Table of Contents
- How food interacts with the brain and improves memory, concentration and energy?
- Thus, what food should we eat?
- What should you avoid?
Even the smallest changes in our diets can have a massive impact on the brain’s functions, whether we talk about concentration, memory or energy.
The role the food plays in helping maintain optimal energy, concentration and motivation are very often undermined because mostly we think about food in terms of calories and weight gain. However, essential vitamins and minerals, fiber, protein and healthy fats in a diet have a significant impact and effect on the brain’s strength.
Have you noticed how particular food makes you feel tired or “foggy” or distracted?
Drinking a couple of cans of soda can do that.
Moreover, junk food seems to be as addictive as heroin; fatty and sugary foods trigger the same pleasure centers in the brain as certain drugs. We are already aware that unhealthy food is behind the obesity epidemic, as well.
“Food is like a pharmaceutical compound that affects the brain. Diet, exercise, and sleep have the potential to alter our brain health and mental function. This raises the exciting possibility that changes in diet are a viable strategy for enhancing cognitive abilities, protecting the brain from damage and counteracting the effects of aging”, said Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, a UCLA professor of neurosurgery and physiological science.
When it comes to boosting alertness and memory, there is always room for improvement. Our brain cells (neurons) are always working, even when we sleep, and in many ways, our brain has the toughest job.
Brain food is especially important for the growth of new brain cells. Researches confirmed that our body could create new brain cells. According to the Society for Neuroscience,
“The strength of memory can relate to how many new neurons remain in the brain after learning.”
The new cells can improve your memory and learning, and other brain functions – there are many ways to support the growth of new cells and influence how well the brain function during the day.
Accordingly, the question we ask is:
How food interacts with the brain and improves memory, concentration and energy?
The ingredients from the food we eat enter our brain through the bloodstream, and whichever ingredients make it through, our brain will either focus and be more alert or lose focus and be distracted.
Most of the food we eat will be broken into GLUCOSE, the fuel that keeps the brain alert.
This means that most of the time, we have a certain amount of glucose in our blood, but certain foods release glucose quickly while other foods do it more slowly. However, should you eat the food that releases glucose quickly or slowly or both?
If you eat a donut, you will have about 20 minutes of alertness, and then it will drop very quickly, whereas food such as oats will keep a steady glucose level.
The other important thing we need to be aware of is the glycemic index:
“Foods with a low glycemic index number gradually release glucose into your bloodstream. This gradual release helps minimize blood sugar swings and optimizes brainpower and mental focus,” as explained by the Franklin Institute.
Many foods interact with the brain; however, these four types of nutrients and chemicals are the right for the brain:
Fatty Acids: Omega-3 and omega-6 help strengthen the synapses in the brain, thus enhancing memory.
Amino Acids: Protein-rich food helps connect the neurotransmitters essential for keeping the brain alert, sharp and focused. These are dopamine for the nervous system (and immune system), serotonin for memory and learning (and sleep and mood), norepinephrine for concentration and alertness and acetylcholine for memory recall.
Antioxidants: The compounds that regulate oxidative stress that destroys brain cells. When glucose is converted into energy, extra oxygen is created, that is, free radicals are created.
Glucose: Fats converted into energy, which our brain uses.
In a word, when it comes to boosting memory, concentration, and increasing energy, it all comes down to this: you are what you eat.
But, how food affects concentration, memory and increases energy?
Concentration and memory
Concentration and memory are related to mental skills and complex and complicated processes. We often do things automatically, and with age, the brain needs more time to process information, because it’s harder to pay attention and focus.
The power of concentration comes and depends on the brain’s ability to keep the messages flowing freely. The messages are sent and received between brain cells; these cells need oxygen to send that message, which they get from the blood sugar.
Memory depends on the ability of brain cells to make new connections, and they do this best when they are emotionally or intellectually stimulated (that is why we remember events that are very emotional for us). The key substance in the brain that keeps the brain cells stimulated is acetylcholine.
Energy depends on chemicals called neurotransmitters; our mental activities involve an exchange of electrical messages between the brain cells, and neurotransmitters carry the information. Dopamine, as one of the key neurotransmitters, gives us pleasure and enthusiasm, and when levels are falling, we feel irritated, sad, bored and emotionally empty.
However, while sugary food quickly boosts the levels of dopamine, a quick drop also follows them.
