Brain Foods to Boost Memory & Mood (in-depth guide)

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Last updated July 24, 2023.
Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC. Written by Deane Alban.

Upgrading your diet with our brain foods guide will help you think better and be more positive and productive. Get the data-driven information you need here.

Every bite of food you eat is a choice that either helps or harms your brain.

The wrong foods — like sugar and trans fats — can leave you feeling mentally foggy, anxious, and depressed, while the right foods can help you be mentally sharp, positive, and productive.

Certain foods are particularly high in the nutrients needed to create, protect, and repair brain cells.

They also supply the building blocks of neurotransmitters — brain chemicals that largely control how well you learn and remember, how happy and motivated you are, and how easily you can relax and enjoy life.

Foods that are rich in essential brain nutrients will not only protect against a variety of mental disorders today, but will also help prevent degenerative brain diseases in years to come.

We call these brain foods.

How to Get the Most From This Guide

In this guide, we’ll look at the best of the best — the top brain foods — and the remarkable things they can do for brain health and mental well-being.

Some of these foods are known for their long-standing healthy reputations, while others have only recently been recognized as the powerhouses they are.

We’ve also included shopping, storing, and preparation tips so that you’ll reap maximum brain nutrition from every bite you take and every dollar you spend.

1. Fatty Fish: For Brain-Essential Omega-3s

cooked salmon on a plate

Fish deservedly has a reputation as a top-notch brain food.

It’s an outstanding source of protein that’s needed to form mood-boosting neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine.

It’s also an excellent source of vitamin B12, an essential vitamin for a healthy brain and nervous system.

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But where fish really shines is as a major dietary source of omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAs), quite possibly the most important group of nutrients for your brain.

Unfortunately, typical modern diets are short on omega-3s.

It’s estimated that 80% of us do not get enough of them

Omega-3 EFAs are a key structural component of brain cell membranes and nerve cells, so it’s no exaggeration to say that the quality of your brain cells depends on the availability of these healthy fats.

Omega-3s are strongly anti-inflammatory.

This is important since chronic brain inflammation contributes to depression, anxiety, brain fog, ADHD, and even serious degenerative disorders such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. 

Eating fish is a proven mood booster.

fish high in omega-3 fatty acids and low in mercury

It can help keep depression at bay, including conditions like postpartum depression and seasonal affective disorder (SAD). 

Major fish-eating countries like Japan and Iceland (which consume 103 and 186 pounds per year, respectively) have low rates of SAD in spite of their northern latitudes with long periods of darkness. 

If you take an antidepressant, eating fish can enhance its effectiveness

Fish is an exceptional source of one particular omega-3 critical for brain function — DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).

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DHA is a major structural component of the brain and makes up 97% of all the omega-3 fats in the brain

Insufficient DHA is a factor in depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, ADHD, premature brain aging, age-related cognitive decline, brain shrinkage, dementia, and Alzheimer’s. 

Be aware that not all fish are equally abundant in omega-3s.

By far the best sources are cold-water, fatty fish such as wild-caught herring, salmon, mackerel, and sardines. 

Typical canned tuna, the most widely consumed fish, is a decent source of omega-3s but, unfortunately, is also high in mercury. 

RECOMMENDED: Harvard Medical School recommends eating 12 ounces of fish per week but sticking with those low in mercury.

helpful tips

Buying Healthy Fish

While there are legitimate concerns about mercury and other contaminants in fish, it’s widely agreed that the benefits of moderate fish consumption outweigh the risks, especially if you’re eating wild-caught rather than farmed fish. 

Farmed salmon notoriously appears on the Environmental Defense Fund’s list of worst seafood choices for the environment.

It contains high concentrations of dioxins and pesticides, and more PCBs (a class of industrial chemicals) than any other protein source.

When buying fish, look for those that are both high in omega-3s and low in mercury and other contaminants.

The fish that meet these criteria are on a rather short list.

Look specifically for these fish caught in these parts of the world:

  • Pacific sardines (from the US or Canada), Spanish sardines, orangespot sardines, or Japanese sardinellas 
  • The 5 species of wild salmon (from the US Pacific Northwest, especially Alaska) — chinook, chum, coho, pink, and sockeye 

When buying salmon, skip “Atlantic” salmon which is always farmed.

