50+ Brain Foods To Promote Brain Health Well Into Old Age
As always, it is a younger generation that benefits from the experiences of the preceding generations. As neurological disorders become more significant for generations trying to “grow old gracefully,” it may be too late to make significant lifestyle choices that serve as preventive measures.
Accumulating and compiling information as it is discovered may make the difference between living a long neurologically healthy life and succumbing to the ravages of diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s .
Diet over the course of a lifetime can have a significant effect on the quality of life faced as one grows neurologically old. Several different components are required to maintain healthy brain functioning.
Foods that provide fatty acids, antioxidants, vitamins, anti-inflammatories, and energy components must all be consumed in order to have the perfect recipe for brain health. The following dietary ingredients are critical for maintaining a healthy brain.
Essential fatty acids, or fatty acids that must be ingested rather than synthesized, are critical for biological processes.
Two of the fatty acids, Omega-3 and Omega-6, are particularly important in terms of the ratio in which they are ingested; these Omegas have become an increasingly more critical part of the diet that is implicated in the neurological health of seniors.
The Omegas are important nerve and brain building blocks. Omega-3 includes α-linoleic acid (ALA) which humans convert to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
Omega-6 includes linoleic acid which is converted to arachidonic acid (AA).
- ALA: canola, soybeans, walnuts, flaxseed
- AA: poppy seed, safflower, sunflower, and corn oils
Other sources of essential fatty acids include fish and shellfish, pumpkin seeds, and leafy vegetables. Omega-3s support cognitive function and are being studied as a preventative measure for Alzheimer’s, dementia, depression, mood disorders, and neuronal atrophy.
Antioxidants are an important part of the body’s ability to eradicate and reduce free radicals in the system. The free radical theory of aging was postulated in the 1950s as an explanation of cell aging and death.
The free radical is an atom or molecule with a single electron that seeks a pairing in order to become stable. In the body, when a free radical pulls an electron from a molecule, that molecule then becomes unstable and pulls from a neighboring molecule causing a chain reaction.
When this occurs in a cell, the chain reaction may eventually make the cell dysfunctional.
Antioxidants are able to provide the needed electron for free radicals without becoming unstable. They are donators so that the chain reaction may be disrupted and the cell may continue to function. There are a variety of antioxidants that include:
- Astaxantan: salmon, shrimp, crab
- Glutathione: synthesized in the body from:
- Cysteine: pork, sausage meat, poultry, eggs, milk whey protein, ricotta, cottage cheese, yogurt, red peppers, garlic, onions, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, oats, granola, wheat germ, sprouted lentils
- Glutamic acid: meats, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, wheat
- Glycine: fish, beans, legumes, dairy products, meats
- Anthocyanosides: green, leafy and cruciferous vegetables, whole berries
- Curcumin: derived from the spice turmeric
Antioxidants are measured in terms of their Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity, or ORAC score. This scale was designed by the National Institute on Aging division of the National Institutes of Health. The USDA and EFSA do not endorse ORAC values as a valid means of measuring the biological capabilities or properties in various foods.
Regardless, it is not surprising to find that foods that rate highest on ORAC scales include spices like cinnamon and turmeric, cloves, berries, cherries, plums, broccoli, red leaf lettuce, asparagus, pecans, walnuts, dark chocolate and cocoa, and garlic.
These are foods that have multiple brain health benefits.
Vitamin Impact on Neurotransmitter Health
In addition to maximizing antioxidant potential, there is a vitamin profile that research shows prevents brain mass shrinkage in older adults. In combination with our Omega-3s, it is important to keep substantial levels of vitamins B, C, D, and E in our bodies to enhance our cognitive abilities.
- Vitamin B family: Vitamin B6, B12, and folic acid are important for healthy neurotransmitter functioning. It is, however, possible to take too much of the B’s, creating adverse side effects such as balance problems. B6 is particularly important in maintaining healthy levels of dopamine, which is a problematic neurotransmitter in Parkinson’s disease.
- B6 foods: spinach, bell peppers, bananas, garlic, celery, turnip greens, chicken, turkey, beef, fish,
- B12 foods: meats, dairy, eggs
- Folic acid foods: leafy greens, fruits, legumes
- Vitamin C: important for catecholamine neurotransmitter synthesis (epinephrine, norepinephrine, and dopamine.) Helps in the regulation of cell energy production, iron transport, collagen formation for myelin sheath lining around nerves. Research shows that Alzheimer’s disease patients have deficient levels of vitamin C.
- Citrus fruits, guava, red and green sweet peppers, kiwi, strawberries, Brussels sprouts, cantaloupe
- Vitamin D: also has been associated with cognitive declines in aging populations. The sun is a critical element in the synthesizing of vitamin D in the body.
