You open your cupboard but then can't recall what you wanted...you're introducing two friends and suddenly draw a blank on one's name.
Such instances of "brain fog" are common, but they are not an inevitable part of aging. Many people remain remarkably sharp all their lives and the right nutritional strategies can help you be one of them.
Cognitive declines can result from hormonal changes and reductions in neurotransmitters, chemicals that help brain cells communicate with each other. Increasing your intake of certain nutrients helps balance hormones and protect neurotransmitters. You can get these nutrients from…
- Foods. Eating brain-boosting foods is an ideal way to get needed nutrients.
Reasons: The body is designed to absorb nutrients from foods rather than from isolated or manufactured chemicals (such as in supplements) ...and foods contain complementary components that enhance nutrient absorption.
- Herbs. The healthful aromatic oils are most active when herbs are fresh, but dried herbs also will do.
- Supplements. These are an option if you cannot find the foods that provide certain nutrients, or if you need specific nutrients in quantities beyond what you typically get from food. Unless otherwise noted, the following supplements generally are safe, have few side effects and may be used indefinitely. All are sold at health food stores.
Important: Ask your doctor before supplementing, especially if you have a health condition...use medication...or are pregnant or breast-feeding To reduce the risk for interactions, do not take supplements within 30 minutes of medication...and limit your use of these supplements to any four of the following.
Nutrients Your Mind Needs
For the foods recommended below, one serving equals four ounces of meat, poultry, fish, or soy products...eight ounces of milk...two ounces of nuts...two eggs (with yolks)...one-half cup of vegetables or fruit...and one cup of leafy greens.
- Choline. The neurotransmitter acetylcholine plays a key role in learning and memory. Choline is a precursor to acetylcholine that is produced in the liver. Production of choline declines with age, as does the body's ability to efficiently use the choline that remains.
Brain boost: Eat one or more servings daily of choline-rich broccoli, cauliflower, eggs, kidney beans, navy beans, liver, milk or peanuts.
Supplement option: 1,200 milligrams (mg) daily.
- DMAE (2-dimethylaminoethanol). The body uses fatty acids to create brain cells and neurotransmitters. DMAE, a chemical in fatty acids, helps produce acetylcholine.
Brain boost: Have two servings weekly of DMAE-rich anchovies or sardines. If fresh fish is not available, have canned water-packed sardines or anchovies and rinse before eating to reduce salt.
Supplement option: 500 mg twice daily after meals.
- L-carnitine. Mitochondria are the engines of cells. The amino acid L-carnitine transports fatty acids to mitochondria for use as fuel and provides nutrients to brain cells.
Brain boost: Have two weekly servings of lamb or poultry, which are rich in L-carnitine.
Supplement option: 500 mg to 1,000 mg before breakfast and again in the afternoon.
- Vitamin B-12. This is key to red blood cell formation and nerve cell health. The body's ability to absorb vitamin B-12 diminishes with age-about 10% to 15% of people over age 60 are deficient in it.
Brain boost: Have two servings weekly of beef or lamb...halibut, salmon, sardines or sea bass...eggs...or vitamin B-12-enriched soybean products (miso, tempeh).
Supplement option: 500 micrograms (mcg) to 1,000 mcg daily.
The Most Helpful Herbs
An easy way to get the benefits of mind-sharpening herbs is to brew them into a tisane, or herbal infusion-more commonly called herbal tea.
To brew: Pour eight ounces of very hot water over one heaping tablespoon of fresh herbs or one teaspoon of dried herbs. Steep for five minutes, strain and drink.
Convenient: To reduce the number of cups needed to meet the daily recommendations below, brew two or more herbs together.
- Chinese club moss. This herb contains the chemical buperzine A, which helps conserve acetylcholine.
Brain boost: Drink one to two cups of Chinese club moss tea each day.
Supplement option: 50 mcg of huperzine A twice daily (discontinue if supplements cause gastric upset or hyperactivity).
- Ginkgo biloba. This herb increases blood flow to the brain's tiny capillaries and combats DNA damage caused by free radicals
Caution: Do not use ginkgo if you take blood-thinning medication, such as warfarin (Coumadin).
Brain boost: Drink three cups of ginkgo tea daily Supplement option: 120 mg daily.
- Kitchen herbs. Oregano, peppermint, rosemary and sage have oils that may increase blood flow in the brain and/or support neurotransmitters, promoting alertness.
Brain boost: Use any or all of these herbs to brew a cup of tea for a pick-me-up in the morning and again in the afternoon.
Also: Use herbs liberally when cooking.
Supplement option: About 150 mg each of any or all of these herbs daily. They can be taken alone or in combination.
- Mugwort (wormwood). This herb improves circulation, aiding delivery of nutrients to brain cells.
Brain boost: Twice a week, drink one cup of mugwort tea...add a half-dozen leaves of fresh mugwort to salad...or sauté leaves with garlic or onions.
Supplement option: 300 mg daily.
Caution: Avoid mugwort during pregnancy—it may stimulate uterine contractions.
- Don't forget green tea. Strictly speaking, an herb is a flowering plant whose stem aboveground does not become woody. In that sense, the leaf of the Camellia sinensis shrub otherwise known as tea-is not an herb. Yet green tea (which is less oxidized than black) is so helpful that it must be listed among the top brain boosters.
Along with antioxidant polyphenols, green tea provides the amino acid theanine, which stimulates calming alpha brain waves and improves concentration. Green tea also has been linked to a reduced risk for Alzheimer's disease.
To brew: Pour eight ounces of very hot water over one teaspoon of loose, fresh green tea leaves (or a tea bag if fresh is not available) and steep for three to five minutes. You needn't strain the tea. As you empty your cup, you can add more warm water to the remaining leaves--as long as the water turns green, the tea still contains polyphenols.
Brain boost: Drink three cups of green tea (caffeinated or decaffeinated) daily.
Supplement option: 350 mg of green tea extract daily.