If you buy canned tuna, note that albacore (from the US or Canada) is the only tuna rated “high” in omega-3s.

But since it contains a “moderate” (rather than low) amount of mercury, it’s generally recommended that you eat no more than 3 servings of tuna per month

Related on Be Brain Fit —
The Brain Benefits of Omega-3 Fats

Performance Lab

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It’s almost impossible to live a lifestyle that provides all the nutrients needed for good brain health and performance. The reason? All of us confront multiple nutrient thieves — stress, poor diet, insomnia, pharmaceuticals, pollution, and more — that steal nutrients that the brain needs to thrive.

Taking quality nutritional supplements:
  • Provides the building blocks to create new brain cells and brain chemicals
  • Helps increase resilience to stress to avoid mental burnout
  • Supplies the brain with the fuel it needs for mental energy

A foundational principle of mental health and cognitive performance is to supply the brain with the best nutrition possible. Now, when you buy a 3-month supply of any Performance Lab supplement, you get an extra month free. This 25% discount includes free shipping worldwide. See why I recommend Performance Lab.

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2. Eggs: For Memory and Learning

brown eggs in a bowl

Eggs are packed with protein and vitamin B12 and can be a significant source of omega-3 fatty acids.

Eggs are high in tryptophan, an amino acid that’s a building block of the “happiness” neurotransmitter serotonin. 

Whole eggs are a top food source of choline, a vitamin B complex-related nutrient that 90% of us don’t get enough of

Choline is a precursor of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that plays a central role in memory and learning. 

If you feel like you are experiencing “senior moments,” you may be deficient in acetylcholine.

Adequate acetylcholine is critical for a sharp memory and for quick and focused thinking as we age — low levels have been linked to Alzheimer’s

Choline is also the precursor of another important brain nutrient, citicoline

Citicoline naturally occurs in every cell in the body but is especially prevalent in brain cells.

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Choosing the right brain supplement is all about quality. Now, when you buy a 3-month supply of Mind Lab Pro, you get an extra month free. This 25% discount includes free shipping worldwide. See why I recommend Mind Lab Pro.

Dr. Pat

Citicoline increases blood flow to the brain and enhances the brain’s ability to utilize blood glucose, its main source of fuel. 

Unfortunately, eggs have gotten a bad rap for containing cholesterol but, in fact, your brain needs cholesterol.

Your brain is your fattiest organ — it contains approximately 60% fat and includes 25% of your body’s total cholesterol

As award-winning research scientist Datis Kharrazian, PhD, DHSc, explains in his book Why Isn’t My Brain Working?, your brain will literally start to eat itself for the raw materials it needs when there isn’t enough dietary fat available.

omega-3 content of eggs

Additionally, there’s no actual evidence that eggs contribute to heart disease in healthy individuals. 

In fact, eggs raise good cholesterol (HDL) and turn bad cholesterol (LDL) into a harmless form. 

If you’ve been avoiding eggs, give yourself permission to add them back into your diet.

Even the conservative American Heart Association no longer recommends avoiding eggs and suggests eating one egg per day as part of a healthy diet.

RECOMMENDED: There is no official guideline as to how many eggs to eat, but a reasonable rule of thumb seems to be one egg per day. However, some people eat considerably more with no ill effects. 

helpful tips

Buying Eggs

When shopping for eggs, you’ll see grade A, cage-free, organic, free-range, and more. How to choose?

Look for eggs from free-range hens.

These contain substantially more nutrients than their mass-produced counterparts. 

Eggs from free-range hens contain twice the omega-3 fats and more vitamins A, B, D, and E than those from factory-raised hens. 

Free-range eggs also contain one-third less cholesterol, if this is of concern to you.

There’s no need to pay more for brown eggs since they contain no more nutrients than white eggs.

Eggs of different colors simply come from different breeds of hens. 

And whatever you do, eat whole eggs, not just the whites.

The yolk contains most of the nutrients that the brain needs.

Performance Lab

It’s almost impossible to live a lifestyle that provides all the nutrients needed for good brain health and performance. The reason? All of us confront multiple nutrient thieves — stress, poor diet, insomnia, pharmaceuticals, pollution, and more — that steal nutrients that the brain needs to thrive.

