11 brain health foods that can increase focus and concentration

While there is no magic pill to instantly improve your brain health, there are some strategies you can do now to improve memory, concentration and focus in the long term. 

Nutritionists recommend that improving brain health begins by eating correctly. Do you know that fruits, legumes, vegetables and whole grains have long been supported in research studies as beneficial to your brain? In addition, you can also improve brain health by choosing the right kind of fats in your diet. Yes, fats sourced from fish can improve your brain health and mental acuity! You can also use olive oil or canola fats rather than saturated fats when you cook your meal. 

Studies consistently showed that foods that are best for the heart and blood vessels are also best for your brain. 

Here are some of the 11 best brain foods: 

Fatty fish 

Fish oil rich in omega-3 fatty acids has been associated with better brain health [1]. Fish rich in fish oil include the following: 

  •  Salmon
  • Sardines 
  • Herring 
  • Albacore tuna 
  • Trout 

Do you know that more than half of your brain is composed of fat? Fatty tissues are necessary to transmit electrical signals within the brain. One of the primary roles of lipids or fats in the brain involves acting as the main component of the cell’s membrane or outer covering of neurons. 

Half of the lipids in the brain are composed of omega-3 fatty acids [2]. These omega-3 fatty acids act as essential components of the nerve cells. Hence, these fats are necessary for learning and memory [3]. 

Evidence from studies [4] showed that omega-3 fatty acids are associated with delaying the progression of dementia, a condition that is marked by cognitive impairment. Meanwhile, low levels of omega-3 fatty acids are related to the development of depression and learning impairments. In addition, omega-3 fatty acids are associated with an increased volume of grey matter in the brain, the area of the brain involved in emotion, memory, and decision-making. 

Green, leafy vegetables 

Green, leafy vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, and kale are rich in nutrients like beta carotene, folate, lutein, and vitamin K [5]. Several studies suggest that these vegetables could help delay cognitive decline in older adults with dementia. In older and younger adults, these vegetables are associated with better memory and learning, making these plant-based foods essential in optimising brain health

Green tea 

Green tea extracts are excellent sources of antioxidants. However, do you know that it has been linked to improved cognition? A systematic review by Mancini and colleagues [6] showed that green tea is associated with enhanced memory and attention, brain function, and anxiety reduction. However, the investigators reiterated that the benefits of tea could not be attributed to a single component. For instance, combined I-theanine and caffeine in green tea would improve cognition and brain function. However, their benefits on brain function when given separately are reduced. 

Photograph: Deenida/Shutterstock

Coffee 

Coffee is a popular beverage used to stave off sleepiness and increase alertness. A study [7] revealed that neurological tests significantly improved amongst 21 individuals with no cognitive impairment after coffee. The study participants also exhibited improved executive functioning, including decision-making, problem-solving and learning. The tests conducted in the study provided additional evidence that caffeine can increase cognition, working memory and attention. 

However, there are limitations in the study that should be considered. First, the study had a very small sample size. This makes it difficult to relate the results to a more extensive and diverse group of coffee drinkers. Second, individuals react differently to the intake of caffeine. The study did not capture if there were differences in how the individuals responded to caffeine. 

Coffee is a well-known beverage known for fine-tuning your focus and boosting your energy levels.

Berries 

Research shows that berries can improve memory. Berries are rich in flavonoids, naturally occurring substances with a phenolic structure [8]. Flavonoids have antioxidant, anti-carcinogenic, antimutagenic and anti-inflammatory properties. These properties make them ideal as a treatment for many diseases, including bacterial infections to cancer. Significantly, flavonoids found in berries are associated with improved brain health.

One longitudinal study [9] revealed that eating two servings of berries delayed cognitive decline by up to 2.5 years among 16,010 participants enrolled in the study. These berries were blueberries or strawberries. Further, the study showed that eating two servings of strawberries or blueberries daily can slow mental decline, even in those who develop cognitive decline or impairment. 

Walnuts 

Walnuts contain several polyphenolic compounds and alpha-linoleic compounds. The latter are plant-based omega-3 fatty acids. Both polyphenols and alpha-linoleic compounds are considered critical foods for the brain [10]. These compounds counteract inflammation and oxidative stress, known drivers of cognitive decline. 

