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Brain box!

Feeding your brain to improve concentration and mental ability

When the brain is not firing on all cylinders you feel sluggish, have difficulty concentrating, are forgetful, can’t multi-task and can feel overwhelmed quite easily,” says Liz O’Byrne from The Aloe Tree in Ennistymon, Co Clare.

“Brain fog has become a bit of a buzz word these days, but for anyone suffering from it this is no joke,” says Lorin Taylor at Licorice Healthfoods in Portumna, Co Galway. “It’s not just the absent mindedness or lack of focus, it can come with a real lack of motivation or feeling overwhelmed by tasks that we used to do with ease. Other symptoms can include stress eating and feeling emotionally sensitive. As well as being easily confused, just staying on track and focused to get simple jobs done can really feel overwhelming.”

What you feed your body, and therefore brain, can make a real difference to how you feel both physically and mentally. These foods are a powerhouse for your little grey cells.

Avocadoes contain potassium, vitamin K, monounsaturated fatty acids and folate that can improve brain flow and lower the risk of reduced brain function.

Beetroot is a high nitrate vegetable that increases blood flow to regions of the brain that are responsible for attention and memory. Try beetroot juice too.

“Blueberries are great brain foods as they are anti-inflammatory and have antioxidant effects,” says Liz O’Byrne. “They also contain the plant compounds anthocyanins.”

“Blueberries are full of flavonoids, a type of antioxidant that can improve memory skills,” says Lorin Taylor. Aim for two servings per week of red and blue berries to slow down cognitive decline.

“The caffeine in dark chocolate, and also coffee, has a number of positive effects on the brain such as increased alertness, improved mood and sharpened concentration,” says Liz O’Byrne. Cocoa flavonoids help stimulate blood flow to the brain and improve memory and attention span.

Some people have seen significant improvement to memory after adding coconut to their diet. This is because coconut and its oil provides the brain with ketones which serve as brain fuel instead of glucose.

“Eggs, particularly hard boiled eggs, contain choline which enhances memory and learning,” says Lorin Taylor.

“Fish oil contains omega-3 fatty acids which are required to build brain and nerve cells,” says Liz O’Byrne. “The best source of omega-3 fatty acids is oily fish. It can also be found in chia seeds, flaxseeds, certain seaweeds and eggs from hens that were fed omega-3 fatty acids.”

Green tea
Green tea is rich in polyphenols that may protect the brain from mental decline and the amino acid l-theanine, which has been associated with better memory and increased attention.

Leafy greens
Folate is found in spinach, Brussels sprouts, kale. It is a B vitamin that is vital for brain function and emotional wellbeing.

“Nuts and seeds, especially walnuts, are high in zinc and DHA (fatty acids),” says Lorin Taylor. “Nuts and nut butters are a great source of protein and vitamin E. Both help memory and give you good fats.”

Olive oil
“Good quality olive oil is a good choice because it’s rich in polyphenols which are a powerful brain antioxidant,” says Lorin Taylor.

It’s important to get enough omega-3 fatty acids because these are the essential building blocks of our brain and are important for learning and memory. These are found in oily fish, flaxseed, hemp seeds and walnuts.

Pumpkin seeds
“Pumpkin seeds are a great source of zinc, magnesium, copper and iron,” says Liz O’Byrne. “Zinc is required for nerve signalling, magnesium deficiency is linked to neurological diseases such as depression and epilepsy, copper is required to control nerve signalling and a lack of iron is linked to impaired brain function.”

Vitamin C
Eating sufficient amounts of vitamin C-rich foods in the form of fruit and vegetables can protect against age-related mental decline. Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that helps fight off the free radicals that can damage brain cells.

“The spice turmeric contains curcumin which also has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects and is known to be able to cross the blood-brain barrier (ie directly enter the brain),” says Liz O’Byrne. “It is thought to improve memory and help new brain cells grow.”

Other curry ingredients such as chilli, ginger, coriander, cumin and pepper are also linked to protecting against dementia.

Best brain supplements

“One of my favourite supplements for their brain boosting properties is reishi,” says Lorin Taylor. “This medicinal mushroom has been used for hundreds of years. It helps fight brain fog and also increases focus and helps with insomnia and fatigue.

“Any decent omega-3 is excellent to take as well, also I always recommend a really good strong probiotic, which might sound a bit strange but there is a strong connection between gut health and brain health so a healthy gut can be very helpful to the brain.”

Other brain supports include:

  • L-arginine – an essential amino acid that gets converted to nitric oxide which is a neurotransmitter in your brain.
  • Choline – helps to produce an important neurotransmitter vital for brain function.
  • Essential fatty acids such as omega-3, as so many people find it hard to eat enough oily fish. Go for one that is high in DHA.
  • Folic acid, vitamins B12 and B6 – great brain simulators.
  • Lecithin, which contains choline – a chemical your brain uses to communicate. Clinical research suggests that a diet rich in choline can lead to a sharper memory.
  • Vitamin B complex – vitamins B6, B9 and B12 are often linked with brain health. They can help break down homocysteine.
  • Magnesium – involved in healthy brain development, memory and learning.
  • Probiotics – help with gut health which has a huge impact on our brain health.
  • Vitamin D – for anyone whose mood is affected by the lack of sunlight.
  • Vitamin K – vital for cognitive function and brain power
  • Liquid formulations that contain superfoods such as wheat grass, barley grass and spirulina.
  • Zinc – for enhancing memory and thinking ability.
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