Taking quality nutritional supplements:
  • Provides the building blocks to create new brain cells and brain chemicals
  • Helps increase resilience to stress to avoid mental burnout
  • Supplies the brain with the fuel it needs for mental energy

A foundational principle of mental health and cognitive performance is to supply the brain with the best nutrition possible. Now, when you buy a 3-month supply of any Performance Lab supplement, you get an extra month free. This 25% discount includes free shipping worldwide. See why I recommend Performance Lab.

Dr. Pat

3. Berries: Antioxidant Powerhouses

basket of berries

All fruits are loaded with vitamins, fiber, and phytonutrients, but berries are in a class of their own.

Berries of all kinds — blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries — usually make it to the top of any brain foods list.

They are bursting with flavonoids, a group of potent antioxidants that protect brain cells from oxidative damage.

One group of flavonoids in particular, the anthocyanins, gives berries their beautiful colors.

Research suggests that the flavonoids found in blueberries can improve numerous cognitive skills, including memory and learning.

Flavonoids promote the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that stimulates the formation of new brain cells. 

Low levels of BDNF are associated with several neurological and mood disorders, including depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.

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Berries also protect the brain from chronic inflammation. 

Chronic brain inflammation shuts down energy production in brain cells leading to vague symptoms like mental fatigue and brain fog as well as recognized disorders such as ADHD, anxiety, and depression. 

Blueberries can forestall age-related mental decline and protect against Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases by clearing the brain of toxic proteins

Berries’ flavonoids chelate toxic metals, helping remove them from brain cells. 

Polyphenols are natural compounds found in berries that help keep the brain fit and healthy by increasing brain plasticity

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to keep changing and potentially improving throughout its lifetime.

Lastly, berries are a source of resveratrol, a polyphenol that’s been called “the fountain of youth.”

Many people drink red wine for its resveratrol, but berries are, in fact, a better source. 

Resveratrol has been shown to enhance brain function, memory, and brain connectivity in older adults. 

RECOMMENDED: Harvard Medical School recommends eating 3-4 servings of berries per week

helpful tips

Buying Berries

Fresh berries are not always available and can be expensive.

But you can buy frozen berries anytime. They are convenient and economical.

Counterintuitively, freezing actually improves the availability of berries’ antioxidants. 

Buy organic berries when possible, especially strawberries.

Strawberries contain more pesticides than any other fruit or vegetable and have the dubious honor of being #1 on the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” list.

Related on Be Brain Fit —
Essential Nutrients for a Healthy Brain

4. Avocados: Possibly Nature’s Most Perfect Food

cut avocados

Avocados are a creamy, nutrient-dense fruit that some have called the world’s perfect food. 

Botanists classify them as a berry — albeit a very big one! 

Unlike other fruits that are mainly carbohydrates, avocados are mostly fat, 75% of which is monounsaturated, the same healthy kind found in olive oil. 

Monounsaturated fats support the production of acetylcholine, the memory and learning brain chemical mentioned earlier in our Eggs section

The brain normally uses glucose for energy, but it can also burn healthy fat as a “super fuel.” 

Avocados are an excellent source of vitamins your brain needs like C, E, K, and the B complex vitamins.

They also act as a “nutrient booster” to aid the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins.

Avocados are high in tyrosine, an amino acid that’s a precursor to dopamine, the brain chemical that keeps you focused and motivated. 

Lastly, avocados improve blood flow to the brain and are anti-inflammatory

RECOMMENDED: A typical serving size is usually considered 1/3 of an avocado. More commonly, people eat 1/2 of an avocado at a time. 

helpful tips

Buying and Storing Avocados

Buying and using avocados at their peak can be tricky.

How can you tell when an avocado is underripe, too ripe, or just right?

Start by looking at the color.

Once you get an avocado home, you can tell more about its state by removing the stem.

If the spot below is green, it’s not ripe. If it’s tan, it’s perfect. If it’s brown, it’s passed its peak and should be used immediately.

avocado stages of ripening chart

If you need to ripen an avocado in a hurry, place it in a brown paper bag along with an apple or banana to speed up the ripening process.

Once you’ve cut an avocado, it will turn brown and mushy quickly.

The typical solution to keep it fresh is to coat it with lemon juice, but an even better way is to place a thin slice of onion on top.

If you’ve got a ripe avocado you won’t be using right now, remove the meat, cut it into chunks, and freeze.