Serotonin, another neurotransmitter, helps with combating anxiety and boosts feelings of content and satisfaction. Carbohydrates, for instance, raise levels of serotonin quickly, but it also makes us feel sleepy.
Thus, what food should we eat?
We created the list of the top 20 foods that help our brain’s activities, impact cognitive functions, increase concentration and focus, boost energy and improve memory.
Not only are blueberries yummy healthy snacks and very delicious in fruit salads, but they are also rich in antioxidants, which makes them the number one fruit to include in your diet if you want to boost memory. Blueberries are high in fiber and low in sugar, which means they are safe for people with diabetes. Scientists also believe that blueberries can help with restoring lost motor and cognitive functions.
A report that was published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry reported that those who drank blueberry juice every day for two months improved their memory significantly.
A study, which was presented at the meeting of the American Chemical Society, reported that berries might help prevent memory loss and mental decline by removing toxic proteins that damage nerves in the brain.
One study presented at the British Science Festival found that just one 200 grams blueberry smoothie increase the power of concentration as much as 20 percent during the day.
When eaten fresh, blueberries are the best anti-stress food. When frozen, they still contain rich amounts of antioxidants.
Avocados are almost at the same level as blueberries when it comes to boosting memory and concentration. They are known for being fatty fruits, but they are incredibly beneficial because their fat content is monounsaturated fat, which contributes to healthy blood flow to the brain, increasing the brain’s ability and productivity.
A study published in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology showed that monounsaturated fatty acids help protect nerve cells in the brain.
The key benefit of avocados includes boosting the area of the brain that is responsible for complex cognitive functions (memorizing, thinking and problem-solving). Furthermore, avocados are also high in antioxidants and rich in vitamins E and C. This means that avocados lower blood pressure, which promotes brain health.
Avocados are, however, high in calories, so ¼ of an avocado as a side dish is enough to boost the productivity of the brain. In a laboratory animal study published in the British Journal of Neurosurgery, scientists showed that a combination of avocado and soybean fats prevents oxidation and protects against nerve damage.
The author of the book Change your brain, Change your life explains how avocados are one of the most effective brain-healthy food that can also prevent Alzheimer’s disease due to the folate that prevents the formation of brain tangles, which are considered a factor for Alzheimer’s.
Sweet or salty, nuts are such a powerful brain food. Walnuts, peanuts, cashews, almonds, filberts, and hazelnuts are Superfoods that fight against tiredness and mood disorders.
A few walnuts a day help boost memory, according to research from the University of California. It appears that those who ate more walnuts performed better on cognitive tests. Walnuts are high in antioxidants, and they are also the only nuts that contain a significant amount of alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid that is known for its brain benefits.
Almonds and hazelnuts are the richest sources of vitamin E and this vitamin is associated with decreasing age-related cognitive decline. Peanuts are high in niacin (1/2 cup of peanuts offers about 50% of the RDA for niacin), and niacin deficiencies are linked with cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s.
Remember that nuts are high in calories, and balanced intake is the key to reaping all the benefits. It is interesting, however, to mention that one study showed that people who regularly eat nuts weigh less and those who added nuts to their diets, lost more weight.
Eating food rich in omega-3 fatty acids may help slow cognitive decline; the fatty acids that are found in fish, boost memory up to 15 percent, according to studies. Fish, in general, provides the body with high-quality protein. Including salmon and sardines in your diet leads to reducing the risk of heart disease, chronic disease, rheumatoid arthritis and slows down aging.
Protein contains essential amino acids that are necessary for constructing neurotransmitters, thus improve the brain’s communication with the rest of the body.
A data from an existing 10-years study, which began in 1989, showed that those who eat fish had 14 percent more gray brain matter, which plays a crucial role in maintaining healthy memory and cognition.
As a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, salmon is great for reducing the risk of dementia, depression, anxiety, and hyperactivity.
Pomegranates are a rich source of antioxidants, thus if you want a quick energy booster, prepare a pomegranate juice.
Antioxidants protect the heart, and people with better cardiovascular health have a better memory. Given the brain is the most sensitive to the damage caused by the free radicals, pomegranates are highly recommended fruits for the brain. Oxidative stress is also one of the potential contributing factors that lead to developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Pomegranates are Superfoods: one cup of pomegranate juice provides up to 33% recommended daily allowance of vitamin E, 13% RDA of folate, 30% RDA of vitamin B5 and 20% of vitamin B6, 9% RDA of vitamin A and 10% RDA of vitamin K.
