in Healthy Eating

8 min read

Foods that can help us remember better, be more alert, and have more motivation, are a welcome addition to our daily routine in today’s ever-more cognitively demanding 21st century. While there are a lot of wild claims about extreme effects of certain foods on brain performance, this article focuses on the real evidence-based findings.

Article guide:

Nootropics

Cognitive enhancers, also known as Nootropics, smart drugs, neuro enhancers (this one sounds really badass), memory enhancers etc. are different substances used by a variety of people to improve their own memory, motivation, and attention. Certain studies show that between 3% and 25% of students are consuming them [1, 2, 3, 4]. This, of course, depends on the campus, what the student studies, the country, and other things.

The main reason nootropics are so popular* is that they can help us do more things with very little or no side effects. Anecdotal claims even suggest their effectiveness for anxiety and depression alleviation. However, not these claims have been tested scientifically.

*using the word “popular” can be debated, if we consider the actual percentages of people using them.

Otherwise, these drugs are very useful for people with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s disease, mainly because they help with the cognitive deficits which go with these diseases.

But not everyone is keen on taking “drugs” to improve their cognitive abilities, mostly due to stigma associated with this word. Moreover, buying these drugs additionally to your regular food budget can be a stretch for some people. Therefore, I’ve compiled a list of different foods which contain nutrients that have been shown to help with cognitive performance in people.

A short disclaimer: There is a variety of disorders and conditions caused by deficiencies of the mentioned nutrients. I, however, am focusing on three different things:

  • Observed improvements when people add a certain nutrient to their diet in cases of deficiency
  • Observed cognitive enhancement by increased intake of a certain nutrient
  • Usefulness in alleviating or slowing down the progression of certain diseases with cognitive impairment as their symptoms

 

Iron

Sources: red meat, fish, poultry, lentils, and beans

Iron is an important nutrient for normalizing cognitive function in women [5]. Anemia, a condition where your blood carries less oxygen due to a decrease in the amount of hemoglobin or red blood cells in the blood, can be caused by an iron deficiency. This affects our processing speed; how fast we acknowledge certain information from our environment. In general, an iron deficiency can affect a broad range of cognitive tasks, this is a consequence of its role in the transportation of oxygen through our bloodstream; when we’re iron deficient, our brain receives less oxygen and therefore performs worse, this affect cognitive tasks as well. A very important note to make is that vegetarians and vegans are two groups of people who could benefit from an increased iron intake as iron from plant sources isn’t absorbed as easily as iron from animal sources. [6]

 

Choline

Sources: egg yolks, chicken, veal, turkey liver

Choline is a nutrient that’s usually taken as a nootropic, because it’s a building block for acetylcholine, an important neurotransmitter for our brain and muscles. Babies from pregnant women, who had low levels of choline during their pregnancy, are at an increased risk for different brain defects that lead to problems with memory [7]. Moreover, studies show that there is a causal relationship between choline intake and cognition during development in humans. Children from women, who were supplemented with choline during their pregnancy, scored better on different cognitive and behavioral tasks. Other results show that: [8]

  • They performed better on more difficult tasks.
  • Differed in the size of their neurons and electrophysiological responsiveness, based on whether their mothers were supplemented with choline or not.
  • They were less affected by toxic substances which their mothers took (such as alcohol), indicating a protective effect of choline supplementation

 

Flavonoids

Sources: cocoa, green tea, citrus fruits, red wine, dark chocolate

Foods high with flavonoids can be beneficial for our cognitive performance as well. I’ve already covered how chocolate with high cocoa contents can be a healthy dietary addition and how green tea is a drink we all should be drinking daily. Especially the elderly can benefit from increased flavonoid intake as studies have noted that they seem to slow down cognitive decline and have a neuroprotective effect [9]. They also seem to improve cognitive functioning in a relatively short time; in one clinical study, elderly people saw a 10% improvement in their middle cerebral artery blood flow, after only two weeks of a high dose of cocoa supplementation. [10]

This improvement can have an important role in the treatment of dementia and stroke if it were used strategically with other nutrients. Moreover, flavonoids are helpful for people who suffer from mild cognitive impairment. This was observed in one study where their performance on different cognitive tasks was improved after 8 weeks of cocoa supplementation. [10]

