Food for Thought: How to Eat for a Healthier Brain

Aging, injury and disease can take a toll on our brain health, but research suggests that eating certain foods can help our brains resist some of that damage.

Kristina and Timothy Simeone, husband and wife researchers from the Creighton University School of Medicine, have been studying the effects of sleep and nutrition on the brain for years, and they say that we can and should take steps to protect our brains.

“We don’t know when something bad is going to happen,” says Tim, associate professor of pharmacology, “so it’s better to eat foods that will beef up the brain and its ability to fight damage before the damage occurs.” 

Here are their six tips for beefing up your brain:

Seek out antioxidants

Oxidation is a normal process that helps with energy production, and it happens in all of our cells—including the ones in our brain. But if not regulated, free radicals can be produced.

“Free radicals are the damaging guys,” Kristina explains. “They bang things up and damage DNA, proteins and cell membranes, potentially leading to cell death."

That’s where antioxidants come in. They stop free radicals from wreaking havoc. Your body produces them naturally, but people can help them along by eating foods that are high in antioxidants like beta-carotene, lycopene and vitamins A, C and E.

Carrots and other deep orange and green vegetables are a good source of beta-carotene, tomatoes are full of lycopene, and vitamins A, C and E are found in an array of foods. Foods with a lot of vitamin A include cantaloupe, green and red peppers; foods with lots of vitamin C are citrus, strawberries, raspberries, kiwi and pineapple; and some foods with vitamin E are sunflower seeds, nuts, tomatoes, pine nuts and peanut butter. Blueberries stand out as a good brainfood, too, containing a number of antioxidant properties.

Eat more (healthy) fats

Omega-3 fatty acids are famously good for your heart, but they’re also proven to be great for the brain. 

“They reduce inflammation, are an alternative to glucose as a fuel source for the body organs such as the brain and heart, and they can affect gene expression,” says Tim. “By that I mean they can minimize some of the bad effects of some diseases."

To get more omega-3 fatty acids into your diet, try soybeans, canola, flaxseed oil, walnuts, green vegetables and fatty fish like salmon, sardines or halibut.

Eat a variety of whole foods

Eating for a healthy brain means eating foods from many sources, like dairy, grains, beans, fruits and lean meats. It also means eating foods that are grown, not processed. 

“If it’s packaged or processed, don’t eat it,” they say. “Even nonorganic-grown foods are better than processed foods."

Eat foods that are known to be good for your heart and skin

Foods that are good for your heart and skin are also probably good for your brain. These multi-tasking healthy foods include almonds, spinach, berries, oatmeal, salmon, avocados and olive oil.

Work up a sweat

Good nutrition can help beef up your brain, but Tim says that exercise is key in helping the body make its own antioxidants. Chronic inflammation is bad for the brain, but exercise helps reduce inflammation and increase antioxidants, resulting in a healthier brain.

Get more shut-eye

Sleep is crucial for many bodily functions, and the brain is no exception. It’s been found that important brain processes occur during sleep, and like the omega-3 fatty acids, sleep also helps reduce inflammation in the brain.

Not getting enough sleep can keep your brain from functioning properly. But how much is enough? 

The Simeones recommend 11-13 hours a night for preschoolers, 10 for school-age children and teens, and 7-8 for adults.

“Don’t use electronics (phones, computers, TV, etc.) 30 minutes before bed, and do introduce dim lighting. Also, sleep in a cool environment to maximize sleep efficiency,” they suggest. "Sleep is so important for the brain, for learning and memory." 

CONTACTS:

Kristina Simeone, assistant professor of pharmacology, at (402) 280-2734, kristinasimeone@creighton.edu 

Timothy Simeone, assistant professor of pharmacology, at (402) 280-3832, timothysimeone@creighton.edu   

Source Contact Information

Institution:
Creighton University
Title:
Assistant Professor of Pharmacology
Email:
kristinasimeone@creighton.edu
Phone:
402-280-2734