The brain controls merely every process that regulates our bodies, from our emotions to our respiration, hormones, memory, decision making, and senses. There’s not a lot the brain doesn’t do. Ensuring we nourish our brain in a way that supports optimal cognitive function is crucial, especially to reduce our risk of neurodegenerative conditions as we continue to age.
The brain accounts for nearly 60% of fat tissue, therefore it is largely dependent on sufficient consumption of essential fatty acids (EFAs) for its integrity, development and performance. Beyond their role in supporting the brain’s integrity, EFAs are also involved in the synthesis of neurotransmitters and are especially crucial in neurocognitive development during the fetal and postnatal period. EFAs cannot be produced by the body and therefore must be acquired from dietary sources such as fatty fish (e.g. salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, and herring). Ideally, one should aim to consume wild-caught fatty fish at least two to three times per week. Other dietary sources of EFAs include flaxseed oil and chia seeds.
Polyphenols help to reduce oxidative stress and inflammation through their antioxidant properties, which accounts for their protective role in many neurodegenerative conditions.
Walnuts are a potent antioxidant and are rich in the essential fatty acid ALA which is able to cross the blood-brain barrier, making them the perfect food for brain health! Other great dietary sources of polyphenols include berries (e.g. blueberries, blackberries, and strawberries), blackcurrant, plums, apples, nuts (e.g. hazelnut, walnut, almonds, and pecans), spinach, artichokes, cacao, and dark chocolate.
Fun fact: a walnut has the same appearance as the brain with its distinct halves representing the right and left sides of the brain, and its texture mirroring that of the brains. This is classified as a great example of ‘doctrine of signatures’ where certain foods resembling specific parts/organs of the body in shape, color, and/or texture are utilised for their therapeutic benefits towards those specific parts/organs.
Nootropics act on a biochemical level within the brain with a direct influence on neurotransmitter production. They can help to improve mental performance, increase clarity, focus, motivation, enhance memory recall and elevate one’s mood.
Many herbs and medicinal mushrooms possess nootropic therapeutic benefits including Gingko biloba, Rhodiola rosea, and Lion’s Mane. Gingko enhances mental performance by increasing levels of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter responsible for learning, as well as dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with reward and motivation. As a circulatory/cerebral stimulant, Gingko significantly improves memory recall and mental performance by increasing oxygenated blood to the brain. Rhodiola exerts potent adaptogenic properties which can increase one’s resilience to stress, and enhance one’s mood and cognitive performance by balancing the production of cortisol. In addition to Lion’s Mane’s nootropic properties, it has neuroprotective properties that help to support healthy brain activity, enhance memory recall, and alleviate mental exhaustion.
Nootropics can be consumed through supplements (I love the SuperFeast medicinal mushroom elixirs (https://www.superfeast.com.au/), or as prescribed by a qualified Naturopath as a herbal tonic.
Studying? Rosemary is your new best friend. Rosemary is renowned for its cognitive enhancing and memory retaining benefits! It’s symbolically known as “the herb of remembrance”, and it truly lives up to its meaning. Rosemary is an aromatic herb and has been shown to positively influence cognitive function by enhancing memory and improving mental alertness/performance. Add a few drops of pure rosemary essential oil to a diffuser whilst you’re studying, or enjoy as a herbal tea by steeping a few sprigs of fresh rosemary in a pot of boiling water for 5 to 10 minutes.
Do you find yourself getting that 3pm crash? This is where you tend to experience a lack of motivation and energy, extreme fatigue, brain fog, irritability, high levels of procrastination and may crave a ‘pick me up’ which usually consists of caffeine, sugar or starch. The issue with this is that the quicker your energy spikes, the quicker it crashes, and you’ll find yourself in a vicious cycle.
Stabilising your blood sugar levels is so important to maintain consistent and sustained focus throughout the day. One of the best ways to do this is to ensure you’re consuming adequate amounts of protein each day. Protein is a source of energy and when it’s included in every meal, it supports satiety and maintains energy levels by regulating blood sugar levels.
Consider starting your day with a protein-rich breakfast such as organic free-range eggs on toast (preferably sourdough, spelt, or rye) with wilted spinach, a protein smoothie, or overnight organic oats topped with coconut yoghurt, granola, nuts/seeds and berries!
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Tayla is an accredited clinical Naturopath based in Northern NSW, Australia, and is the face behind Cura Wellness. Tayla's approach to health is holistic by uniting traditional naturopathic principles & practices with modern evidence-based research to restore balance/health. She has a special interest in gut health, mental health, skin, hormones, women's health, immune health and general wellness optimisation.
Chang, C. Y., Ke, D. S., & Chen, J. Y. (2009). Essential fatty acids and human brain. Acta neurologica Taiwanica, 18(4), 231–241.
Hussain, S. M., Syeda, A. F., Alshammari, M., Alnasser, S., Alenzi, N. D., Alanazi, S. T., & Nandakumar, K. (2022). Cognition enhancing effect of rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis L.) in lab animal studies: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Brazilian journal of medical and biological research, 55, 115-93. https://doi.org/10.1590/1414-431X2021e11593
Pandey, K. B., & Rizvi, S. I. (2009). Plant polyphenols as dietary antioxidants in human health and disease. Oxidative medicine and cellular longevity, 2(5), 270–278. https://doi.org/10.4161/oxim.2.5.9498
Sarris, J., & Wardle, J. (2019). Clinical naturopathy: An evidence-based guide to practice, 3rd edn. Elsevier, Chatswood NSW