Brain boosters are BIG business these days. Just look at sales statistics: The global brain health supplement market was valued at $7.1 billion in 2020 with an expected 8% compound annual growth rate by 2028 due to “the increasing interest in improving and maintaining brain health.” (1)
The rise in the aging population has a lot to do with the growth of this market. After all, advancing age is associated with memory and focus issues. Therefore, people aged 50+ are often intent on finding ways to boost brain function, thereby slowing or reversing cognitive decline.
Age-Related Cognitive Issues: What’s Healthy, What’s Not
Research suggests that cognitive issues are more prevalent among older people.
Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI)
According to the Cleveland Clinic, “Mild cognitive impairment is a condition in which a person experiences a slight – but noticeable – decline in mental abilities (memory and thinking skills) compared with others of the same age.” (2)
This cognitive decline is not severe enough to interfere with their day-to-day mental and physical functioning. In other words, MCI has not reached the severity of Alzheimer’s disease or similar conditions, but it can increase the risk of developing dementia. (3)
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and cognitive skills, making it impossible to perform simple tasks. At least six million Americans have Alzheimer’s, a figure expected to rise to around 13 million by 2050. (4)
Though Alzheimer’s can affect younger people in their 30s and 40s, it most often affects those 65 and older. As more than 54 million Americans are in this age group, (5) it makes sense that sales of brain health supplements would skyrocket.
Types of Brain Boosters
Brain health supplements are a common choice for those who want to improve cognitive function, but they’re not the only option.
After all, the foods you eat also affect brain cells and brain power, thus helping improve brain function. Similarly, lifestyle factors like sleep and exercise — or lack thereof — can also impact healthy brain function.
Best Natural Brain Boosters
Research suggests that the factors that support brain health are a combination of diet, natural supplements, physical exercise, mental exercise, quality sleep, and stress reduction. Let’s take a look at each of them.
1. Diet for Cognitive Health
The best diet for cognitive performance is a whole-food-based SANE diet that includes:
- Lot’s of non-starchy vegetables, i.e., spinach, broccoli, onions
- A moderate amount of nutrient-dense protein, i.e., chicken, grass-fed beef
- A small amount of whole-food fats, i.e., olives, flax seeds
These foods provide the nutrition your brain and body need. This is especially true for dietary fats. After all, the brain is nearly 60% fat, so it needs a combination of saturated and unsaturated dietary fats.
While increasing your intake of healthy SANE foods, you should decrease your intake of heavily processed foods and sugars. These foods damage your blood-brain barrier, allowing toxins to seep in and cause brain inflammation. Chronic neurological inflammation is a common cause of memory loss, poor cognitive function, low energy, and more.
Foods for Brain Health
A few foods merit special attention when it comes to brain health.
Salmon is a brain-boosting powerhouse! It is a nutrient-dense protein and a whole-food fat that not only aids brain function but also supports overall health. It is also a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids.
You see, omega-3s are an essential nutrient found in fish. They’re crucial for many bodily functions, but your body doesn’t manufacture them. Consequently, you must get them through the diet.
Research suggests that an adequate intake of omega-3 fatty acids is essential for proper brain function. They’re beneficial for the brain because they are a structural component of neuronal membranes that influence brain cells. For this reason, they may be helpful for a variety of neurological and neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s. (6)
Studies have also shown that fish oil may boost blood flow to the brain, improve memory, and support mental health. (7, 8)
To take advantage of its brain-boosting ability, try to eat a serving of salmon or other fatty fish at least three times per week.
Eggs are a rich source of choline that enzymes convert into the neurotransmitter acetyl-l-choline in the brain. (Neurotransmitters carry messages between brain cells.) Acetyl-l-choline is responsible for memory, mood, focus, and general cognitive performance.
Choline is vital for brain health and other bodily functions, and it is now recognized as an essential nutrient in humans. According to the Institute of Medicine, a woman needs a minimum of 425 milligrams, and a man needs 550 milligrams per day. (9)
Since one egg contains a whopping 147 milligrams of choline, you’ll only need to eat three or four to meet the minimum daily requirement. (10)
If you don’t want to eat that many eggs each day, red meats and cheeses also contain acetyl-l-carnitine.
Though caffeine has gotten a bad rap for its stimulative properties, there is no doubt that it increases brain power. Numerous research studies indicate that caffeine consumption may enhance memory and focus and even reduce the risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s. (11)
Though coffee is the most popular source of caffeine, this substance is also present in tea, soda, and chocolate.
Go easy on the caffeine, though, as too much can leave you jittery and interfere with sleep.
2. Natural Supplements
A few natural supplements may boost memory, improve concentration, and support healthy brain function.
