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4 Food Strategies to Boost Brain Function

While there are many positive aspects to aging, we’re more familiar  with the  things that can go wrong. For all the wisdom we gain from  experience, we’re  more apt to worry about memory loss. We fret over  rusty neurotransmitters and  cloudy thinking.

So we diligently do crossword puzzles, wrestle with brainteasers and  learn  to play musical instruments — for the intrinsic joy, of course,  but also to  help inoculate our brains against negative age-related  changes. These are  helpful pursuits, but they’re not the only ones that  matter. In fact, if we  want to build a better brain, what we choose to  eat and drink might make the  biggest difference of all.

The following food-based strategies can help any brain function better — whether that brain is 9 years old or 90.

Hydrate

Proper hydration is a critical factor in maintaining and improving  your mind  as you age. “Your brain is 80 percent water,” says Daniel  Amen, MD, a clinical  neuroscientist and author of Use Your Brain to Change Your Age: Secrets to Look, Feel,  and Think Younger Every Day (Crown,  2012). “Even slight dehydration  increases the body’s stress hormones,  which can decrease your ability to think  clearly. Over time, increased  levels of stress hormones are associated with  memory problems.”

While the amount of hydration you need day-to-day depends on several   factors, including activity level, relative humidity and eating habits  (to name  only a few), the oft-repeated advice to drink 64 ounces — or  eight 8-ounce  glasses — of water a day isn’t a bad general rule to  follow. Keep in mind,  however, that you can account for those ounces in  several different ways. If  you’re eating a lot of vegetables and fruits,  for example, you may need to  drink less water. Most fresh plant foods  have a high water content and will  help keep you hydrated.

While the feeling of thirst is a good indicator you need to hydrate, if the only time you grab a glass of water is when you’re noticeably thirsty,  you  may not be drinking enough for optimal health. That’s because that  “thirsty feeling” kicks in only when your body is already a bit  dehydrated. The  best approach to hydration is a conscious, proactive  one. So, drink up! (For  more on proper hydration, see Drink to Your Health.)

Fight Free  Radicals

If you leave a bottle of wine open too long, it will oxidize and  become  stale. If your car is exposed to the elements for too long, its  exterior may  rust. Just as wine degrades and metal rusts, the cells in  our brains and  bodies degrade over time when they are exposed to free  radicals.

Free radicals are unstable molecules that are generated in the body  as a  byproduct of other natural internal processes, such as the  metabolizing of food  or the triggering of an immune response by a  bacteria or virus.

Free-radical molecules are unstable because they have an uneven  number of  electrons, which prefer to be in pairs. So in an effort to  restabilize  themselves, free radicals roam the body stealing electrons  from healthy cells.  When that happens, the formerly healthy cells, now  short an electron, head out  on their own searching for a replacement  electron, thus inciting an unhealthy  chain reaction of stolen electrons  throughout the body. It is that cascade of “electron theft” that causes  the cellular damage or “rust” in our brains and  bodies.

Antioxidants are free-radical scavengers. They fight the corrosive  effects  of free radicals by quieting their search for additional  electrons. You can  build up your antioxidant power by eating more  vegetables: Broccoli, cabbage,  cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, spinach,  kale and chard all pack a powerful  punch in the fight against  free-radical damage.

Garlic, too, is a powerful antioxidant, and it also has antibacterial  and  antifungal qualities. Fruit is another ally. Blueberries brim with   antioxidants, as do raspberries, blackberries and strawberries. Red  grapes  contain high levels of the potent antioxidants resveratrol and  quercetin. (So,  too, by extension, does red wine; in moderation, it may  offer some antioxidant  protection.)

Spices and herbs are also powerful weapons in the fight  against free radicals.  Cumin, cloves, cinnamon, turmeric, mustard, ginger,  oregano, basil,  sage, thyme and tarragon are rife with antioxidants. Look for  recipes  that call for these, or add a dash of cinnamon, turmeric or ginger to a  cup of tea. Green, white and black teas contain antioxidants, too, so by   pairing tea with spices, you’ll get a double dose of antioxidant power.

Ditch Processed  Foods

The vast majority of unhealthy, age-amplifying foods are processed  foods.  One of the main dangers of processed foods? Added sugar.

Each year, Americans consume an average of 150 pounds of sugar per  person — much of it in processed foods, says Nancy Appleton, PhD,  coauthor of Suicide by Sugar (Square One, 2009). And that is  not good news for brain health.

Overconsumption of sugar has been linked to depression and dementia disorders  such as  Alzheimer’s. It also increases inflammation and raises insulin levels  in  a way that can suppress the immune system, increasing your  vulnerability to  a host of additional diseases of brain and body.

Remember, too, that high-glycemic carbohydrates (also called “simple   carbs”), which proliferate in processed foods, act like sugar in the   bloodstream.

Processed foods also contain more than their fair share of unhealthy  fats.  While the human brain needs healthy fats to function — such as  those found in  nuts, avocados, and coconut and olive oil — bad fats like  trans fats and highly  processed commercial vegetable oils have been  linked to depression and other  mood disorders. These fats interfere with  the metabolism of essential fatty  acids in brain-cell membranes, which  can harm some of the neurotransmitters  responsible for mood, focus and  memory.

Boost Key  Nutrients

Dietary supplements can play a key role in healthy brain functioning. Here  are some of the top brain-boosting supplements:

Vitamin D. Studies have shown that vitamin D can protect against dementia, a range of  autoimmune disorders, cancer,  high blood pressure and many other illnesses. Our  bodies produce vitamin  D in response to sunshine, but most people don’t get  adequate daily sun  exposure — especially if you live in a northern climate.

Omega-3s. Daily supplementation with fish oil, one  of the  best sources of omega-3 fatty acids, can give your brain a big  boost.  High-quality fish oil, free from mercury and other toxins,  provides the omega-3  fatty acids that sheath brain cells and facilitate  healthy brain functioning.  Omega-3s also help fight inflammation, which  tends to occur in our brains as we  age. Studies have shown that some of  the other nutrients in fish oil, such as  DHA and EPA, help provide  protection against depression, stabilize mood and  promote alertness.

CoQ10. Short for coenzyme Q10, CoQ10 is a molecule  that  works in concert with other nutrients to improve the functioning of  all the  cells of the body. Many recent studies have linked CoQ10 with  boosting overall  energy and sharpening cognition. (For more on CoQ10,  see CoQ10:  The Miracle Molecule.)

One of the most common myths about aging is that memory inevitably  declines.  But I know from the growing body of scientific evidence that  age-related  decline in brain function isn’t a foregone conclusion. If  you nurture your  brain with the right nutrients, you will help it remain  flexible, resilient and  strong. So, next time you sit down for a meal  or reach for a snack, think of  your future brain, and choose wisely!

By Michael J. Gelb, Experience Life

Experience Life magazine is an award-winning health and fitness  publication that aims to empower people to live their best, most authentic  lives, and challenges the conventions of hype, gimmicks and superficiality in  favor of a discerning, whole-person perspective. Visit experiencelife.com   to learn more and to sign  up for the Experience Life newsletter, or to subscribe  to the print or digital version.

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