Fruit & vegetables

Food & Supplements

There is little evidence that dietary supplements or changes to the diet improve mental function in young, healthy people.

Changes in diet and dietary supplements may be beneficial to older adults, or those suffering from physical disorders, allergies, depression, stress, etc.

Despite the claims made for many supplements, we can't point unequivocally to any as beneficial. Whether they are of benefit does depend on whether you are lacking in some vitamin and mineral (e.g., Vitamin B12), so it is advisable to have your levels checked.

Food is safer, and the evidence does now seem clear that fruit and vegetables rich in anti-oxidants are of particular benefit.

A perennial topic in the arena of memory improvement is the question of “food for the brain”, and in particular, whether there are dietary supplements that can improve your mental abilities. While my own emphasis is improvement through development and practice of skills, I don’t dismiss the possibility of improvement through more physical means. I myself am a great fan of the “you are what you eat” principle. This is mainly because I suffer from multiple food sensitivities, so the consequences of food are very much a reality for me. That doesn’t mean I believe perfectly healthy people should obsess about their diet. There is another principle that is of great importance: we are all individuals.

For example, a year ago, I wrote of the effects of caffeine on memory, concluding that: “while caffeine may help older adults in the later part of the day, those with hypertension, diabetes, impaired glucose tolerance, or high homocysteine levels, would be wiser to avoid coffee, even if decaffeinated. In general, while caffeine may help you overcome factors that lower your cognitive performance, it does not seem that caffeine has any significant direct effect on memory, although it may well help you pay attention.”

So, caffeine is more helpful for some types of people than others, and is in fact contra-indicated for some. Moreover, the effects are different for those who are accustomed to a high caffeine intake, compared to those who only occasionally consume caffeine. And – here’s the real kicker – I also know from personal experience that the effects of caffeine are highly individual: I myself respond to caffeine not with the usual increased alertness, but in fact with decreased alertness. It makes me sleepy!

I do think there are physical factors of far greater importance than diet. Sleep is the obvious one. Individual differences don’t show up in the basic need to have enough sleep, and the right sort of sleep, to optimize brain functioning, but they do of course show up as regards how much sleep is right for us. That also, is something that changes with age, and, I imagine, health, throughout our lifespan.

Another physical factor which should be given due weight is exercise. While its effect is not as great as sleep (I don’t think anything rivals the importance of sleep!), I would give it more importance than diet because its effect is far more consistent. I don’t think anyone would fail to benefit mentally from increased physical fitness (which is not to say there isn’t a level of fitness beyond which no more mental improvement will occur).

Diet, on the other hand, depends a great deal on the individual. There is little evidence that dietary supplements or changes to the diet improve mental function in those who don’t suffer from any of the conditions which can adversely affect brain function — e.g., aging, physical disorders, depression, stress, etc.

In other words, if you are a relatively young person with no health problems, I suggest you concentrate on getting enough sleep and exercise, and learning and practicing effective memory strategies.

If you have any conditions which can adversely affect brain function I would also emphasize doing this! But, additionally, I do think there are foods and supplements you can take which may well significantly improve your brain function.

Which ones? Here we enter the area of individual difference. To find out what is effective for you, you should start with the research. What foods and supplements have been demonstrated to be effective in improving cognition?

Here we enter an area fraught with difficulty. News reports come out about foods and supplements all the time, and today’s world is filled with people hawking “health” products. How do we know what to believe?

The first thing, of course, is to ascertain whether the claims are backed up by research. But that’s not as easy as it sounds, because every seller of such products knows the importance of sounding as if research has proven the effectiveness of their product. (Actually, I automatically disavow any text which talks of research “proving” something. No researcher worth his salt would ever make such a claim.)

How do we determine the genuineness and reliability of the research? First, and most importantly, by assessing the source. For example, I only cite research from reputable academic journals, or academic conferences. I also give greater weight to research from researchers whose work I know of. Hopefully, by so doing, I also make myself a reliable source.

This is not, however, infallible, for even well-respected journals can make mistakes. For example, very topically, the truthfulness of a widely reported study of a nutritional supplement's effects on thinking and memory in the elderly has recently been cast into doubt (actually, this is a rather polite phrase for the comments now being made: “scientists who reviewed the paper had found the methods and statistical findings so unlikely that they wondered whether the study had actually been done”; "The statistics were not just implausible, they were impossible.")