- Cod liver oil, salmon, shrimp, mackerel, sardines, fortified juices and milk.
- Vitamin E: composed of eight natural components that need to be balanced in the blood. One 2010 study found that elderly subjects who had high levels of all of the E family components in their blood had a 45-to-54 percent lower risk rate of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
- Almonds, sunflower seeds, turnip greens, mustard greens, spinach, Swiss chard, breakfast cereals, nuts, tomato paste
Another important combination of ingredients for neurotransmitter health is the combination of B12, folic acid, magnesium, and the amino acid tyrosine. These are important in assisting with the manufacture of dopamine and norepinephrine.
Protein rich foods can help the neurotransmitter improve sleep patterns, increase pain tolerance, and quiet food cravings.
As mentioned, dopamine is implicated in Parkinson’s disease. Norepinephrine is synthesized from dopamine and is critical in attention, sympathetic nervous system response including “fight or flight” responses, and decision making processes.
- Magnesium: found in leafy greens, whole unrefined grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
- Tyrosine: chicken, turkey, fish, peanuts, almonds, avocados, milk, cheese, seeds, bananas, beans
Tryptophan is another amino acid that plays a role in neurotransmitter health. Serotonin is a calming neurotransmitter, in contrast to norepinephrine.
Unlike other amino acids which compete in the blood stream, tryptophan interacts directly by crossing the blood brain barrier resulting in high levels of serotonin. Protein rich foods including poultry, especially turkey, meats, dairy, eggs, and legumes are good sources of tryptophan and can help the neurotransmitter improve sleep patterns, increase pain tolerance, and quiet food cravings.
Acetylcholine is one of the neurotransmitters that are critical for brain functioning, particularly in aging. Acetylcholine is responsible for memory and general cognitive functioning.
It is manufactured from the water soluble fatlike choline nutrient found in liver, eggs, cod, chicken, milk, wheat germ, tofu, kidney beans, brown rice, peanuts, and almonds. The supplement citicoline may also be beneficial for maintaining a healthy acetylcholine balance.
Citicoline breaks down into choline and cytidine which is important for energy metabolism and neurotransmitter, hormone, and cell membrane synthesis. Research has shown that citicoline affects memory, concentration, attention, and mood.
More and more research is showing the negative consequences of chronic inflammation on brain functioning. Some theorists are postulating that the long term effects of concussions and swelling from infection can lead to neurodegenerative diseases in the golden years.
Polyphenolic and flavonoid compounds may be of significant help in reducing inflammation by introducing natural anti-inflammatories into the body.
- Polyphenolic compounds: fruits, vegetables, wine, tea
- Flavonoids: celery, peppers, carrots, olive oil, peppermint, chamomile
Naturally, the brain needs energy to function. In fact, unlike many of the other cells in the body, the brain never ceases metabolic activity and therefore demands a significant amount of the body’s energy resources. Energy for the brain is typically synthesized from glucose that is derived from carbohydrates.
There are two types of carbohydrates, simple and complex.
Simple carbohydrates are quickly broken down into glucose which is absorbed directly through the stomach lining into the bloodstream. When an abundance of glucose is passed through into the bloodstream, the pancreas releases insulin to counteract the excess and convert it into fat stores for later use.
Simple sugars are a wonderful quick ‘upper’ due to an immediate serotonin release that is typically followed by an energy crash. In moderation, this may be helpful to get through the final mental push of a long day, but is not be helpful when trying to sustain concentrated brain activity levels for very long.
Complex carbohydrates take a longer time to break down. Therefore, rather than the surge of simple sugars followed by the flood of insulin leading to a “sugar crash”, there is a slower and steadier supply of sugar released into the bloodstream by the liver.
This supply of energy can be utilized for a longer time to fuel the brain.
- Simple carbohydrates: table sugar, fruits, malt sugars, milk sugars
- Complex carbohydrates: beans, seeds, peas, potatoes, yams, cassava, bran, and popcorn
There is no single food that can act as an antioxidating neurotransmitter boosting superfuel. However, by combining dietary ingredients in a thoughtful way, brain health can be maximized, and the fears we possess regarding the loss of neurological processes can be reduced. Increasing the numbers of healthy foods in our diets can increase the brain’s power to maintain healthy activity into our golden years.
There are many foods that serve a healthful impact in more than one area contributing to brain health. Berries are powerful antioxidants and provide essential vitamins.
Seeds and nuts are excellent sources of good fatty acids and complex carbohydrates for sustainable energy. Peppers provide vitamins and act as anti-inflammatories. Natural, raw, and healthy foods including dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds, eggs, grains, beans, berries, fruits, fish, poultry, and organic dairies can stabilize and promote healthy brain functioning well into our old age.