Later, defrost these pieces slightly and then toss them into your blender for extra-creamy, brain-healthy smoothies, desserts, or soups.

It’s not necessary to buy organic avocados since they are naturally very low in pesticides.

The Environmental Working Group rates avocado as the #1 food on their “Clean 15” list.

Related on Be Brain Fit —
How Acetylcholine Deficiency Impacts Memory

5. Kale: A Nutrition Bomb

kale smoothies

Kale is a superstar vegetable. 

It is featured in the book 50 Shades of Kale by the psychiatrist and bestselling author Drew Ramsey, MD.

It even has its own “holiday” — National Kale Day.

(October 3, in case you were wondering.)

Even if you don’t love kale, there are compelling reasons to eat it anyway.

Kale is a nutrition bomb, one of the most nutrient-dense vegetables in the world. 

It’s extremely high in brain-protecting antioxidants, including beta-carotene, flavonoids, and polyphenols.

One serving of kale contains as much vitamin C as an orange

Vitamin C acts as a natural antidepressant by increasing the neurotransmitter serotonin. 

Kale is a good source of B vitamins, especially folate which is critical for brain development. 

The B vitamins, often called the “anti-stress vitamins,” can reduce memory loss and depression, ward off brain aging, and even help you live longer

There’s evidence now that B vitamins may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease.

A University of Oxford study confirmed that vitamins folic acid, B6, and B12 work synergistically to reduce brain atrophy, improve brain function, and dramatically reduce brain shrinkage in the part of the brain most affected by Alzheimer’s. 

Forgetting words becomes a problem for many of us as we get older.

Kale is one of the best sources of vitamin K, a nutrient essential for verbal memory. 

Kale’s flavonoids are antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and neuroprotective. 

With 60 mg per cup, kale is one of the best plant sources of omega-3s

Kale is a good source of the amino acid tyrosine, the precursor to the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine which are associated with alertness, drive, and motivation.

Lastly, kale is a good source of magnesium, a mineral that most people don’t get enough of.

Magnesium may be protective against type 2 diabetes and heart disease, two diseases that take a toll on brain function. 

Magnesium can help you relax and get the restorative sleep your brain needs to function at its best.

RECOMMENDED: A standard serving size of kale is 1 cup. 

helpful tips

Eating More Greens

Kale is a versatile food that’s not just for salads, smoothies, or side dishes.

There are creative ways to include it in any meal and even add it to desserts!

Kale gets more exposure than some of the other green leafy vegetables, but there is no reason to eat kale exclusively.

It’s a little-known fact that kale, collards, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts are all the same species (Brassica oleracea). 

Other green leafy vegetables, including spinach, Swiss chard, turnip greens, and mustard greens, qualify as “honorable mention” kale substitutes too.

6. Sea Vegetables: The Neglected Superfoods

selection of sushi wrapped in nori

Sea vegetables are some of the most nutrient-dense foods but, at least in the West, are a largely neglected group of superfoods for the brain.

The people of Okinawa, Japan are thought to owe their extreme health and longevity, at least in part, to their regular consumption of sea vegetables

Sea vegetables contain all 56 minerals essential for human health in readily bioavailable forms.

One is a reliable vegetable source of vitamin B12 which is essential for brain and nerve health.

Nori, also called purple laver (Porphyra umbilicalis), is the only substantial vegetable source of true vitamin B12

Sea veggies are one of the few dietary sources of iodine, a mineral so rare in the diet that it’s added to table salt to prevent widespread deficiency. 

When iodine was added to table salt in the US in the 1920s, there was a noticeable increase in average IQ

Low iodine can be an underlying cause of hypothyroidism, a condition that can manifest as brain fog, poor memory, depression, and fatigue. 

Sea vegetables are among the best sources of tyrosine, the amino acid precursor of the brain chemical dopamine (avocados are a good source too). 

Nori, in seaweed sheets used to wrap sushi, is a nutritional powerhouse high in choline, inositol, B vitamins, minerals, and taurine. 

Taurine is an amino acid that stimulates the release of the neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid).

GABA is so important to feeling relaxed and happy that it’s sometimes called “nature’s Valium.” 

When GABA is low, it’s easier to feel stressed out and overwhelmed.

