Did you know that there are over 55 million people worldwide diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and the numbers are only growing each year? I bet that it’s not a group you want to belong to.
You want to protect your brain health, thinking and cognitive abilities, and memory till old age. According to an exciting new research study, the Mediterranean diet and the MIND diet may help you do that and protect your brain health through anti-inflammatory brain-supporting nutrition.
In this article, I want to discuss the potential benefits of the Mediterranean diet and the MIND diet for brain health and Alzheimer’s disease. I will discuss the importance of leafy greens for brain health and reducing the risk of dementia. Finally, I will share my favorite brain health foods and brain-supporting supplements. Let’s get into it.
The Importance of Brain Health
Your brain is one of your most important organs. Just like a computer processor in your computer, your brain processes important information, carries out commands, and controls key functions in your body. It is in touch with every part of your body, from cells to organs, and affects every part of your health.
Your brain is in touch with your gut through the gut-brain axis, which is essential for your intestinal and nervous system health. Your brain supports mobility, coordination, balance, and movement. It’s critical for language, thinking, memory, problem-solving abilities, creative behavior, and emotional health. A healthy brain is essential for good cognitive skills, emotional and mental health, social connections, and overall vitality (1, 2).
What Is Alzheimer’s Disease
Your brain may be affected by many health issues and diseases. For example, I’ve recently written about brain fog in this article. Today, I want to take an extra moment to talk about dementia and Alzheimer’s, brain diseases, and neurodegenerative conditions that many people need to be aware of, especially as they age. Awareness and preventative measures are key for reducing your risks and slowing the progression of neurodegeneration.
According to Alzheimer’s Disease International, someone develops dementia every 3 seconds. There are over 55 million people worldwide living with dementia. The numbers are only growing. By 2030 we are predicted to reach 78 million with dementia worldwide and 139 million by 2050 (3).
Dementia is a neurodegenerative condition characterized by persistent and progressive loss of brain functioning, including impaired memory, thinking, and other cognitive abilities, and personality changes. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia.
Most people develop Alzheimer’s disease after the age of 65, though some may experience symptoms earlier as a sign of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Though seeing some slowing in cognitive functioning may be normal with age, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are not normal parts of aging.
In Alzheimer’s disease, normal neural communication is interrupted, which causes loss of function, cellular death, and neurodegeneration. Symptoms worsen over time, eventually leading to a complete loss of ability to take care of daily tasks, a loss of independence, and eventually, death. There is currently no cure (4).
New Research on the Best Diet for Brain Health
Though there is currently no cure or a bullet-proof way to prevent Alzheimer’s disease, there are ways you may improve your brain health and reduce your risks through dietary and lifestyle strategies. A new and exciting research study published in Neurology has found that the Mediterranean diet and the MIND diet may help to protect your brain health and reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease (5, 6).
What Is The Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean diet was inspired by the traditional diet and eating habits living in the Mediterranean. It is not a specific diet of a specific culture or country but is inspired by various cultures and dietary habits of the general area.
The Mediterranean diet emphasizes plant-based foods and healthy fats. It is made up of lots of greens, vegetables, fruits, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and extra virgin olive oil. It also included moderate amounts of fish for omega-3 fatty acids, yogurt, and cheese. Other animal products should be limited or avoided and poultry is recommended over red meat. Sugary drinks, sweets, and butter should also be limited or avoided. A moderate amount of wine is allowed, though if you don’t already drink, don’t start now.
The Mediterranean diet is flexible. There are no formulas, calculations, counting macros, or counting calories. These are general principles that you may modify based on allergies, health issues, and dietary preferences as long as you keep to the general principles of lots of plant foods and healthy fats.
The Mediterranean diet may help to improve your health in various ways, including supporting healthy blood pressure and cholesterol, lowering the risk of heart disease, improving blood sugar levels, reducing the risk of metabolic syndrome, supporting a healthy gut microbiome, supporting brain health, and reducing the risk of disease (7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12).
What Is the MIND Diet?
The MIND diet stands for “Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay” diet. It is a combination of the Mediterranean diet and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet. As the name suggests, the DASH diet was developed and often recommended to reduce hypertension.
