When you haven't been eating well, you feel it. Like a car on poor quality fuel, your performance lags. You feel sluggish, less energetic. Similarly, your brain power can also be dulled.
For women, mental sharpness can also be compromised by health events unique to their gender. A recent Australian study confirmed that minor mental lapses often experienced by pregnant women, commonly known as 'baby brain', is a genuine condition.
Perimenopause, prior to menopause, can also be a time of 'foggy' thinking. Better brain health is an issue women want to know more about. In the 2017 Jean Hailes annual Women's Health Survey, memory and concentration was the fourth most-requested topic women wanted more information on, after nutrition, mindfulness/ meditation and sleep/fatigue.
The good news is that one of the easiest and best ways to improve our brain power is by the survey's most-requested topic – nutrition. Jean Hailes naturopath Sandra Villella says good nutrition is not only associated with chronic disease prevention, but also brain power, and is "an essential and modifiable risk factor that plays a role in preventing and/or delaying the onset of dementia."
This is of particular relevance to women, with dementia now being the number-one cause of death of women in Australia. "High-quality diets that are associated with better cognitive function and lower dementia risk with ageing are high in vegetables, fruit, nuts, wholegrains and fish, and low in red meat, high-fat dairy products, sweets and highly processed foods," says Ms Villella.
Two diets that follow these guidelines are the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet. There is also a combination of these two diets that is associated with a lower risk of cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's disease in older persons. It is called – aptly – the MIND diet.
Like the Mediterranean and DASH diets, the MIND diet's main focus is vegetables, fruit and eating more fish and less red meat. While it contains specific brain-healthy foods and nutrients, it's the combination of these nutrients that seems to make the MIND diet so beneficial. So what are these essential nutrients of brain power and what foods do you find them in?
Omega-3 fatty acids help to control inflammation and oxidation in the body and brain. Brain oxidative processes are a major factor in age-related cognitive decline. Fish – particularly oily fish such as salmon, herring, sardines, mackerel and tuna – are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Given your brain is 60% fat, it makes sense that the fats you eat affect your brain health and performance, so try to eat fish about three times a week.
Plant-based sources of omega-3s include linseeds/flaxseed oil, hemp seeds, chia and walnuts.
As mentioned, oxidation in the brain is a main player in cognitive decline, which is why a diet rich in antioxidants is vital for brain health. The richest sources of antioxidants are brightly coloured vegetables and fruits, as well as the staple of all Mediterranean kitchens, olive oil. Nature's red and purple foods such as berries, plums, red onion, olives and eggplant also contain polyphenols, which are particularly rich sources of antioxidants. Enjoy a good daily dose of these.
Low vitamin D levels are associated with a greater risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. We get most of our vitamin D from sun exposure; food sources are less reliable, but include fatty fish and eggs (which also provide protein for proper muscle and brain function and choline, an important nutrient for memory and neurodevelopment).
If you are concerned about your vitamin D levels, ask your health practitioner if a blood test to assess your levels is suitable for you.
Whole foods are plant-based foods that are unprocessed and unrefined (or minimally processed). These include whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes. Whole grains are also a source of B vitamins and folic acid, both of which can also help to fight cognitive decline. Dietitian Stephanie Pirotta says whole foods are "always"the best way to get your vitamins and minerals, though supplements can still help. "Sometimes people may still be deficient or low in a certain nutrient even if they are eating it in their diet," says Ms Pirotta. So there's probably no surprises there – good food means good health, in body and mind. But knowing the science behind it means you're probably feeling smarter already, right?
Three things to know
- The MIND diet combines the Mediterranean and DASH diets for a diet supportive of brain health.
- Research shows eating fish improves cognitive function.
- Whole foods are the foundation of a brainboosting diet.
If you want a quick and delicious morning starter, try our Breakfast Brain Topper recipe from The Jean Hailes Kitchen.