Essential Nutrients for a Healthy Brain

Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC | Written by Deane Alban

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Without sufficient brain nutrients, your cognitive and mental health will be compromised. Unfortunately, certain nutritional deficiencies are common.

The brain is a hungry organ that needs a disproportionate share of the body’s nutrients.

When your brain doesn’t get the nutrients it needs, it’s harder to be mentally sharp and feel positive.

You also put yourself at greater risk for mood disorders and degenerative brain diseases.

The Importance of Macronutrients for the Brain

Macronutrients are the nutrients that we consume in relatively large amounts.

There are three primary macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein, and fat.

But not all sources of each of these are healthy for the brain.

Complex (Not Refined) Carbohydrates for Brain Energy

Brain cells can’t store energy; thus, they require a steady stream of it, usually in the form of glucose.

These cells can live only a few minutes without it.

Complex carbohydrates, the kind found in unprocessed plant foods, give the brain the sustained energy it needs. 

" Surprisingly though, nutritional deficiencies are common, even in people who eat ostensibly “healthy diets.” 

They increase the blood’s ability to transport oxygen to brain cells and keep blood sugar levels stable.

Starchy vegetables like potatoes, yams, carrots, beets, and winter squash are excellent at delivering a steady supply of glucose to the brain.

Conversely, the regular consumption of white sugar and other refined carbohydrates leads to chronically high blood sugar levels

These unhealthy carbs can shrink your brain and cause memory loss. 

There’s strong evidence that spikes in blood sugar contribute to Alzheimer’s disease, now considered by some experts to be a form of diabetes that selectively targets the brain. 

Proteins for Neurotransmitter Synthesis

The body breaks down proteins into building blocks called amino acids.

Amino acids are the major component of hundreds of brain chemicals known as neurotransmitters.

Neurotransmitters enable brain cells to communicate with each other.

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Examples of common neurotransmitters include dopamine, serotonin, GABA, norepinephrine, and endorphins.

Neurotransmitters control your ability to focus, concentrate, and remember.

They help regulate mood, cravings, addictions, sleep, and more.

Experts speculate that most of us have subpar neurotransmitter levels, but getting adequate protein can help.

Animal products such as meat, poultry, fish, and dairy are excellent protein sources.

You can get adequate protein on a vegetarian diet, but you have to do more planning.

And vegetarians, especially vegans, have reason to be worried about a micronutrient deficiency which we’ll talk about shortly.

The Right Fats for Brain Health

There is no area of nutrition that’s more misunderstood than dietary fats.

We’ve been brainwashed into believing that just about all fat is bad for us when, in fact, fats are essential for our health and the brain.

We’ve been told that when we do eat fat, it should come from polyunsaturated vegetable oils.

But this advice couldn’t be worse for your brain.

People who consume a diet low in fats, and especially low in cholesterol, are at risk for depression and suicide

Counter to what we’ve been led to believe, the risk of dementia is significantly reduced in those with high levels of cholesterol. 

So-called “healthy” vegetable oils like canola, safflower, and soy are processed with heat and chemical solvents that affect the oils’ molecular stability, thereby creating unhealthy trans fats. 

Trans fats cause inflammation and increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, and obesity

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Regular consumption of trans fats can increase the risk of depression by nearly 50%. 

The brain is largely made of fat, 60% by dry weight, so give it the healthy fats it needs.

The best fats for your brain are found in avocados, olives, nuts, seeds, coconut oil, grass-fed butter, and fatty fish like salmon, tuna, and mackerel.

Healthy fats won’t make you fat, but they can help make you sharper and happier.

Brain Micronutrients Most Likely Missing From Your Diet

Micronutrients are the nutrients that the body needs in very small amounts.

These include vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytonutrients.

The brain needs all essential micronutrients to be healthy and function at its best. 

Surprisingly though, nutritional deficiencies are common, even in people who eat ostensibly “healthy diets.” 

Here’s a look at nutrients that are often missing in our diet that can profoundly impact the brain.

B Vitamins: The Happy Vitamins

B vitamins have been called the “happy vitamins” or “anti-stress vitamins” because they can improve mood and increase tolerance to stress.

Of all of the 8 B vitamins, vitamin B12 is one to be most concerned with for two reasons.

First, vitamin B12 is one of the most common vitamin deficiencies.

