June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Health Awareness Month, and according to the Alzheimer’s Association, over 6 million people in the U.S., and 35 million people total in the world, live with this progressive disease. Many people associate Alzheimer’s with older individuals, but focusing on our cognitive health is important for everyone across all age groups. This is especially important since research shows that brain and neuron damage that can lead to Alzheimer’s may begin 20 years or more before symptoms start.
One of the many ways to protect our brain health is to be mindful of our food choices. More recent studies have demonstrated the efficacy of the “MIND Diet”, which stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurogenerative Delay. This diet combines elements of the Mediterranean diet as well as the DASH diet – two diets that have been known to improve heart health—and emphasizes nutrients that can improve brain health, too, by minimizing inflammation and neuron damage. Below are some of those key nutrients and where you can find them.
Omega-3’s come in three different types: ALA, DHA, and EPA. Most people eat enough of ALA, so it is important that we focus more on DHA and EPA sources. DHA is an omega-3 that provides neuroprotection against damage to the central nervous system. DHA also enhances neuroplasticity, which allows the brain to respond, adapt, and grow appropriately to different stimuli. EPA, on the other hand, enhances immune response and assists in managing inflammation in the body. When it comes to our diets, focusing on DHA and EPA sources means incorporating more fish and seafood. This includes fatty fish like salmon, sardines, tuna, herring, and others. For individuals that are vegan or allergic to fish and other seafood, vegan omega-3 supplements are available, which are derived from algae – the only known plant-based source for EPA and DHA.
Polyphenols are a type of compound that are found in plant-based foods and are particularly known for being powerful antioxidants and can inhibit neuroinflammation. Some of the most popular sources of polyphenols include fruits (especially berries), as well as nuts, seeds, olives, and teas. Because of its strong anti-inflammatory properties, polyphenols are one of the main reasons plant-based diets greatly enhance overall wellbeing. Even if you do not follow a full vegetarian or vegan diet, regularly adding more plants in each of your meals will add up to a positive impact on your health.
Prebiotics and probiotics are incredibly beneficial to the gut and are, therefore, beneficial for our overall wellbeing. Specifically for brain health, research has shown that prebiotics and probiotics can positively change microbiota composition, strengthening the gut, increasing anti-inflammatory and immune responses. Probiotics can easily be added to our diets by incorporating fermented foods such as Greek yogurt, kimchi, natto, kombucha, and more. However, people do not always enjoy the tart and tangy flavors of fermented foods. Prebiotic-rich foods can then play a bigger role in your diet. Prebiotics are a type of fiber that feeds your existing gut bacteria, so aim for a variety of high-fiber foods such as fruits, non-starchy vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.
While more research is needed to further explore various nutrients and their impacts on our cognitive health, there is enough evidence to support the regular consumption of these important foods and nutrients. As is the case with any supplementation, make sure to speak with your healthcare provider before starting a new regimen, even with supplementation for the nutrients mentioned above.
Download the infographic here: Nutrition for Brain Health
Alzheimer’s Association. 2022 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures. Alzheimers Dement 2022;18.
La Rosa, F., Clerici, M., Ratto, D., Occhinegro, A., Licito, A., Romeo, M., Iorio, C. D., & Rossi, P. (2018). The Gut-Brain Axis in Alzheimer’s Disease and Omega-3. A Critical Overview of Clinical Trials. Nutrients, 10(9), 1267. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu10091267
Lin, P. Y., Cheng, C., Satyanarayanan, S. K., Chiu, L. T., Chien, Y. C., Chuu, C. P., Lan, T. H., & Su, K. P. (2022). Omega-3 fatty acids and blood-based biomarkers in Alzheimer’s disease and mild cognitive impairment: A randomized placebo-controlled trial. Brain, behavior, and immunity, 99, 289–298. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bbi.2021.10.01