When you think about age-proofing your brain, what's the first thing that springs to mind? Eating healthier food, exercising more, and quitting bad habits (e.g., smoking or drinking too much) are all on our list, but when we put the question to neurologist and psychologist, Dan Engle, MD, he surprised us with his answer: "It's essential that people laugh more," he said. "Cortisol is a stress hormone that is associated with anxiety and kills brain cells, especially in the hippocampus where memory is stored and recalled." Wait, stress literally kills brain cells? Yep. According to Engle, exposure to chronic stress destroys neurons and reduces neuro-cell function and performance over time.
"Here's the bottom-line: Laugh more, have more fun, and keep learning throughout your life for a happy, healthy brain," he urged. Of course, eating well and looking after your body and mind are also important for boosting your long-term memory health and brain function. Ahead, Engle shares his top foods that not only improve your memory but provide a host of other holistic benefits including enhanced cognitive function such as optimal attention span, concentration, organizing, planning, multitasking, and mood.
MYDOMAINE: When should we start thinking about eating for our brain health and why?
DAN ENGEL: The best way to answer this question is through an analogy; when is the best time to plant a fruit tree? Twenty years ago. For the purpose of this article, the answer is today. Now is the time to start eating these brain-optimizing foods. Most people wait until there's actually a health challenge to begin changing their diet, but the reality is that once there's a problem, it becomes much more difficult to rebalance your body. It's better to start early and potentially avoid the issue altogether or heighten your body's ability to course-correct on its own.
There is increasing anecdotal evidence, in our culture today, supported by literature, indicating that noticeable cognitive decline is happening at earlier ages, and this is due to "diseases of excess" defined by having access to too much food, too little movement, and experiencing a general lack of vitality. Brain aging is a fact of life, and while this may be the case, it is possible to slow the process and optimize brain performance.
A University of Virginia study indicates that a decline in cognitive function may be happening as early as our late 20s into our 30s, with the average age range being late 30s to early 40s. Our natural potential, genetically-speaking, when we look at traditional cultures with more land-based diets and active lifestyles, is to reach old age with very little cognitive decline. We are designed to be healthy, vital, and engaged with life well into our later years.
MD: What is one surprising thing about memory health that no one knows but should?
DE: Memory health begins in utero. During the second trimester of a woman's pregnancy, a fetus's brain and neurological system are already formed and memories start to be created. If a mother-to-be experiences high levels of stress due to war or trauma during pregnancy, her offspring have a higher susceptibility to experiencing anxiety, PTSD, etc. The mother's stress hormones become part of the baby's natural wiring and can create a predisposition to a greater sensitivity to stress.
MD: Can you explain good fat and why it's essential for memory and brain health?
DE: It is important to ingest good fats daily for optimal brain function. Examples include oils from fish and seafood, as well as the oils from healthy foods such as avocado and coconut. Saturated fats from grass-fed animal sources have higher amounts of omega-3s than grain-fed sources and therefore support brain function. However, highly processed trans fats from fried foods, etc., are longer-chain fats and are more prone to oxidation, and as a result, they tend to clog up cell membranes and be "heavier" in the system. Therefore, they should be avoided at all costs. Coconut oil is the exception, as it is a plant-based saturated fat that has a high degree of smaller medium-chain triglycerides that are beneficial for brain function.
MD: What other ways can we improve memory besides diet or exercise?
DE: Train your brain. The brain can be trained just like the body. Using a brain gym is a phenomenal way to build and enhance cognitive function, improve memory, and increase neuroplasticity. There are so many ways in which our brains can renew and regenerate themselves during our lifetime. Why not take advantage of it? Examples of brain gaming apps that may be helpful are Luminosity, Cognifit, Peak, Elevate, and Cognito.
Take naps and time-outs: When learning lots of new information, naps and time-outs can help you better assimilate what you've just learned. If you're studying or reading something for memory. Make a point of reading it out loud, as this will help you remember it better. Also, taking handwritten notes, as opposed to typing them on your computer, can also help improve your memory recall, as more neural networks associated with memory are activated in the process.
Use mnemonics: Mnemonics are helpful when learning a new language or new information. Similar to taking handwritten notes, use of Mnemonics can boost memory recall and the assimilation of foreign languages.
"Eating the right fats is an essential part of a balanced diet for healthy brain function and optimized memory recall. Focus on eating smaller, wild-caught fish such as sardines three to four times a week, as well as consuming seafood, mollusks, and algae on a regular basis for their significant EPA and DHA levels. Omega-3 fatty acids are neuroprotectant and act as antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents in the body, which improves cognitive function across the board, including memory.
"Other important natural fats to ingest on a regular basis for cognitive health are coconut oil and avocados. Coconut oil is a saturated fat composed of high-level medium-chain triglycerides, which serves as a quick and easy fuel source for the brain and may slow down brain aging and potentially prevent Alzheimer's disease. Avocados act as a neuroprotectant and can be used as a substitute for bananas in smoothies and desserts. It is highly recommended to use avocados and coconut oil daily for best results."
"Used in Chinese medicine for eons as a powerful go-to food, the brain and overall health benefits of eating one good serving of mushrooms every one to two days is impressive. Each mushroom serves a unique purpose: Cordyceps, for example, have a protectant effect on the brain, lion's mane encourages new cell growth, and reishi work as a neurotropic, directly improving cognitive function. If preparing mushrooms seems too complicated, you can buy high-quality supplements containing these mushrooms as a substitute."
