Brain Foods That Get an A+ (Or a 170)

In my ultimate quest to become a nutritionist, my first official step is taking the GRE so that I can apply to Public Health School. I’m taking the new and revised GRE tomorrow, and I’ve been studying for weeks. While I can’t control how hard the test is, one thing I can take into my own hands is my diet. Certain foods have been shown to enhance memory, reasoning skills, and the ability to concentrate, so in a last-ditch effort to raise my scores, I’ve been eating these foods all day. Of course, to really get the most of their brain-boosting effects, you’d want to start including them in your diet a lot earlier – but I’m relying on the placebo effect here. Eat these smart foods for smart health!
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Our brain is partly composed of gray matter, neuronal cell bodies that are distributed predominantly throughout the cerebral cortex and cerebellum. One of the elements that allows the gray matter to function properly is docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a type of omega-3 fatty acid. These fatty acids increase the fluidity of cell membranes, allowing for better synaptic communication to and from nerves – thereby enhancing learning and memory. DHA also protects the brain by reducing oxidative stress. A lack of omega-3s in the diet can have the opposite effect: in one study, rats deficient in omega-3s experienced impaired learning and memory. Salmon is one of top sources of DHA; walnuts, flaxseed, and seaweed are good vegetarian sources of omega-3s.

Green Tea
Green tea has long been touted as a fat-burning, antioxidant-filled alternative to coffee. Its claim to fame is its high levels of EGCG (epigallocatechin-3-gallate), a polyphenol. These compounds have been shown to reduce age-related brain damage and to protect the brain from neurotoxic substances, such as viruses. In a study reported in the Journal of Nutrition, rats were given either differing amounts of a mixture containing EGCG or a mixture containing none for 26 weeks. At the end of the period, the rats were tested in a difficult maze to measure their learning abilities. The rats who received the EGCG-spiked drinks performed better on the maze, demonstrating increased short-term learning ability; in addition, these rats showed decreased free radical damage in their hippocampi, the brain structure that deals with memory and information processing. Japanese researchers suggested that EGCG may have brain-protecting abilities beyond their antioxidant activity, including the supervision of cell survival. Sip matcha for the greatest EGCG content; decaffeinated and bottled green teas contain significantly less.

Whole Grains
Replacing refined carbohydrates with whole grains is one of the most popular tips for overall health. They contain healthy vitamins and minerals, unique antioxidants, provide energy and mood-boosting serotonin, and reduce the risk of certain cancers, diabetes, and other health problems. In terms of brain health, however, their most important quality is their cardiovascular-health promoting qualities. By improving your cardiovascular system, whole grains boost blood flow to the organs – including the brain. Just like your body requires adequate blood flow to your muscles while you exercise and to your stomach while you digest food, ample blood flow to the brain improves brain function. In addition, whole grains provide a steady stream of glucose, the fuel your brain uses to function. While subsisting on refined flours results in spikes and dips in blood sugar, whole grains provide balanced energy for optimal brain function. For an early-morning boost, eat a bowl of oatmeal sprinkled with wheat germ or whole grain toast smeared with a nut butter.

If you’re nervous before a big test, include lysine- and arginine-rich yogurt in your test-day breakfast. In a study from Slovakia, scientists gave two groups either a placebo or three grams each of the amino acids lysine and arginine. Measurements of stress hormones circulating in the blood confirmed that those who had taken the amino acid supplements demonstrated half as much anxious behavior during a public speaking test. Taken together, lysine and arginine reduce stress hormones such as cortisol in order to normalize stress responses. Yogurt is also one of the best sources of calpain, a unique calcium-dependent protein found in yogurt as well as leafy greens such as kale. Studies have shown that calpain plays a role in long-term potentiation, a fancy phrase for the strengthening of firing between synapses, thereby increasing long-term memory. Combined with yogurt’s protein, these three nutrients will increase alertness and memory, giving you the ammo you need to ace your test.

Plenty of other foods can boost brain health as well, such as curry, nuts and seeds, berries, citrus fruits, green, leafy vegetables, sage, eggs, and even chocolate. And just as nutritionists advise eating a rainbow of fruits and vegetables to get the maximum amount of nutrients possible, eat a wide range of these brain-loving foods to reap their benefits from every direction.

Tomorrow, I’ll be eating a pre-GRE breakfast of yogurt with multigrain flakes, ground flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts, cinnamon and green tea. Here’s to the placebo effect!


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