Nevertheless, the very shock with which these questions are being raised demonstrates that, by and large, the system does work. We cannot expect certainty.

Having approved the source, the second thing to consider is the extent to which the research has been replicated. One study does not make an answer! It is indicative only. It is interesting.

Even a second study is little more than another support. Before we can say, “You know, I really think there’s something to this”, we need a number of studies building together from different angles.

So, a study showing that sage can help cognitive function in healthy young adults (there is indeed such a study) is interesting. Given that sage is easy to grow, and commonly consumed (one doesn’t need to worry about toxicity), I would go so far as to say, give it a try! But I wouldn’t give a lot of weight to the research until more studies had been carried out. (I would, however, happily drink sage tea everyday on the off chance, except it turns out – I really can’t believe this! – I’m sensitive to sage, too.)

On the other hand, for a product that is expensive, or has potential side-effects, I would wait for more evidence to come in before trying it. Okay, we’ve looked at the research, we’ve found the foods and supplements of potential benefit. What next?

Next, you look at your own particular problems.

For example, my main problem is food sensitivities. The first, most dramatic, thing I did to overcome my increasing mental sluggishness was: stop eating foods which turned out to be bad for me! After concentrating on that for a year or two, with my physical and mental problems much improved (but not gone), I turned my attention to the damage done to my body over the long period during which I was unaware of my food sensitivities. I now take B12, which I am sure has had a significant effect on my brain, and have recently started taking iron (as a woman of childbearing age). I also take other mineral supplements, principally to overcome deficiencies in my environment (New Zealand’s soil is deficient in a number of minerals), and lecithin (partly because of the deficiencies in my diet as a result of having to avoid certain foods).

The final step, once you’ve established the possible foods and supplements which are worth trying, is to see whether they are effective for you. Remember me and the coffee. What works for one doesn’t necessarily work for another (and may indeed be harmful). But don’t try everything at once! One at a time, and the most likely first.

So, what foods and supplements might be of benefit to your brain?

Most of the research into the cognitive benefits of diet and supplements has been concerned with seniors, with alleviating the effects of age on the brain. This is consistent with the belief that there is little, if any, benefit to be gained by young, healthy adults. Having said that, however, the following have been shown to be of benefit in at least one study:

  • creatine
  • sage
  • lemon balm
  • a diet high in soy products

Remember my comment about the reliability of single studies! However, since three of these four are all perfectly “natural” food items, there would be little danger in trying these out.

Several substances are worth mentioning as having been of particular interest to researchers for their potential benefits to brains suffering from the effects of age:

  • gingko biloba
  • ginseng
  • choline (lecithin)
  • vitamin B12
  • phosphatidylserine (PS)
  • acetyl-L-carnitine (ALC)
  • antioxidants (particularly vitamin E)

This article originally appeared in the May 2004 newsletter.

Benefits of fruit & vegetables for cognition

A number of studies have pointed to the benefits of a diet rich in fruit and vegetables for memory and cognition in older adults. These benefits are thought to accrue from the antioxidants present in these foods, of which some are more important than others.

The anthocyanins appear to be the best — these are responsible for the reds, purples, and blues in some plants. Several studies have affirmed the cognitive benefits of blueberries and Concord grape juice (Concord grapes are particularly purple). Cell studies have also found the compounds in blackcurrants protect neurons from stress, such as that caused by the Alzheimer's peptide amyloid-beta. The darker the fruit, the more anthocyanins, and presumably the more powerful it will be. Another compound in blueberries called pterostilbene apparently, like resveratrol, which is found in grapes and red wine, lowers cholesterol. Yet another compound, called quercetin, has been found to protect against cell damage. This compound is also found in blueberries, and also cranberries. A particularly good source is apples, and red ones are best.

All of this perhaps explains why it is so much better to eat well rather than hope to receive what you need from dietary supplements! And do note that in most cases, most of the 'good' compounds are in the skin. That's why juices (and wines!) are often better ways of consuming these foods.

Of the vegetables, green leafy vegetables, especially spinach, have been found to be especially beneficial. Onions are also a good source of quercetin. Spirulina (not really a vegetable, I know) also appears to be of benefit.

