Do you blame your aging brain for forgetting someone's name? Billions of brain cells can get bogged down with age, making it harder to keep up with cognitive demands like remembering where you left your car keys. Or whether your friend's cousin is named Dave or Dan.
Unfortunately, we don't have the option to just get a new brain as we might replace a sluggish laptop. But good nutrition can help restore your brain to better working condition. In fact, the secret to boosting memory and preventing cognitive disorders might be sitting in your fridge or pantry!
Nerve cells have an outer coating called the myelin sheath, which acts as an electrical insulator. The myelin sheath is mostly made of fat, but certain fats work better as building materials. Healthy fats can help grease the gears. Unsaturated fats found in foods like nuts, seeds, salmon, tuna, avocado, and vegetable oils help nerve cells communicate more quickly. Saturated fats found in butter, meats, and dairy foods are less effective.Omega-3's, a type of unsaturated fat, have received a lot of attention. Studies have linked higher intakes of omega-3 fatty acids to better memory and ability to think abstractly. People who eat more foods rich in omega-3's tend to have lower risk of developing cognitive disorders like dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
If you needed another reason to eat more unsaturated fats relative to saturated, doing so can help lower your cholesterol. Fiber from whole grains and produce can do this, too. Along with eating less salt (for lower blood pressure), these simple diet tricks dramatically cut your risk of heart attack and stroke. A healthy heart truly is essential for a healthy brain.
But even with a strong foundation to ward off damage, we still need fortifications from free radicals. These rogue particles damage cells and are inevitably formed naturally through metabolism. But encountering harmful substances in the environment also increases free radicals, as do lifestyle habits like tanning and smoking.
Free radicals can be neutralized by antioxidants. Berries are one of the most hyped sources, but know that fruits and vegetables of all kinds are excellent sources of antioxidants, including vitamins A and C.
Vitamin E is also an antioxidant and is found alongside healthy fats in foods like nuts, seeds, and avocado. Herbs and spices, plus dark chocolate and red wine also have antioxidants.
Sadly, this doesn't mean we can get away with chowing on chocolate and washing it down with a bottle of wine. Getting too much fat and alcohol will outweigh most of the antioxidant's benefits. Also, it's not a good idea to pop supplements like candy. In high amounts, antioxidants can actually increase oxidation and damage – the exact opposite of what we want.
So to keep your mind sharp, focus on the following food tips.
- Eat fish at least twice a week, especially fatty fish like salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines, and herring
- Use more olive or canola oil in cooking in place of solid fats like butter
- Incorporate nuts and seeds into meals and snacks
- Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables
- Choose whole grains and leaner proteins more often
Since these familiar foods may already be in your kitchen, you could start boosting your brainpower as soon as your next meal or snack. At the very least, they're at the grocery store, just waiting to be added to the cart.
Technology may become obsolete in a matter of years or even months, but you only have one brain, and it can't be replaced. Remember to treat it – and feed it – right.
Want more tips on brain health? Visit the Family Files blog, written by University of Illinois Extension Family Life Educators, at http://web.extension.illinois.edu/hkmw/eb380
Today's post was written by Leia Kedem. Leia Kedem, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian and Nutrition & Wellness Educator covering Champaign, Ford, Iroquois, and Vermilion Counties. She appears weekly on WCIA-3/WCIX-49 and is a biweekly contributor to the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette. She also maintains Facebook and Twitter accounts where she regularly posts health tips and answers nutrition questions for free.