The MIND diet was developed to decrease the risk of brain health decline and dementia. The MIND diet puts a high emphasis on eating lots of leafy greens and vegetables. Fruits, especially berries and other flavonoid-rich fruits that may help to support brain health, are recommended (13, 14). It also recommends eating nuts and seeds, whole grains, beans, legumes, fish, poultry, and red or white wine.
Just like in the Mediterranean diet, there are no strict rules. Following the general principles, you can customize it according to your health needs and taste buds. The MIND diet has similar benefits to the Mediterranean diet. It may help to reduce blood pressure and lower the risk of heart disease, diabetes, dementia, and other diseases (15, 16, 17, 18).
The potential brain health benefits of the Mediterranean and the MIND diet are not new in research. A 2010 study published in Current Opinions in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care has found that the Mediterranean diet may help to improve cognitive health and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease in older adults (11). A 2017 study published in Alzheimer’s and Dementia has found that the MIND diet may help to slow cognitive decline (17).
Another 2017 study published in the Journal of American Geriatric Society has found that the Mediterranean diet and the MIND diet may be linked to better cognitive function and a reduced risk of cognitive decline (19). According to a 2021 study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, the MIND diet may help to improve cognitive performance (18).
This new study published in Neurology further supports the claim that the Mediterranean diet and the MIND diet may support brain function and reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease (5, 6). The study looked at the brain of 581 individuals with an average age of 84 who donated their brains to the Memory and Aging Project and Rush University to advance research on dementia (20). Research participants diet for an average of 7 years after signing up for the study. Before their death, 39% of the subjects were diagnosed with dementia, but after examining their brain after death, 66% met the criteria of Alzheimer’s.
All participants were asked to complete annual questionnaires on their diet. Their dietary choices were broken down into food categories, looking at their consumption of leafy greens, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, olive oil, fish, poultry, potatoes, and wine, which are part of these two diets. They also looked at their consumption of foods not included in these diets, such as red meat, butter, margarine, cheese, full-fat dairy, pastries, sweets, fried foods, and fast foods.
Participants were scored based on their answers. They were divided into three groups based on their scores for each diet. To understand the effects of diet on brain health and Alzheimer’s disease better, researchers compared the number of amyloid plaques and tau tangles on each participant’s brain autopsy. These plaques and tangles can be found in people with dementia and Alzheimer’s but also in other older individuals without dementia. The number of plaques and tangles depends on the health of the brain.
Researchers found that participants who scored the highest for following a Mediterranean diet had a similar amount of amyloid plaques and tau tangles in their brains as if they were 18 years younger compared to the group that scored the lowest. Those who scored highest on the MIND diet had a similar amount of amyloid plaques and tau tangles in their brains as if they were 12 years younger compared to lowest scoring participants.
The research also looked at the leafy green consumption of participants. Researchers found that participants who consumed the most leafy greens or vegetables (7 or more servings per week) had a brain tissue composition and the number of amyloid plaques and tau tangles in their brains as if they were about 19 years younger than those who consumed the least amount of leafy greens and vegetables (1 serving or less per week).
Looking at the results, it seems that the Mediterranean diet and the MIND diet may both support brain health and help to reduce the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. The study suggests that including leafy greens in your diet may be the key to the brain health benefits of these two diets.
The Importance of Leafy Greens
As you can see, consuming lots of leafy greens is critical for your brain health and may help to reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Leafy green vegetables are high in minerals, bioactive compounds, flavonoids, antioxidants, and lutein, which are all beneficial for your brain health (21, 22, 23). Lutein may help to reduce chronic inflammation and oxidative stress, which may be responsible for their brain health and neuroprotective benefits (24, 25, 26, 27).
Consuming lots of leafy greens may help to reduce inflammation, decrease oxidative stress, support gut microbiome health and digestion, improve blood sugar levels, support immune function, improve skin, and support brain health (28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33). Adding more leafy greens to your diet can only benefit your health.
The Best Leafy Greens
What comes to mind when I say leafy greens? Lettuce, spinach, maybe kale? Anything else? There are so many types of leafy greens that your meals will never be boring even if you eat leafy greens for your brain health every day.
