Brain Nutrition: What's Good for the Heart is Good for the Head

There are many factors that may affect your brain health. Optimal brain health and memory can affected by lack of sleep or a number of other reasons including genetics, level of physical activity, and lifestyle and environmental factors. Studies are now showing how nutrition is playing a key role in brain health. As the years progress, cell damage in the brain can occur due to oxygen molecules called free radicals. For those affected, it can lead to memory loss and slower cognitive processing times.

Much like certain foods support heart health, brain function also relies on optimal blood flow to the brain. A recent study found that the Mediterranean Diet supports brain health, and a growing body of evidence links foods like those in the Mediterranean Diet with better cognitive function, memory and alertness. University researchers followed diet patterns of 2,200 New Yorkers (average age of 76) for four years. Those who most closely followed the Mediterranean diet were 40% less likely to develop serious cognitive issues than those whose diets were the least like the Mediterranean diet.

Eat Your Veggies!

Vegetables that are high in dietary nitrates, like cabbage, kale, spinach, and beets are a top pick. Also cruciferous vegetables like including broccoli and cauliflower have key nutrients such as sulforahane to support brain health. Research shows that sulforahane increases antioxidant enzymes in our blood reducing cell damage and inflammation in our arteries. Try adding beets and kale to your next smoothie, add in spinach to your morning omelet, or add some cooked cauliflower into your favorite potato dish. Aim for 4-5 servings of vegetables per day.

Olive Oil For All!

As a trusted staple of the Mediterranean diet, olive oil made this list is due to its ability to support a healthy inflammatory response. Studies have shown how a high olive oil intake (85% of total fat) such as that found in the typical Mediterranean diet was found to protect older, southern Italians from age-related cognitive decline. Researcher Gary Beauchamp and colleagues discovered a component in extra- virgin olive oil that has specific anti-inflammatory properties. Oleocanthal, responsible for the characteristic burn sensation on the mouth, has a unique role in the body. Oleocanthal is natural anti-inflammatory agent, acting just like ibuprofen and inflammation inhibiting COX-1 and COX-2 enzymes. So how much do you need? Beauchamp estimates that 50 grams of extra-virgin olive oil (about 2 ounces) daily would probably be equivalent to taking one baby aspirin every day. However, keep in mind this would add about 450 calories!

Bring in the Berries!

Choose from dark berries like blackberries, blueberries and cherries. These are a rich source of anthocyanins and other flavonoids that may boost memory function. Enjoy a handful of berries for a snack, mixed into yogurt, or your favorite pancake batter. Aim for 4-5 servings of fruit per day.

Note: Avocados, bananas, broccoli, sweet cherries, kiwi, oranges, split peas, potatoes, spinach, sweet potatoes, tomatoes and dried fruit all contain 10-20% of your daily value for potassium. This key electrolyte helps support normal heart function and blood pressure. It also helps your nerves and muscles communicate to further support healthy brain function.

Brain Boosting Omega 3s

Essential for good brain health, omega-3 fatty acids, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in particular, may help support brain health. Seafood, algae and fatty fish - including salmon, bluefin tuna, sardines and herring - are some of the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Nutrition experts recommend wild salmon for its environmental and supply reasons and a 4-ounce serving, two to three times a week is the general recommendation. Try salmon tacos with red cabbage slaw, salmon and eggs for breakfast, or enjoy seared tuna on salad greens for dinner. If you are not a fish eater, you can get omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil supplements.

Go a Little Nuts!

Nuts and seeds are good sources of vitamin E, and studies have shown that higher levels of vitamin E correspond with less cognitive decline as you get older. Add an ounce a day of walnuts, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts, filberts, almonds, cashews, peanuts, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, flax seed, and unhydrogenated nut butters such as peanut butter, almond butter, and tahini. Roasting raw nuts in your oven can enhance the flavors before you add them to your foods. Add your favorite nuts or seeds to oatmeal or salad for crunch or mix them into a vegetable stir-fry for extra protein and healthy fats. If you need to avoid sodium for any reason, buy unsalted nuts instead.

Don't Forget Your D

Vitamin D may also provide brain-boosting benefits. In a study with 1,009 men and women, ages 45 to 60 years, investigators found that higher vitamin D levels in midlife predicted better cognitive skills 13 years later and higher midlife vitamin D concentrations were linked to better outcomes concerning short-term and working memory. Sources of Vitamin D are sunlight, fatty fish, cod liver oil, certain mushrooms, fortified dairy products, egg yolks, beef liver, and fortified cereals.

Many of the foods that are good for your heart are also good for your head, helping to keep your mind sharp as you age. While there's no proof these foods will help you remember all your computer passwords, over time they can help support lifelong good health.


Key References:

Bautista MC, Engler MM. The Mediterranean diet: Is it cardioprotective? Prog Cardiovascular Nurs. 2005;20(2):70-76

Kris-Etherton P, Eckel RH, Howard BV, et al. AHA science advisory: Lyon Diet Heart Study. Benefits of a Mediterranean-style, National Cholesterol Education Program/American Heart Association step I dietary pattern on cardiovascular disease. Circulation. 2001;103(13):1823-1825.

Welland D. The Mediterranean diet: EN goes to Italy and finds it's more than just the food. Environmental Nutrition. 2004;27(6):1,6.

Robertson RM, Smaha L. Can a Mediterranean-style diet reduce heart disease? Circulation. 2001;103:1821-822.

Esposito K, Marfella R, Ciotola M, et al. Effect of a Mediterranean-style diet on endothelial dysfunction and markers of vascular inflammation in metabolic syndrome: A randomized trial. JAMA. 2004;292(12):1440-1446.

Panza F, Solfrizzi V, Colacicco AM, et al. Mediterranean diet and cognitive decline. Public Health Nutr. 2004;7(7):959-963.

Scarmeas N, Stern Y, Tang MX, et al. Mediterranean diet and risk for Alzheimer's disease. Ann Neurol. 2006;59(6):912-921.

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