7 Substances That Boost Your Brainpower

Add foods containing these nutrients to your diet to help you stay sharp and get energized.

Plate of vegetables

by NEA Member Benefits

For decades, scientists have viewed food as a means of providing your body with fuel, but the latest research suggests components of certain foods may protect against age-related brain deficits. In fact, study after study suggests adding certain substances to your plate can help can sharpen the mind, build new brain cells, and yes, help you remember basic algebra. The caveat: You may have to brush up on your nutrient vocabulary first!

Here, seven substances that boost brainpower—and where to get them.

1. DHA. The brain is 60% fat and DHA is the most abundant omega-3 fatty acid in the brain’s cell membranes. As you age, your brain cells lose the ability to absorb DHA and levels can drop significantly, starving your mind and compromising both brain function and memory retention. Studies show these powerful fats help reduce inflammation, boost blood flow to the brain and regenerate new brain cells.

Where to get the goods: Fatty fish including salmon, herring, mackerel, trout. Non-marine sources, too, contain DHA including nuts, seeds, whole grains and dark green, leafy vegetables—or pop a supplement.

2. Monounsaturated fats. You already know about the brain-boosting benefits of omega-3s, but these less famous fats provide similar cognitive benefits. In fact, research shows eating foods rich in monounsaturated fats is a simple and tasty way to boost brain cell activity and slow diminishing gray matter. According to Paula C. Bickford, Ph.D., professor of neurosurgery and brain repair at the University of South Florida and senior research scientist at James A. Haley VA Hospital in Tampa, monounsaturated fats also help reduce plaque buildup on artery walls ensuring your brain gets the blood it needs to perform at maximum capacity.

Where to get the goods: Avocados, olive oil, nuts, especially walnuts (they look like miniature brains, after all!). A bonus: Most of these foods also contain vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant linked with better brainpower.

3. Catechins. Research shows tea drinkers outperform non-tea drinkers on tests of memory and information processing. Consider catechins like Mother Nature’s aspirin. They act like natural nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to reduce inflammation but without the side effects. “The catechins in tea relax brain activity, enhancing memory and cognition while simultaneously protecting the brain from damage,” says Majid Fotuhi, M.D., Ph.D., Medical Director of NeuroGrow Brain Fitness Center in McLean, Virginia, and affiliate staff, Johns Hopkins Medicine.

Where to get the goods: Tea! The longer you steep your brew, the more catechins in your cup.

4. Flavonoids. The umbrella term for myriad anti-aging superstars found in plant foods, including flavonols, flavonals, anthocyanins and quercetin, flavonoids help protect the brain against damage, enhance communication between brain cells, and bolster the brain against cognitive decline, says Bickford. So, it’s no wonder research shows people who load up on flavonoid-filled produce have superior mental focus and sharpness compared to those who skimp on fruits and veggies.

Where to get the goods: Fruits and vegetables (especially berries, apples, onions, eggplant and leafy green vegetables).

5. Resveratrol. A powerful anti-aging substance, resveratrol makes blood cells less sticky, thinning the blood and enhancing blood flow throughout the body. Studies show resveratrol improves blood flow to your cranium by 30%, to say nothing of its anti-inflammatory effects.

Where to get the goods: Wine and grape juice. Red wines (and purple juice) pack a more powerful health punch than whites since resveratrol resides mostly in grape skins and reds contain more material from the skins.

6. Curcumin. Used medicinally for more than 5,000 years, the curry spice curcumin has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and cholesterol-lowering properties. Researchers believe all three are involved in the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. “Studies show curcumin helps combat inflammation deep within the brain cells and thwart the development of amyloid plaques, which contribute to development of dementia,” says Fotuhi. In fact, some researchers speculate the high consumption of curcumin in India may be one factor for the low prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease in that country.

Where to get the goods: Yellow mustard, Thai curry and Indian cuisine.

7. Choline. Choline is, quite literally, a building block of brain cells. Neuroscientists are studying its potential to prevent mental decline and the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia. Preliminary research indicates it may even regrow brain cells as we age. In fact, choline is one of the few nutrients with solid evidence showing a causal relationship between dietary intake and cognition.

Where to get the goods: Egg yolks, soy, beef, chicken, veal, turkey and liver.