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Can food improve brain health?

In oth­er words, may some foods be specif­i­cal­ly good for brain func­tion?

For a great in-depth review of the effects of food on the brain you can check out Fer­nan­do Gomez-Pinil­la’s recent arti­cle in Nature Reviews Neu­ro­science (ref­er­ence below). Here is an overview of the state off the research.

Sev­er­al com­po­nents of diet seem to have a pos­i­tive effect on brain func­tion.

Omega‑3 fat­ty acids

These acids are nor­mal con­stituents of cell mem­branes and are essen­tial for nor­mal brain func­tion. Omega‑3 fat­ty acids can be found in fish (salmon), kiwi, and wal­nuts. Docosa­hexaenoic acid, or DHA, is the most abun­dant omega‑3 fat­ty acid in cell mem­branes in the brain. The human body pro­duces DHA but not enough. So we are depen­dent on the DHA that we get from what we eat.

A ran­dom­ized dou­ble-blind con­trolled tri­al (which means seri­ous­ly con­duct­ed sci­en­tif­ic study) is cur­rent­ly look­ing at the effect of tak­ing omega‑3 fat­ty acids on chil­dren’s per­for­mance at school in Eng­land. Pre­lim­i­nary results (Port­wood, 2006) sug­gest that the group of chil­dren who received omega‑3 fat­ty acids showed some lev­el of improve­ment in school per­for­mance com­pared to the group of chil­dren who received a place­bo. More research is need­ed to con­firm these results but they look promis­ing.

Fat­ty acids are also regard­ed as a promis­ing but untest­ed treat­ment as mood sta­bi­liz­er. Hibbeln (1998) showed a neg­a­tive cor­re­la­tion between fish con­sump­tion (i.e., omega‑3 fat­ty acid intake) and major depres­sion in many coun­tries includ­ing the Unit­ed States, Cana­da, Ger­many and France. A neg­a­tive cor­re­la­tion means that as con­sump­tion of omega‑3 decreas­es, the preva­lence of major depres­sion increas­es. Note that a cor­re­la­tion does not imply cau­sa­tion: we can­not con­clude that low omega‑3 con­sump­tion caus­es major depres­sion.

Folic acid (or folate)

Folate is gen­er­at­ed by the liv­er, after the intes­tine has absorbed vit­a­min B. It is found in spinach, orange juice and yeast. Ade­quate lev­els of folate are essen­tial for brain func­tion.

Cor­ra­da and col­leagues (2005) have shown that peo­ple who take more folate than oth­ers have less risks of devel­op­ing Alzheimer’s dis­ease. Note again that this is a cor­re­la­tion so more research is need­ed to deter­mine whether folate is indeed respon­si­ble for the risk reduc­tion.


These are found in cocoa, green tea, Ginko bilo­ba tree, cit­rus fruits, wine and dark choco­late. The antiox­i­dant effects of flavonols have been shown in vit­ro (in the test tube) but more research is need­ed to estab­lish the effects of flavonols in vivo (in a liv­ing organ­ism). So far, Ginko bilo­ba extracts have been shown to reduce mem­o­ry impair­ment in mice with mixed effects in humans, at best.

Antiox­i­dant foods

The brain is high­ly sus­cep­ti­ble to oxida­tive dam­age. This is why antiox­i­dant food has become pop­u­lar for their pos­i­tive effects on brain func­tion.

Antiox­i­dants are found in a vari­ety of food: Alpha lipoic is found in spinach, broc­coli and pota­toes; Vit­a­min E is found in veg­etable oils, nuts, green leafy veg­eta­bles; Cur­cum­in is found in the cur­ry spice; Vit­a­min C is found in cit­rus fruit and sev­er­al plants and veg­eta­bles. Berries are well known for their antiox­i­dant capac­i­ty but it is not clear which of their many com­po­nents has an effect on cog­ni­tion.

Guts and the brain

We have seen that what we eat can affect brain func­tion. Inter­est­ing­ly, it has also been shown that guts hor­mones them­selves can direct­ly influ­ence brain func­tion. Indeed, sev­er­al gut hor­mones such as lep­tin (which sends sig­nals to the brain to reduce appetite), ghre­lin (which acts as an appetite stim­u­lant) or insulin (which is secret­ed by the antic­i­pa­tion of meals and dur­ing diges­tion) have been found to enhance mem­o­ry for­ma­tion through their action on the hip­pocam­pus. As you know, the hip­pocam­pus is one of the brain struc­tures cru­cial for spa­tial learn­ing and mem­o­ry for­ma­tion. These gut hor­mones have an effect on the plas­tic­i­ty (the abil­i­ty to change) of the con­nec­tions between neu­rons in the hip­pocam­pus. For instance ghre­lin pro­motes the for­ma­tion of new synapse dur­ing learn­ing. Insulin can enter the brain and inter­act direct­ly with cells in the hip­pocam­pus.

Final note of cau­tion

Please note that most of the stud­ies show­ing pos­i­tive effects of all these nutri­ents on the brain have been con­duct­ed in mice. A few human stud­ies are now pub­lished but more research is clear­ly need­ed to estab­lish and under­stand the effects of spe­cif­ic foods on brain func­tion.


- Cor­ra­da, M., Kawas, C., Hall­frisch, J., Muller, D., & Brook­mey­er, R. (2005). Reduced risk of Alzheimer’s dis­ease with high folate intake: The Bal­ti­more Lon­gi­tu­di­nal Study of Aging. Alzheimers & Demen­tia, 1, A4.

- Hibbeln, J. R. (1998). Fish con­sump­tion and major depres­sion. Lancet, 351, 1213.

- Gmez-Pinil­la, F. (2008). Brain foods: the effects of nutri­ents on brain func­tion. Nature Reviews Neu­ro­science, 9, 568–578.

- Port­wood, M. M. (2006). The role of dietary fat­ty acids in chil­drens behav­ior and learn­ing. Nutr. Health, 18, 233–247.

Pascale Michelon— This arti­cle was writ­ten by Pas­cale Mich­e­lon, Ph. D., for Sharp­Brains. Dr. Mich­e­lon, Copy­right 2008. Dr. Mich­e­lon has a Ph.D. in Cog­ni­tive Psy­chol­o­gy and has worked as a Research Sci­en­tist at Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty in Saint Louis, in the Psy­chol­o­gy Depart­ment. She con­duct­ed sev­er­al research projects to under­stand how the brain makes use of visu­al infor­ma­tion and mem­o­rizes facts. She is now an Adjunct Fac­ul­ty at Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty, and teach­es Mem­o­ry Work­shops in numer­ous retire­ment com­mu­ni­ties in the St Louis area.

More arti­cles on the top­ic:

- A Mul­ti-Pronged Approach to Brain Health

- Overview of Nutri­tion­al Sup­ple­ments and Brain Fit­ness

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3 Responses

  1. Fred Clay says:

    Wow! So many foods that can improve your brain func­tion. Great post.


  2. Bob Bates says:

    Great stuff. Thank you. I will def­i­nite­ly use this infor­ma­tion with my clients. When cou­pled with some good info on caloric pac­ing and how to avoid “brain bonk”, I would expect them to see some real­ly pos­i­tive results. Thanks!

  3. Dean Ledbetter says:

    I’ve read about the Omega 3 and Folic Acid, but the Dopamine with com­po­nent amino acids appeared to be more essen­tial to the facil­i­ta­tion of the chem­i­cal releas­es along the axons to the nuerons. Please cor­rect me if I am wrong.

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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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