10 ways to eat and drink your way to a better brain

As more research turns to the prevention of Alzheimer's disease, many nutritionists say the first step to better brain health can start in the kitchen. Here are 10 tips to get you started.

As more research turns to the prevention of Alzheimer's disease, many nutritionists say one of the first steps to better brain health can start in the kitchen. Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images

A dash of coconut oil, two sardines, five berries and plenty of kale; blend thoroughly and drink up. You're halfway to preventing the onset of Alzheimer's, right?

Well, not quite. A few bona fide brain experts would endorse that kind of drink as fool-proof prevention. But all the "brain food" buzz in recent years isn't totally off-base, either, according to Paul D. Nussbaum, senior brain health advisor to the Alzheimer's Foundation of America.

"I try to stay away from the word 'prevention' and the word 'cure,' but we do have the ability to promote the health of our brains and the opportunity to build brain resilience," said Nussbaum, who is also president of the Brain Health Center in Wexford, Pa.

To help understand why food can help, Nussbaum advises patients to hold up an arm and picture it as a nerve track in your brain, with information passing quickly up and down the track. Now imagine that your shirt sleeve is insulation -- or "good fat" that helps pad the nerve track and facilitate the speedy transmission of electrical signals.

If it doesn't have proper insulation, these signals will slow down, Nussbaum said. "So we have to build that up by eating proper fats like walnuts, green leafy vegetables and fish. These foods can help the brain cells be more permeable and help facilitate rapid and efficient information processing," he said.

So while nutrition alone may not be your ticket to dementia-free old age, it's an essential part of building up a natural defense. "It doesn't prevent a condition like Alzheimer's, but it can delay its onset," Nussbaum said.

On Monday's PBS NewsHour broadcast, Jeffrey Brown examines a revival in research aimed at preventing Alzheimer's -- a trend that comes on the heels of decades of frustratingly slow drug trials to treat the disease. Researchers hope this new emphasis on prevention could be a "tipping point" for the debilitating disease. Tune in for the full report.

In the meantime, Nussbaum and Rita M. Singer, a registered dietitian with the Brain Health Center, offer 10 tips for eating and drinking your way to a better brain.

10 Brain Health Boosting Tips, According to the Brain Health Center

1. Eat breakfast daily

Start each day with a balanced breakfast. People who eat breakfast weigh less -- important since obesity is a risk factor for Alzheimer's disease. Missing out on breakfast means missing out on the opportunity to maximize nutrition for the entire day. Think smoothies, eggs or egg whites, oatmeal with fruit and nuts and other foods that provide a variety of nutrients.

2. Increase intake of omega-3 fats and DHA

A growing body of evidence links the benefits of DHA, a fatty acid found in cold water fish, with brain health. Boost DHA intake by eating salmon, sardines, tuna and mackerel. Vegetarian sources of these nutrients are blue algae or seaweed, also known as spirulina.

3. Reach for the coconut

Coconut oil contains high levels of medium-chain triglycerides, or MCT, which have been shown to improve glucose metabolism in the brain. It also is ideal for cooking because it is stable at high temperatures. And, coconut water is great for hydration, after a workout or anytime.

4. Taste the rainbow

Choose colorful, nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables, such as kale, carrots, berries, broccoli and apples, that contain high levels of antioxidants and phytonutrients that can help decrease inflammation as well as oxidative damage associated with neurodegeneration -- or the breakdown of nerve tissue.

5. Bulk up on berries

In addition to eating a colorful diet, focus on including more berries. The protective effect of berries against inflammation is well-documented. Research shows that high intakes of blueberries and strawberries can improve behavior and cognitive function.

6. Pack a punch with probiotics

Hippocrates once said, "All diseases start in the gut." More and more research is showing the connection between stomach/intestinal health and whole body health. In a recent study, scientists found that a probiotic regimen for 30 days in humans reduced symptoms of anxiety, depression and anger. Probiotics are "good bacteria" that help with digestive health. Probiotic-rich foods include yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kombucha and kimchi.

7. Chart a course for the Mediterranean

Studies have shown that a Mediterranean diet -- long touted for its perceived heart health benefits -- also may benefit brain health as well. This eating plan emphasizes consumption of monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil, as well as vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes (beans), nuts and fish.

8. Enjoy that cup of coffee

Studies link moderate caffeine consumption to possible decrease in neurodegeneration associated with Alzheimer's disease.

9. Be a "B"-liever

People with mild cognitive impairment who took a high-dose regimen of B12, B6 and folic acid experienced significantly reduced atrophy in the areas of the brain most seriously affected by Alzheimer's disease. In addition, volunteers who took the B vitamins performed better on cognitive tests.

10. Say "Cheers!"

To protect brain health, alcohol should be consumed in moderation, but there is good news for those who like to imbibe occasionally. Studies indicate that resveratrol, a natural chemical found in red wine, and EGCG, a compound found in green tea, may obstruct the adherence of amyloid clumps -- a hallmark of Alzheimer's disease -- to nerve cells.

Bonus Tip: Drink This Smoothie

Berry Breakfast Smoothie

1 cup frozen or fresh mixed berries 6 ounces fat free Greek yogurt 1 cup coconut water 2 teaspoon spirulina powder or ground flaxseed 1 banana 1/2 cup kale or spinach

Add ingredients to a blender and blend.

This makes two glasses and contains 160 calories and 11 grams of protein.

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