Ginko Biloba supplements contain an extract derived from the leaf of the Ginko tree. It is an ancient Chinese herb used to treat numerous mental and physical conditions for thousands of years. Today, it has been shown to have significant neuroprotective effects.
For example, studies show that 120 to 600 milligrams of Ginko Biloba extract (GBE) enhance numerous cognitive processes in young, healthy people and those suffering from age-related cognitive decline. (12, 13) Studies even suggest that GBE may help prevent or slow the development of Alzheimer’s disease. (14, 15)
Research suggests that Ginkgo Biloba works by thinning the blood, increasing oxygen flow to the brain. (Having sufficient brain oxygen levels is crucial to healthy cognitive performance.)
If you decide to try Ginkgo Biloba, please do not take it with any blood-thinning medications — such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or Warfarin — as the combination may thin your blood too much.
Fish Oil Capsules
Fish oil capsules contain omega-3 fatty acids, an essential brain-boosting nutrient discussed earlier.
Numerous research studies indicate that regular fish oil supplementation may improve memory in mild cognitive impairment or age-related cognitive decline. It may also improve depression. (16, 17, 18)
The best source of fish oil is fatty fish, but you can also take it in capsule form.
Ashwagandha is an ancient herb found in India, Africa, and some areas of the Middle East. It has been used in traditional medical practices for thousands of years.
Research suggests that Ashwagandha may effectively treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, and other neurodegenerative diseases due to its apparent ability to slow, stop, reverse, or remove neuritic atrophy and synaptic loss. (19) It may also improve memory in general.
Ashwagandha is available in capsule and powder form. However, experts recommend that you take it with a meal to aid absorption.
3. Physical Activity
Almost everyone knows that regular exercise is essential for your physical health, but research shows it is also necessary for brain health.
During a meta-analysis of studies on the effects of exercise on brain function, for instance, researchers discovered that a “significantly reduced risk of dementia [was] associated with midlife exercise; similarly, midlife exercise significantly reduced later risks of mild cognitive impairment in several studies.” (20)
Moreover, patients with mild cognitive impairment or dementia showed better cognitive scores after six to 12 months of exercise than non-exercising controls. (21)
So, what type of exercise should you do to support brain health? Numerous studies suggest that aerobic exercise — i.e., jogging, swimming, brisk walking, cycling — is the best physical brain booster because it may increase the size of the hippocampus in the brain. The hippocampus is involved in verbal memory and learning. (22)
To benefit from its brain-boosting ability, try to perform at least 20 minutes of aerobic activity three or more times per week.
4. Mental Exercises
Performing mental exercises does for the brain what physical activities do for the body — strengthening it and improving performance.
And research backs this up.
Take Alzheimer’s disease, for instance. In 2012, researchers reviewed 15 studies involving 718 men and women with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia engaged in various mentally stimulating but enjoyable activities, such as doing crossword puzzles.
“The researchers found that mental stimulation improved scores on memory and thinking tests for those with dementia, equivalent to about a six to nine-month delay in worsening of symptoms.” (23)
The type of activities considered cognitively stimulating include:
- Word games
- Discussing current events
This and other research studies strongly indicate that you should regularly engage in mentally challenging activities to improve brain function and prevent memory loss.
5. Quality Sleep
An estimated 50 to 70 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep issues, which can severely impact your mental and physical health and wellbeing. For example, sleep deprivation has been linked to an increased risk of depression, obesity, hypertension, diabetes, heart attack, and stroke. (24)
Tips for Sleeping Better
Here are some tips for getting enough quality sleep:
- Follow a set bedtime schedule. If you go to bed at the same time every night and awake at the same time every morning, you’ll train your body to sleep during that specific period.
- Avoid caffeine later in the day. Caffeine is a stimulant that can prevent sleep if ingested too close to bedtime.
- Try not to watch TV or use your computer or tablet an hour before bedtime. The light from these screens disrupts your brain’s melatonin production.
- Practice mind and body relaxation techniques before bedtime.
- Avoid napping during the day.
6. Stress Reduction
Chronic stress has not only been shown to negatively affect physical health, but it can also impair cognitive performance.
For example, research shows that chronic stress may promote structural changes in the brain, such as atrophy of brain mass, negatively affecting cognition and memory. Chronic stress is even being recognized as a risk factor for sporadic Alzheimer’s disease. (25, 26, 27, 28)
Thus, if you want improved brain function, you should start by reducing your stress levels.
Tips for Reducing Stress
Here are a few ideas that you can start using today to reduce stress:
- Practice meditation daily
- Take strolls in nature
- Binge-watch your favorite comedy series. (Research shows that laughter decreases stress hormones.)
- Practice slow, deep breathing exercises
- Listen to music
- Do yoga
- Play with your dog
- Talk to a good friend about your worries
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