High-Quality and Carefully Selected Stimulants
"Caffeine (in the form of organic coffee or green tea) can significantly improve attention and focus and help promote longer-term memory storage. Data suggests that green tea acts as a neuroprotectant and can potentially reduce the incidence of stroke and dementia. Consuming too much caffeine is not recommended, as there is then a counter effect, which leads to increased distractibility and also possible feels of anxiety. Raw organic cacao, which can be used in smoothies or desserts, helps memory by increasing blood flow to the brain and also helps improve your mood."
"Used in India for centuries, turmeric is a phenomenal food that helps promote enhanced memory and neuro-repair, which explains why it's recommended after experiencing a concussion. Using black pepper in conjunction with turmeric creates a synergistic effect and unlocks the root's bio-availability, thereby increasing its power by 100-fold. Turmeric should not be used with blood thinners. Please always consult your doctor before adding any new herbs, spices, or foods to your diet should you be on any special medications."
"These foods have been the craze and have been recommended for the past 20 to 30 years, and we're now discovering that they're not the best for optimal brain performance. Increasingly, data is showing that high cholesterol is not the main concern when it comes to overall health and well-being, but rather that it's the inflammation levels in the body that are the primary concern.
"Having too little fat in the diet, which can lead to low cholesterol and hormone production levels, can increase your risk of sluggish cognitive function and engender potential issues such as a greater susceptibility to depression and suicide. Our brain is made up of approximately 60 to 75% fat, and we need to maintain our levels of healthy dietary fats in order to drive optimal brain function and to act as a neurological structure."
"Drinking diet soda daily can potentially cause the brain to become smaller in size and to function less optimally. Experiencing a reduction in brain size can have long-term implications and risks such as creating a predisposition to dementia and other mental health challenges (this is the cumulative effect of drinking diet soda over 7 to 10 years published in the journal, Stroke, through the American Heart Association)."
"Most people tend to think of straight fruit juice as a safe and 'healthy' alternative to sugar because it is virtually non-processed. In actuality, fruit juice, as with other sources of sugar, will spike insulin levels and cause a temporary blood sugar imbalance. Ultimately, blood sugar imbalances limit the brain's ability to provide a consistent level of attention, focus, and memory. For enhanced memory function, both short- and long-term, it's important to stabilize and reduce insulin spikes in the body by minimizing sugar intake, including fruit juice, as over time, it can lead to insulin resistance and an increased risk for diabetes and Alzheimer's disease."
"For an entire segment of the population, soy can have a highly inflammatory effect on the body and cause symptoms associated with food sensitivities. Over time, soy has become highly processed and over-consumption can intensify its estrogenic properties."
Processed Vegetable Oils
"Oils such as canola and palm oil are processed by exposing them to intense heat, which, when ingested, creates an inflammatory cascade within the body. It is also important to focus on having the optimal balance of omega-3 to omega-6 fats. The ideal is 1:3, but currently, the average person has a ratio resembling more of a 1:10 relationship. Experiment with substituting your processed vegetable oils with hemp, flax, and olive oils and rotating through them to create more diversity in your healthy fats and a complete nutrient profile."
Organic Dark Chocolate With Brightly Colored Organic Berries
"Eating organic snacks helps lower your body's inflammatory load, and therefore has a positive impact on the brain. Purchasing organic foods also means supporting better farming practices, which ultimately are healthier for the planet. In terms of nutritional content, berries as a group have the highest ORAC score (antioxidant profile) and tend to be low-glycemic, which leads to better blood sugar balance. Pairing your organic berries with a dark chocolate of your choice (over 70% cacao; the darker the chocolate the better) is an easy go-to."
Brain Power Latte
"Make yourself a brain-nourishing drink by blending an organic green or black tea with turmeric, clove, and coconut or MCT oil. The caffeine in green or black tea supports brain function, turmeric is a major antioxidant, and clove is the highest antioxidant profile food we know of. Blending all of these ingredients with MCT oil makes the beverage frothy, and MCT oil is good for the brain."
Celery Sticks With Almond Butter
"While this snack is not brain-health specific, it's a great all-around health-promoting treat to have handy. Celery is beneficial for helping to balance hormones in the body, and almond butter is a healthy protein and fat combination that helps stabilize blood sugar levels and contributes to satiety."
Greek Yogurt With Mixed Berries and Chai Spices
"This snack option contains good sources of fat, protein, spices, and it's low in added sugar. The traditional Chai spice blend of clove, cardamom, and cinnamon all support healthy brain activation, especially when combined with the low-glycemic influence of the organic berries."
How are you improving your memory and brain function? Were you surprised by some of these findings? Start making brain food today with our top kitchen essentials below.
Dan Engle, MD, is board certified in psychiatry and neurology, with a clinical practice that combines aspects of regenerative medicine, orthomolecular psychiatry, integrative spirituality and peak performance methods. Engle recently partnered with Health Coach Institute, LLC, to release a protocol for the school’s newly launched program, Advanced Nutrition, for health coaches. The goal is to further empower HCI’s Health Coaches and equip them with the pertinent expertise to support their clients’ well-being through habit change.
This post was originally published on July 13, 2017, and has since been updated.