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by Nissa Simon
Updated July 8, 2022
Many chronic diseases, including heart disease, cancer and obesity, have been linked to inflammation, part of the body’s immune response. When inflammation is out of control, it can affect the brain. “Substances secreted by certain immune-system cells spill into the bloodstream and enter the brain,” says Caroline Apovian, an endocrinologist at Boston University School of Medicine. “Once there, they damage the brain’s nerve cells, affecting memory and thinking skills.”
But you can do something to help yourself. Switch out refined carbs, sugar-sweetened beverages, fried foods and processed meats for fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats and proteins to help quell inflammation. The seven foods below are rich in anti-inflammatory compounds. If these don’t please your palate, we’ve given you plenty of other options that are rich in the same brain-boosting vitamins, minerals and compounds.
Underneath its spiny exterior, pineapples pack a brain-boosting wallop. Bromelain, an enzyme found only in pineapples, keeps blood platelets from sticking together and forming clots. These clots can break off from artery walls and interrupt blood flow to the brain, setting you up for a memory-damaging stroke, Apovian notes. Pineapples are also rich in folate (aka vitamin B9), which can help make you more alert and better able to focus.
Other foods rich in bromelain: There are none. Pineapple is the only edible member of its plant family.
Other foods rich in folate: lentils, spinach, black beans, broccoli.
2. Purple potatoes
These gemlike spuds are about as big as a Ping-Pong ball, but don’t let their size fool you. Purple potatoes have many times the antioxidant power of their cousins, white and yellow potatoes. Studies have found that the plant pigments that give them their lovely color, called anthocyanins, may improve memory and prevent age-related muddled thinking. Also, their high levels of folate help lower levels of the amino acid homocysteine, which can damage brain cells. Pretty good for such a tiny tater.
Other foods rich in anthocyanins: Blueberries, strawberries, red and purple grapes, red cabbage.
Celery does more than serve as a swizzle stick for your glass of tomato juice. The stalks are packed with a plant compound called luteolin, which calms a type of immune cell in the brain and spinal cord that works to keep the brain in good working order. Luteolin is linked to lower rates of age-related memory loss, according to a study reported in the Journal of Nutrition. Because the study was carried out in mice, more research needs to be done to see if the results can be replicated in humans.
Other foods rich in luteolin: carrots, parsley, parsnips, green peppers.
Cucumbers provide a substantial amount of potassium along with their crunch. This mineral plays a key role in helping brain cells communicate with each other. Low potassium levels have been associated with mood problems and depression, according to an article in the British Journal of Nutrition, and a diet high in potassium helps relieve symptoms. Cucumbers are also a valuable source of fisetin, an anti-inflammatory plant compound that helps protect the brain’s nerve cells from age-related decline, at least in mice.
Other foods rich in potassium: bananas, mangos, pears, cantaloupes.
Other foods rich in fisetin: strawberries, apples, grapes, onions.
Raisins are among the top food sources of boron, a brain-boosting mineral. “Among its other benefits, boron improves mental alertness, short-term memory and focus, and even affects eye-hand coordination and dexterity,” says Forrest Nielsen, retired research nutritionist at the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center in North Dakota. You probably won’t learn to juggle four balls at once just by eating a handful of raisins, but this fruit (and a lot of practice) will set you on the right path.
Other foods rich in boron: chickpeas, almonds, walnuts, avocados.
6. Pumpkin seeds
Pumpkin seeds are one smart snack. They’re rich in zinc, a mineral vital for memory and thinking skills. They’re also packed with magnesium, a mineral that fights inflammation and contributes to the creation of new brain cells. In addition, pumpkin seeds contain a hefty amount of tryptophan, an amino acid that the body converts to the good-mood chemical serotonin. As if that’s not enough, pumpkin seeds contain a wide variety of antioxidants that may slow brain aging.
Other foods rich in zinc: oysters, poultry, cheese, peanuts.
Other foods rich in magnesium: spinach, sesame seeds, cashews, navy beans.
Other foods rich in tryptophan: asparagus, yogurt, salmon, cashews.
Artichokes are a good source of vitamin K, which plays a key role in what scientists call “episodic memory,” the ability to remember such things as where you left your keys or what you ordered for dinner last night. According to a study in the journal Neurobiology of Aging, vitamin K also helps speed communication between brain cells. What’s more, artichokes relax arteries, allowing more oxygen to reach the brain — which translates into better thinking.
Other foods rich in vitamin K: broccoli, parsley, spinach, Swiss chard.
• “Chronic inflammation in the etiology of disease across the lifespan,” Nature Medicine, December 2019. In this paper, researchers review the body of evidence showing that chronic inflammation is associated with a variety of diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, kidney disease, liver disease and autoimmune and neurodegenerative disorders. They identify potential causes of inflammation, such as diet, stress, exposure to air pollutants and hazardous chemicals, and chronic infections, and describe some of the underlying mechanisms. Read the full paper.
• “Current evidence on cognitive improvement and neuroprotection promoted by anthocyanins,” Current Opinion in Food Science, April 2019. In this review, researchers discuss recent evidence about the mechanisms and effects of anthocyanins on cognitive function. In several studies, animals who have been given doses of anthocyanin-rich products demonstrated an improvement in learning and memory tasks. Some human studies have also shown that anthocyanins may enhance cognition in older adults, but the studies have not been consistent with dose type, size or frequency. The authors emphasize that more research is needed to determine clinical applications. Read a summary of the study. (A fee is required to access the full study.)
• “Luteolin Inhibits Microglia and Alters Hippocampal-Dependent Spatial Working Memory in Aged Mice,” The Journal of Nutrition, October 2010. In this study, researchers evaluated the effects of a luteolin-supplemented diet in older mice. They found that luteolin consumption improved spatial working memory and mitigated specific inflammatory markers in the hippocampus of older mice but did not affect younger adult mice. Read the full study.
• “Dietary electrolytes are related to mood,” British Journal of Nutrition, November 2008. In this randomized, controlled study, researchers compared the effects of different diets on mood in 94 participants (age 29 to 81). They found that a diet low in sodium and high in potassium had a small positive effect on overall mood, including a reduction in depression and tension and an increase in vigor. Read the full study.
• “Fisetin Reduces the Impact of Aging on Behavior and Physiology in the Rapidly Aging Samp8 Mouse,” The Journals of Gerontology: Series A, June 2017. In this study, researchers found that rapidly aging mice dosed with fisetin for seven months had better cognitive function than mice who had eaten a regular diet. Fisetin appeared to reduce cognitive deficits and restore markers associated with impaired synaptic function, stress and inflammation in the mice. Read the full study.
• “Vitamin K status and cognitive function in healthy older adults,” Neurobiology of Aging, December 2013. In this study, researchers compared vitamin K levels in 320 healthy older adults (age 70 to 85) to their performance on a series of cognitive tests. They found that higher levels of vitamin K were associated with better performance on a recall test designed to test episodic memory, but not with nonverbal recall, executive function or speed of processing tests. The researchers suggest that vitamin K may play a role in memory consolidation during aging. Read a summary of the study. (A fee is required to access the full study.)