diet (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) is a hybrid of the Mediterranean diet and blood-pressure-lowering DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, which focuses on food groups shown to protect against dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. The MIND diet emphasizes plant-based foods including vegetables, berries, whole grains, legumes, olive oil, and nuts, along with fish and poultry, and limits the intake of animal fats, fried foods, and sweets. It uniquely specifies the consumption of green leafy vegetables and berries.

In 2015 nutritional epidemiologist Martha Clare Morris, Ph.D., and colleagues at Rush University published a landmark study on the dietary habits of 923 older, community-dwelling seniors (ages 58-98) who followed the Mediterranean, DASH, or MIND diet for an average of 4.5 years and found that rigorous adherence to the MIND diet reduced cognitive decline by 53% while even moderate adherence reduced risk by 35%.5 The top 1/3 of participants who stayed committed to the MIND diet slowed cognitive decline equivalent to being 7.5 years younger in age.6

I have highlighted three nutrient-dense foods within the Mediterranean and MIND diet, each having compelling scientific evidence in support of brain health and longevity. With the shift in attitudes and behaviors around dietary practices due to COVID-19, it provides a golden opportunity to reassess and upgrade our eating habits in support of our cognitive function. I hope you will consider including the following foods into your diet on a more consistent basis for better brain health, and in support of this, I have included a few suggestions at the end of the article on fun and easy ways to do so.

Blueberries slow cognitive aging

Blueberries are foundational to the MIND diet, with berries being recommended a minimum of twice a week on this plan. They are one of the best functional foods for preventing chronic disease and protecting your brain health. They contain compounds that reduce inflammation in the central nervous system, and a consistent intake of blueberries has been shown to slow cognitive decline associated with aging.7 Blueberries have an abundance of anthocyanins (a pigment in the skin responsible for its blue color) and polyphenols, which are responsible for their powerful health-promoting effects. They offer protection against cancer, diabetes, obesity, hyperlipidemia, hypertension, heart disease through their antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and apoptotic properties. 

Berries slow cognitive aging. A 20-year dietary study from researchers at Harvard Medical School in 16,010 adults aged 70 and older found that those who consumed blueberries and strawberries had the slowest rates of cognitive decline. Those with the highest intake of berries experienced a delay in cognitive aging by up to 2.5 years.7

Omega-3 fatty acids increase brain volume and balance mood

The Mediterranean diet includes a weekly intake of fatty fish and daily consumption of omega-3 fatty acids from nuts, seeds, and healthy oils, including extra virgin olive oil. Research shows that when it comes to brain health, a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids supports cognitive health by increasing brain volume, improving blood flow, reducing inflammation, stabilizing mood, and preventing the buildup of toxic amyloid plaques that can lead to Alzheimer's disease. DHA is the most abundant omega-3 fatty acid in the brain and is critical to cell membrane structure and function, while EPA and DHA are potent modulators of inflammation.

Marine omega-3 fatty acids preserve brain volume. In a study published in Neurology, researchers measured the brain volume of 1,111 postmenopausal women who were participants in the Women's Health Initiative Memory Study.8 Levels of marine omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) in red blood cells were assessed at baseline and after eight years. Participants with a higher omega-3 fatty acid index had greater brain volume and hippocampal volume (the brain region essential to learning and memory). These findings suggest that omega 3-fatty acids from marine sources may play a critical role in preventing age-related brain volume changes while also preserving memory. 

In a study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, researchers analyzed the relationship between fish consumption and brain volume in 260 cognitively normal individuals from the Cardiovascular Health Study.9 They report that weekly consumption of baked or broiled fish was positively associated with an increase in gray matter volume in regions important to higher-level cognitive function and memory, including the hippocampus, precuneus, posterior cingulate, and orbital frontal cortex.   

If you want to know if you are consuming enough brain-healthy omega-3 fatty acids to support your cognitive health, you can get an omega-3 index test that measures the percentage of EPA and DHA in your red blood cell membranes.  

Daily supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids reduces symptoms in individuals with clinical anxiety. A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found in a meta-analysis of 19 randomized trials in 2,240 patients that supplementation with daily doses of ≥2 g of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids showed a reduction in symptoms in those with clinically diagnosed anxiety.10

Figs for neuroprotection

Figs are the perfect seasonal fruit for fall and are part of the traditional Mediterranean diet. They contain a high level of polyphenol antioxidants with antibacterial, antifungal, antispasmodic, antiplatelet, anticancer, and hepatoprotective properties. Figs are a good source of potassium, a mineral that your brain needs to function properly. They also contain calcium, magnesium, iron, in addition to vitamin B-6, which can help your brain to produce neurotransmitters.