As a rule of thumb, the best fruits and vegetables are those with the most color. And, obviously, it's the color you want to eat (so no peeling your nice red apple!).

See the news reports

Importance of Vitamin C during pregnancy

A guinea pig study demonstrates that low levels of vitamin C during pregnancy have long-lasting effects on the child's hippocampus.

Like us, guinea pigs can’t make vitamin C, but must obtain it from their diet. This makes them a good model for examining the effects of vitamin C deficiency.

In a recent study looking specifically at the effects of prenatal vitamin C deficiency, 80 pregnant guinea pigs were fed a diet that was either high or low in vitamin C. Subsequently, 157 of the newborn pups were randomly allocated to either a low or high vitamin C diet (after weaning), creating four conditions: high/high (controls); high/low (postnatal depletion); low/high (postnatal repletion); low/low (pre/postnatal deficiency). Only males experienced the high/low condition (postnatal depletion).

Only the postnatal depletion group showed any effect on body weight; no group showed an effect on brain weight.

Nevertheless, although the brain as a whole grew normally, those who had experienced a prenatal vitamin C deficiency showed a significantly smaller hippocampus (about 10-15% smaller). This reduction was not reversed by later repletion.

This reduction appeared to be related to a significant reduction in the migration of new neurons into the dentate gyrus. There was no difference in the creation or survival of new neurons in the hippocampus.

This finding suggests that marginal deficiency in vitamin C during pregnancy (a not uncommon occurrence) may have long-term effects on offspring.

Berries protect the aging brain

A large, long-running study confirms that regular consumption of colorful berries helps protect against age-related cognitive decline.

Over the years, I have reported on several studies that have found evidence that colorful berries — blueberries in particular (but I think that’s more of an artifact, due to the relative cheapness of these berries in North America) — benefit older brains. Indeed, I myself consume these every day (in my lunch smoothie) for this very reason (of course, the fact that they taste so good doesn’t hurt!).

But to date these studies have involved rodents or only very small numbers of humans. Now a new study analyzes data from the very large and long-running Nurses' Health Study, which has questioned 121,700 female, registered nurses about their health and lifestyle since 1976. Since 1980, participants were also asked about their frequency of food consumption. Between 1995 and 2001, memory was measured in 16,010 participants over the age of 70 years (average age 74), at 2-year intervals.

The study found that those women who had 2 or more servings of strawberries and blueberries every week had a slower rate of cognitive decline. The effects were equivalent to some 1.5-2.5 years of normal cognitive aging.

While the researchers cannot completely rule out the possibility that higher berry consumption is associated with slower cognitive decline because of its association with some other factor that affects brain aging, they did take into account a large number of potentially confounding factors, including: education, smoking history and status, antidepressant use, BMI, blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, physical activity, total calorie intake, fish consumption, alcohol use, overall diet scores, and various indirect measures of socioeconomic status.

Moreover, the findings are both consistent with both animal and cell studies, and with what we know about how the brain ages. The ‘magic’ ingredient of these berries is thought to lie in their flavonoids (particularly anthocyanidins), which have powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. It’s thought that berries help the brain stay healthy both because they contain high levels of antioxidants, which protect cells from damage by harmful free radicals, and because they change the way neurons in the brain communicate, protecting against inflammation and oxidative stress.

As a rule of thumb, the deeper the color of the berry (or other fruit or vegetable), the more flavonoids it has. You can see a list of anthocyanin-rich foods here (acai isn’t in the list, but it also has a very high rating).

Diabetes - its role in cognitive impairment and dementia

There was an alarming article recently in the Guardian newspaper. It said that in the UK, diabetes is now nearly four times as common as all forms of cancer combined. Some 3.6 million people in the UK are thought to have type 2 diabetes (2.8 are diagnosed, but there’s thought to be a large number undiagnosed) and nearly twice as many people are at high risk of developing it. The bit that really stunned me? Diabetes costs the health service roughly 10% of its entire budget.