Inositol, formerly known as vitamin B8, is found in high concentrations in the brain where it facilitates communication between brain cells.

All major neurotransmitters rely on inositol to relay messages

Just as you can’t use your mobile phone when there’s no signal, neurotransmitters can’t do their jobs when there’s no inositol.

RECOMMENDED: A typical serving of sea vegetables is 1/3 cup of whole leaf, 1-2 teaspoons of flakes, or 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of powdered vegetables. 

helpful tips

Eating Sea Vegetables

Browse through any Asian grocery store or health food store and you should find a variety of dried sea vegetables.

The biggest objection to eating seaweed is the fear that it will taste fishy or be slimy (and some do live up to that expectation).

Here are some ways to make sure your first impression of edible seaweed is a good one.

Powdered dulse or kelp can be mixed with food or sprinkled as a condiment instead of salt.

Agar-agar is a clear, tasteless thickener that can be used like gelatin to make desserts.

A mild-tasting seaweed is arame. Simply soak dried arame to reconstitute it and add to soup or salads.

If you’ve eaten sushi, you’re already familiar with nori.

You can buy ready-to-eat toasted nori sheets, both plain and flavored.

You can eat it right out of the package as a snack or add it to salads or soups.

Related on Be Brain Fit —
Mental Health Benefits of Taurine

7. Dark Chocolate: For Sheer Bliss

woman's hands holding dark chocolate bar

After kale and sea vegetables, you’re probably relieved to see a food you actually love on our brain food list!

Chocolate is one of the world’s favorite foods and is the #1 food that people crave

There are over 1,500 known chemical compounds in chocolate, making it one of the most chemically complex foods of all. 

Here are the main compounds responsible for making you feel wonderful when you indulge in chocolate.

Chocolate is a great source of tryptophan, the amino acid precursor of serotonin, the “happy molecule.”

It’s also an appreciable source of the anti-stress mineral magnesium.

Chocolate is one of the few dietary sources of anandamide, a naturally occurring neurotransmitter called the “bliss molecule.” 

Anandamide binds to the same receptors as THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the primary psychoactive component in marijuana.

Dark chocolate also contains phenylethylamine, a psychoactive compound dubbed the “love drug.”

It purportedly gives you a buzz similar to being in love

Dark chocolate encourages the production of feel-good endorphins which bind to opiate receptors, causing feelings of euphoria. 

There is a little caffeine in chocolate — enough to boost memory, mood, and concentration — but not enough to make most people feel wired. 

Chocolate doesn’t just make you feel happier, it positively impacts brain health and function too.

It’s high in neuroprotective flavonoids which promote brain plasticity and help brain cells live longer. 

Chocolate’s flavonoids stimulate blood flow to the brain to aid memory, attention span, reaction time, and problem-solving. 

As you get older, the reasons to eat chocolate just keep getting better.

Chocolate can help seniors with short-term memory loss and prevent mental decline. 

The more chocolate seniors eat, the lower their risk of dementia

RECOMMENDED: The renowned Cleveland Clinic recommends eating a one-ounce serving of dark chocolate daily. 

helpful tips

Buying Dark Chocolate

Look for dark chocolate that says 70% or higher on the label.

This is the total percentage of everything derived from the cocoa bean — chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, and cocoa powder — in the chocolate bar.

If you find 70% too bitter, start with 54% and work your way up.

70% dark chocolate bar

The higher this number, the more health and brain benefits your chocolate will provide.

Dark chocolate is extremely satisfying, so you should find that you’ll be happy eating just a little.

Eating dark chocolate has been shown to reduce cravings in general, whereas typical mass-produced milk chocolate fuels cravings for junk food of all kinds.

Obviously, chocolate bars don’t grow on trees, so even the best dark chocolate has gone through numerous processing steps, including the addition of sugar.

If you want the benefits of chocolate with the least processing, give cocoa powder or cacao nibs a try instead.

Both are significantly less processed than chocolate and contain no added sugar.

Cocoa powder has more antioxidants than other “superfoods” such as acai, blueberry, and pomegranate powders. 

You can add cocoa powder to smoothies, sprinkle over fruit, or add it to savory dishes such as chili, stews, or mole sauce. 

And cacao nibs, the raw material of chocolate and cocoa powder, taste naturally nutty and are not at all bitter.