Green tea consumption seems to be connected to improved brain function as well – observational evidence supports the fact that people will have a smaller chance for Alzheimer’s and different types of dementia if they consume green tea. Moreover, consumption of this ancient beverage seems to improve the metabolism of our brain; one study even observed an increased brain activity at areas where working memory is located. [11, 12]

One interesting study, done on mice, shows that when you combine a high flavanoid intake together with exercise, this produces cognitively enhancing effects. And while we cannot claim the same would happen in people, it’s an interesting piece of information to keep in mind, given the overwhelming amount of evidence supporting the benefits of exercise on cognitive function. [13]

 

B vitamins

Sources: different whole unprocessed foods, turkey, tuna, liver

B vitamins are a water soluble family of different vitamins, often called the “Vitamin B complex”. They have positive effects on memory performance in women of various ages, as noted in one study [14]. These women had processed information slightly faster, they could recall and recognize different objects better, and their verbal ability improved after only one month of vitamin B-12 or vitamin B-6 supplementation. With that said, we should stay aware that these were only slight (yet measurable and important) improvements in their abilities.

 

Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and carotene combination

Sources: Vitamin C (citrus fruits, calf and beef liver), vitamin E (asparagus, avocado, nuts, peanuts, olives, seeds), carotene

One study was assessing cognitive performance (example of a test) in the elderly (3831 people) across a time span of 7 years. People, who were reporting higher levels of vitamin E, vitamin C, and carotene intake, were also the ones who had a less severe cognitive decline, and thus performed better when they were tested.

I must stress that there doesn’t seem to be any other data as far as this specific combination of nutrients and their relation to cognitive performance goes. Moreover, this study relied on self-reporting, not the strongest cornerstone on which we can base our beliefs. However, the presented evidence seems to be rather strong, considering the sample size and the clear significant connection between the mentioned variables – but, at the same time, we should again be aware of the fact that this is only a connection; there could have been other variables in the lives of these people which could have influenced their cognitive status. [15]

A side note: maintaining vitamin C at optimal levels has a protective function against age-related cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. However, it’s important to note that avoiding vitamin C deficiency is probably more beneficial than supplementing with vitamin C tablets on top of a healthy diet. [16]

 

Copper

Sources: cocoa, black pepper, beef and lamb liver, Brazil nuts

I’m sure all of us are familiar with copper. You can find it in wires and a range of different electronic devices. However, not as many of you may be aware that low concentrations of copper have been associated with cognitive decline in patients who have Alzheimer’s disease. [17]

As always, it’s important to point out that a connection (correlation) doesn’t necessarily imply a cause-and-effect. This doesn’t necessarily mean that if you eat foods high with copper you will be able to avoid Alzheimer’s. At the same time, it’s good to be aware that this connection exists. Moreover, copper helps facilitate iron uptake, which is why a copper deficiency can produce anemia-like symptoms, and with that similar shortcomings as stated above.

 

Omega-3 fatty acids

Sources: fish, flax seeds, krill, chia, kiwi fruits, butternuts, walnuts

These fatty acids are one of the most covered nutrients on the vast expanses of the internet. I’ve devoted a whole article about how omega-3 fatty acids, more specifically DHA, help with improved cognition and brain performance. To keep it short; omega-3 fatty acids help prevent cognitive decline in the elderly by slowing it down and making it less severe. Moreover, omega-3 fatty acid intake can help patients who have mood disorders [18, 19].  Studies with rats even show that they can help with Alzheimer’s disease, slowing down its progression.

 

Curcumin

Sources: turmeric

Turmeric is probably familiar to you because you have been exposed to oriental cuisine or because you’re from parts of Earth where it’s being used regularly. Curcumin, the main active ingredient in turmeric, seems to be one potent substance. Different studies have noted impressive health benefits of curcumin supplementation, when it comes to our cognitive functioning, the two most notable are:

  • It increases levels of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), a protein with a key role in the growth of new neurons in our brain. Lower levels of this protein are connected to different brain diseases, including Alzheimer’s and depression. [20, 21]
  • It helps clear up amyloid plaques, these are protein tangles found in Alzheimer’s disease [22]

This was a comprehensive list of nutrients that can significantly improve our cognitive performance. Do you personally use nootropics or any of the mentioned nutrients for their effects on our cognition?

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