Here is a list of some leafy greens:
- Romaine lettuce
- Butterhead lettuce
- Swiss chard
- Collard greens
- Bok choy
- Beet greens
- Fennel greens
- Mustard green
- Dandelion greens
- Chinese cabbage
- Leafy green herbs
How to Add More Greens to Your Diet?
So how can you add more green to your diet? Do you have to eat salads all day? Far from it.
Here are some tips to add more greens to your diet:
- Green smoothies
- Green juices
- Protein shakes with greens
- Buddha bowls
- Steamed green leafy vegetables
- Sauteed green leafy vegetables
- Scrambled eggs or frittatas with kale, spinach, or other greens
- Lettuce wraps or collard green wraps
- Gluten-free sandwiches or wraps with greens
- Pasta dishes, lasagnas, and casseroles with greens
- Soups with greens
- Kale chips and other dehydrated greens
- Pesto, sauces, and dips with leafy greens vegetables and green leafy herbs
- Kimchi, sauerkraut, and other fermented cabbage
- Garnishing with green leafy herbs
The Best Brain Health Foods
Looking at these research studies, it’s clear that you want to follow a nutrient-dense, whole food diet with lots of plant-based foods for brain health. I recommend consuming lots of leafy greens, vegetables, sprouts, herbs, spices, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, gluten-free pseudograins, and wild-caught fish to support your brain function.
You may be curious to learn what are some specific brain-healthy foods. That’s a great question. Besides leafy greens, there are lots of specific foods you can include in your diet to improve your brain health.
Here are some brain health foods I recommend:
- Leafy greens: Leafy greens may help to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress and offer neuroprotective benefits (21, 22, 23).
- Fatty fish: Fatty fish, including salmon, trout, herring, and sardines, are full of anti-inflammatory and brain-supporting omega-3 fatty acids (34).
- Blueberries: Blueberries and other berries are abundant in brain-supporting antioxidant benefits (35).
- Broccoli: Broccoli is a great source of vitamin K, which may help the formation of sphingolipids, a kind of fat in your brain cells, and may support memory and cognition (36, 37).
- Pumpkin seeds: Pumpkin seeds are great sources of brain health-supporting minerals, including zinc, magnesium, copper, and iron (38, 39, 40, 41).
- Nuts: Nuts are rich in vitamin E, antioxidants, and healthy fats, which may help to support cognitive function and reduce mental decline (42).
- Oranges: Oranges and other citrus are high in vitamin C, which may help to support memory, focus, and decision-making and reduce the risk of various mental and brain health issues, including Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, and depression (43, 44).
- Eggs: Eggs are great sources of choline and B vitamins which are all critical for brain and mental health (45, 46, 47).
- Green tea: Green tea is a fantastic source of brain-supporting antioxidants and L-theanine, an amino acid that is able to cross the blood-brain barrier to support the activity of the neurotransmitter GABA for improved relaxation (48, 49, 50).
- Turmeric: Turmeric is a fantastic spice that may help to reduce inflammation and support memory, brain cell growth, and mood (51, 52, 53).
- Cacao: Cacao and very dark chocolate are great sources of flavonoids, which may support memory and learning (54).
The Best Brain Health Supplements
You may also support your brain health by supplementing with some of the following:
- Omega-3 supplements with EPA and DHA (55)
- Vitamin B12 (56)
- Vitamin B complex (57)
- L-theanine (58)
- Vitamin E (59)
- Magnesium (60)
- Curcumin (61)
- Resveratrol (62)
- Quercetin (63)
- Green tea extract (64)
- Probiotics (65)
If you want to improve your brain health, I recommend that you speak with your doctors first for more personalized health information and support. I invite you to schedule a consultation with me here to see if you can benefit from the strategies listed in this article.
If you are dealing with any chronic health issues, for advice on how to improve your nutrition and health, I welcome you to start a functional medicine consultation with me for further personalized guidance. You may book your consultation here.
Check out my Histamine Intolerance Course here. Learn on your own time, from anywhere. Get an inside look at the most helpful functional medicine tests for pinpointing imbalances, ways to identify and manage the most common (and sometimes surprising) mast cell triggers, and learn what to eat, what to avoid, and why.