You can use them anywhere you would use nuts or eat them as is. 

Related on Be Brain Fit —
9 Proven Brain Benefits of Dark Chocolate

8. Walnuts: The #1 Nut for the Brain

split walnuts

All nuts are brimming with protein, vitamins, and minerals.

People who eat nuts live longer, healthier lives than those who don’t. 

While every kind of nut offers brain benefits, walnuts are the undisputed champion.

Compared to other nuts, walnuts have the highest omega-3 to omega-6 ratio. 

Walnuts are one of the best sources of ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), the plant form of omega-3 fats. 

walnuts omega-3 (ALA) content

They are the best among the few foods that contain mood-elevating serotonin

Walnuts contain a unique polyphenol, pedunculagin, which has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that may reduce brain inflammation. 

Walnuts have the potential to reverse several parameters of brain aging

They reduce the oxidant and inflammatory load on brain cells and increase brain cell production.

Walnut extract inhibits the buildup of toxic beta-amyloid proteins found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. 

One study on adults of all ages found that eating walnuts improved reaction time, learning, and memory recall. 

RECOMMENDED: Approximately 1 tablespoon of walnuts a day is recommended for improving cognitive health.

helpful tips

Using and Storing Walnuts

It’s easy to remember to add walnuts to your brain food shopping list because the edible portion looks a little like a brain!

To get the freshest walnuts, buy them in the shell.

If you aren’t into nut cracking, buy shelled whole walnuts.

Chop them just before use to maintain maximum nutrition and taste, and to prevent oxidation.

According to, it’s best to store walnuts in your refrigerator, not your pantry, to keep them from turning rancid.

If you plan on storing walnuts for longer than a month, they advise keeping them in your freezer.

Related on Be Brain Fit —
Using Food to Boost Serotonin and Mood

9. Turmeric: Antidepressant, Anti-Alzheimer’s Spice

turmeric root and powder

Most spices — like black pepper, cinnamon, rosemary, garlic, ginger, saffron, and vanilla — are powerful antioxidants and provide some brain benefits.

But one spice that stands above the rest is turmeric.

Turmeric comes from the root of a tropical plant (Curcuma longa) native to India.

It gives curry powder its richly golden hue.

Cooking residue found on pottery shards reveals that turmeric has been used in cooking for over 4,500 years

It’s also an important spice in Ayurveda, India’s 5,000-year-old natural healing system.

Turmeric contains over 100 known compounds, some of which have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and neuroprotective properties. 

Turmeric has been found to work even better than Prozac for depression. 

But unlike antidepressants, turmeric is safe, has no side effects, can be used indefinitely, and can be safely combined with other natural remedies for depression such as SAM-e or St. John’s wort

black pepper increases curcumin bioavailability

Of all the active compounds found in this well-studied spice, the most important is curcumin.

Curcumin elevates the level of your brain’s “fertilizer,” BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor, mentioned in our Berries section). 

It reduces brain inflammation and can break up the brain plaques found in Alzheimer’s. 

Seniors in India who regularly eat turmeric have the lowest rates of Alzheimer’s in the world

Turmerone, another compound found in turmeric, stimulates the production of new neurons and encourages the brain to repair itself. 

RECOMMENDED: To experience turmeric’s benefits, use 1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon in cooking per day. 

helpful tips

Enhancing Turmeric Absorption

Curcumin, the main active compound in turmeric, is very poorly absorbed unless you take one of these simple steps.

Use turmeric with black pepper when cooking.

(Both are ingredients in curry powder — surely not a coincidence.)

Black pepper contains piperine, a molecule that increases curcumin absorption by an impressive 2,000%. 

Cooking turmeric in oil, as traditionally done in Indian cooking, greatly enhances the bioavailability of fat-soluble curcumin.

Lastly, you can prepare turmeric as a tea.

Boiling turmeric in water for 10 minutes increases curcumin bioavailability by twelve-fold. 

NOTE: When buying ground turmeric powder, consider buying organic. 

There has been an ongoing problem with lead contamination in turmeric powder sold as a spice and in turmeric supplements.

Especially problematic is turmeric grown in India and Bangladesh

Disturbingly, there’s evidence that lead is sometimes intentionally added to increase the spice’s weight and/or enhance its color.

