Whether you’re trying to help your kids with their homework, divvy up the dinner tab at your moms’ night out, or multitask several major projects at work, your brain works better when you feed it well. In fact, scientists in the pioneering field of nutritional neuroscience are finding that specific nutrients may be able to charge your brain’s neurotransmitters (messenger cells), thereby enhancing your mental performance and sharpening your memory.
These nutrients come in pill form, but “the best brain food is a healthy diet,” says Madelyn Fernstrom, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry, epidemiology and surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. To give yourself a mental edge, fortify your diet with foods that contain the following nutrients.
Neuro nutrient: Iron
What it does: This important mineral helps myoglobin in muscle cells and hemoglobin in red blood cells ferry oxygen throughout your body, including to your brain. Iron-poor blood has been linked to a short attention span and mental sluggishness.
Super sources: Red meat, poultry, pork, raisins, dried apricots, prunes, dried beans; fortified bread and grain products.
Food for thought: Consume these foods with a vitamin C-rich food such as orange juice to up your body’s ability to absorb iron. Women age 50 and under should get 18 mg of iron per day.
Neuro nutrient: Boron
What it does: This little-known trace mineral may foster hand-eye coordination and short-term memory.
Super sources: apples, pears, broccoli and carrots.
Food for thought: In the body, boron mimics the action of the hormone estrogen, which means that, like estrogen, boron helps calcium keep bones strong.
Neuro nutrient: Choline
What it does: In the body, choline is converted to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which appears to regulate memory and mental sharpness.
Super sources: eggs, red meat, nuts. (In pill form, choline is found in lecithin.)
Food for thought: Some red meat is high in fat; reach for lean cuts and trim all fat before cooking.
Neuro nutrient: Folic acid
What it does: This B vitamin (also known as folacin or folate) helps maintain your brain’s levels of memory-boosting choline.
Super sources: orange and tomato juice, strawberries, dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, turnip greens; wheat germ, dried beans, peas, fortified grains and cereals.
Food for thought: Folic acid has been found to reduce a woman’s risk of having a baby with neural-tube birth defects; all women of childbearing age are advised to get at least 400 micrograms daily in foods or supplements to guard against the possibility of birth defects. Most breads and cereals sold in the U.S. are fortified.
Neuro nutrient: Antioxidants
What they do: Vitamins C, E and beta-carotene and other carotenoids (a class of orange plant pigments) help battle cell damage caused by free radicals (unstable oxygen molecules) that may lead to cloudy thought and premature brain aging. Free radicals are unstable because they lack a full complement of electrons so they steal electrons from other molecules, damaging those molecules in the process.
Super sources: Whole grains, nuts and dark green, purple, blue, red, yellow or orange fruits and veggies such as tomatoes, sweet potatoes, strawberries, blueberries, concord grapes, cantaloupe, kale. A trick to help you meet your quota of 5 or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day: Pack in the produce before 4:00 P.M. Studies show that if you don’t get it by then, you’re chance of meeting your requirement is slim.
Food for thought: The latest research shows that taking antioxidants in pill form or added to foods doesn’t confer the same health benefits. It’s best to get these nutrients from their naturally-occurring forms—a.k.a. food. Getting plenty of antioxidants from your diet can also help reduce your risk of heart disease.
Neuro nutrient: Linolenic acid
What it does: This super-unsaturated essential fatty acid helps brain cells forge new connections. With linolenic acid in your diet, you might “get it”—especially complex stuff—more easily. Women should get 1.1 grams of linolenic per day.
Super sources: Canola, soy, walnut and flaxseed oils; seaweed (say, in the sushi wrapper).
Food for thought: Other oils—such as polyunsaturated corn, or safflower—are practically devoid of linolenic acid. And saturated fat (butter, bacon) may clog the arteries of your brain as well as your heart.
Neuro nutrient: Calcium
What it does: Although its main job is to build strong bones, calcium has also been shown to increase your ability to concentrate during premenstrual days, when hormonal changes impair mental focus.
Super sources: Non-fat and low-fat milk and cheese, yogurt (regular and frozen), calcium-fortified juices, broccoli and mustard greens.
Food for thought: Aim for 1,000 mg per day, including if you’re pregnant or nursing, which is roughly equivalent to the amount of calcium in two cups of low-fat yogurt plus an 8-ounce glass of milk.
by Sandra Gordon