How to improve cognitive function? A simple question that literally makes the supplement industry bazillions (that’s wayyyy more than billions, btw) of dollars each and every year.
But what does it even mean?
Most people are aware that cognitive function revolves around certain aspects of mental performance, such as memory, learning, and problem solving. But what many don’t realize is that it actually runs a little deeper than that. And the first step to explaining how you can improve your cognitive function through diet is by first ensuring you have an understanding of cognition itself.
What is Cognition?
Cognition is defined as “the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses”. Basically, cognition is your ability to gain new information, process that information, and then use it to guide your actions and make decisions.
This process of absorbing and using new information is integral to learning new skills, building knowledge, and governing your thoughts and actions. As such, it’s also absolutely integral to your day-to-day life!
So, how does this gaining and using new information actually work?
Well, cognition requires physical processes in the brain.
Nerves in your brain have to get signals from the outside world and send them to other nerves in your brain. Then, they have to change when and how they signal to other nerves long-term, “creating a memory”. And, finally, the nerves have to “store” the changes so they can “recreate” the signal (let you “remember”) on demand, to help you decide what to think or do in any given situation.
And all of these things have to happen instantaneously, and a lot! A healthy brain contains over 100 billion nerve cells, each of which can have up to 10,000 connections with other nerve cells (known as neurons). All of these cells and signals need to be coordinated 24-7, for your whole life!
Factors that Influence Nerve Signaling
Nerve signaling and cognition is such a complex system that you likely won’t be surprised to learn that they are pretty vulnerable to even small changes in their environment! In fact, there are a number of distinct factors that can seriously modify your nerve cells function and your cognition abilities.
These factors include:
- Your cerebral blood flow
- The levels of inflammation within your body (and your brain)
- The levels of neurotransmitters found within your body
Cerebral Blood Flow and Nerve Signaling
Nerve signaling requires nerve cells to use lots and lots of energy. To make that energy, nerve cells need oxygen and nutrients from your blood. In fact, they need so much oxygen and nutrients when they are signaling that you have to send extra blood to those parts of your brain. (So much so that doctors can actually measure it!)
It likely won’t surprise you to learn, then, that evidence suggests that a decline in cerebral blood flow can directly limit nerve signaling and cognitive function. Some studies even suggest that decreases in cerebral blood flow may be one of the drivers of many full-blown neurodegenerative disorders (such as Alzheimer’s disease).
Related: How Does Aging Affect Your Brain?
Inflammation and Nerve Signaling
There is a growing body of evidence linking whole-body inflammation to a number of diseases and health issues, including both cognitive decline and dementia.
You see, in a normal setting, inflammation is a protective response that occurs when a tissue is damaged or stressed. In these situations, inflammation helps kick start the healing process by flushing a site of injury with fluid and nutrients.
But this normally protective response can turn dangerous when it happens for long periods of time, especially if it’s happening in your whole body in response to stress or a chronic illness.
Prolonged, whole-body inflammation actually wreaks havoc on your body. It puts excessive stress on your organs, including your nervous systems, limiting its function. And with this comes a decline in nerve signaling capacity, and an associated reduction in cognition.
Neurotransmitters and Nerve Signaling
Neurotransmitters are often referred to as the human body’s chemical messengers. This is because these tiny molecules are used by your nervous system to transfer messages both between neurons, and between neurons and your body’s tissues. They are absolutely integral to your nervous system function and your cognition!
Foods that Influence Nerve Signaling Factors
Now if you consider the above for a second, you should start to see how certain foods might be able to enhance cognitive function. See, there are certain foods that have the potential to increase blood flow, reduce inflammation, and enhance neurotransmitter production.
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Foods that Enhance Blood Flow
As the old adage goes, you need to eat your vegetables to grow up big and strong – and apparently, you can add smart to this list as well.
Both leafy greens (such as kale, spinach, chard, and arugula) and beets are full to the brim with a specific compound called nitrate. The consumption of nitrate has a huge impact on the cardiovascular system. It can improve blood vessel function, reduce blood pressure and promote blood flow.
Incredibly, nitrate has been shown to increase cerebral blood flow specifically, making these nitrate-rich vegetables excellent candidates for brain-boosting foods.
Tea is another food that can improve vascular function and blood flow, though not via nitrate. Tea contains two totally different compounds that are great for your cerebral circulation!
Firstly, tea contains an abundance of potent antioxidant compounds known as flavonoids. Flavonoids have been shown to improve the health and function of your veins and arteries. Healthier veins and arteries means smoother blood flow for your entire body, including your brain!
Secondly, tea contains caffeine. While most of us know that caffeine acts as a stimulant, you might not know that it also acts as a potent cerebral dilator. That means that it directly enhances blood flow to the brain, thus increasing neural signaling and cognition.
Foods that Reduce Inflammation
This section is going to be short and sweet!
There are a number of amazing foods that exhibit anti-inflammatory properties when you eat them. These foods reduce the secretion of pro-inflammatory proteins and help your body remove damaging free radicals. Together, these effects can cause a huge reduction in whole body inflammation!
Of these foods, four that appear to be the most effective are:
- turmeric (through the potent action of curcumin)
- nuts (especially walnuts) and
- green tea (through the action of extremely potent antioxidants).
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Foods that Enhance Neurotransmitter Production
Finally, there is research to suggest that the foods you choose to eat can have a big impact on your body’s ability to produce specific neurotransmitters.
Read Next: How Your Stomach Bacteria Affect Your Brain
While we have spoken in depth about how the state of your gut can affect levels of neurotransmitters in your brain here, all you really need to know is that the good bacteria found within your gut actually produce neurotransmitters for you! These neurotransmitters include serotonin, dopamine, and GABA, all of which play a key role in cognitive health and function.
With all of this in mind, some key foods that have been shown to enhance the health of your neurotransmitter-making gut bacteria include leafy greens (such as those mentioned above), and fiber-rich foods (such as brown rice, maize, buckwheat, and whole oats).
Take Home Message
Cognitive function describes your ability to learn new and use new information, solve problems, and make decisions. As a result, it is essential to success in almost every aspect of your daily life.
By enhancing blood flow to the brain (and the rest of your body), reducing nasty inflammation, and boosting neurotransmitter production, certain foods can actually enhance cognitive function. Of these foods, berries, leafy green vegetables, beets, nuts, tea, whole grains and turmeric, appear to offer the most benefit.