Remember these four letters: DDFM. If it’s easier, think of them as call letters for a cheesy radio station, “Double D FM!” The letters stand for four nutrients critical to brain health that you probably aren’t getting enough of: Vitamin D, DHA, Folate and Magnesium.
Research suggests that our diets are increasingly low in all four, and our brains are suffering for it.
Why it’s important: I stumbled across the importance of vitamin D when a routine blood test revealed that my level was low and my doctor recommended that I begin taking three 2000 i.u. vitamin D3 supplements a day. I’d always thought being out in the sun was enough to keep vitamin D levels high, because the human body uses sunlight to manufacture the vitamin. But research shows we’re frequently low in this essential vitamin and that’s potentially dangerous. Low levels are associated with free radical damage to brain cells and accelerated cognitive decline. In addition to boosting brain health, there’s also evidence suggesting that vitamin D aids in muscle strength and repair.
How to get more of it: Eat oily fish like wild salmon* and eggs. You can also get a boost by eating cheese, and if you go this route I recommend swiss cheese because it also contains a high level of Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) that has shown promise in helping reduce abdominal fat. Another decent source is Greek yogurt, but avoid brands with excess sugar (I’m not recommending milk for that reason – it’s naturally high in sugar). If your vitamin D levels are especially low—and it’s best to determine that via a blood test—consider taking a vitamin D3 supplement at a level your doctor recommends.**
Why it’s important: DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid) plays a vital role in keeping cell membranes flexible, resilient and healthy. Healthy cell membranes are less susceptible to oxidative stress, the damage caused by free radicals, which can lead to cell mutation and, ultimately, cancer. DHA also appears to help brain cells regulate their energy use and protects them from inflammation—a condition linked to an array of degenerative diseases including Alzheimer's. In addition, low levels of DHA have been linked to depression, memory loss, and even elevated hostility. Suffice to say, there's enough credible research out there on DHA now to support a strong statement that it's essential to brain health.
How to get more of it: Eat more oily fish like wild salmon and sardines, though if you eat canned sardines try to find brands that are not packed in cans containing BPA, a chemical linked to a host of toxic badness. If you don't mind the taste, kelp (aka seaweed) is another excellent source. You can also get ample DHA in Omega 3 fish oil supplements. Just make sure that you are buying a brand that is filtered to remove mercury and has a high level of DHA (the EPA and DHA levels will be listed in the ingredients; try to get a supplement with at least 200mg of DHA per capsule).**
Why it’s important: Folate, a water-soluble B vitamin, has long been established as critical to brain development in infants; pregnant women are strongly advised to take a folate supplement to fend off birth defects. But research has also shown that folate is important to brains of all ages, and deficiencies are correlated with cognitive decline particularly in the elderly. Studies have linked folate to improved memory function and mental processing speed—two things that typically take a hit as we age. There's also evidence indicating that folate deficiency contributes to psychiatric disorders such as depression.
How to get more of it: Eat unsalted peanuts. The little legumes are folate powerhouses, and they’re also packed with heart healthy monounsaturated fat. If crunching nuts isn’t your thing, try natural peanut butter. Just stay away from peanut butter with added sugar and salt – stick to the kind that’s all peanuts. Other good sources include asparagus, black eyed peas, spinach, broccoli and egg yolks.
Why it’s important: In the brain, magnesium acts as buffer between neuron synapses, particularly the NMDA receptor that plays a role in several cognitive functions including learning and memory. Magnesium “sits” on the receptor without activating it, in effect protecting the receptor from over-activation by other neurochemicals, especially the neurotransmitter glutamate. If there isn’t enough magnesium available to protect NMDA receptors, glutamate constantly triggers the receptors causing an “excitatory” response. That’s why you often see magnesium advertised as a calming nutrient, because it blocks glutamate from too-frequently activating the NMDA receptors in your brain. The most important thing to remember is that without magnesium, over-activation of NMDA receptors eventually becomes toxic to the brain, leading to progressively worse damage and steady cognitive decline.
How to get more of it: Eat spinach, it's loaded with magnesium. Other sources include almonds and black beans. Just be sure to eat raw or roasted almonds that are unsalted and not coated in sugar (even though those taste so good). Peanuts are also a decent source of magnesium, which makes them a double-whammy snack because they're also high in folate as mentioned above.
If you decide to take a magnesium supplement, be sure to find a readily absorbable form of magnesium such as magnesium citrate, and avoid the less absorbable (but widely sold) form of magnesium oxide. **
*In each case where I recommended eating more fish, you'll notice that I said "wild salmon," and that's because there's troubling evidence to suggest that farm-raised salmon are a significantly less healthy choice for the brain and the heart.
** Always check with your doctor before beginning any supplement regimen.