In the US, it’s estimated that 40% of adults are B12-deficient

Secondly, vitamin B12 deficiency can result in very serious conditions.

It can lead to a wide spectrum of neurological symptoms including mental confusion, memory loss, dementia, nerve damage, fatigue, weakness, and depression. 

Two particularly high-risk groups are seniors, who often absorb B12 poorly, and vegetarians, since B12 is found only in animal products. 

Another at-risk group are those who take medications that interfere with vitamin B12 absorption.

The worst offenders are acid-reducing drugs and drugs for treating type-2 diabetes

If you suspect that you may be deficient, have a vitamin B12 blood test done.

If your level is low, B12 supplementation should bring it back to normal quickly.

Vitamin D: The Sunshine Vitamin

Vitamin D deficiency has also reached epidemic proportions.

It’s reported that one billion people worldwide have a substandard level. 

Getting adequate vitamin D can improve memory and mood and help prevent cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s

Inadequate levels contribute to the winter blues many people feel in the darker, shorter days of winter. 

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It’s nearly impossible to get all the vitamin D you need from food or from the sun.

First, only a handful of foods contain any vitamin D.

Second, for much of the year, the sun isn’t strong enough in most of North America and Europe to allow the body to manufacture vitamin D.

The bottom line is that almost everyone can benefit from taking supplemental vitamin D.

As with vitamin B12, you can have your vitamin D level checked with a blood test to know for sure.

Magnesium: The Original Chill Pill

Magnesium is so important that it’s referred to as the “master mineral.”

The body uses it in hundreds of metabolic functions. 

Magnesium deficiency is a widespread issue, with only 25% of Americans getting the recommended daily amount. 

However, if you get your magnesium level into a healthy range, you can expect to experience:

  • better mood
  • better focus and concentration
  • better sleep
  • fewer cravings
  • greater resilience to stress
  • more energy

Magnesium is so good at helping you sleep and relax, it’s been called “the original chill pill.” 

When looking for a magnesium supplement, quality matters.

Cheap magnesium oxide is only 4% absorbed

Magnesium sulfate, the form found in Epsom salts, causes stomach upset when taken internally.

Better forms of magnesium include magnesium citrate, magnesium glycinate, and especially magnesium l-threonate which is unique in its ability to enter the brain.

Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids

It’s widely agreed that taking an omega-3 supplement is one of the best things you can do for your brain nutritionally.

Deficiency is widespread; much of the world’s population has an insufficient blood level of omega-3 fats. 

There are two main omega-3 fatty acids — EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).

DHA is by far the most important since it is a major building block of the brain that makes it crucial to brain and nervous system function.

DHA accounts for 97% of the omega-3 fats found in the brain

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Memory loss, depression, mood swings, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and attention deficit disorder have all been found to improve with DHA supplementation

Seniors with a higher DHA level are nearly half as likely to develop dementia or Alzheimer’s as those with a low level of DHA. 

The best food sources are wild-caught fatty fish which is not something that most of us eat regularly.

You can find out if you are getting adequate omega-3 fats in your diet with this omega-3 quiz created by AlwaysOmega3s, a not-for-profit organization.

If you have any doubt that you have an adequate omega-3 intake, definitely consider taking a supplement.

Antioxidant Nutrients Protect Against Brain Aging

Free radicals are unattached oxygen molecules that damage cells and hasten their demise. 

Every cell in the body is affected by free radical or oxidative damage, but brain cells are particularly vulnerable.

Antioxidants are naturally occurring compounds that protect cells from the harmful effects of free radicals.

You can see oxidative damage in action by cutting open an apple.

In a short time, you’ll notice that it turns brown.

Oxygen in the air is causing oxidative damage that you can see.

photo showing effects of antioxidants on a cut apple
Antioxidants keep a cut apple from turning brown.

You may have learned the trick of rubbing cut fruit with a little lemon juice to keep it from turning brown (see the apple picture).

While lemon juice won’t keep an apple fresh forever, it definitely slows down the spoiling process.

Similarly, when you consume a continuous supply of antioxidants, you slow down the cellular aging process.

Top Antioxidant Foods

Finding an antioxidant foods list that’s based on science isn’t easy.

The often-used ORAC score is now considered oversimplistic and outdated.

So I was happy to find this top 100 antioxidant foods list published by The European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

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By far, the top antioxidant foods are berries of all kinds, such as blackberries, blueberries, elderberries, strawberries, raspberries, and bilberries.

