Without these nutrients, brain health and function will be compromised in the short and long term. Yet many of us are deficient. Learn what you can do.
Your brain needs the same nutrients that every cell in your body needs.
It needs macronutrients like fat, protein, and carbohydrates and micronutrients like vitamins and minerals.
It also needs nutrients that are rarely considered such as water and oxygen.
Some essential brain nutrients are more likely to be missing from the modern diet than others.
Let’s take a look at the biggest pitfalls that might be keeping your brain from getting all of the nutrition it needs.
Macronutrients and Your Brain
Your brain needs all three macronutrients — carbohydrates, protein, and fat.
But not all sources of these are good for your brain.
There are both good and bad macronutrients.
Complex (Not Refined) Carbohydrates for Brain Energy
Brain cells can’t store energy and require a steady stream of glucose.
They can live only a few minutes without it!
Complex carbohydrates, the kind found in unprocessed fruits and vegetables, give your brain the sustained energy it needs. (1)
They increase your blood’s ability to transport oxygen to your brain cells and keep your blood sugar level stable.
Starchy vegetables like potatoes, yams, carrots, beets, and winter squash are excellent at giving your brain the steady glucose supply it needs.
Strategically eating complex carbohydrates on their own (without protein) is a little-known trick for maintaining the level of the mood-boosting neurotransmitter serotonin.
Brain-healthy complex carbohydrates do not include wheat, even whole wheat.
Whole wheat bread raises your blood glucose faster than a candy bar. (2)
Regular consumption of white sugar and other refined carbohydrates leads to chronically high blood sugar levels.
This can shrink your brain and cause memory loss. (3)
There’s strong evidence that spikes in blood sugar contribute to Alzheimer’s disease, now considered a form of diabetes that selectively targets the brain. (4)
Proteins for Neurotransmitter Balance
Proteins break down into building blocks called amino acids.
Amino acids are a major component in the hundreds of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters.
These compounds enable brain cells to communicate with each other.
Examples of common neurotransmitters include dopamine, serotonin, GABA, norepinephrine, and endorphins.
It’s estimated that 86% of Americans have suboptimal neurotransmitter levels. (5)
When your neurotransmitters aren’t right, it can impact your entire life.
Neurotransmitters control your ability to focus, concentrate, and remember, as well as regulating mood, cravings, addictions, sleep, and more.
The healthiest protein comes from animals raised as nature intended, free of antibiotics, steroids, and hormones.
Excellent protein sources are grass-fed meats, free-range poultry, wild fish, organic eggs and dairy.
Not everyone does well on dairy products. The people that do are mostly of northern European ancestry. (6)
You can get adequate protein on a vegetarian diet, but you have to do a little more planning.
However, vegetarians, especially vegans, have reason to be worried about another issue which we’ll talk about shortly.
The Right Fats for Brain Health and Happiness
There is probably no one area of nutrition that’s as misunderstood as dietary fats.
We’ve been brainwashed into believing that just about all fat is bad for us when, in fact, fats are essential for your brain.
We’ve been told that when we do eat fat, it should come from polyunsaturated vegetable oils.
But this advice couldn’t be worse for your brain!
People who consume a diet low in fats and especially low in cholesterol are at risk for depression and suicide. (7)
The risk of dementia is reduced by 70% in those with high levels of cholesterol. (8)
So-called “healthy” vegetable oils like canola, safflower, and soy are chemically unstable and, when heated or exposed to oxygen, turn into unhealthy trans fats. (9)
Trans fats cause inflammation and increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, and cancer. (10, 11, 12, 13)
They can increase your risk of depression by up to 50%. (14, 15)
Your brain is largely made of fat, 60% by weight.
Give it the healthy fats it needs, the kind found in avocados, olives, nuts, seeds, coconut oil, grass-fed butter, and fatty fish like salmon, tuna, or mackerel.
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They won’t make you fat, and they can help make you smart and happy.
You can learn more about eating a brain-healthy diet by reading our discussion of brain food.
Micronutrients Most Likely to Be Missing from Your Diet
Micronutrients are needed by the body in very small amounts.
These include vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytonutrients.
Your brain needs all essential micronutrients to be its best.
But there are two vitamins, one mineral, and one essential fatty acid that are often missing from even healthy diets.
And that can profoundly impact your brain.
B Vitamins — the Happy Vitamins
B vitamins have been called the “happy vitamins” or “anti-stress vitamins” since they can improve your mood and increase your tolerance to stress.
One of the B vitamins in particular, vitamin B12, is one of the most common vitamin deficiencies in the US with an estimated 40% of adults being deficient. (16)
B12 deficiency is serious.
It can lead to a wide spectrum of mental disorders including brain fog, memory loss, dementia, depression, and even schizophrenia. (17)
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Two particularly high risk groups are seniors, who often have poor absorption of B12, and vegetarians, since B12 is found only in animal products. (18, 19)
If you suspect you’re deficient, you can have your doctor check your B12 level.
Supplementation can bring your levels back to normal quickly.
