We’ve all heard the term “brain food”, but there’s actually some real science behind this idiom. There are certain nutrients that are more powerful than others when it comes to nurturing the brain, and even some that especially good at supporting specific brain functions such as memory, cognition, or neurotransmitter production. The following recipe has been designed with your mind in mind, but it is also comforting, full of flavor, and a great meal for any night of the week with minimal preparation and a quick cook time.
More than half of your brain is made up of fat, and about half of that fat is omega-3 fatty acids . This is why fish high in omega-3s, like salmon, are at the very top of the brain food list. Not getting enough omega-3s has been linked to learning impairments and depression, and both vitamin B-12 and omega-3 fatty acid deficiencies can have adverse effects on cognition and synaptic plasticity . Vitamin B-12 plays a fundamental role in healthy brain function throughout life, as well as in the prevention of CNS developmental disorders, mood disorders, and different types of dementia in the elderly . Indirectly essential to learning and memory, the brain also uses omega-3 fatty acids for the physical construction of new brain and nerve cells [1,2]. One study reported that regularly eating baked or broiled fish was associated with having a greater proportion of gray matter in the brain . Most of the nerve cells controlling decision making, memory, and emotion are found within gray matter.
Turmeric and Black Pepper:
Turmeric is the spice that gives curry powder its bright golden color. It has long been used in ayurvedic medicine as a detoxification cleanser and anti-inflammatory, but more recently, research has confirmed its benefits and the mechanisms of its actions. The active chemical in this root powder is called curcumin, and it is a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compound that has been linked to a long list of brain-boosting benefits. Curcumin is a lipophilic compound and easily crosses the blood-brain barrier, bringing with it its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant actions .
One of the key characteristics of Alzheimer’s disease is the chronic inflammation of nerve cells. Curcumin’s potent anti-inflammatory effect in the brain may then play a part in staving off the development of AD . Curcuminoids’ strong antioxidant action, demonstrated by the inhibition of free radical formation and proliferation, also decreases the oxidation of low-density lipoproteins and free radicals that cause the deterioration of neurons. This likely produces a preventative effect on the progression of AD, as well as other neuronal degenerative disorders such as Huntington’s and Parkinson’s diseases .
Curcumin also has a mood-boosting effect . It boosts production of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, which are both known to improve mood, energy balance, and sleep, among other benefits .
One drawback to curcumin is that it is typically poorly absorbed in the gut. This is why so often you see curcumin supplements that contain piperine, the active chemical in black pepper, which aids in its absorption. It turns out, these two antioxidants are a match made in heaven, because turmeric and black pepper taste great as a flavor combination, and piperine increases the absorption of curcumin by 2000% .
All citrus fruits are excellent sources of vitamin C. It just so happens that lemon also pairs with fish perfectly and looks beautiful as an edible garnish. Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin that acts as an electron donor in several important biological reactions in the body. It is crucial for your brain health, as deficiency may play a role in age-related cognitive decline, as well as stroke risk .
Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant, a scavenger of reactive oxygen species, and helps to recycle other brain antioxidants, like vitamin E. Because of this, it is likely that some of the deficiency-related cognitive decline is linked to neuronal damage due to increased reactive oxygen species and oxidative stress . Vitamin C is also known to participate in neuronal maturation and the formation of the myelin sheath that protects nerves and neurons. It also plays a role in signal transduction through neurotransmitters and acts as a neuromodulator in the brain. Therefore, depletion may have serious consequences for neuronal function and integrity .
In a study of the elderly (participants were 66–90 years old), plasma concentrations of vitamin C showed a positive correlation with cognitive performance, and those suffering from different kinds of dementia tended to have significantly lower plasma vitamin C levels .
Broccoli too is full of powerful antioxidants (including vitamin C) and anti-inflammatory nutrients for fighting oxidative stress and inflammation in the brain. It is also a rich source of vitamin K. In fact, a one-cup serving contains more than 100% of your daily vitamin K recommended intake .
Vitamin K is essential to the formation of sphingolipids, which make up a large portion of protective, brain cell membranes. The role of sphingolipids is both structural and functional, providing evidence for the relationship between one’s vitamin K nutritional status and behavior and cognition . One study reported better cognitive performance and fewer memory-related complaints in elderly subjects who had increased their nutritional intake of vitamin K . Vitamin K plays a role in the central nervous system and has potential protective benefits against cognitive vulnerability and decline .
As a natural sweetener, you may consider honey more of a treat than a nutritional boost, but this nectar has been recognized for its healing, medicinal benefits since ancient Egypt.
A 2011 study published in “Menopause” magazine found a daily spoonful of honey boosted postmenopausal women’s memory better than hormonal replacement therapy. Short term memory issues are a common complaint associated with menopause . Honey also helps the brain and body absorb calcium. The brain needs calcium in order to process thoughts and make decisions .
Recipe:Instructions for Preparation
Ingredients (Serves 4)
- Juice of 1 lemon (about 1/3 cup)
- Half lemon sliced
- Black pepper to taste (about ½ tsp)
- Sea salt to taste (about ½ tsp)
- 1 tsp turmeric, divided
- 2 tsp honey
- 4 salmon filets, skin on
- 1 large head of broccoli
- Olive oil (about ¼ cup)
Instructions for Preparation:
Before cooking, you’ll want to marinate the salmon for at least an hour. Be sure to factor that flavor-enhancing time into your preparation schedule. For the marinade, whisk together the juice of one whole lemon, 2 tsp of honey, ½ tsp turmeric, and generous pinches of black pepper and sea salt. Drizzle the marinade over clean, dry salmon fillets and then return them to the fridge for about an hour. You may want to flip the fish at some point while marinating to be sure the marinade is evenly distributed.
Preheat the oven to 400F. Lay the salmon filets skin side down in a baking dish and pour on any remaining marinade. Sprinkle tops of salmon filets with remaining turmeric, another pinch of salt and pepper, and thin slices of lemon. Drizzle generously with olive oil and cover the baking dish with foil or parchment.
Prepare broccoli by cutting the head into bite-sized florets. The branches of the stalk can also be sliced and roasted, for less waste and more green nutrition. Toss the florets and stalk slices in about 2 tablespoons of olive oil, salt, and pepper, and spread them evenly on a baking tray.
Bake both the covered fish dish and uncovered broccoli tray at 400F for 15-20 minutes. You can check the doneness of fish by cutting into the thickest part of the fillet and doneness of broccoli by looking for a very slightly brown roast on edges of bright green florets.
Enjoy your brain boosting meal.