Fruit & vegetables - news reports

Older news items (pre-2010) brought over from the old website

Drinking Concord grape juice may improve memory in older adults

A small pilot study, involving only 12 older adults with early memory decline, has found that those who drank Concord grape juice daily for a 12-week period showed significant improvement in list learning compared to those taking a placebo, and trends suggested improved short-term retention and spatial memory.

The results were presented at the 38th annual scientific meeting of the American Aging Society in Boulder, Colo., May 30-June 2, 2008.

How blueberries help the aging brain

An animal study has found that supplementing the regular diet of older animal with blueberries over a 12-week period, produced improvements in spatial working memory tasks emerged within three weeks. This improvement was associated with the activation of the protein CREB and increases in the level of BDNF in the hippocampus. Blueberries are a major source of flavonoids, in particular anthocyanins and flavanols.

[1312] Williams, C. M., El Mohsen M. A., Vauzour D., Rendeiro C., Butler L. T., Ellis J. A., et al. (2008).  Blueberry-induced changes in spatial working memory correlate with changes in hippocampal CREB phosphorylation and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) levels. Free Radical Biology & Medicine. 45(3), 295 - 305.

Blackcurrants may protect against Alzheimer's

A cultured cell study has found that compounds in blackcurrants strongly protect neuronal cells against the types of stress caused by dopamine and amyloid-b, a peptide associated with Alzheimer's disease. Blackcurrants and boysenberries also contain anthocyanins and polyphenolics. Those that are darker (like British blackcurrants) have more anthocyanins and are likely to be more potent. Compounds from these berries are already known to act as antioxidants, but a role in neuroprotection has not been demonstrated previously.

[2413] Ghosh, D., McGhie T. K., Zhang J., Adaim A., & Skinner M. (2006).  Effects of anthocyanins and other phenolics of boysenberry and blackcurrant as inhibitors of oxidative stress and damage to cellular DNA in SH‐SY5Y and HL‐60 cells. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture. 86(5), 678 - 686.

Antioxidant-rich diets reduce brain damage from stroke in rats

A new rat study suggests antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables may limit brain damage from stroke and other neurological disorders. The study built upon previous research showing that diets enriched with blueberries, spinach or spirulina reversed normal age-related declines in memory and learning in old rats, and found that the same diet significantly reduced brain cell loss and improved recovery of movement in rats who had an ischemic stroke induced. The size of the stroke in the rats fed blueberry or spinach supplements was half that seen in the brains of untreated rats. Rats fed spirulina-enriched diets had stroke lesions 75% smaller than their untreated counterparts.

[752] Wang, Y., Chang C. - F., Chou J., Chen H. - L., Deng X., Harvey B. K., et al. (2005).  Dietary supplementation with blueberries, spinach, or spirulina reduces ischemic brain damage. Experimental Neurology. 193(1), 75 - 84.

Diet, exercise, stimulating environment helps old dogs learn

A new study of beagles provides more evidence that diet and mental stimulation are important in reducing or preventing age-related cognitive decline. The study, involving 48 older beagles (aged 7 to 11), compared four combinations of behavioral enrichment (regular exercise and lots of mental stimulation) and supplementation of diet with antioxidants had on a beagle's ability to learn: regular diet and regular experience; regular diet and enriched experience; regular experience and an enriched diet; and enriched diet and an enriched experience. The study followed the beagles over two years. Those in the groups with either an enriched diet or enriched environment did better than those without either, but those who had both the enriched diet and an enriched environment did noticeably better than all the rest.

[657] Milgram, N. W., Head E., Zicker S. C., Ikeda-Douglas C. J., Murphey H., Muggenburg B., et al. (2005).  Learning ability in aged beagle dogs is preserved by behavioral enrichment and dietary fortification: a two-year longitudinal study. Neurobiology of Aging. 26(1), 77 - 90.

More support for the benefits of blueberries

Several recent studies have provided evidence for the benefits of blueberries in preventing age-related cognitive decline. Consistent with this, and with the linking of cholesterol levels and age-related cognitive decline, is a new study suggesting a compound in blueberries may lower cholesterol as effectively as a commercial drug, with the potential for fewer side effects. The compound pterostilbene is an antioxidant that is similar to resveratrol, an antioxidant identified in grapes and red wine that is also believed to lower cholesterol. Pterostilbene has also been implicated in helping fight cancer, as well as having anti-diabetic properties.

