Superfoods aren’t a mythical, expensive, or impossible-to-get dietary option; in fact, you probably encounter superfoods very regularly in your daily life. Seafood, avocados, dark chocolate, nuts, seeds, and leafy green vegetables are all examples of common superfoods that can support positive brain health.
Each of these superfoods can have a positive impact on your overall brain health and mental health. However, none compare to one superfood that a Harvard nutritional psychiatrist says is the superfood to rule them all: blueberries.
Don’t let their small size fool you — blueberries are full of essential vitamins, minerals, and polyphenols, including vitamin C and vitamin K, that work to support your holistic health, but also to support your brain health specifically when consumed in the right amounts on a regular basis.
Here, we’ll talk about why blueberries are worth keeping in your regular grocery rotation. We’ll also share some personal advice we got first-hand from Dr. Uma Naidoo, a Harvard-trained nutritional psychiatrist, professional chef, and nutritional biologist.
How Are Blueberries Beneficial for the Brain?
Both dieticians and neurologists have long explored the link between certain nutrients and improved brain function. In the last few decades, the link has been confirmed and proven many times over for an array of vitamins, minerals, and even foods as a whole.
Blueberries are one of those foods that offer several brain-specific benefits, and while you shouldn’t be turning to blueberries alone for a holistic boost, incorporating them into your everyday can make a noticeable difference in how you feel, and here’s why:
1. Rich in Neuroprotective Antioxidants
Free radicals are unstable atoms with at least one unpaired valence electron. The unpaired electron essentially steals electrons from healthy molecules, ultimately causing damage to once-stable molecules that are now destabilized. The process, known as oxidation, can cause severe damage to the cell as a whole and ultimately contribute to chronic illness and expedited aging.
Your body naturally produces free radicals as a byproduct of metabolism, but you’re also exposed to environmental free radicals with air pollution, cigarette smoke, alcohol, industrial chemicals, and ultraviolet radiation.
Experts recommend you get about 11,000 antioxidant units daily to avoid oxidative damage. Simply meeting your daily recommended value of various vitamins can get you very close to meeting your antioxidant needs.
That said, getting your daily dose of blueberries or pure blueberry juice can blow your antioxidant requirements out of the water.
According to one study, a single cup of cultivated blueberries contains 9,019 antioxidants on average. Wild blueberries are even more impressive as they were found to contain 13,427 antioxidants per cup on average.
Dr. Uma noted that “as one of the foods most rich in anthocyanins (an incredibly powerful antioxidant), adding blueberries to the diet is a great step for improving brain health.”
With the mention of anthocyanins being “incredibly powerful,” we had to ask Dr. Uma one more question before moving on — are there other fruits or veggies that are as rich in anthocyanins that can also contribute to brain health the way blueberries can?
“Anthocyanins are found mostly in dark blue/purple/red fruits and vegetables. While blueberries are the richest source, other excellent examples include plums, cherries, pomegranates, red cabbage, red onion, eggplant and purple cauliflower," she adds. “Not only are these foods rich in anthocyanins, but they are also excellent sources of fiber to feed a healthy gut, and therefore, a healthy brain! Cabbage and cauliflower have the added benefit of sulforaphane, and onions have prebiotic fiber. So, these options are all power packed brain foods.”
2. Rich in Neuro-supportive Flavonoids
Flavonoids refer to more than 8,000 different types of compounds that occur naturally in most fruits and vegetables. You can also find them in plant-based products such as tea, coffee, wine, and dark chocolate.
You can find a tremendous amount of flavonoids inside blueberries.
There are few compounds as beneficial for your brain as flavonoids. They have similar properties to antioxidants and can also help protect against neurotoxins and neuroinflammation, while working to promote memory, learning, and cognitive performance.
Currently, there is no set amount of recommended flavonoids per day. Experts suggest that meeting your daily requirements for fruit and vegetables should be enough.
Blueberries have been found to contain 1,100 mg/100 g dwt of flavonoids. That’s more than twice the amount found in strawberries or raspberries, not to mention blueberries contain all six primary flavonoids.
