8 nutrients that can sharpen your brain and memory

The gut-brain connection is for real! Enhance your everyday diet with the goodness of these nutrients for sound brain health.
foods for brain health
Eat the right diet if you want a sharp brain! Image courtesy: Shutterstock
Susmita Updated: 23 Oct 2023, 13:54 pm IST
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Your food habits affect brain development and cognitive development from the early stages of life. And so, it is important that you know the right foods for brain health.

Studies have shown that early supplementation of iron and folic acid during the initial stages of pregnancy reduces the risk of neural tube defects in fetus. The first thousand days (conception to 2 years of age) is most important as there is rapid growth of brain development. It is found that babies that are exclusively breastfed have higher cognitive development and have higher QI when compared to bottle fed babies.

foods for brain health
Brain development begins even before you’re born. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

Malnourished pregnant women have a higher risk of giving birth to preterm babies with low birth weight and inadequate brain development. These infants often suffer from behavioral and cognitive deficits, including slower language and fine motor development, lower IQ and poor school performance.

A baby’s birth weight and brain size depend on the quality of the mother’s nutrition during pregnancy. Early post-natal nutrition also helps in supplementing the baby with the required nutrition for brain development during the infancy. As the frontal lobe, which is associated with cognitive development occurs at rapid rate at the first 2 years of life.

Important nutrients that effect the brain health are:

1. Iron and folic acid

Folic acid plays an important role in the early development of brain and spinal cord in the form of neural tube in fetus. Expecting mother are advised with oral supplementation of folic acid in early weeks of gestation as neural tube forms around 4-6 weeks of conception.

Natural sources of folic acid are amaranth leaves, Agathi leaves, kale, broccoli, whole grains, all lentils and legumes, spinach, breakfast cereals fortified with folic acid.

folic for brain health
Try to include source of folic acid for brain health. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

Iron is important for the synthesis of neurotransmitters, myelination of neurons and for the functioning of mitochondria. Iron sources include dark leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds, when it comes to heme iron good sources are egg yolk, poultry, meat, organ meats. Iron sources have to paired with vitamin C sources such as citrus fruits (lemon, orange, sweet lime).

2. Zinc

A trace element that helps boost immunity is also found to improve brain health. Hippocampus is the area of memory formation and long term storage of these new memories, zinc helps in the formation of new neurons in hippocampus and thus helping in the memory formation. If you are deficient in zinc, this process gets affected and supplementation is required. Zinc also plays important role in axonal and synaptic transmission and for brain tubulin growth and phosprylation.

In children zinc deficiency is linked to low cognitive skills, apathy and mental retardation; in adults Schizophrenia, alcoholism, Wilson’s disease and Pick’s disease like brain disorders are linked to zinc deficiency.

Sources of zinc include whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, dark chocolate, eggs, poultry, spices and condiments, and dairy products.

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protein foods for brain
Proteins are vital nutrients for the brain and overall health! Image courtesy: Shutterstock

3. Protein

Amino acid is the building block of proteins, and protein in return form the organs. Proteins plays an important role in the functioning of brain and for the production of neurotransmitters.

Recent studies suggests that diet pattern are linked to the mood swings as the neurotransmitters depend on the protein intake. The dietary sources of proteins breakdown into amino acid that regulate the mood and disorders associated with brain. For example, when chicken is consumed and digested the body synthesize amino acid L-Tyrosine which produce neurotransmitter Dopamine.

Levels of dopamine determines the mood and other mental disorders like Schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, ADHD, and substance addiction. Sources of protein includes pulses and legumes, eggs, poultry, meat, dairy products.

4. Omega 3 and omega 6

Omega 3 and omega 6 are neuroprotective in nature. Studies have found that these reduce the risk of cognitive loss during aging.

EPA (Eicosapentaenoic Acid) and DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid) are important for the neural development. The DHA is found to increase blood flow to brain during mental task. Recent studies have shown that Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children and adults when treated with DHA supplements shown improvement in terms of behavior and attention DHA is also found useful in the treatment of autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia and aggression.

Sources are fatty fishes like Salmon, Tuna, Sardines, Mackerel, Oysters,
Shrimps, and vegetarian sources like walnuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds, flax seeds and soya bean. Caution to be taken while consuming fish liver oil as it contains high levels of vitamin A.

You can’t ignore vitamins. Image courtesy:

5. Vitamin

Vitamin is known to regulate the normal functioning of the human body however
the brain health also depend on the availability of the Vitamin on daily basis.
Thiamine deficiency causes Wernicke encephalopathy which is fatal when left untreated. The cause for deficiency include chronic alcoholism where the absorption is hindered, or poor intake of food rich with these vitamins, poor socioeconomic status leading to food insecurity. One of the main treatment involves supplementation of the respective vitamin when the deficiency is diagnosed.

The major sources of vitamins include wide variety of vegetables, dark green leafy vegetables, whole grains, egg, poultry, fruits.

6. Copper

Apart from maintaining healthy bones, hemoglobin formation, copper plays an important role in the functioning and maintenance of a healthy brain. Neurons and ganglia require copper for the respiratory and antioxidant enzyme. Neurotransmitors like Dopamine and Serotonin require copper for its formation.

Any malformation in the metabolism of copper oxidation will directly affect the functioning of the brain. Hemostasis of copper is very important as deficiency of copper (hypocupremia) and toxicity is linked to neurogenerative disorders like Menkes disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson diseases and Wilson’s disease. Dietary sources are organ meat specially liver, oysters, spirulina, edible mushrooms, nuts and seeds, lobsters, cocoa.

iodine for brain
Iodine is important for brain health. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

7. Selenium

One of the trace elements that has significant importance in the functioning of the brain is Selenium. The neurogenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and epilepsy are linked to Selenium and selenium dependent enzymes like Glutathione peroxidases (GPx), Thioredoxin reductases, and one methionine-sulfoxide-reductase. Selenium also shows neuroprotective properties that has importance in development and functioning of GABAergic (GABA, γ-aminobutyric acid), of cerebral cortex and hippocampus. Dopamine pathways is also dependent on selenium. Hence, it is positive that the availability of selenium in the body affects directly on the mood, cognitive functions, motor skills and memory. Food sources include fish, Brazil nut, poultry, organ meat and enriched foods.

8. Iodine

Iodine is an integral part of thyroid hormones which is responsible in growth and development of brain, glial cell differentiation, myelination, neural migration, neurotransmitters and synaptogenesis. Reduced cognitive development, motor skills and poor school performance are seen in children with low intake of iodine. Functioning and structural changes of hippocampus, impaired neurotransmitters are seen in infants when the mother is iodine deficient.

Iodization of salt has prevented iodine deficiency in developing countries to an extent. Nevertheless, dietary sources of iodine like leafy vegetables, fish, dairy products, egg, and animal proteins are important to maintain iodine homeostasis over the life span.

Importance of diet in brain health

For the development of the brain and central nervous system balanced diet is required in the initial stages of life, however for the normal functioning and to maintain the health of brain over the period of time it is important to include wide variety of foods in the diet.

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About the Author

Susmita, Executive Nutritionist, Cloudnine Group of Hospitals, Bengaluru ...Read More

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