The findings were presented on August 23 at the 228th national meeting of the American Chemical Society.

Grape juice may help memory in older adults

A study of older rats has found that Concord grape juice significantly improved their short-term memory in a water maze test as well as their neuro-motor skills in some coordination, balance and strength tests. The results are similar to those found with blueberries. Concord grape juice has the highest total antioxidants of any fruits, vegetables or juices tested (I assume the point of using “Concord” grape juice is the concentration of grape juice, not that this effect is specific to Concord grapes – although the fact that it is a “purple” grape juice is probably significant).

The preliminary report was presented at the 1st International Conference on Polyphenols and Health recently held in Vichy, France.

More support for value of antioxidants in protecting against age-related cognitive decline

Several studies have come out supporting the value of a diet rich in antioxidants to help stave off cognitive impairment in old age. A recent study has found that old dogs on an antioxidant-rich diet performed as well as young animals on a variety of cognitive tests. Young dogs did not benefit from the diet. Two years ago, researchers reported that a blueberry-enriched antioxidant diet may prevent age-related deterioration of object recognition memory in aged rats. A new report, from a study of the same rats, reveals that the diet also prevented an age-related increase in a protein (NF-kappaB) that responds to oxidative stress, a probable cause of brain aging. This adds to growing evidence that a buildup of oxidative damage is an important factor in brain aging. Another rat study has found that blueberries can help lessen some of the damage caused by a brain injury.

The research was presented at the 2003 annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.

Apples fight memory loss

The study involved adult and old mice (some engineered to develop Alzheimer's-like symptoms) being fed either a standard diet, a nutrient-deficient diet, or a nutrient-deficient diet supplemented with apple juice concentrate. The mice on the apple juice-supplemented diet showed an increased production of acetylcholine in their brains and performed significantly better on maze tests. The amount of consumption was comparable to humans drinking approximately two 8 oz. glasses of apple juice or eating 2-3 apples a day. The findings also suggest that the apple-supplemented diet was most helpful in the framework of an overall healthy diet. Acetylcholine levels declined in both adult and old mice on the nutrient-deficient diet.

Chan, A., Graves, V. & Shea, T.B. 2006. Apple juice concentrate maintains acetylcholine levels following dietary compromise. Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, 9(3), 287-291.

Apple consumption protects against age-related cognitive decline

Previous research has found apple juice concentrate alleviated cognitive decline in genetically engineered mice compromised by a deficient diet. A study in normal, aging mice has now found that regular consumption of apple juice (in the context of a balanced diet) protected against the oxidative damage to brain cells that occurs in normal aging. Further, stronger mental acuity resulted when the mice consumed the human equivalent of 2-3 cups of apple juice or 2-4 apples a day. Apples are high in antioxidants.

[1031] Tchantchou, F., Chan A., Kifle L., Ortiz D., & Shea T. B. (2005).  Apple juice concentrate prevents oxidative damage and impaired maze performance in aged mice. Journal of Alzheimer's Disease: JAD. 8(3), 283 - 287.

Compound in apples may help fight Alzheimer's disease

Researchers are recommending that apples may be a particularly beneficial food to protect against Alzheimer’s. A study that exposed groups of isolated rat brain cells to varying concentrations of either quercetin or vitamin C supports the theory that quercetin protects against cellular damage. A particularly good source of quercetin is apples — mainly in the skin. In general, red apples tend to have more of the antioxidant than green or yellow ones. Other foods containing high levels of quercetin include onions, which have some of the highest levels of quercetin among vegetables, as well as berries, particularly blueberries and cranberries.

[2414] Heo, H. J., & Lee C. Y. (2004).  Protective Effects of Quercetin and Vitamin C against Oxidative Stress-Induced Neurodegeneration. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. 52(25), 7514 - 7517.

Plant flavonoid reduces inflammatory response in the brain

Cell and mouse studies have found that luteolin, a plant flavonoid available in abundance in celery and green peppers, has a dramatic effect on a key component of the inflammatory response in the brain. The findings have implications for research on aging and diseases such as Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis.

[573] Choi, I. - G., Hwang D. - Y., Song H., Jang Y., Chung N., Kim S. - H., et al. (2008).  Chemicals that modulate stem cell differentiation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 105(21), 7467 - 7471.