Figs reduce inflammation. In a 2015 study published in PLOS One, a diet of pomegranates, figs or dates suppressed inflammatory cytokines (IL-1β, IL-2, IL-3, IL-4, IL-5, IL-6, IL-9, IL-10, TNF-α, and Eotaxin) in a transgenic mouse model of Alzheimer's disease (APPsw/Tg2576 mice).11 Furthermore, the study demonstrated that mice whose diets were supplemented with pomegranates, figs, or dates for 15 months had reduced levels of the toxic amyloid-beta (Aβ 1-40, Aβ 1-42) proteins as compared to mice on a control diet.

Like many fruits, figs have anti-inflammatory properties and are high in antioxidants, which help remove free radicals and protect the body from many cancers and age-related diseases. They should be part of your arsenal against cardiovascular, metabolic, and neurodegenerative disorders.

Here are some easy and creative ways to introduce these powerful brain foods into your daily routine:

1. Savor a bowl of blueberries. Consider eating three servings of this antioxidant powerhouse per week for your cognitive health. Not a fan of blueberries? Try blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, cranberries, mulberries, acai berries, or goji berries. Add to oatmeal, Greek yogurt, make a berry chia pudding or eat as a standalone snack. One serving is the equivalent of one cup.

2. Embrace the ocean. Include marine-based omega-3 fatty acids into your diet for the preservation of brain volume and a balanced mood. The American Heart Association recommends two servings of 3.5 ounces of fatty fish per week, such as salmon, mackerel, herring, or tuna. A 3.5-ounce serving is the equivalent of the size of the palm of your hand. Not a fan of fish? A plant-based option is the algae spirulina or seaweed. Alternatively, you can supplement with a high-quality omega-3 fatty acid daily to support your memory and mood.

For a quick boost of omega-3 fatty acids, you can eat plant-based options, including chia or flax seeds, which can be sprinkled on top of salads, or add slices of avocado on top of sprouted grain bread.  Alternatively, you can grab a small snack pack of brain-healthy nuts such as walnuts, almonds, or cashews. Nuts are calorically dense, so you want to keep your portion size small (i.e., 10-12 almonds are approximately 100 calories). You can also make child-friendly walnut-date energy bars.

3. Eat like you're in the Mediterranean. Add figs, dates, or pomegranates as a seasonal fruit option for their powerful neuroprotective properties. Figs can be delicious when eaten alone, dried, added to smoothies (see fig-peach-chia smoothie), salads, or on the top of your morning oatmeal. You can also make vegan raw almond fig bars.

References

1. Council IFI. COVID-19 Pandemic Transforms the Way We Shop, Eat and Think About Food, According to IFIC’s 2020 Food & Health Survey. 2020.

2. Beason-Held LL, Goh JO, An Y, et al. Changes in brain function occur years before the onset of cognitive impairment. J Neurosci 2013;33:18008-14.

3. Estruch R, Ros E, Salas-Salvado J, et al. Primary prevention of cardiovascular disease with a Mediterranean diet. N Engl J Med 2013;368:1279-90.

4. Martinez-Lapiscina EH, Clavero P, Toledo E, et al. Mediterranean diet improves cognition: the PREDIMED-NAVARRA randomised trial. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry 2013;84:1318-25.

5. Morris MC, Tangney CC, Wang Y, Sacks FM, Bennett DA, Aggarwal NT. MIND diet associated with reduced incidence of Alzheimer's disease. Alzheimers Dement 2015;11:1007-14.

6. Morris MC, Tangney CC, Wang Y, et al. MIND diet slows cognitive decline with aging. Alzheimers Dement 2015;11:1015-22.

7. Devore EE, Kang JH, Breteler MM, Grodstein F. Dietary intakes of berries and flavonoids in relation to cognitive decline. Ann Neurol 2012;72:135-43.

8. Pottala JV, Yaffe K, Robinson JG, Espeland MA, Wallace R, Harris WS. Higher RBC EPA + DHA corresponds with larger total brain and hippocampal volumes: WHIMS-MRI study. Neurology 2014;82:435-42.

9. Raji CA, Erickson KI, Lopez OL, et al. Regular fish consumption and age-related brain gray matter loss. Am J Prev Med 2014;47:444-51.

10. Su KP, Tseng PT, Lin PY, et al. Association of Use of Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids With Changes in Severity of Anxiety Symptoms: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Netw Open 2018;1:e182327.

11. Essa MM, Subash S, Akbar M, Al-Adawi S, Guillemin GJ. Long-term dietary supplementation of pomegranates, figs and dates alleviate neuroinflammation in a transgenic mouse model of Alzheimer's disease. PLoS One 2015;10:e0120964.