How Specific Foods Improve Memory and Mental Health

Created by:

4 Dec 2018 - General

Although the brain, unlike other organs, can only use glucose as its energy source, other nutrients are required for it to function. In the National Review of Neuroscience (2008), Fernando Gomez-Pinilla reviewed the research on specific nutrients and their effect on memory, cognition and mental health:

Omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are major constituents of cell membranes in the brain. The membranes of all neuronal cells (brain and nerve cells) are largely composed of lipids. The omega-3 fatty acid DHA constitutes about 30% of all the phospholipids in neuronal cell membranes. Because our body is not good at synthesizing DHA, most of our DHA comes from our diet. Dietary DHA increased learning ability in rats and stimulated glucose utilization. Other rodent experiments showed that deficiency of omega-3s causes impaired learning and memory (Journal Neurotrauma, 2004). In people, omega-3 fatty acids were evaluated mostly in individuals suffering from psychiatric disorders. Reading, spelling, and other cognitive effects improved after taking omega-3 supplements. Studies in schoolchildren in Australia and Indonesia showed higher test scores in verbal intelligence, learning and memory (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2007). The protein receptors that transmit and receive signals on brain cells are imbedded in a sea of membrane lipids. DHA is believed to help receptors at synapses stay fluid and flexible (called “synaptic plasticity”). Synaptic plasticity helps synapses to respond to stimuli and transmit signals.

Good sources of omega-3 acids are fatty fish (salmon, sardines), flax seeds, nuts, tofu, and kiwi fruit.


Our brain cells are very sensitive to oxidative damage because of their high rate of metabolism and their oxidizable membrane lipids. Alpha-lipoic acid (found in meat, spinach and potatoes) has improved memory in animal models of Alzheimer disease. Vitamin E (alpha-tocperol) also has increased neurological performance in aging mice and in patients with Alzheimer disease. Vitamin E-rich foods are vegetable oils, nuts, and green leafy vegetables. 

Strong anti-oxidant activity can be found not only in food, but also in spices. The curry spice curcumin, which is a major component of tumeric, giving tumeric its yellow color, seems to protect the brain from oxidation and damaging radicals. In India, where people consume large quantities of this spice, Alzheimer disease is very rare.


Flavonoids found in fruits, beans, coca and Ginko bilobo also have shown anti-oxidant activity, but their action on the brain may be more complex.


Our brains need adequate amounts of folate or folic acid to function. Folate deficiency leads to abnormal development in children and to depression and cognitive impairment in adults. A 3-year study (Lancet, 2007), where older individuals received folic acid supplements, reduced age-related decline in memory and cognition. The mechanism by which folate effects the brain has not been determined, but may involve metabolism of neurotransmitters and DNA repair. Orange juice, spinach and yeast are all good sources of folate.

Other nutrients such as food vitamins B6 and B12, vitamin D, and choline (found in egg yolks, soy, meat, and lettuce) have also shown beneficial effects on the brain and appear to help stem the cognitive decline in the elderly. To expand your knowledge, check list of foods high in vitamins.