From one cup of pomegranate juice, you will get 1.2 milligrams of iron, 19% RDA of copper and 13% RDA of potassium.
Chocolate is very healthy, it has antioxidant properties and the perfect amount of caffeine to improve memory and boost concentration. We all know chocolate is a powerful anti-depressant because it increases endorphins and contains serotonin. However, chocolate also enhances the blood flow to the brain.
Harvard researchers conducted a study and showed that people who drank hot chocolate for 30 days showed an improvement in memory while blood flow improved by 8%.
The cocoa’s benefits are coming from its ability to improve blood flow to the brain, and the brain needs a lot of energy to function, thus an improvement in blood flow is beneficial.
“As different areas of the brain need more energy to complete their tasks, they also need greater blood flow. This relationship, called neurovascular coupling, may play an important role in diseases such as Alzheimer’s.”
Dark chocolate (contains the highest amount of cocoa) is particularly good for heart health because it helps restore flexibility to arteries. In essence, good cardiovascular health helps the brain stays strong and improves memory. Moreover, it boosts blood flows in the brain, which helps with short-term memory and problem-solving skills.
Broccoli, spinach, cauliflower, celery, cabbage, kale and Brussels sprout are filled with antioxidants, vitamin C and carotenoids, all very powerful brain boosters.
Our brain is especially vulnerable to damage caused by free radicals, waste products our body creates when cells are using fuel to create energy. Moreover, our brain uses a lot of fuel and antioxidants help prevent free radicals from damaging the cells.
Celery, in particular, is a rich source of lutein, a compound that calms down the inflammation in the brain, which is one of the primary causes of neurodegeneration. This compound is also linked with lower rates of age-related memory loss.
Broccoli and cauliflower are rich in choline, a compound which super-charge the brain activities of animals, indicating that it may improve learning and memory and boost cognitive function.
Many of these vegetables are a rich source of important minerals, such as iron and manganese. Kale and spinach are especially rich in iron, and when we lack iron, we experience mood disorders and cognition related problems.
One study from a Harvard Medical School that included more than 13,000 women found that women who ate cruciferous vegetables lowered the brain age by 1 to 2 years.
Eat green veggies daily and boost your brain with energy.
The caffeine in tea acts as a stimulant, accelerating certain psychological activities. Apart from the fact that tea, especially black tea, keeps one up, it also has a positive effect on information processing and concentration.
When we drink tea, the activities in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain associated with problem-solving skills, increases. Due to caffeine, tea also stimulates the central nervous system and alleviates fatigue, increasing vigilance, concentration, and focus.
Tea, on the other hand, is a powerful source of antioxidants. In fresh tea, one can find antioxidants called catechins that are important for boosting the brain’s activities and protecting the cell damage.
Too much caffeine can cause brain fog, but if you drink caffeinated beverages in moderation, it will improve attention span and other brain skills.
Oatmeal for breakfast is an excellent booster for short-term memory, a portion of low-calorie food that makes you feel fuller for longer. If you add frozen berries, the satisfaction is higher and your brain is more fueled with energy. In a word, fiber-rich oatmeal is the brain’s fuel.
Soluble fiber also lowers blood cholesterol and improves blood flow. Moreover, compounds in oatmeal calm down the nervous system, and fiber-rich food reduces the risk of heart diseases.
Complex carbohydrates in oatmeal help concentration because they sustain energy levels, allowing you to maintain full concentration. Apart from that, carbohydrates also stabilize blood sugar levels. Oatmeal also contains vitamin B6 and promotes serotonin, and high levels of serotonin are associated with well-being and restful sleep.
The most valuable antioxidant in tomatoes is lycopene, a compound that prevents dementia (4 milligrams per 10 grams of tomato paste). Lycopene is found to help maintain optimal brain health and enables the body to stave off the impact of free radicals. Preventing this damaging effect of free radicals results in improved performance and memory, longer attention span, better problem solving and logic skills.
This food is especially important for those who have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, mild cognitive impairments and Alzheimer’s.
Beans are a great source of proteins, minerals, fiber, and essential vitamins. Slow-releasing carbohydrates in beans are very beneficial for the brain’s activity (the brain uses around 20 percent of your carbohydrate intake).
