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Nutrition & Cognitive Function: Foods To Boost Your Brain Function

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Nutrition plays a much more significant role in cognitive function than many realize. The nutrients we consume directly impact our brain function and cognitive abilities, and just like any other organ in our body, the brain needs specific nutrients to function properly. In addition, particular nutrients are especially beneficial for maintaining cognitive function and there are specific foods that offer the greatest concentration of these nutrients. In this article, we'll tell you more about nutrients that relate to cognition and the most helpful foods to include in your diet.

Before we get into those foods and nutrients, let's begin with a look at exactly what cognitive function means, what affects it, and how nutrition plays a role.

What is Cognitive Function?

Cognitive function refers to our mental abilities related to learning, memory, decision making, and concentration. For example, if you have to remember the items on a grocery list, that's using your cognitive function. If you're trying to solve a math problem, you're using your cognitive abilities. When we use these abilities, we're relying on our brain power to think, remember, and learn.

As we age, it's normal for our cognitive function to decline somewhat. This is a natural part of the aging process and is nothing to be alarmed about. However, some things can speed up or slow down this decline. One of those things is nutrition, which we'll talk more about in a moment.

Factors that Influence Cognitive Function

First, let's look at a number of other things that can affect our cognitive function.

Poor sleep

When we don't get enough sleep, it takes a toll on our cognitive function. We may have trouble concentrating, making decisions, and remembering things. Further, when we sleep, our brains have the chance to rest and repair any damage that has been done during the day. So, when we don't get enough sleep, our brains don't have the opportunity to do this important work.


Chronic stress can also take a toll on our cognitive function. When we're stressed, our bodies release cortisol, which can damage brain cells and interfere with neurotransmitters. This can lead to problems with our memory, focus, and decision-making. Additionally, chronic stress can increase the risk of developing dementia later in life.


Our genetics also play a role in our cognitive function. For example, if we have family members with Alzheimer's disease, we may be at a higher risk for these conditions.

Health conditions

Certain health conditions can affect our cognitive function, including Alzheimer's disease, dementia, stroke, and head injuries.

Drug and alcohol use

The use of drugs and alcohol can also interfere with cognitive function because they can damage brain cells. For example, chronic alcohol use has been linked to memory problems and dementia.

Environmental factors

Certain environmental factors can also affect cognitive function. One example is how exposure to lead can cause memory, learning, and behavior problems. Other environmental toxins, such as mercury and solvents, can also affect cognitive function.

Now that we've looked at some of the factors that can influence cognitive function, let's turn our attention to nutrition and how it affects cognitive function.

How Does Nutrition Affect Cognitive Function?

The food we eat directly impacts our brain function. When we consume specific nutrients, they help support cognitive function in several ways. Alternatively, when we lack certain nutrients, it can lead to problems with our cognitive function because our brains are not getting what they need to function correctly.

What Nutrients Help Maintain Cognitive Function?

Now, let's get to the nutrients most helpful for maintaining cognitive function. These include:

  • Omega-3 fatty acids
  • Vitamins B6, B12, and folate
  • Antioxidants

Now, we’ll take a more detailed look at each of these nutrients and how they help to support cognitive function.

Omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of unsaturated fat that is essential for human health. They are necessary for a number of reasons, including maintaining cognitive function.

One of the ways omega-3 fatty acids support cognitive function is by reducing inflammation—a normal response by our bodies to injury or disease. However, when inflammation becomes chronic, it can lead to problems with cognitive function. Omega-3 fatty acids help reduce chronic inflammation and protect against damage to brain cells.

Omega-3 fatty acids are also crucial for developing and maintaining nerve cells. They help to support communication between nerve cells and play a role in learning and memory. Further, omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to improve symptoms of conditions like Alzheimer's disease, dementia, and depression.

Vitamins B6, B12, and folate

Vitamins B6, B12, and folate are all water-soluble vitamins that play an essential role in nutrition and cognitive function.

Vitamin B6 is a key player in the synthesis of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. These neurotransmitters are important for mood, energy levels, and sleep. Vitamin B6 also helps to protect against cognitive decline by reducing the levels of homocysteine in the blood. High levels of homocysteine have been linked to dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

Vitamin B12 is essential for the production of red blood cells and DNA. It also helps to protect nerve cells from damage and supports their function. Vitamin B12 deficiency has been linked to cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer's disease.

Folate is vital for the synthesis of DNA and the development of new cells. It also helps to protect against cognitive decline by reducing levels of homocysteine in the blood.


