You’re an expert multitasker, juggle your to-do list like a pro, and run circles around most. Yet you find that constantly switching gears and trying to stay at the top of your game can lead to some serious brain drain.
While getting enough sleep is a sure-fire way to reboot, you also need to refuel with healthy nutrient-rich foods that will improve your decision-making and problem-solving skills, your focus, and your memory.
“We are beginning to more clearly understand the impact of nutrition on learning and memory,” explains Matt Kuchan, PhD, a discovery scientist and the global lead for Abbott’s partnership with the Center for Nutrition Learning and Memory at the University of Illinois. “Our research, covering infancy to adulthood, really brings to life the important role nutrition plays in helping to create strong brain connections, helping us to focus, preserving our memories – and ultimately, in preserving who we are."
Luckily, research has shown there are several nutrients and nutrient combinations that may help. So, if you're looking for that extra brain boost you need to stay on top of your game, read on for six brain-healthy nutrients – and the foods where you can find them.
1 & 2. Lutein & Zeaxanthin
Well-known for its benefits for eye health, skin health and cardiovascular health – Lutein is a carotenoid that is also becoming increasingly recognized for its benefits for brain health for people of all ages.
For example, in a recent study conducted by Abbott and the University of Illinois at the Center for Nutrition, Learning & Memory, it was shown that seniors who consume more lutein have better crystalized intelligence – or, the ability to retain and use information that has been acquired throughout life. But, the good news is you don’t have to wait until you’re in your golden years to reap the benefits of lutein. Additional research (found here and here) suggests a combination of the nutrients lutein and zeaxanthin can help improve processing speed and memory at any age.
"We are finding that lutein is beneficial for brain health at every age," says Kuchan. "And, through our research we can say -- consuming more lutein when you’re younger may help you stay sharp later in life."
Quercetin – an antioxidant found in many common foods such as apples and blueberries – has been historically recognized for its benefits for treating high-cholesterol, heart disease and other circulation-related diseases. However, a new preclinical study by Abbott shows that, when combined with other important brain nutrients, quercetin may be able to help delay the decline of cognitive health. This brings a whole new meaning to the idea of "an apple a day."
4. Natural Vitamin E
Naturally found in parts of the brain that are linked to memory, vision and language development, natural vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant that has been shown to work as a complement to lutein in protecting DHA from free radicals in the environment -- such as air pollution and ultraviolet radiation from the sun.
Additionally, a recent Abbott study shows the brain favors natural vitamin E over synthetic vitamin E.
"On food labels, be sure to look for natural vitamin E, which is typically referred to as d-alpha tocopherol or d-a-tocopherol," Kuchan says.
5 & 6. Omega-3 Fatty Acids & DHA
Often referred to as the "good" fat, omega-3 fatty acid can play a critical role in preserving cognitive functions and slowing the progression of the aging brain. Recent research from Abbott (here) has shown – in older adults at risk of late-onset Alzheimer's disease – those who consumed more omega-3 fatty acids did better than their peers on tests of cognitive flexibility – or, the ability to efficiently switch between tasks.
"It is important to realize that – unlike some nutrients – omega 3 fatty acids do not naturally occur in the body like some nutrients," Kuchan says.
"Therefore, it is important to make sure you're incorporating healthy foods into your diet that are rich in omega-3s."
Additionally, some studies show that a high intake of DHA, (docosahexaenoic acid), an omega-3 fatty acid that is vital for cognitive function, is associated with an improved ability to access and use information.
"Since DHA is easily broken down by oxidative stress – an imbalance between free radicals that can cause damage to the body’s defense system – it’s important to get adequate amounts of DHA in your diet at every stage of life," Kuchan says.