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Brain-Boosting Foods

Posted by SoundHealth on Wednesday, February 11, 2009
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The foods we eat directly affect our brain function, and eating the right foods has been proven to sharpen your memory, boost intelligence, improve your mood and emotional stability, and keep your mind young.

So what foods and nutrients are essential brain-boosters?

Complex carbohydrates

Glucose is the most important nutrient of all for the brain and nervous system; it is sometimes referred to as brain fuel. The brain consumes more glucose that any other organ, and some carbohydrates are better at fueling the brain than others.

Slow-releasing carbohydrates, like whole grains or vegetables, and simpler carbohydrates like fruit, take longer to digest than refined carbohydrates. They therefore release energy steadily and gradually, providing an even supply of glucose to the brain.

Refined carbohydrates, through sugars, white bread, white rice, etc are all fast-releasing forms of carbohydrate.

When sugars are refined, the sweetness from the food is isolated, and produces a concentrated form of sugar devoid of vitamins and minerals. When consumed, these refined sugars cause a rapid increase followed by a sharp drop in blood sugar levels, by releasing the hormone insulin. This tries to balance the blood sugar levels by compensating for the effect of extra sugar in the body. Other refined carbohydrates like white bread and processed cereals have a similar effect.

Studies have shown that these types of carbohydrates can directly affect brain function. One study found a 25% difference between the IQ scores of children who consumed refined carbohydrates, with those that didn't [1]. Further research found that dips in blood sugar were directly associated with poor attention, poor memory and aggressive behavior. [2]

Good carbohydrate foods

Generally, whole, unprocessed foods are slow to release their sugar and therefore provide good brain fuel. These include whole grains, lentils, beans, nuts, seeds, fresh fruit and vegetables. Choose dark green, leafy and root vegetables like watercress, carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach, broccoli, or peppers.

Limit your intake of sugar, sugar substitutes and foods containing sugar.

Essential fats

Some fats are essential for mental health, and to stay free from diseases like depression, dyslexia, Alzheimer's, schizophrenia, and also to maximize intelligence.

Conclusive research has shown that the amount and type of fats consumed has a profound effect on how we think and feel. The brain and nervous system are totally dependant on the following:

  • Saturated and monosaturated fat
  • Cholesterol
  • Omega-3 fat - especially EPA and DHA
  • Omega-6 fat - especially GLA and AA

The first two can be made in the body, but the omegas have to be topped up through the diet.

omega-3 is important because it helps to make prostaglandins, extremely active hormone-like substances. These have been found to have many important functions for the body, and in the brain they regulate the release and performance of neurotransmitters (chemical substances that transmit nerve impulses).

The two forms of omega-3 - EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are unsaturated and so are prone to damage by cooking, heating and food processing, which is why many people are deficient in these oils.

The best sources of these two omega-3 fats are coldwater fish like herring, mackerel, salmon and tuna. Flax seeds are also a good source of omega-3.

omega-6 is found in the highest proportion in the brain, of all tissues of the body. Good sources of omega-6, especially gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) are evening primrose oil and borage oil (also known as starflower oil).

Some nuts and seeds contain both of these omegas, like sunflower, safflower, sesame, hemp and pumpkin.

To top up your intake of fatty acids, put one measure of sesame, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, and three measures of flax seeds in a jar. Keep the jar in the fridge and simply eat one heaped tablespoon of these seeds, ground first in a coffee grinder (for maximum nutrient benefit), for a good daily intake of your essential fatty acids.


Phospholipids are the 'intelligent' fats in your brain. They help in the production of a substance called myelin, which insulates all nerves and so promotes a smooth running for all signals to the brain. They also help make acetylcholine, the brain's neurotransmitter, as well as supplying nutrients that help to keep the body in balance. Phospholipids enhance mental performance and protect against age-related memory decline.

Although the body can make phospholipids, getting some extra from your diet is even better. The richest source found in foods is from the compound choline, abundant in egg yolks, organ meats and sardines.

Lecithin is the best source of phospholipids, and many people take it as a nutritional supplement in the form of lecithin granules or capsules, available from most health food shops.

amino acids

Amino acids; the building blocks of proteins, act as brain messengers. Neurotransmitters are built from amino acids, and deficiencies in these powerful molecules can cause depression, apathy, poor memory and concentration. For example, a form of the amino acid tryptophan has proven more effective in double-blind trials that the best anti-depressant drugs. [3] The amino acid tyrosine improves mental and physical performance under stress better than coffee. [4]

Neurotransmitters are made directly from amino acids taken into the body from food. From the eight essential amino acids (see article Amino Acids Explained), our body can make the other amino acids needed for the brain, from which neurotransmitters are made.

The best way to tune up your brain is to ensure you have an adequate intake of amino acids in your diet, by eating more protein. The quality of a protein is determined by its balance of amino acids, and the better the quality and 'usability' of the protein you eat, the less you actually need to be optimally nourished.

Good vegetable sources of protein include beans, lentils, quinoa, and 'seed' vegetables such as peas or maize.

Other good sources of protein include fish such as tuna, cod, salmon, sardines, and chicken.

Key Nutrients

These are the vitamins and minerals that 'fine tune' your brain, and aid in processes like helping to turn glucose into energy, amino acids into neurotransmitters and simple fats into more complex essential fats.

Many studies have shown that children given an optimal intake of key nutrients had greater intelligence (through IQ scores), that those on a placebo. [5]

Here are some key brain nutrients; they each have important roles in helping to build up the brain and keep everything running smoothly.

  • The B-vitamins
  • Vitamin C
  • Magnesium
  • Manganese
  • zinc

These nutrients have been explained in previous articles. To ensure you have an optimal intake of these vitamins and minerals,

As you can see, your brain needs a good supply of high-quality foods to ensure it works at its peak, and to protect it from degenerative diseases.


  • [1] A Schauss. Nutrition and behavior: complex interdisciplinary research, Nutr health, Vol 3 (1-2), 1984, p9-37.

  • [2] D Benton. The impact of the supply of glucose to the brain on mood and memory, Nutr Rev, Vol 59 (1 Pt 2), 2001, p.S20-1.

  • [3] W Poldinger et al. A functional-dimensional approach to depression: serotonin deficiency and target syndrome in a comparison of 5-hydroxytryptophan and fluvoxamine, 1991

  • [4] J B Deijen et al. Tyrosine improves cognitive performance and reduces blood pressure in cadets. Brain Research Bulletin, Vol 48 (2), 1999, p.203-9.

  • [5] D Benton and G Roberts Effect of vitamin and mineral supplementation on intellinegence of school children, Lancet Vol 1 (8578), 1988, p.140-3.

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