When it comes to keeping your brain healthy as you age, your diet plays a big role. Eating a variety of foods is critical to getting the vitamins and nutrients your brain needs to keep performing at its best.
“A large body of literature has found that certain nutrients, flavonoids, unsaturated fats, and omega-3 fatty acids are associated with slower cognitive decline and reduced risk of dementia,” says Puja Agarwal, Ph.D., a nutritional epidemiologist and assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at Rush Medical College in Chicago.
Eating whole foods is the best way to get those nutrients. That’s because supplements don’t work as well in a vacuum. When you eat a balanced diet, though, the combination of vitamins, minerals, healthy fats (and more) helps the body better absorb the nutrients it needs.
So, which vitamins support brain health? And which foods can you find them in? Ahead, experts share everything you need to know.
Omega-3 fatty acids
If you’ve ever wondered why fatty fish like salmon and tuna are always touted as part of a healthy diet, here’s one reason: They’re high in omega-3 fatty acids, a type of unsaturated fat that has a brain-protecting anti-inflammatory effect and is a building block of cell membranes in the brain.
Omega-3s have also been linked to lower levels of beta amyloid, a type of protein found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s-related damage. “Omega-3 fatty acids easily penetrate the blood-brain barrier and are essential for the brain’s structure and functioning,” expalins Dr. Agarwal.
Where to find it: Besides fatty fish, good sources of omega-3s include nuts and seeds and some fortified foods such as eggs and yogurt.
This vitamin functions as an antioxidant in the body, and it protects cells from oxidative stress, a type of damage caused by free radicals (unstable molecules in the body), even in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. The brain is particularly susceptible to oxidative stress, which increases during aging and is a major contributor to cognitive decline.
Where to find it: Vitamin E can be found in dark leafy greens, avocado, red bell pepper, asparagus, mango, pumpkin, and nuts and seeds.
When it comes to brain health, focus on the three B’s : vitamins B6, B12, and B9 (folate). “These three types of B vitamins are necessary for the brain’s normal functioning,” says Dr. Agarwal, “and any deficiency in them may increase the risk of memory loss and other forms of cognitive decline.”
The reason: These vitamins help boost the production of neurotransmitters, or brain chemicals, that deliver messages between the brain and body.
Where to find them: Beans are one of the best sources of B vitamins across the board. You can find B6 in bananas, oranges, papaya, cantaloupe, tuna, salmon, poultry, and dark leafy greens. Folate is found in broccoli, greens, whole grains, eggs, peanuts, and sunflower seeds.
Vitamin B12 is found solely in meat and fish products; for vegans and vegetarians, nutritional yeast is a good way to get your supply. People on a plant-based diet do have a much higher risk of a true B12 deficiency, so talk to your doctor or dietitian about whether or not a B12 supplement is right for you.
This antioxidant is known for its immunity powers, but vitamin C and other flavonoids also support the brain, potentially by taming brain-damaging inflammation.
In one study, by Rush University researchers including Dr. Agarwal, people who consumed vitamin C-rich strawberries at least once a week were less likely to develop Alzheimer’s over the course of the nearly 20-year study period.
Where to find it: Get vitamin C in abundance from kiwi, red and green bell peppers, citrus, berries, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and tomatoes.
What about supplements that claim to improve brain health?
Drugstore shelves are lined with countless vitamins and supplements that claim to support brain health, but do they actually help? Experts agree that you’re better off spending your money on nutritious whole foods instead of popping capsules.
For one, there’s a lack of regulation, which means there’s no way to know whether the supplements actually contain what’s promised on the bottle. And then there’s the lack of science to confirm that brain health supplements actually help.
“There is clear evidence that supplements and vitamins do not help unless you have a deficiency in certain nutrients, which happens but is rare,” says Gill Livingston, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at University College London whose research focuses on dementia prevention, intervention, and care.
The bottom line
To keep your mind sharp, focus on eating healthy, nutrient-dense foods. And remember: Diet is just one piece of the puzzle. Keeping up with other healthy lifestyle habits—like exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and staying socially active—will go a long way in improving cognitive function and reducing your risk for Alzheimer’s and dementia.
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