Neurobiology is one of the hottest areas of scientific inquiry today, as scientists use marvelous high-tech tools to investigate the age-old mysteries of mind and the brain. One of the most heartening results of this research is an increasing body of evidence showing that we can always build new brain cells and new connections between those cells: In short, a healthy brain retains neuroplasticity – which was once thought to belong only to young brains – throughout life.
We’ve all heard that we need to “use it or lose it” when it comes to cognitive health. Crossword puzzles, dance lessons and learning new languages can all help keep the mind agile. (In fact, keeping up with current brain and nutrition research findings can provide lots of mental exercise!) Diet, as it turns out, is also critical for keeping the mind in top condition.
Back to the Stone Age
Several of the common diseases that threaten the brain have been tied to inflammatory biochemical markers that are also associated with cardiovascular disease. There’s plenty of evidence linking this systemic inflammation to a diet that doesn’t fit our evolutionarily determined needs. Looking at how our diet has changed over time can give us some hints as to what we can do to keep our brains (and the rest of us!) healthy.
The original hunter-gatherer diet:
- 65% fruit, vegetables, nuts, legumes, honey
- 35% lean game, wild fowl, eggs, fish, shellfish
Modern American diet:
- 55% evolutionarily “new” foods: grains, milk, dairy products, sugar, artificial sweeteners, high-fructose corn syrup, trans-fats, separated fats, alcohol
- 28% grain-fed meat, poultry, eggs, fish, shellfish
- 17% fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts
Eating more plant foods, avoiding processed foods and artificial ingredients, and cutting back on dairy, fatty meat and refined grains are all steps toward keeping the brain at the top of its game.
Stock up on nutrients
Antioxidants found in a healthy diet provide another important boost to brain health. When there are insufficient antioxidants in our diet, free radicals can interfere with detoxification processes in the body, and promote disease. Colorful fruits and vegetables, as well as green tea, are good sources of these valuable nutrients.
Some of the more familiar, standard nutrients are turning out be keys to brain health: Vitamins D, which the healthy body makes when exposed to adequate sunlight, is otherwise available only from supplements and from fortified products such as milk; Vitamin D deficiency is associated with depression and cognitive decline. Low levels of Vitamin B12 – which occurs only in animal-based products such as meat, eggs and milk – can lead to impaired cognitive function, depression and dementia.
The mighty blueberry
Phytochemical-rich blueberries deserve their own consideration because of their specific neurological benefitss. In fact, blueberries are so chockfull of brain-protective nutrients that James A. Joseph, a neuroscientist who studies them, calls them “brainberries” – and he nourishes his brain by eating a cup of frozen berries every day.
Blueberries – along with strawberries, blackberries and other dark-hued berries – are rich in chemicals known as anthocyanidins that facilitate communication among brain cells and even prompt the growth of new brain cells. The effects aren’t just theoretical: Elderly lab rats nourished on a diet rich in blueberries whip through lab mazes like youngsters.
As beneficial as blueberries are on their own, they’re even better for your noggin when combined with plant foods, like avocados and nuts that contain healthy fats. Walnuts, for example, contain polyphenols and an important Omega-3 fatty acid known as alpha-linolenic acid. When these biochemicals combine with those in blueberries, they make cell membranes ultra-responsive to incoming signals, and, thus, ultra-efficient. For maximum health benefits, choose frozen, organic or wild-picked berries from the far north, where a rugged climate makes for nutrient-packed fruit. (Since pesticides cannot be washed off berries, we recommend that you make it a priority to buy organic ones.)
The moral? Feed your brain with a balanced diet rich in plant-based whole foods and, to be extra-sure, supplementation can help keep your brain in top condition.