Think of your brain as the control center of your body. It controls your ability to feel, talk, think, hear, and even breathe.
Since this super organ does so much, it’s no wonder it requires a ton of energy to keep things running smoothly. In fact, according to research from 2011, your brain uses 20 percent of your body’s calories. That’s a pretty big energy budget for an organ that accounts for only 2 percent of your body weight.
Unless your brain is in starvation mode, its main preference of fuel is glucose (a simple sugar and a component of carbohydrates). So what you eat directly provides your brain’s primary energy source.
Plus, there’s scientific evidence of a big connection between your gut and your brain (the gut-brain axis), which affects brain health.
There are several nutrients that positively affect neural pathways:
- omega-3 fatty acids
- B vitamins
- vitamin D
- vitamin E
- vitamin C
While there’s no magic food that will suddenly take your brain power from 0 to 60 overnight, some foods may help you focus in the moment. If you’re looking to prep your brain for future tasks, you’ll also want our tips on which foods to add to your regular rotation of eats.
We’ll break down which foods are high in the nutrients listed above and how they can fit into your plan for exam weeks, long-term concentration, and those times when you need a brain boost like, now.
Most research on foods for boosting brain power has looked at time periods of several weeks to several months. This means a quick fix might be harder to find.
But if you’re looking for some brain foods for studying, pulling an all-nighter, or working long hours, there’s still hope.
We’ll discuss some nutrients and adaptogens that might help give you a concentration boost to power through that study sesh.
But first, coffee. Caffeine may seem like a no-brainer (pun intended) before a long study session or workday. Research suggests that moderate amounts (from 75 to 250 milligrams) of caffeine can positively affect alertness and mental focus, even when you’re sleepy.
You’ll want to limit the amount of coffee you drink, though. Studies suggest that consuming too much (4 to 5 cups a day, which is about 400 milligrams) may cause jitteriness, sleep disturbances, and other negative effects.
And if you’re under 18, drop the limit even lower, to 100 milligrams per day, since too much could lead to unpleasant side effects.
Pro tip: If you start to feel jittery, hold off for a few hours and snack on something tasty. Find yourself unable to stop dozing? Try a coffee nap!
2. Green tea
Green tea has two components that could help boost brain power. In addition to caffeine, green tea contains L-theanine, an amino acid known to help with stress management and enhance brain performance.
Better still, according to research from 2001, L-theanine’s effects can be felt in as little as 30 minutes.
Pro tip: Go for matcha. It contains about twice as much L-theanine as regular green tea and is also higher in alertness-boosting caffeine. So sipping a matcha latte while you study may help boost your attention.
In Peru, maca is traditionally used in schools to improve students’ performance. A lot of the evidence around this is anecdotal, but hey, the placebo effect can be powerful too!
According to a 2012 review, animal studies have linked maca to improved memory and learning. And some research in humans has suggested that taking maca in the long term may help boost mood and energy levels.
4. Dark chocolate
If your sweet tooth kicks in while you’re studying, reach for chocolate — but make sure it’s dark chocolate. Studies suggest that dark chocolate and cocoa products may have positive effects on brain function. Older research has also found that eating chocolate may help reduce mental fatigue.
Got a week of exams coming up? Working on a project that never seems to end? We hear you, and these foods are there for you.
Berries will be your besties for boosting brain power and memory. Berries are high in flavonoid compounds called anthocyanins, which increase blood flow to the brain.
Flavonoids may also support memory and learning: A 2019 study in 40 younger adults found that drinking a mixed berry smoothie helped boost accuracy and response times on various tests over a 6-hour period. We’ve got 50+ blueberry recipes, if you need the inspiration.
Turmeric, the powerful golden anti-inflammatory spice, has been linked to improved memory and brain function. In a 2018 trial, participants who took 90 milligrams of curcumin twice a day for 18 months had a 28 percent improvement in performance on memory tests compared to those who took a placebo.