Other fruits on this list include cherries, plums, apples, bananas, and grapes.

Top vegetable sources of antioxidants are artichokes, olives, spinach, onions, broccoli, asparagus, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, pumpkin, and potatoes.

Some of the world’s favorite foods and beverages also made the list — chocolate, coffee, tea, red wine, and beer.

There are hundreds and perhaps even thousands of nutrients found in these foods that are responsible for their antioxidant properties

Some of the most familiar ones include vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, selenium, manganese, glutathione, coenzyme Q10, lipoic acid, flavonoids, and polyphenols.

Two Forgotten But Critical Brain Nutrients

You might think that ingesting adequate amounts of oxygen and water would be automatic.

But most people use oxygen inefficiently and drink too little water.

And this can have surprising repercussions for the brain.

The Brain Needs Oxygen

Oxygen is one nutrient that the brain can’t live without for more than a few minutes.

While you’re alive, you are clearly getting enough oxygen to survive, but you may not be getting enough for your brain to thrive.

How to Get the Most From Every Breath

Practice Good Posture

Sitting up straight, rather than slouching, can increase lung capacity.

Practice Breathing From Your Diaphragm

Most people breathe shallowly instead of deeply.

If You Smoke, Stop

Smokers have less oxygen flow to their brains.

Exercise!

Exercise is one of the most beneficial activities for the brain.

It doesn’t need to be strenuous.

Walking is particularly helpful for the brain as are exercises with a strong mind-body connection like yoga and tai chi

Eat a Brain-Healthy Diet

This means a diet that includes plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables.

This increases the blood’s ability to transport oxygen to brain cells.

Take Brain-Boosting Vitamins or Brain Supplements

Focus on ones that work by enhancing oxygen uptake by the brain.

Ingredients that do this include bacopa, vinpocetine, huperzine A, acetyl-l-carnitine, and vitamins E and C.

The Brain Needs Water

The brain is 73% water

It takes only 2% dehydration to negatively impact attention, memory, and other cognitive skills. 

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Ninety minutes of sweating can temporarily shrink the brain as much as one year of aging! 

The effects of dehydration on the brain can be so profound that they mimic the symptoms of dementia. 

Some researchers believe that Alzheimer’s may be the result of long-term dehydration of the brain.

Getting adequate water isn’t a given.

In fact, 75% of the US population is chronically dehydrated

We’re often told to drink 8 glasses of water per day, but that is overly simplistic advice.

A better rule of thumb is to divide your weight in pounds by two and aim for that many ounces of water.

equations to use to calculate how much water you should drink
Use this hydration calculator to determine the amount of water you need to drink to stay hydrated. (Image courtesy of University of Missouri)

Knowing how much water you need is especially important if you engage in sports or exercise outdoors.

Camelbak has an online hydration calculator that will help you determine the amount of water you need while exercising.

It takes into account variables such as age, weight, and gender along with the type of activity, intensity, duration, temperature, and even cloud cover.

Steps to Take to Fulfill the Brain’s Nutrient Requirements

To make sure that you are meeting all of your brain’s nutritional needs, here are the steps to take:

  • Take a high-quality multivitamin supplement to get all the vitamins and minerals your brain needs. Numerous studies have shown that taking a multivitamin alone can improve memory.
  • Unless you eat cold-water, fatty fish three times a week, take a high-quality omega-3 or DHA supplement.
  • Minimize eating processed foods. Eat a “real food” diet with an emphasis on vegetables, fruit, protein, and foods that contain healthy fats.
  • Sit up straight and breathe from your belly to get more oxygen to your brain.
  • Exercise every day to oxygenate your brain. Walking and mind-body exercises like yoga and tai chi are particularly beneficial.
  • Don’t underestimate your need for water. Drink enough water to avoid brain dehydration.

Brain Nutrients: Take the Next Step

The brain uses a lot of energy and needs a disproportionate amount of the body’s nutrients to keep working well.

It will appreciate more of the healthy (and fewer of the unhealthy) forms of macronutrients — fats, carbohydrates, and protein.

But nutritional deficiencies are not a thing of the past; some are quite common.

Make sure that you’re getting adequate amounts of the micronutrients that many people are deficient in: vitamins C, B12, and D, magnesium, and omega-3 essential fatty acids.

Lastly, don’t ignore your brain’s need for a healthy intake of water and oxygen.

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