10. Olive Oil: Key Ingredient of the Healthiest Diet

olive oil being poured into a bowl

Olive oil is an integral part of the Mediterranean diet, which is largely regarded as the healthiest of all eating plans.

Olive oil’s monounsaturated fats are widely known to be “heart healthy” and are just as beneficial for the brain. 

Increased intake of monounsaturated fats (as discussed in our Avocado section) improves memory and other cognitive functions

Olive oil contains over 30 phenolic compounds that are potent antioxidants and free radical scavengers. 

There are also significant amounts of vitamins E and K in olive oil; both vitamins are important for memory and for preventing mental decline. 

Olive oil raises levels of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor, see the Turmeric section) to offset depression and the effects of stress on the brain. 

It also increases levels of NGF (nerve growth factor), to enhance memory and learning.

Oleocanthal, an anti-inflammatory agent unique to olive oil, helps clear the brain of the beta-amyloid proteins associated with Alzheimer’s. 

Following a Mediterranean diet high in olive oil reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s by up to 40%

Following the MIND diet, a slightly modified version of the Mediterranean diet, reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s by more than 50%. 

One last benefit of olive oil is what it doesn’t contain — unhealthy trans fats.

Vegetable oils like canola and soy are extracted with heat and chemical solvents which creates these dangerous compounds.

olive oil reduces risk of depression

The simple act of replacing other culinary oils with extra virgin olive oil can decrease the risk of depression by almost 50%. 

RECOMMENDED: A typical recommendation for olive oil is 2 tablespoons per day

helpful tips

Buying Genuine Extra Virgin Olive Oil

To buy the best olive oil, start by looking for the term “extra virgin.” But don’t stop there.

Olive oil is a big business and, unfortunately, olive oil fraud is rampant.

An exposé revealed that the Italian mafia makes an estimated $16 billion per year selling fake food, including olive oil. 

Here in the US, class action suits have been filed against major olive oil distributors Filippo Berio and Bertolli for olive oil fraud.

A University of California study rocked consumer confidence when it reported that 69% of imported and 10% of California extra virgin olive oil failed to meet extra virgin quality standards.

Here are a few ways to make sure that your olive oil is of the highest quality:

  • Buy only extra virgin olive oil and do your homework to find a reputable brand.
  • If possible, buy directly from a local olive oil farm or olive oil specialty store.
  • Look for olive oil labeled Ultra Premium (UP). This is a step up from extra virgin and is now recognized as the highest-quality olive oil in the world.

11. Coconut Oil: For Instant Brain Energy

split coconut, coconut milk, and coconut oil
Coconut oil is another excellent brain food.

However, in the past, it has been demonized for its high saturated fat content.

In reality, people who consume coconut oil as part of their traditional diet are extraordinarily healthy and heart disease is almost unheard of

People of the South Pacific Islands regard coconut so highly as both food and medicine that they call the coconut palm tree the “tree of life.”

The main reason coconut oil is considered a brain food is its high concentration of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs).

MCTs are found in human breast milk and are added to baby formula since they’re essential for babies’ developing brains

The brain’s usual source of fuel is glucose, but the MCTs in coconut oil get broken down into ketones which feed the brain directly, bypassing glucose metabolism. 

It’s this property that makes coconut oil a promising treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, which some experts consider a third form of diabetes, a “diabetes of the brain.” 

Neurologist David Perlmutter, MD, author of the bestseller Grain Brain, includes coconut oil as part of his “anti-Alzheimer’s trio,” along with avocados and omega-3-rich grass-fed beef.

trio of brain-healthy fats

PET scans show that the areas of the brain affected by Alzheimer’s can no longer absorb glucose, but will readily use ketones

Coconut oil has also been found to reduce the beta-amyloid plaques associated with this disease. 

In one promising study, adults with mild cognitive impairment showed significant improvement in memory recall within 90 minutes of taking a single dose of MCT oil. 

But everyone can benefit from the inclusion of this brain-healthy cooking oil in their diet.

Coconut oil exhibits anti-stress and antidepressant properties and can delay brain aging

RECOMMENDED: Mary T. Newport, MD, a neonatal physician who pioneered the use of coconut oil to treat Alzheimer’s, recommends starting with 1 teaspoon of coconut oil, 2 or 3 times a day. If you are using coconut oil therapeutically for any neurological disorder, you can download a free copy of her Coconut Oil Dietary Guidelines.

helpful tips

Using Coconut Oil

Coconut oil melts at room temperature (76 degrees F or 24.4 C), so sometimes it’s liquid and sometimes it’s solid.