In less technical terms, a cup of blueberries provides about four times the daily average for adult flavonoid intake.
It’s important to note that too many flavonoids can be a bad thing. Wolfing down blueberries by the pound isn’t going to make your brain invincible. Excess flavonoid consumption can actually have a toxic effect in your brain as the excess flavonoids turn into pro-oxidant mutagens, meaning you can wind up generating a lot of free radicals that can eliminate all the health benefits.
On top of that, Dr. Uma made a point to highlight that as wonderful as blueberries are, they still contain natural sugars, which is why “we don’t want to eat tons of blueberries at once, as this is unhealthy for blood sugar balance.”
3. Supports Concentration
According to one study, antioxidants could significantly increase peak systolic or end-diastolic blood flow. That’s not only good for your brain, but also for your heart, cholesterol, and blood pressure.
Your brain relies on a steady supply of oxygen from your blood to carry out its complex cognitive functions — in fact, the brain uses roughly a fifth of your body's total supply of oxygen.
Quite simply: the more efficiently that blood flows into your brain, the more oxygen it will have at its disposal.
These constant waves of oxygen can help the brain send various nerve signals and chemical messages throughout the body. It can also have an incredible effect on your concentration and memory. That’s one of the main reasons eating berries before taking an important test can work wonders, and why antioxidant-rich blueberries can help keep you focused when you really need it.
4. Great Source of Fiber
Fiber is a carbohydrate that plays several important roles in the body, the most beneficial of these being that it helps regulate how the body uses blood sugar. The interesting thing about fiber is that it provides these benefits because it’s not a compound your body actually breaks down to use.
Whenever you eat sugar-based carbohydrates, your body breaks them down (and converts them as necessary) into glucose, the form of sugar our cells need to produce energy. However, because our bodies depend so much on glucose, there isn’t really an on/off switch that tells our digestive system to just discard the extra sugar — as our food digests, that glucose will continue to be sent either into the bloodstream or into storage for later, and too much of that sugar at once can be a bad thing.
This is where fiber can really help.
Fiber doesn’t quite follow the same digestive process as sugar. Instead, it will largely pass through your body undigested.
While that might sound like a bad thing, dietary fiber helps to promote overall metabolic and digestive health. Soluble fiber specifically, which is what’s found in blueberries, helps to slow digestion, which in turn helps to slow the absorption of sugar while also giving the body a chance to more efficiently absorb other nutrients, too.
Recent studies recommend that men get about 38 grams of fiber daily while women only need about 25.
A single cup of blueberries contains roughly four grams of fiber. While that might pale in comparison to beans or grains, it’s among the highest fiber content for fruit.
5. High in Folate
Folate is the natural form of vitamin B9, and plays several important roles, such as in creating DNA/RNA and in protein metabolism.
One of the most important functions of folate is that it helps break down the amino acid known as homocysteine. Homocysteine levels naturally rise whenever you eat meat. Too much homocysteine in your blood, however, is a risk factor for heart disease and several cardiovascular-related health conditions.
Daily supplementation of between 0.5 and 5.0 milligrams of folic acid (a type of folate) can reduce homocysteine levels by up to 25 percent.
Each cup of blueberries contains roughly 8.88 micrograms of folate. It won’t be enough to lower your homocysteine levels, but it’ll give you an excellent head start.
How Can You Incorporate More Blueberries Into Your Diet?
One of the best things about blueberries is how easily you can add them to most diets, but how much should we be eating?
We asked Dr. Uma, and she said, “One of my Pillars of Nutritional Psychiatry is that consistency is key, so I recommend adding at least a handful of blueberries to your diet most days to reap the anti-inflammatory brain benefits! One of my favorite ways to do this is by enjoying chia pudding for breakfast topped with ¼ cup of blueberries.”
Smoothies are the perfect place to start when looking for ways to eat more blueberries. All you’ll need is a blender and a little imagination.
The first step is to determine a healthy liquid base for your smoothie. Milk, yogurt, fruit juice, crushed ice, water, and cottage cheese are all commonly used as smoothie bases.
