The brain is constantly growing and changing, and there are simple, drug-free strategies that can help keep minds sharp. We dug into the latest research and spoke to top experts to uncover the most effective ways to keep your child’s brain (and yours!) in tip-top shape.
1. EAT SMART
“The brain, above all other organs, is most affected by nutrition,” says William Sears, M.D., a pediatrician and author of more than 40 family health books. “You put junk food in the brain, and you get back junk behavior.” In other words, the brain needs quality fuel (food) to perform at its best. Here’s a rundown of some of the best brain-boosting bites:
There’s a reason these gems appear at the top of so many lists of superfoods. “Blueberries contain anthocyanins, which make brain cells more resilient to stress and improve the ability of the brain’s neurons to communicate with each other,” says Paula Bickford, Ph.D., a professor of neurosurgery at the University of South Florida and senior research career scientist at James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa, Florida. “This can improve the brain’s processing speed and the ability to pay attention.”
Kale and spinach are packed with folate, which is important for brain development in utero and brain function throughout adulthood.
This earthy vegetable is especially high in nitrates, which can increase blood flow to the brain and improve mental performance.
Rich in choline, the yellow part of the egg offers brain benefits. Most notably, choline is a building block of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that helps brain cells communicate with each other and is particularly important for memory.
Tuna and wild salmon, among other fatty fishes, contain omega-3 fatty acids, which help boost memory and overall brain performance throughout your life. They’re also crucial in utero and in early childhood: “You have to have the fatty acids to construct the building blocks of the brain, which grow fastest in the third trimester and within the first two to five years of life,” says Sears. He suggests that each family member eat two fistfuls of fatty fish per week (scaled to each person’s fist).
2. ADD A SUPPLEMENT
No one would argue that supplements can take the place of a healthy diet, but there’s a compelling amount of research suggesting that certain ones, when used appropriately, can offer real benefits to brain health. A few to consider:
OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS (IN THE FORM OF DHA AND EPA)
If your kids aren’t fans of fish, they can still reap its brain-boosting benefits by taking a supplement. DHA and EPA, which are present in breast milk, have been found to be so important for developing brains that they’re added to many infant formulas. A safe and effective dosage for infants and school-age kids, according to Sears: 200 to 500 mg per day. Adults can take up to 1,000 mg a day, but you should get a doctor’s recommendation for exact dosing.
Derived from blue green microalgae, this highly potent plant supplement is packed with antioxidants and has been shown to slow the effects of neurodegenerative diseases, improve the brain’s resilience after injury, and boost academic performance in children. “Spirulina can actually help generate new neurons in the brain and repair connections between neurons, which can improve aspects of memory and learning,” says Bickford. Spirulina can be cooked into food, added to smoothies or juices, or taken in pill form. Bickford recommends 3 mg daily for kids and adults.
Worried you’re not getting enough of this B vitamin? You may want to supplement with the pill form to keep your brain sharp. Adults can take 400 to 600 mcg daily. Ask your pediatrician to recommend a dosage for your child.
Research shows that many people are deficient in this vitamin—a problem linked to cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease, as well as depression and other mental-health issues. It can be difficult to get vitamin D naturally, so experts recommend supplementing with 600 IU per day for adults and children older than age 1. (If you’re breastfeeding, consider a supplement for your infant. It’s generally advised that babies get 400 IU a day, but check with your pediatrician.)
3. TRY MEDITATION
It’s been shown to calm the mind, improve focus, and enhance memory. Short-term mindfulness meditation may even curb mind wandering enough to improve academic performance, according to research done with students from the University of Miami.
“Meditation helps people stay on task,” says Bickford, who teaches meditation and studies the research behind it. “Even just 12 minutes of mindfulness meditation a day helps people be more present and may prevent neurodegenerative conditions.”
4. EMPHASIZE HEALHY SLEEP HABITS
An even simpler solution to brain decline is a good night’s sleep. “There is nothing more restorative for our bodies than getting ample sleep,” says Susan Smith Jones, Ph.D., author of Be Healthy, Stay Balanced.
Countless studies have shown that sleep is vital to keeping the brain functioning correctly. Kids (and adults!) who are well rested are better able to concentrate, remember new information, solve problems, make decisions, perform tasks, and be creative. With kids getting less sleep than ever before due to homework, extracurricular activities, and early school start times, their learning and memory can be severely compromised. “Sleep time is when the body and brain do most of their repair work—when cell regeneration happens,” says Jones.
Without adequate time for rest and healing, the body and brain will suffer.
A great way to ensure enough sleep is to create pre-sleep rituals for your children. According to the National Sleep Foundation, school-age kids need 10 to 11 hours of sleep a night. But instead of a bedtime, try setting a time to start preparing for bed—about 45 minutes before you want them to fall asleep. At this point, turn off the TV, computer, and iPad (which can be too stimulating for your child’s senses before bed); bathe your kids; read them a story; and snuggle with the lights low. You can help them relax even more with soothing music (we like the songs on the free Sleepy Sounds app for iPhone and Android) or an aromatherapy scent.
5. MAKE PLAY A PRIORITY
Exercise, for both your mind and body, is crucial to preventing brain drain,” says Sears. Here, three entertaining—and science-backed—ways to accomplish this:
Research has shown that staying active improves blood flow to the brain and reduces inflammation and oxidative stress. Another study, from the University of California, Los Angeles, also found that a low physical fitness level is tied to lower standardized test scores. “Movement—especially outdoors—provides a brain growth factor,” says Sears.
Mental exercises can also improve memory and overall brain function. Research from the University of California, Berkeley, showed that people who kept their brains active for most of their lives (starting at an early age) by reading, writing, doing crossword puzzles, or playing brain-building games had a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Luminosity.com and goofybrains.com offer video games that are sneakily designed to boost kids’ brain power.
British research found that the act of doodling during a class or a meeting can help improve attention and memory. Lead study author Jackie Andrade, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Plymouth University in England, speculates that when you doodle, you engage your mind just enough so you don’t daydream but not so much that you don’t pay attention to what’s going on around you. Pick up a doodle pad or an on-the-go activity book to help focus your child’s attention. Try keeping it in the car or your purse so it’s always handy in a pinch!