Pro tip: Curcumin is known to have low bioavailability (meaning your body doesn’t easily absorb much of it), so you may be better off using supplements than relying on the spice for these benefits. If turmeric is already an everyday ingredient for you, remember to add some black pepper, which will help your body absorb the curcumin.
7. Pumpkin seeds
While there haven’t been studies on the direct effects of pumpkin seeds on brain function, they are a rich source of micronutrients that are linked to brain health, learning, and memory. If you’re low in iron, zinc, magnesium, or copper, it may be helpful to snack on pumpkin seeds as you study.
Pumpkin seeds also contain antioxidants, which some animal studies suggest may help with memory enhancement.
The flavonoids in citrus fruits may help protect your nerve cells from injury. A small 2016 study in young adults found that drinking a flavonoid-rich juice helped enhance blood flow.
Participants who drank the juice also performed significantly better on a test called the Digit Symbol Substitution Test, which assesses cognitive function. No other differences were noted on behavioral tests.
And in a 2015 study, older adults who drink flavanone-rich orange juice for 8 weeks saw an improvement in results in a test of brain function.
Try whipping up one of our favorite citrus smoothies.
Eggs are all they’re cracked up to be for brain health. They’re rich in vitamin B12, choline, and selenium — all of which support memory and brain health and performance. Start your day with the best scrambled eggs ever.
When it comes to brain health, we’re in it for the long haul. These foods will support overall brain function and protect against chronic conditions and mental decline.
From toast to guac, we love avocados. What makes us love them even more is that they’re a great source of carotenoids. Research is still in early stages, but experts believe adding avocados to your diet can positively influence mental function.
Pro tip: You can even make avocados into a dessert!
Omega-3 fats are essential for long-term brain health benefits. Diets rich in omega-3s are linked to better memory performance and slower mental decline.
Pro tip: Just like fishing, eating fish for its benefits is about playing the long game. The studies above also noted that fish has greater benefits for brain health when it’s incorporated into your diet earlier rather than later.
Grab a handful of nuts as a snack or make a healthy trail mix to support your brain’s wellness, from blood flow to brain waves. Walnuts are loaded with vitamin E and zinc and have been linked to an increase in reasoning skills.
A 2017 study looking at Korean children and teens found that those who ate more nuts and vegetables had improved reaction time.
Pro tip: If you’re making trail mix, make sure to include pecans, walnuts, and cashews (unless you’re allergic!). These nuts in particular were singled out for their antioxidant concentration.
13. Leafy greens
Kale is a superfood for a reason. Research suggests that including leafy greens in your diet could contribute to slower age-related cognitive decline. Green smoothies that don’t taste gross, anyone?
Pro tip: Aim for one serving of leafy greens per day.
Got a tough exam coming up? Try broccoli. Besides brain-protecting antioxidants, broccoli is full of vitamin K and glucosinolates. According to a 2013 analysis, vitamin K can have beneficial effects on brain function and memory during aging.
Reduced blood flow to your brain could have all sorts of negative effects when you’re studying, and beets might help prevent that. Research from 2011 suggests that beets increase blood flow to the brain — specifically to the frontal lobe, which has to do with decision making and memory.
Pro tip: Eat and exercise! The combination of beet juice and exercise has been linked to brain health in older adults.
When trying to consume more brain-boosting foods for studying, remember that nutrients don’t go where you want them to go — they go where your body needs them the most. So it’s better to include all these foods as part of a balanced, nutrient-rich diet rather than to try for a quick fix.
When you’re stressed or need some extra brain power, follow these helpful tips:
- Get plenty of sleep.
- Space out your study sessions and break up the information into small, manageable chunks.
- Get moving — even just a half-hour of moderate exercise can improve your brain’s processing speed.
- Take breaks.
- Meditate. It might help you beat stress, improve your focus, and boost your attention span.
- Stay hydrated — water affects concentration and overall brain performance.
To ace that next test, grab all our best science-backed study tips.