Smart Eating: Total Recall

By Polly Rea Photography by Joe Filshie

Smart Eating: Total Recall
What makes us forgetful? It’s a question receiving a lot of attention as researchers look into the early signs of Alzheimer’s and other forms of cognitive decline. The good news is, we can greatly improve our memory function through what we choose to eat.

Memory is essential for day-to-day activities and life in general. Easily taken for granted until it starts to decline, the ability to recall certain experiences is what gets us through each day. However, this greatly varies from one person to the next: one person may recall names after just one encounter while another constantly misplaces items only just put down.

What differs between these two, and how does diet play a part?

The hippocampus is the part of the brain that manages memory. Damage to the hippocampus can lead to loss of memory, including difficulty in establishing new memories. It is the first site of degeneration in Alzheimer’s and has received a lot of attention with recent research.

Memory loss through stress

Stress and the associated elevation of cortisol has been shown to shrink the size of the hippocampus. As the hippocampus shrinks, it begins to under function. This explains the common forgetfulness often experienced during times of stress. Conversely, meditation has been shown to increase the size of the hippocampus, therefore improving its function, including memory recall.

Insulin resistance has also been linked to a dysfunction of the hippocampus. Maintaining a diet that promotes healthy blood sugar regulation should therefore support optimal memory recall. A low GI diet, reducing sugar consumption, ensuring adequate protein levels with goods fats and plenty of fibre will help.

Heavy metal toxicity greatly impacts on brain function, reducing memory recall. Aluminium and mercury are of the greatest concern here. If suspected, testing can be done through an accredited naturopath and a chelation treatment followed only with their advice and under their supervision. Herbs such as parsley and particularly coriander are effective at chelating heavy metals while the pectin found in rinds of fruits and vegetables such as green apples, grapes, beetroot and carrots may also help.

The level of brain chemical communicators known as neurotransmitters – such as acetylcholine, GABA and noradrenaline – also play a role in memory. Research suggests that supplementation with precursors of these chemicals can improve memory. These precursors include glutamine, acetyl-L-carnitine, choline, taurine and tyrosine. The herb gingko biloba improves acetylcholine levels while also increasing serotonin receptors, further improving memory.

Poor blood flow can increase these risk factors as decreased blood flow to the brain reduces the supply of oxygen and nutrients, causing cognitive decline. Using herbs such as ginger, turmeric and cinnamon to season foods will improve blood circulation.

Systemic inflammation, infections and digestive parasites including candida are also neurotoxic impacting memory recall. Further investigation into parasites as well as viral and bacterial infections may be considered. A diet that promotes inflammation – consisting of processed foods, high refined sugars and carbohydrates as well as large amounts of caffeine and alcohol – will contribute to systemic inflammation and worsen cognitive decline. A plant-based seasonal diet, which incorporates organic meat sparingly, will reduce systemic inflammation.

Possible contributing factors

Certain nutrients play an important role in memory function. Deficiencies in B1, B6, B9 and B12 increase homocysteine, which is shown to be an independent risk for cognitive dysfunction. Ensuring adequate levels of these nutrients on a daily basis is vital for improving memory recall. A diet that includes leafy greens such as spinach, as well as bananas, wholegrains, legumes and nuts will provide good levels of all B vitamins. B12 is commonly low in vegetarian diets and is likely to require ongoing supplementation.

Omega-3 fatty acids improve communication between neurons, proving vital to cognitive function including memory recall. Oily fish, nuts and seeds should replace saturated fats in the diet. Using oils that can be cooked at high temperature, such as coconut oil, will reduce the risk of consuming rancid oils proven to be detrimental to overall health including that of the brain.

Tea and coffee, along with all other drinks containing caffeine, contribute to dehydration and therefore acute cognitive decline. Keeping these to a minimum is recommended while also consuming two to three litres of water a day.

Phosphatidylserine is a phospholipid or fat-like compound which is found in high amounts in the brain. Found in eggs and soy lecithin, this nutrient is vital to healthy brain function and improving memory recall.

Magnesium plays a vital role in brain function and memory recall, with recent research suggesting it improves memory and learning while reducing the risk of age-related cognitive decline. Foods such as dark leafy green vegetables provide good amounts of magnesium and will be most beneficial if consumed regularly.


Berries – particularly the darker ones such as blueberries 
and blackberries – 
are high in anthocyanins, a chemical that helps to boost memory. Eat them daily by adding to smoothies or simply enjoy them fresh and whole.


Known for increasing blood flow, gingko is great for brain function as it increases oxygen and nutrient supply while improving acetylcholine and dopamine levels, which improve memory function. Make a tea and add ginger for extra circulation.


Researchers have discovered that the most common active compound 
in rosemary, cineole, causes in increase in acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter responsible for memory and learning. Providing a strong flavour, this herb can be added to frittatas for breakfast or hot pots for dinner.


Dehydration greatly decreases brain function, 
and quickly, too, making it the first thing to consider 
if memory starts 
to fail. So simple, yet so effective. Increased hydration is needed to compensate for caffeine or alcohol consumption.

Oily fish

Stick to the SMASH theory here – salmon, mackerel, sardines and herring are the fish to choose when considering the highest levels of brain-feeding omega-3. Three 
to five servings a week is a good place to start.


These super nuts have high amounts of essential fatty acids that feed the neurons inside the brain, helping them communicate to each other and improve cognitive function such as memory. Eat them whole or grind and add to meals


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