Food may be the foundation for a healthy body, but can it affect your brain? While there's no concrete proof that certain foods will either help or harm your brain, there's no denying that the health of your brain is directly linked to the health of your body. For that reason, Todd Levine, MD, an HonorHealth neurologist, says healthy eating ultimately boosts brain health.
Omega 3 fatty acids and vitamin D
Much of the information that's out there about eating for a healthy brain is speculation, Dr. Levine notes. However, he says there is some data to suggest that omega 3 fatty acids found in fish oils may be beneficial.
"Those fatty acids are some of the main components of the nerves of the brain," he says. "The idea of eating these fatty acids is to give the brain the building blocks to keep the nerves healthy."
There's also growing interest in the idea that vitamin D could be beneficial. This belief is tied to mounting evidence linking low levels of the vitamin with an increased risk of dementia. However, Dr. Levine cautions that there's no data to confirm that taking vitamin D supplements with normal levels of vitamin D directly improves brain health or wards off dementia.
People often take supplements, particularly vitamins A, C and E, to help fill gaps in their nutrition, but there are potential dangers.
"Studies show that high doses of vitamins A and E can lead to an increased risk of cancer," Dr. Levine says. "It's hard to not get enough of these vitamins if you eat a well-balanced diet, so focus on eating nutrient-rich foods instead of taking supplements."
Getting too much vitamin C is not a danger because the body flushes any excess through urination.
Eating for a healthy brain comes down to the old adage of everything in moderation, Dr. Levine says. There's no one particular food or food group that will make or break your brain health. This is, in part, due to what's called the blood-brain barrier. This natural filtering mechanism keeps substances the brain needs in the brain and those it doesn't need from entering the brain.
"This is a very interesting system in the body," he says. "What you eat goes into your blood. That blood then gets filtered before it enters the brain. The blood-brain barrier protects the brain by being selective in deciding what substances it will take from the blood."
Other general principles for maintaining a healthy brain include:
- Getting adequate protein, although red meat should be eaten in moderation to prevent high cholesterol, heart disease and stroke.
- Limiting alcohol consumption to one alcoholic beverage per day for women and two per day for men. Red wine may be the best choice due to its cardiovascular benefits.
Physical and mental exercise
Dr. Levine cites exercise, in combination with a healthy diet, as a key component to improving or maintaining brain health. He recommends getting at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise three days a week, along with strength training and mobility exercises.
Beyond exercising your body, you should frequently try new mental activities that stimulate and exercise your brain, he says. "You can't just do crossword puzzles every day. Try new things that challenge your mind. It's the newness of the activities that's important."