Antioxidants are nutrients that help to protect cells from damage caused by free radicals. Free radicals are reactive molecules that can damage cells and lead to inflammation. Antioxidants help to neutralize free radicals and reduce inflammation.

There are many different types of antioxidants, but some of the most important for cognitive function include vitamins A, C, and E:

  • Vitamin A is critical for vision and the immune system.
  • Vitamin C is a potent antioxidant that helps to protect against damage caused by free radicals.
  • Vitamin E is another potent antioxidant that can help protect cells from damage and has been shown to help prevent cognitive decline in people with Alzheimer's disease.

Other Nutrients that Can Aid Cognitive Function

Many other nutrients contribute to cognitive function as well. These include iron, magnesium, and zinc.

  • Iron helps with the production of red blood cells and the transportation of oxygen to the brain.
  • Magnesium is involved in more than 300 biochemical reactions in the body and is integral to energy production, muscle function, and nervous system function. 
  • Zinc is involved in several processes in the body, including immunity, growth and development, and cell signaling.

The Best Foods for Cognitive Function

Now that we've looked at some of the key nutrients for cognitive function, let's take a look at some of the best foods to include in your diet to support cognitive function.

  • Omega-3 rich foods: Salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines, herring, trout, anchovies
  • Vitamin B6 rich foods: Chickpeas, beef liver, tuna, salmon, avocado, bananas
  • Vitamin B12 rich foods: Clams, oysters, mussels, crabmeat, lobster, beef liver, salmon
  • Folate rich foods: Spinach, broccoli, asparagus, legumes (beans and peas), fortified cereals and breads
  • Antioxidant rich foods: Blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, kale, spinach, beet greens, Brussels sprouts

Foods that Can Negatively Impact Cognitive Function

Just as certain foods can help support cognitive function, there are also certain foods that can have a negative impact. These include processed foods, sugary drinks, and refined carbohydrates.

  • Processed foods are those high in sugar, unhealthy fats, and sodium. They can also contain harmful chemicals and preservatives. Consuming too many processed foods can lead to weight gain, inflammation, and cognitive decline.
  • Sugary drinks like soda and energy drinks provide little nutritional value and are high in calories. They can also cause weight gain, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes. All of these conditions have been linked to cognitive decline.
  • Refined carbohydrates are found in things like white bread, pastries, and other processed foods. They are high in sugar and can cause spikes in blood sugar levels. Refined carbohydrates have also been linked to cognitive decline.

Other Strategies to Boost Cognitive Function

Nutrition is an incredibly powerful place to start, and there are many other things you can do to support your cognitive wellness as you age.

Here are a few more things you can do to keep your mind sharp:

Challenge your mind

Learning new things, doing puzzles, and other mentally stimulating activities can help to keep your mind sharp. When you require your mind to think in new ways, it can help to build new neural connections and keep your brain active. These strong neural connections and healthy pathways are important for optimal brain function and can help preserve cognitive function as you age.

Get regular exercise

Exercise is not only good for your physical health but also for your cognitive health. Exercise has been shown to improve mental function, increase brain volume, and protect against age-related decline. In addition, as has been proven in many studies, exercise can also help reduce the risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

Manage stress levels

Chronic stress can have a negative impact on cognitive function. It can lead to anxiety and depression, leading to memory problems and difficulty concentrating. Managing stress levels through relaxation techniques like meditation or yoga can help to protect against cognitive decline.

Get enough sleep

We mentioned earlier how important sleep is for cognitive function. Getting enough quality sleep is essential for maintaining cognitive function. Poor sleep can lead to problems with memory, concentration, and decision-making.

Vagus nerve stimulation

The vagus nerve is a long nerve that runs from the brainstem to the abdominal organs. It is involved in many key functions, including heart rate, digestion, and immunity. Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) is a therapy that uses electrical impulses to stimulate the vagus nerve. This therapy has been shown to boost cognitive function in people with Alzheimer's disease and dementia. The vagus nerve can be stimulated through the ear with vagus nerve-stimulating headphones while you're at home and going about your day with the Xen vagus nerve stimulation device from Neuvana.

Final Thoughts: Nutrition and Cognitive Function

Ensuring you get adequate nutrition to support your cognitive function is an important part of maintaining a healthy mind as you age. Incorporating nutrient-rich foods into your diet and avoiding processed foods can help to keep your mind sharp and protect against cognitive decline. Along with nutrition, you can do many of the other things to support your cognitive health we mentioned. These include mentally stimulating activities, exercise, stress management, and getting enough sleep. Taking care of your mind and body now can help you maintain a sharp mind today, tomorrow, and for years to come.