Vegetables, not fruit, help fight memory problems in old age

A study of 3,718 Chicago residents aged 65 and older found that people who ate at least 2.8 servings of vegetables a day had a 40% slower rate of cognitive decline compared to people who consumed less than one serving of vegetables a day — equivalent to about five years of younger age. Green leafy vegetables had the strongest association to slowing the rate of cognitive decline. The benefit was greater the older the person. However, unexpectedly, fruit consumption was not associated with cognitive change.

[919] Morris, M. C., Evans D. A., Tangney C. C., Bienias J. L., & Wilson R. S. (2006).  Associations of vegetable and fruit consumption with age-related cognitive change. Neurology. 67(8), 1370 - 1376.

A natural chemical found in strawberries boosts memory in healthy mice

The search for a safe, orally active drug that activates memory-associated pathways and enhances memory has uncovered fisetin, a naturally occurring flavonoid commonly found in strawberries and other fruits and vegetables. Fisetin was one of several flavonoids (substances with anti-oxidant activities found in many plants) found to induce differentiation or maturation of neural cells. The signaling pathway activated by fisetin in neural differentiation also turned out to play a role in memory formation, specifically in the process called "long-term potentiation". When tested on mice, fisetin was found — after a single dose — to improve recall of familiar objects. Besides strawberries, fisetin is found in tomatoes, onions, oranges, apples, peaches, grapes, kiwifruit and persimmons (but not gingko biloba, although it is rich in other flavonoids). However, you would need to eat about 10 pounds of strawberries a day to achieve a beneficial effect.

[658] Maher, P., Akaishi T., & Abe K. (2006).  Flavonoid fisetin promotes ERK-dependent long-term potentiation and enhances memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 103(44), 16568 - 16573.

Juices may reduce Alzheimer's disease risk

In a large epidemiological study, that followed 1836 Seattle residents for up to 10 years, it was found that those who drank three or more servings of fruit and vegetable juices per week had a 76% lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease than those who drank juice less than once a week. The benefit seemed greatest for those who carried the so-called “Alzheimer’s gene”. Previously, researchers suspected that antioxidant vitamins (vitamins C, E and -carotene) might help protect against Alzheimer's disease, but this has not been supported in recent clinical studies. Another class of antioxidant chemicals, polyphenols, are now suspected. Polyphenols generally exist primarily in the skins of fruits and vegetables and are particularly abundant in teas, juices and wines.

Dai, Q. et al. 2006. Fruit and Vegetable Juices and Alzheimer's Disease: The Kame Project. The American Journal of Medicine, 119 (9), 751-759.

Antioxidant-rich diets improve age-related cognitive decline in rats

Two new animal studies add to the growing body of evidence that certain fruits and vegetables may slow down or reverse age-related cognitive decline. In the first study, older rats fed a diet rich in spinach for six weeks learned a simple association faster than those fed regular rat food. The second study compared three different foods - one group of older rats ate a diet supplemented by spirulina (high in antioxidants), another was fed a daily ration of apple (moderate in antioxidant activity),and the third was given a cucumber-enriched diet (low in antioxidants). Those fed either spirulina-or apple-enriched diets for two weeks demonstrated improved neuron function, and a suppression of inflammatory substances in the brain. Indeed, spirulina reversed the impairment in adrenergic neural function normally associated with aging. There was no improvement in rats fed a diet supplemented with cucumber. The best fruits and vegetables for antioxidant activity are generally the most colorful.

[1086] Cartford, C. M., Gemma C., & Bickford P. C. (2002).  Eighteen-Month-Old Fischer 344 Rats Fed a Spinach-Enriched Diet Show Improved Delay Classical Eyeblink Conditioning and Reduced Expression of Tumor Necrosis Factor alpha (TNFalpha ) and TNFbeta in the Cerebellum. J. Neurosci.. 22(14), 5813 - 5816.

[1395] Gemma, C., Mesches M. H., Sepesi B., Choo K., Holmes D. B., & Bickford P. C. (2002).  Diets Enriched in Foods with High Antioxidant Activity Reverse Age-Induced Decreases in Cerebellar beta -Adrenergic Function and Increases in Proinflammatory Cytokines. J. Neurosci.. 22(14), 6114 - 6120.