Loaded with fiber, the beans are excellent for cardiovascular health, and a good heart leads to good brain activity. The beans provide a steady, slow release of glucose – the energy for the whole day.
They also have a significant amount of iron and B vitamins that will boost your energy quickly and keep you focused and alert.
Garlic is a powerful antioxidant food and the fresher, the better, whether for reducing cholesterol or strengthening your cardiovascular system.
Garlic is especially great for fighting off bacteria, even more effectively than standard antibiotics. Chopped or peeled garlic has no nutritional benefits. If you can eat it fresh, eat as much as you can stand.
In a word, coffee is good for the brain, if you consume it in moderation. Coffee also contains fiber, which is good for the cardiovascular system.
Opinions differ on whether caffeine is good for memory and alertness; however, one study researched the effects of caffeine on memory consolidation and showed that if you take a caffeine pill after a learning task, you will improve memory recall up to 24 hours later.
Coffee can also make your work more effectively, because it provides an electrical jolt to backwater parts of your brain, potentially strengthening synapses associated with learning and memory.
One can safely enjoy 2 – 4 cups a day, for supercharging your brain. However, the trick is not to drink too much coffee and not to ruin it with sugar.
One study, for instance, showed that coffee is excellent for improving women’s brainpower, while, at the same time, it is bad for men.
Coffee can stimulate the brain, but too much coffee can be counterproductive.
The protein in eggs forms necessary compounds important for neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine. There are many beneficial nutrients in egg yolk; the most important ones are choline and phosphatidyl.
Chlorine is necessary for the brain cells for the synthesis of structural components of cell membranes. Phosphatidyl plays an essential role in cell-to-cell communication, muscle control, and memory.
Do not avoid eggs because of cholesterol, limit other sources.
Rich in vitamin B6 and B12 and omega -3 fatty acids, tuna, mainly yellow fish, which has the highest level of vitamin B6, is important for memory strength and brain health in general.
Many studies have shown how vitamin B6 is linked to memory, cognition and brain health. The B vitamins are, first, among the most important vitamins for balancing your mood. For instance, vitamin B6, in particular, influences dopamine receptors.
This powerful vegetable contains luteolin that can diminish the inflammation when the brain capacity is reduced and help protect against damaging free radicals.
Two important compounds in carrots are dextrose and levulose, which mineralize the nerves and the brain.
Turmeric is a very powerful spice, and the most important compound is anti-inflammatory antioxidant curcumin. This compound is linked with many health benefits: protection against heart disease, arthritis, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease. Curcumin is shown to boost memory and stimulate the growth of new brain cells.
#18 Brown rice
Rich in B vitamins, such as riboflavin, niacin, thiamine, and inositol, brown rice is a healthy memory-booster. All these vitamins are more than necessary for your optimal health, but for the brain, they are important because they produce the energy for brain cells.
Brown rice is also high in fiber and is a very rich source of manganese, magnesium, and selenium.
#19 Olive oil
Avoiding fat can increase foggy thinking and contribute to mood swings, and very often lack of fat results in insomnia, on the other hand, a diet rich in unhealthy fats can have the same effect. However, a diet rich in healthy fats is important for clear thinking, good memory and a balanced mood.
Avoid processed fats found in junk food, fried food, chips, candy bars, and opt for healthy fats found in olive oil.
To stay healthy, our brain needs magnesium, selenium, iron and zinc, which you can find in oysters. Zinc and iron, for instance, are linked to the brain’s ability to stay focused and process information. Thus, a lack of both minerals can result in memory lapses and poor concentration.
Oysters are also an excellent source of omega -3 fatty acids that are, as we already know, powerful brain boosters.
What should you avoid?
Excess amounts of alcohol can inhibit the functioning of the brain. Moreover, alcohol interferes with dopamine production.
Corn syrup and sugar lead to diabetes and obesity, and they are terrible for the brain.
Nicotine constricts blood flow to the brain, reducing the brain’s function severely.
The brain is no different from any other organ in the body; it needs food (energy) to work properly.
To keep your brain healthy, and improve memory and concentration, exercise and learning new things are necessary, but as important as a new diet strategy.
The Franklin Institute, The Human Brain
Neurobiology of Aging. 2005 Jan;26(1):77-90
The Journal of Neuroscience, 15 September 1999, 19(18): 8114-8121
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2010 Apr;91(4):1060-7
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Last article update: 10/13/2019