Antioxidants

Who may need more?

  • Everyone who breathes (seriously!)
  • Frequent, strenuous exercisers need even more

What do they do? Antioxidants delay cognitive decline by neutralizing free radicals, byproducts of our oxygen-guzzling metabolism that damage cells by causing inflammation. People who exercise a lot tend to eat more and breathe more heavily, which results in more free radicals. Flavonoids, one type of antioxidant, improve blood flow to the brain and enhance its ability to form memories, especially in conjunction with exercise.

Foods that have them: Colorful vegetables and fruits, red wine, cocoa, calf and beef liver

Caffeine

Who may need more?

  • Men
  • People at risk for Parkinson's disease
  • Women in the first five days of their period

What does it do? Caffeine seems to protect the brain, although scientists are not sure exactly how. A dose of five cups of coffee per day has been shown to dramatically reduce early Parkinson's symptoms in many people (although once the disease has taken hold, it can make tremors worse). Dark chocolate, which contains caffeine and the mood-boosting neurotransmitter anandamide, also increases beneficial estrogen levels in men, post-menopausal women and women who are in the first few days of menstruation.

Foods that have it: Coffee, many kinds of tea, cocoa, many sodas, dark chocolate

Omega-3 fatty acids

Who may need more?

  • People who are taking antidepressants

What do they do? Omega-3s are anti-inflammatory and an important component of brain cell membranes. A deficiency has been linked to brain disorders such as depression. Correcting a deficiency can boost the brain's plasticity, enhancing cognition and learning.

Foods that have them: Salmon, tuna and other fatty fish, plants such as flaxseed, walnuts and other nuts

B vitamins

Who may need more?

  • Women and children, particularly girls
  • People who consume a lot of alcohol

What do they do? The brain needs folate (or folic acid) to keep the enzymes related to energy metabolism humming along. If a woman is deficient, additional folate may improve memory and ease depression. Studies indicate it may also help protect the brain from dementia.

Foods that have them: Fatty fish, mushrooms, fortified products, milk, soy milk, cereal grains, orange juice, spinach, yeast

Curcumin

Who may need more?

  • Young people. Studies are ongoing, but early data indicates that the sooner it is added to a diet, the better.

What does it do? The anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin, which is found in the spice turmeric, seem to protect the brain against Alzheimer's and possibly Parkinson’s disease. Turmeric has been used in Asian herbal remedies for centuries to treat inflammatory diseases such as arthritis. (Bonus: Curcumin is also a powerful antioxidant.)

Foods that have it: Curry and some mustards contain it, and turmeric can be added to many foods.

Tryptophan

Who may need more?

  • Novice vegetarians

What does it do? The brain uses this amino acid to make seratonin, an essential mood-regulating neurotransmitter. The brain can’t store tryptophan, so you need to get a regular supply from protein in your diet. Novice vegetarians who skimp on protein often lack it and within a week can suffer symptoms such as anxiety, irritability and depression.

Foods that have it: Eggs, nuts, spinach, dairy, red meat, fish, poultry (although contrary to popular myth, turkey doesn’t contain all that much)

SOURCES: “Your Brain on Food: How Chemicals Control Your Thoughts and Feelings,” by Gary Wenk; “Brain Foods: The Effects of Nutrients on Brain Function,” by Fernando Gómez-Pinilla; Journal of Alzheimer's Disease; National Institutes of Health.