Diet and mental health are inextricably linked, much like the intricate relationship between the gut and brain — and the link goes both ways: a lack of good dietary choices leads to an increase in mental health issues, and mental health issues lead to poor eating habits.

When people learn that I am a psychiatrist, a brain health researcher, and a nutritionist, they often ask me how they should eat to maximize the awesome power of the brain.

Following are the best brain-boosting foods that people aren’t eating enough of, based on my work with hundreds of patients. Incorporating them into your diet can improve your mood, sharpen your memory, and allow your brain to function at its best:

1. Spices

Spices are known for their antioxidant properties in addition to adding flavor. In other words, they assist the brain in combating harmful free radicals, thereby preventing oxidative stress, which can damage tissues.

One of my favorite spices is turmeric — a standout when it comes to reducing anxiety. Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, can reduce anxiety and alter brain chemistry, thereby protecting the hippocampus.

2. Fermented foods

Fermented foods are created by combining raw milk, vegetables, or other ingredients with microorganisms such as yeast and bacteria.

Some examples include plain yogurt with active cultures, sauerkraut, kimchi and kombucha. These are all sources of live bacteria that can improve gut health and reduce anxiety.

In the brain, fermented foods may provide several advantages. According to a 2016 review of 45 studies, fermented foods may protect the brain in animals, improving memory and slowing cognitive decline.

Probiotic-rich yogurt can be an effective addition to your diet, but keep in mind that heat-treated yogurt does not provide the same benefits. One such example is yogurt-covered raisins — these aren’t going to help your anxiety, as the heat-treated yogurt has no beneficial bacteria left.

I also love saffron. A meta-analysis of five previously published, randomized and controlled trials on the effects of saffron supplementation on depression symptoms in participants with major depressive disorder was published in 2013.

In all these trials, researchers found that consuming saffron significantly reduced depression symptoms compared to the placebo controls.

3. Dark chocolate

Dark chocolate is an excellent source of iron, which helps make up the covering that protects neurons and helps control the synthesis of the chemicals and chemical pathways involved in mood.

In 2019, a cross-sectional survey of more than 13,000 adults found that people who regularly eat dark chocolate had a 70% reduced risk of depression symptoms.

Dark chocolate also has plenty of antioxidants, as long as you stick to the dark stuff and make sure that it doesn’t have too much sugar.

4. Avocados 

Avocados have a high magnesium content, which is essential for proper brain function.

In 1921, the first report of magnesium treatment for agitated depression was published, and it demonstrated success in 220 of 250 cases.

Numerous studies have since suggested that depression is linked to magnesium deficiency. Several case studies, in which patients were treated with 125 to 300 milligrams of magnesium, have demonstrated rapid recovery from major depression, often in less than a week.

I love blending avocados, chickpeas and olive oil as a tasty spread on a low-GI toast like pumpernickel, or as a dip for fresh-cut vegetables.

5. Nuts

Nuts contain healthy fats and oils that our brains require to function properly, as well as essential vitamins and minerals, such as selenium in Brazil nuts.

The anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects of omega-3 fatty acids in walnuts show great promise in improving thinking and memory.

I recommend eating 1/4 cup a day (not more — it’s easy to overdo it with nuts!) as a snack or added to your salad or vegetable side dish. Nuts can even be combined into a homemade granola or trail mix that contains much less sugar and salt than store-bought versions.

6. Leafy greens

However, leafy greens contain vitamin E, carotenoids, and flavonoids, all of which protect against dementia and cognitive decline.

Another advantage is that they are an excellent source of folate, a natural form of vitamin B9 that is essential for red blood cell formation. Whereas folate deficiency may be the root cause of some neurological conditions, increasing folate status has a positive impact on our cognitive health and is a necessary cofactor in neurotransmitter production.

Greens high in folate include spinach, Swiss chard, and dandelion greens.