Benefits and dangers of iron

A study and a recent review suggest that while iron is important for brain health and development, whether it’s beneficial or harmful depends on the other nutrients consumed with it.

A study involving 676 children (7-9) in rural Nepal has found that those whose mothers received iron, folic acid and vitamin A supplementation during their pregnancies and for three months after the birth performed better on some measures of intellectual and motor functioning compared to offspring of mothers who received vitamin A alone. However, there was no significant benefit for those whose mothers received iron, folic acid and zinc (plus vitamin A), or multiple micronutrients.

A negative effect of adding zinc is consistent with other research indicating that zinc inhibits iron absorption. Interestingly, new “ground-breaking” research demonstrates further the complexity of iron’s effects on the body. The researcher argues that many neurodegenerative diseases (such as Alzheimer’s) are partly caused by poorly bound iron, and it is vital to consume nutrients which bind iron and prevent the production of the toxins it will otherwise produce.

Such nutrients include brightly-colored fruits (especially purple) and vegetables, and green tea.

It’s also argued that Vitamin C is only beneficial if iron is safely bound, and if it’s not, excess Vitamin C might be harmful.

Beet juice promotes brain health in older adults

A small study suggests beet juice may improve blood flow in important regions of the brain in older adults.

Following on from previous studies showing that drinking beet juice can lower blood pressure, a study involving 14 older adults (average age 75) has found that after two days of eating a high-nitrate breakfast, which included 16 ounces of beet juice, blood flow to the white matter of the frontal lobes (especially between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex) had increased. This area is critical for executive functioning.

Poor blood flow in the brain is thought to be a factor in age-related cognitive decline and dementia.

High concentrations of nitrates are found in beets, as well as in celery, cabbage and other leafy green vegetables like spinach and some lettuce. When you eat high-nitrate foods, good bacteria in the mouth turn nitrate into nitrite. Research has found that nitrites can help open up the blood vessels in the body, increasing blood flow and oxygen specifically to places that are lacking oxygen.


Compound in celery, peppers reduces age-related memory deficits

One precursor of age-related cognitive impairment and dementia is inflammation. Research suggests why that might be, and explains why the plant nutrient luteolin can help fight memory impairment.

Inflammation in the brain appears to be a key contributor to age-related memory problems, and it may be that this has to do with the dysregulation of microglia that, previous research has shown, occurs with age. As these specialized support cells in the brain do normally when there’s an infection, with age microglia start to produce excessive cytokines, some of which result in the typical behaviors that accompany illness (sleepiness, appetite loss, cognitive deficits and depression).

Now new cell and mouse studies suggests that the flavenoid luteolin, known to have anti-inflammatory properties, apparently has these benefits because it acts directly on the microglial cells to reduce their production of inflammatory cytokines. It was found that although microglia exposed to a bacterial toxin produced inflammatory cytokines that killed neurons, if the microglia were first exposed to luteolin, the neurons lived. Exposing the neuron to luteolin had no effect.

Old mice fed a luteolin-supplemented diet for four weeks did better on a working memory test than old mice on an ordinary diet, and restored levels of inflammatory cytokines in their brains to that of younger mice.

Luteolin is found in many plants, including carrots, peppers, celery, olive oil, peppermint, rosemary and chamomile.

More reason to eat berries for a healthy brain

A new study adds to the evidence that berries and other foods rich in polyphenols help your brain fight age-related cognitive decline.

A number of studies have found evidence that fruits and vegetables help fight age-related cognitive decline, and this has been thought to be due to their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. A new study shows there may be an additional reason why polyphenols benefit the aging brain. One reason why the brain works less effectively as it gets older is that the cells (microglia) that remove and recycle biochemical debris not only fail to do their housekeeping work, but they actually begin to damage healthy cells. Polyphenols restore normal housekeeping, by inhibiting the action of a protein that shuts down the housekeeping (autophagy) process.

While many fruits and vegetables are good sources of polyphenols, berries and walnuts, and fruit and vegetables with deep red, orange, or blue colors, are particularly good.


Poulose, S. & Joseph, J. 2010. Paper presented at the 240th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society.

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