Turmeric 

Turmeric or curcumin is another antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compound shown to improve cognition. It has been shown to improve cognition in patients with Alzheimer’s disease and delay the progression of cognitive impairment. In a review of studies on turmeric, investigators found that curcumin increased DHA levels in the brain [11]. Docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, is the most prevalent omega-3 fatty acid found in the brain. When present in reduced amounts, this can result in neurocognitive disorders such as depression and anxiety [11]. In animal model studies, deficiency of DHA during development and growth resulted in significant memory and learning impairments. In adults with anxiety, supplementation of DHA results in an improvement in symptoms of anxiety. 

Dark chocolate 

The beneficial effects of dark chocolates on brain health have been well documented in the literature. A study [12] reported that eating 6.8 grams of dark chocolate can immediately result in increased electrical activity in the brain, especially in the region involved in memory and learning. However, electrical activities are markedly high when dark chocolates are taken daily for at least eight days. In those who ate at least 6.8 grams of dark chocolate daily, there was a marked increase in episodic and working memory maintenance. These results indicated that eating dark chocolates could improve the ability of an individual to engage in more complex tasks. 

It is believed that the high levels of flavonoids in dark chocolates account for improved cerebral blood flow and increased electrical activities and stimulation in the brain involved in memory and complex tasks. 

Oranges 

Oranges are not only rich in vitamin C but also in flavonoids, both of which are associated with improved cognition and brain activities. 

Vitamin C has been associated with improved cognition, while deficiency in this vitamin is linked to cognitive impairment and depression [13]. Apart from vitamin C, oranges are also rich in flavonoids, compounds which delay cognitive impairment in patients with Alzheimer’s disease [14]. These compounds have also been shown to increase blood flow to the brain, improving neuronal interactions between brain cells. In addition, flavonoids can protect the brain against disease and ageing. 

Eggs

Eggs are high in protein and several nutrients, including choline and folate [15]. Choline is a critical micronutrient needed to create a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. This neurotransmitter helps regulate memory and mood. Intake of high amounts of choline from the diet is associated with improvements in mental function and memory [15]. 

Meanwhile, B vitamins found in the yolk of eggs have also been shown to improve brain health. Both Vitamin B6 and, to a lesser extent, vitamin B 12 are associated with delays in cognitive impairment in those at risk of dementia. Vitamin B6 and B12 deficiencies are linked to depression. However, when older adults receive supplementation of Vitamin B6, this results in delaying memory decline. 

It should be noted that a direct relationship between eggs and brain health has yet to be established. However, individual components of eggs have been shown to improve brain health. When taken all together, the effects could be magnified and improve overall brain health. 

Pumpkin seeds 

Pumpkin seeds are believed to improve brain health since they contain several nutrients and compounds that can improve cognition, memory and learning. Substances in pumpkin seeds include zinc, magnesium, iron, copper, selenium, vitamin E, tryptophan, magnesium and omega-3 fatty acids. 

Plant-based omega 3-fatty acids could improve brain health since half of the fatty tissues of the brain are composed of omega 3-fatty acids. These fatty acids are crucial in maintaining and supporting nerve cells. Further, when omega-3 fatty acids are deficient in the brain, this can lead to cognitive impairment, mental decline and poor memory and learning. In contrast, high levels of DHA, one of the omega-three fatty acids, can improve working memory, learning and executive functioning. 

Meanwhile, zinc is an essential element for nerve signalling. When individuals have low levels of zinc, this can result in neurological conditions such as dementia. Iron deficiency can impair brain function and lead to brain fog. Copper is also needed to control nerve signals, while magnesium is necessary for memory and learning. 

Although there are no studies directly linking pumpkin seeds and brain health, individual components of the seed have been studied separately in the past. These components have been proven to improve brain health. 

Several foods have been linked to improved brain health. Some are rich in antioxidants that can protect the brain from degeneration or damage. Other foods mentioned earlier contain micronutrients that can improve brain development and memory. 

Finally, you can begin consuming these foods to boost brain health and improve overall health and well-being. 

References: 

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7468918/ 
[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7468918
[3] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26890759/ 
[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4019002/ 
[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5772164/ 
[6] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28899506/
[7] https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-021-93849-7
[8] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5465813/
[9] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3582325/
[10] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7071526/
[11] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4754352/  
[12] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6262453/ 
[13] https://bmcpsychiatry.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12888-020-02730-w 
[14] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780128179901000512 
[15] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6574919/ 

Photograph: Elena Eryomenko/Shutterstock
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