Eating a healthy diet is a great way to support your brain health and cognitive function. The foods we eat are vital for the structure and health of our brain and brain cells and can help to support both short- and long-term mental health and mental function.
The brain uses around 20% of the body’s calories and so needs plenty of good fuel to support its functioning throughout the day. Omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants are essential to build and repair brain cells and help to reduce cellular stress and inflammation – which are linked to neurodegeneration. Other nutrients including vitamins B, D, E, and choline have been associated with improved cognitive function.
Read on to discover our favourite brain health foods and mushrooms to support cognitive health.
7 foods your brain needs
1. Omega-3 rich foods
Foods rich in omega-3 include fatty fish such as Salmon, Mackerel as well as seeds like Flaxseeds and Walnuts. About 60% of the brain is made from fat, and half of that is omega-3 fatty acids. They help to build brain cells and nerve cells, and are essential for learning and memory. Studies show eating omega-3 rich foods may boost mental function and stave off cognitive decline.
2. Whole grains
Whole grains are rich in B-vitamins which are vital for brain function, regulating mood and supporting mental health. They are also rich in vitamin E which may contribute to improved cognition. (1)
A 2018 study suggests caffeine may increase the brain’s capacity for processing information. (2) Coffee helps to support alertness and concentration and is also rich in antioxidants which may support brain health. Long term coffee consumption has been linked with a reduced risk of cognitive decline and neurodegeneration.
Berries are rich in antioxidants to combat inflammation and oxidative stress. A 2014 review highlights that the antioxidants in berries may have many benefits for the brain including improved communication, reduced inflammation, increased plasticity (which helps the brain form new connections) and reduced/delayed cognitive decline. (3)
Turmeric is abundant in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds that have been shown to improve memory, support mood and mental health, and boost brain-derived neurotrophic factor which helps brain cells grow, mature, and helps to maintain them.
The caffeine in green tea supports cognitive function, alertness, performance, memory, and focus. Matcha is rich in L-theanine which can cross the blood-brain barrier and increase GABA activity which helps to reduce anxiety and support relaxation. It is rich in antioxidants to protect the brain from cognitive decline.
Of course, they would be one of our top brain health foods. Studies show that people who regularly ate small amounts of mushrooms in their diets had a much lower risk of mild cognitive impairment (which can lead to neurodegenerative conditions).
Many mushrooms contain a compound called ‘ergothioneine’ which is a unique antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compound that may have a direct effect on the risk of cognitive decline. Other compounds found in mushrooms like hericenones and erinacines also appear to contribute to the growth of brain cells and cognitive function.
Type of mushrooms for brain health
The most popular mushroom known for supporting brain health is Lion’s Mane. Lion’s Mane has a long history of use for cognitive health and was used by Buddhist monks to enhance brain power and heighten focus during meditation.
In recent years Lion’s Mane has been investigated for its beneficial effects on cognitive health. Lion’s Mane stimulates the production of nerve growth factor (NGF) which helps to maintain the neurons which are responsible for helping us to process and transmit information – aiding learning and memory. It is also rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds and can help to modulate the immune system.
Lion’s Mane’s unique properties and benefits for brain health are due to the two families of compounds it produces: the erinacines and the hericenones which have strong antibacterial activity and help stimulate the generation of nerve growth factor (NGF). There are strong links between NGF deficiency and neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.
There are many other medicinal mushrooms that also offer support for brain health. Reishi is the most anti-inflammatory of all the mushrooms, reducing inflammation enables better brain functioning and performance, with more blood and oxygen flowing to the brain.
Reishi has anti-inflammatory benefits which may protect nerves and brain cells from inflammation – which can cause cognitive decline. Reishi has also been shown in studies to have highly therapeutic effects on neurodegenerative disorders, and similarly to Lion’s Mane mushroom, helps to support the production of NGF which is essential for neurological functioning.
Cordyceps also shows much promise for brain health and has been used as a nootropic for centuries in Asia. Cordyceps has strong anti-inflammatory properties that can help to stave off the death of neuronal cells to prevent memory loss and help to reduce the negative effects of stress on the mind and body. Chronic inflammatory stress on the body and brain can impair memory, cognitive processing, judgement and reasoning.
Studies have found that Cordyceps can help to improve memory impairments, offer neuroprotective benefits and reduce inflammation. Cordyceps also shows much promise for brain health and has been used as a nootropic for centuries in Asia. Cordyceps has strong anti-inflammatory properties that can help to stave off the death of neuronal cells to prevent memory loss and help to reduce the negative effects of stress on the mind and body.
Chronic inflammatory stress on the brain and body can impair memory, cognitive processing, judgement and reasoning. Studies have found that Cordyceps can help to improve learning, memory impairments and offer neuroprotective benefits – reducing inflammatory markers in the brain.
Foods that are bad for your brain
There are many foods that would be worth reducing or avoiding if you are looking to support your brain health such as sugary drinks, highly processed and refined carbohydrates, trans-fats, artificial sweeteners and alcohol.
Include our list of brain-supporting foods as part of a healthy diet to help support your cognitive health.
Researches about brain health and diet
The typical Western diet is not brain-friendly, it is high in saturated fat, sugar and processed foods which have been shown to have detrimental effects on cognitive health and mood in experimental models after even short periods of eating such diets.
Eating high-quality foods that contain lots of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants nourishes the brain and protects it from oxidative stress which can damage cells. A large study showed a quality diet leads to larger brain tissue volumes, suggesting that nutrition has an effect on neurodegeneration via brain structure. (4)
Making sure to include plenty of polyphenol-rich foods (berries, cacao, olives, coffee) may support brain health in a number of ways and influences signalling pathways that mediate inflammation in the brain which are linked to a range of neurodegenerative disorders. (5)
The best advice for a healthy diet to support cognitive function focuses around consuming a variety of natural foods that have undergone the least processing. Regularly include our top brain health foods and add in some medicinal mushrooms which offer a simple and easy way to support the body and mind, and enable us to function and perform at our best.