Don’t keep it in the refrigerator — it will turn rock-hard.

You can use coconut oil anywhere you normally use other vegetable oils, butter, or nut butters.

You can cook, fry, or bake with it, spread it, or add a dollop in soups, rice, or smoothies.

The only caution is not to make salad dressing with it since it solidifies when the dressing is poured on cool vegetables.

Note that most coconut oils taste and smell like coconut.

If this puts you off, don’t give up on using coconut oil.

Look for a neutral-tasting coconut oil like this one.

Refined coconut oil retains the benefits of MCTs you want but with none of coconut’s distinctive taste.

Buying organic is optional since coconut oil generally is pesticide-free

12. Fermented Foods: Nourishment for Your “Second Brain”

jars of fermented foods

One of the most fascinating neuroscience discoveries of recent times surrounds the microbiome, the collection of bacteria, fungi, and viruses that reside in our intestinal tract. 

This community of microbes has a powerful and unexpected influence on the brain, which is why the intestinal tract is sometimes referred to as the “second brain” or the “backup brain.” 

Gut bacteria make over 30 neurotransmitters including serotonin, norepinephrine, acetylcholine, dopamine, and GABA. 

These bacteria influence your health, your mood, and even the kinds of decisions you make.

Some neuroscientists are calling this discovery a paradigm shift in our understanding of the brain.

Ideally, there’s a proper balance between “good” and “bad” bacteria in your gut at all times.

But this balance can quickly get out of whack from antibiotics, stress, exposure to pollution, and the food you eat.

An overabundance of bad bacteria is called dysbiosis.

Dysbiosis creates toxic byproducts called lipopolysaccharides which have numerous negative effects on overall health and on the brain. 

Dysbiosis can also reduce the levels of BDNF, a key factor in the creation of new brain cells. 

A dysfunctional microbiome can be the root cause of a multitude of brain-related conditions, including anxiety, autism, depression, carbohydrate cravings, and chronic inflammation

good gut bacteria produce brain chemicals

But you can encourage a healthy balance of intestinal bacteria by adding fermented foods and prebiotic foods to your diet.

Virtually all healthy traditional diets wisely incorporated some fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, tamari, and miso.

These foods provide good bacteria, while prebiotic foods provide the proper substrate for good bacteria to grow and flourish.

Foods high in prebiotic fibers include apples, asparagus, artichokes, bamboo shoots, bananas, barley, beets, cocoa, chicory, flax seed, garlic, honey, jicama, leeks, lentils, mustard greens, oats, onions, rye, soybean, tomatoes, and wheat. 

Consuming prebiotic foods has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression

RECOMMENDED: If you aren’t used to eating fermented foods, start slowly — a few spoonfuls per day — to allow the good bacteria to establish themselves and the bad bacteria to die off gradually. Then eat one or more servings per day.

helpful tips

Buying Fermented Foods

Unfortunately, few fermented foods at the grocery store contain the live bacterial cultures that are beneficial to the microbiome.

Here’s how to find those that do.

Look for fermented dairy products that state that they contain “live and active” cultures.

Buy plain yogurt and add your own fruit.

Added sugar in commercial yogurt feeds bad bacteria, nullifying some of yogurt’s beneficial effects.

Avoid artificial sweeteners since they are toxic to good microbes

A few kinds of cheese, including mozzarella and cheddar, can contain live bacteria. 

If you haven’t tried it, consider kefir.

Kefir contains a greater variety of cultures than yogurt and is well tolerated even by those who are lactose intolerant. 

Look for sauerkraut specifically labeled raw, naturally fermented, probiotic, or lacto-fermented.

Don’t cook it — eat it cold or at room temperature since heat destroys the good bacteria you want.

Buy only high-quality, traditionally fermented miso, tempeh, and tamari.

Skip supermarket soy sauce that contains sugar, artificial preservatives, and colorings but no beneficial bacteria.

Or you can get adventurous and make your own fermented foods.

It’s a fun kitchen project and easier than you might expect!

Recommended: Upgrading brain health is key to making your brain work better.

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Dr. Pat

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