Related articles on Be Brain Fit —
Why Foods High in Antioxidants Are Excellent Brain Food
7 Reasons Canola Oil Is Bad for Brain Health
Top 10 Brain Supplements for a Mental Edge
Vitamin D — the Sunshine Vitamin
Vitamin D deficiency has also reached epidemic proportions with up to 75% of Americans not getting enough. (20)
Getting adequate vitamin D can improve your memory and your mood now and can ward off cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s in the future. (21, 22)
Inadequate levels contribute to the blues many people feel in the winter. (23)
It’s nearly impossible to get all you need from food … or from the sun.
Only a handful of foods contain any vitamin D.
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Most of the year the sun isn’t strong enough in most of North America and Europe to allow your body to manufacture enough vitamin D.
The bottom line is that almost everyone could benefit from taking supplemental vitamin D.
As with vitamin B12, you can have your blood levels checked to know for sure.
Magnesium — the Original Chill Pill
Magnesium is so important it’s referred to as the “master mineral.”
It’s used in over 300 different metabolic functions. (24)
Magnesium deficiency is a widespread issue, with only 25% of Americans getting the recommended daily amount. (25)
Get your magnesium levels into a healthy range and you can expect to experience improved focus and concentration, better mood, reduced cravings, increased energy, more resilience to stress, and better sleep. (26)
Magnesium is so good at helping you sleep and relax, it’s been called “the original chill pill.” (27)
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When looking for a magnesium supplement, quality matters.
Cheap magnesium oxide is only 4% absorbed. (28)
And magnesium sulfate, the form found in Epsom salts, can cause stomach upset when taken internally.
Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids
If I could take only one supplement for my brain, it would be DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).
This omega-3 essential fatty acid is a major building block of the brain that is crucial to brain function and the nervous system.
The renowned Framingham Heart Study found that 70% of the population is deficient in this essential brain nutrient. (29)
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The best food sources are wild-caught fatty fish, not something most of us eat regularly.
It’s widely agreed that taking DHA is one of the best things you can do for your brain.
Memory loss, depression, mood swings, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and attention deficit disorder have all been found to improve with DHA supplementation. (30)
Seniors with higher levels of DHA are nearly half as likely to develop dementia or Alzheimer’s as those with low levels of DHA. (31)
You can find out if you are getting adequate omega-3 fats with this omega-3 quiz created by AlwaysOmega3s, a not-for-profit organization.
If you aren’t, you should definitely consider taking a supplement.
The Forgotten Brain Nutrients
You might think that taking in the right amounts of oxygen and water is a given.
But most people use oxygen inefficiently and drink too little water.
And this can have surprising repercussions for your brain.
Your Brain Needs Oxygen
Oxygen is one nutrient your brain can’t live without for more than a few minutes.
While clearly you get enough oxygen to survive, you may not be getting a sufficient amount for your brain to thrive.
Here’s how to make the most out of every breath you take:
- Practice good posture. Standing up straight can increase lung capacity by 5%.
- Practice breathing from your diaphragm. Most people breathe shallowly instead of deeply.
- If you smoke, stop. Smokers have less oxygen flow to their brains.
- Exercise! Exercise is one of the most important things you can do for your brain. It doesn’t need to be strenuous. Walking is particularly beneficial for the brain as are exercises with a strong mind-body connection like yoga and tai chi. (32, 33, 34)
- Eat a healthy diet that includes plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables which increase your blood’s ability to transport oxygen to your brain cells.
- Take brain vitamins or brain supplements that work by enhancing oxygen uptake by the brain. Ingredients that do this include herbal-based supplements such as vinpocetine, huperzine A, and acetyl-l-carnitine, and vitamins E and C.
Your Brain Needs Water
Your brain is a thirsty organ. 73% of your brain is water. (35)
It is said that 75% of the US population is chronically dehydrated. (36)
It takes only 2% dehydration to affect your attention, memory and other cognitive skills. (37)
Ninety minutes of sweating can shrink the brain as much as one year of aging! (38)
The effects of dehydration on the brain can be so noticeable that they mimic the symptoms of dementia. (39, 40)
Some researchers believe that Alzheimer’s may be the result of long-term dehydration of the brain.
We’re often told to drink 8 glasses of water per day, but that is overly simplistic.
A better rule of thumb is to divide your weight in pounds by two and aim for that many ounces of water.
Knowing how much water you need is especially important if you engage in sports or exercise outdoors.
Camelbak.com has an online hydration calculator that will help you determine how much water you need while exercising.
It takes into account variables such as your age, weight, and gender along with type of activity, intensity, duration, temperature, and even cloud cover.
Brain Nutrients: The Bottom Line
To make sure all of your brain’s nutritional needs are being met, here are a few simple steps you can take.
- Take a high-quality multivitamin supplement to get all the vitamins and minerals your brain needs. Numerous studies have shown that taking a multivitamin alone can improve memory and overall brain function. (41, 42, 43, 44)
- Unless you eat cold-water, fatty fish three times a week, take an omega-3 or DHA supplement.
- Minimize processed foods. Eat a “real food” diet with the main emphasis on vegetables, fruit, protein, and foods that contain healthy fats.
- Sit up straight and breathe from your belly to get more oxygen to your brain.
- Exercise every day to oxygenate your brain. Walking and mind-body exercises like yoga and tai chi are particularly beneficial.
- Don’t underestimate your need for water. Drink plenty of water to keep brain dehydration at bay.