Optimize Brain Function with Anti-Inflammatory Diet

by Karen D. Sullivan, Ph.D., ABPP


Conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, most cancers and stroke have been linked to lifestyle factors, particularly a diet high in saturated animal fats and simple carbohydrates. Vegetables, fruits, nuts and fish are commonly associated with a healthy diet whereas high sugar, fried foods and fatty red meat are notorious no-nos.

The same nutritionally poor diet has implications for brain health, including increasing the risk of cognitive decline, vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. The May 2015 Neurology journal published data from the diets and thinking and memory skills in 27,860 men and women, reporting that participants with the healthiest diets were 24 percent less likely to experience cognitive decline.

Neuroscientists are now focused on understanding the underlying mechanisms of how diet affects brain functioning. Researchers hypothesize that poor nutrition is likely to reduce the brain’s ability to grow healthy new brain cells, lessen brain cells’ ability to recover from oxidative stress including free radicals and, perhaps most importantly, increase inflammation.

While some amount of inflammation is required to support normal immune function and to assist in the body’s repair processes after injury, chronic low-grade inflammation is thought to interfere with a healthy cerebrovascular system—essential for optimal brain functioning. Inflammation in the small vessels of the brain is thought to reduce blood flow via poor oxygenation and lower glucose delivery. In turn, brain cells cannot work properly and succumb to disease and dysfunction.

Previous trends of taking supplements for brain health have been replaced by the recommendation to follow a whole-foods diet rich in macronutrients with the goal of reducing systemic inflammation. Significantly reducing the foods you eat that are made with processed seed and vegetable oils found in highly processed foods, such as baked goods, crackers and cereals, is one of the most effective ways to achieve this goal. For a proactive and tasty way to promote brain health, consider adding these foods to your diet:

Fatty fish: Oily fish, like salmon, mackerel, tuna and sardines, are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to help reduce inflammation.

Ginger and turmeric: These herbs have anti-inflammatory properties that improve cognitive functioning in older adults. These herbs can interact with certain drugs such as blood thinning agents and NSAIDs (aspirin and ibuprofen), so talk with your doctor first.

Tart cherries: A 2012 study by Oregon Health & Science University researchers suggested that tart cherries have the most anti-inflammatory content of any food due to high levels of phytochemicals. Experts recommend eating 1.5 cups of tart cherries or adding ½ cup of tart cherry juice to your daily smoothie.

Leafy greens: Those with high inflammatory markers often have low magnesium levels, so it makes sense to eat more magnesium-rich foods, including leafy greens like kale, spinach, collard greens and Swiss chard.

Dr. Sullivan, a clinical neuropsychologist at Pinehurst Neuropsychology, can be reached at 910-420-8041 or www.pinehurstneuropsychology.com.