We all want our memory and concentration to function as efficiently as possible, but there are times when we can’t quite think of that word, remember that name or where we put the car keys. The good news is that nutrition can play an important role in improving and maintaining our mental clarity.
Probiotics and prebiotics: By feeding the gut we are feeding the mind, so maintaining a healthy gut is essential. Tips: Balance your gut bacteria with a probiotic supplement, particularly if you have been on an antibiotic. Include probiotic foods such as yoghurt, sauerkraut, kefir and kombucha. Include prebiotic foods (they feed your good gut bacteria) such as wholegrains, bananas, onions, garlic and soybeans.
Omega-3 fatty acids: These play an important role in brain function and structure and maintaining healthy blood flow. The most effective of these are ‘DHA’ and ‘EPA’. They can be found in oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, anchovies. Also, linseed, flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts and plant oils such as flaxseed oil. If you don’t eat fish, you can get omega-3 supplements in your local pharmacy or health store.
Tip: Aim for two to three portions of oily fish a week.
Coconut oil: This contains medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) which breakdown into ketones that are used by our brain cells for fuel as well as protecting our brain’s neural connections – powerful stuff.
Tip: Use coconut oil in cooking, baking, on top of porridge or add to your tea or coffee.
Berries: Especially dark ones such as blackberries, blueberries and cherries are a rich source of antioxidants that support memory, are brain protective and can improve brain-cell signalling.
Tip: Get a berry brain boost by adding them to your cereal, yoghurts, smoothies and salads.
Beetroot: This is rich in nitrates that can dilate blood vessels and bring more oxygen to the brain. Studies have found that eating beetroot can improve motor control and cognitive functioning.
Tip: Add to your salads or blend with some spinach, cucumber and ginger for the perfect brain boost juice.
Cocoa: Raw cocoa is a rich source of antioxidants and also contains protein called ‘arginine’, which improves blood flow.
Tip: Add raw cocoa powder or nibs to your porridge, yoghurts or mix it with a warm drink. You may need to add a little honey to sweeten.
Peppermint: Studies have found that peppermint can improve long-term memory, working memory and alertness in healthy adults. The aroma has also been found to enhance memory. This is because menthol stimulates the area of the brain which controls mental clarity and memory.
Tip: Why not try some peppermint tea or burn some peppermint oil when you need that extra focus.
The B vitamins: Vitamin B12 is important for information processing and memory. Vitamins B3 and B6 have been shown to help protect against age-related brain decline and improve brain function. Vitamin B9 or ‘folate’ protects the brain and nervous system.
Sources: Meat (especially liver), seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, legumes, leafy greens, seeds and fortified foods, such as breakfast cereal and nutritional yeast. B complex supplements can be found at most pharmacies and health stores.
Vitamin C: Being a powerful antioxidant, it helps to protect the brain. It also plays an important role in brain structure.
Sources: Citrus fruits (such as orange, kiwi, lemon, grapefruit), berries and vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts and peppers. If you feel your diet is lacking in these foods you can also take vitamin C in supplement form.
Vitamin D3: Plays an important role in the memory and learning process, while also protecting the nervous system.
Sources: Oily fish such as salmon, sardines, herring and mackerel. Also, red meat, liver, egg yolks, fortified dairy products and cereals. A vitamin D3 supplement can also be purchased in your local pharmacy or health store.
Vitamin E: Another potent antioxidant which protects the brain and nervous system. Studies have also found it to improve memory.
Sources: Plant oils such as extra virgin olive oil, rapeseed oil, sunflower oil, nuts, seeds and wholegrain cereals. It’s also available in supplement form from pharmacies and health stores.
Magnesium: Studies have found that magnesium helps to improve learning, working memory, and short and long-term memory.
Sources: Green leafy vegetables such as spinach, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. This can be taken in supplement form also. Speak with your pharmacist to see if this is suitable for you.
Zinc: This is necessary for memory formation and plays an important role in brain signalling. One study found that a combination of both magnesium and zinc resulted in increased academic performance.
Sources: Shellfish, meat, poultry, beans, nuts, wholegrains and dairy products. This is also available in a supplement form from your local pharmacy or health store.
Laurann O’Reilly is a qualified nutritionist and farmer’s daughter from Tipperary, with a BSc. in human nutrition from the University of Nottingham and a Master’s in public health nutrition from University College Dublin. See www.nutritionbylaurann.ie or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org