However, you’ll need to be mindful of the fat and sugar consumed with some of these options — the goal is to promote positive body and brain health, not create a new guilty pleasure.
Next is figuring out which foods you want to puree into your liquid base. You’ll need to include plenty of blueberries, but you can get creative here.
Blending blueberries with other brain-boosting superfoods are excellent for maximizing the health benefits. Avocados offer brain-supporting omega-3 fatty acids, bananas can support dopamine and serotonin levels, and leafy greens are rich in vitamins B6 and B12, both known to support brain health.
You can get creative here with your fruit choices and include as many brain-supporting fruits as you want. You can even throw in some non-fruits to add some texture and a savory flavor, such as nuts, vegetables, yogurt, or whatever healthy ingredient you think will fit.
The only thing you’ll need to be careful about is avoiding the syrups and added sugars that sometimes come with packaged, canned, or even frozen fruit. Ideally, you should avoid pre-packaged fruits altogether.
It might feel like a hassle at first, but buying fresh fruit and chopping it up yourself is the healthiest option, not to mention how beneficial naturally occurring sugars can be compared to consuming fruits made with a ton of added sugars.
In general, you want to be mindful of your on-the-go snacks.
For example, the standard blueberry muffin you might find at the store is likely filled with preservatives, high fructose corn syrup, and artificial blueberry “flavoring.” These ingredients can negate the positive effects of blueberries (if there are any real ones even included in that muffin!). You’ll need to be selective when looking for on-the-go, blueberry-based snacks.
The best on-the-go snack might simply be a bag of blueberries. You can easily pour a cup’s worth of blueberries into a sandwich bag and snack on them throughout the day. You can also opt to freeze blueberries and enjoy them as a sweet frozen treat on a hot day.
Don’t forget your capacity to look for your own recipes — whole, fresh blueberries can be incorporated into health-conscious baked goods that let them shine both flavor-wise and nutrient-wise.
What Other Foods Can Support Brain Health?
It was made clear that blueberries are Dr. Uma’s brain food of choice, but to pick her brain and wrap up our questions, we asked: On top of adding more antioxidant-rich foods like blueberries to your diet, what are other ways to support brain health through food?
Here’s what Dr. Uma had to recommend:
Omega-3 Rich Foods
“Omega-3 is also a powerful anti-inflammatory essential fatty acid found particularly high in wild-caught seafood like salmon, sardines, mackerel, and anchovies, as well as plant foods like chia seeds and walnuts. They work by reducing the impact of oxidative stress in the brain for reduced symptoms of age-related anxiety and cognitive decline.”
“Fermented foods are natural sources of live bacteria that replenish the good bacteria in the gut and support a healthy microbiome which, as the gut-brain romance tells us, supports a healthy brain! Foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, kefir, and plain unsweetened yogurt are great sources of fermented foods!”
Herbs and Spices
“A common kitchen staple, herbs, and spices are surprisingly rich in micronutrients that support mental fitness. My favorites include turmeric with a pinch of black pepper, saffron, rosemary, parsley, basil, and ginger, amongst many others!”
The Bottom Line
It should be very clear by now that blueberries are one of the most nutritious foods on the planet. That might sound like an overstatement, but you don’t have to take our word for it.
In addition to her specialized expertise in nutrition and love for one of the most brain-loving foods found in nature, Dr. Uma Naidoo is the author of “This is Your Brain on Food,” which is why we’re particularly grateful for her contributions to MOSH and our mission to create a conversation about brain health through food, education, research, and providing the tools for a “mindstyle” lifestyle.
While MOSH's Blueberry Almond Cruncg protein bar doesn’t quite have the handful of blueberries noted above needed to see brain-boosting benefits, it will absolutely contain our signature Brain Blend, which does include other brain-fueling nutrients like vitamins D and B12, omega-3 fatty acids, ashwagandha, and lion’s mane.
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In the meantime, Dr. Uma’s blueberry-topped chia pudding is sounding extra appetizing right about now.