Mark Hyman, MD, is one of the most reputable functional med docs out there. He's the founder and director of The UltraWellness Center, the head of strategy and innovation of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine, and a whopping 14 time New York Times best-selling author. When it comes to expert knowledge about how nutrients affect the body, he has it in spades. Something he often gets asked about is brain health. Makes sense, right? Who doesn't want to do what they can to up their odds of being mentally sharp well into old age? When it comes to nutrients for brain health, Dr. Hyman says there are four biggies everyone should focus on, something he recently shared on social media. His all-star brain health lineup: omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, magnesium, and probiotics.
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4 nutrients for brain health, according to a top functional medicine doctor:
1. Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are found in foods including fatty fish, flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and algae oils. "[These fats] are great for their neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory properties. They also contain important fats that improve insulin sensitivity, reduce inflammation, and improve nerve function," Dr. Hyman says. When high levels of inflammation occur for an extended amount of time, it can lead to chronic diseases, including cognitive decline. That's why it's so important to consume anti-inflammatory foods—including ones high in this nutrient.
"The brain is 60-70 percent fat," William Sears, MD, author of The Omega-3 Effect, previously told Well+Good. He adds that omega-3 fats are most important for brain health and that besides helping preserve cognitive function, these fats are also linked to reducing depression and anxiety.
2. B vitamins
Dr. Hyman says that B vitamins are on his healthy brain top four list because they help produce brain neurotransmitters, which are signaling molecules secreted by neurons. Basically they're the body's chemical messengers, helping the brain communicate to other neurons throughout the body. Dr. Hyman says B vitamins are also key for energy production, so if you're feeling sluggish, it could be because you're not getting enough.
There are different types of B vitamins, and some foods that contain different types include brown rice, black beans, milk, eggs, fish, and lean meats.
"Magnesium is great for brain health, hormones, and mood," Dr. Hyman says. One reason for this is because it helps support a good night's rest (key for brain health). "[Magnesium helps] our brain’s higher executive functions work more effectively, allowing us to think more creatively and flexibly, regulate our emotions, and make rational decisions," neuroscientist Tara Swart, MD, previously told Well+Good.
Want to up your intake? Spinach, almonds, dark chocolate, peanut butter, edamame, black beans, potato, and banana are all good sources of magnesium.
Anything that benefits the gut is also good for the brain, so it's not surprising that probiotics (aka good gut bacteria) are one of the nutrients for brain health Dr. Hyman wants everyone to be aware of. Data published in the journal Nature Microbiology in 2019 found preliminary evidence linking low levels of certain gut bacteria to depression. Additionally, a study published in the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology showed that the administration of probiotics in an elderly cohort of humans improved their cognitive function. Foods high in probiotics include yogurt, tempeh, miso, kimchi, and sauerkraut.
Supporting the brain through what you eat is just one way to support your cognitive health. Getting enough sleep, managing stress, and staying active all play a role too. These small habits can have a big impact. Besides, it's doctor's orders!
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