Foods and Spices to Bolster Brain Health

By Gary Small, MD and Gigi VorganCo-authors of The Alzheimer’s Prevention Program: Keep Your Brain Healthy for the Rest of Your Life

Foods and Spices to Bolster Brain Health

One of the key strategies of an Alzheimer’s prevention program involves healthy brain nutrition. A diet rich in antioxidant fruits and vegetables, omega-3 fats from fish and nuts, and whole grains will strengthen brain cells and protect the body from diabetes, which studies now show doubles the risk for Alzheimer’s disease. 

Healthy brain nutrition does not just mean going on a weight-loss diet; it involves changing the way we think about food. We should stop just focusing on trying to lose weight, but aim instead for a new goal – to eat the kinds of foods that protect our bodies and our brains.

This means getting the right vitamins and nutrients to nourish the organs and cells of the body. Scientific evidence points to some foods that promote brain health and others that are best to avoid. A recent Columbia University study of more than 2000 people age 65 and older found a lower risk for Alzheimer’s disease in the volunteers who ate a greater amount of nuts, fish, tomatoes, poultry, vegetables, and fruits, and a lesser amount of high-fat dairy products, red meat, and butter. This and many other studies show that nutritious meals can help prevent many common health problems that influence brain function and risk for Alzheimer’s disease. As a bonus, most people do lose weight once they switch to such a diet.

During the past two decades, the prevalence of obesity in the US has risen dramatically. Today, more than 70 million Americans are obese, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity is a particular problem for people age 50 and older. A recent study found that being overweight doubles the risk for Alzheimer’s disease, while being obese will quadruple that risk.   

Besides healthy brain foods, spices and herbs can protect our brain cells as well. In addition to adding color and flavoring to our foods, they add potential health benefits from their antioxidant and other effects. For example, consuming garlic lowers cholesterol levels and blood pressure. Ginger may lessen pain in patients with arthritis, and several herbs and spices are believed to have cancer-fighting properties. Because of their strong antioxidant properties, herbs and spices may help protect our brain cells from the wear and tear of the aging process. Examples of some of the more potent spices include oregano, vanilla, cinnamon, parsley, basil, and pepper.

Scientists recently studied piperine, the main active antioxidant ingredient in black pepper. After just two weeks, the piperine not only improved memory performance in experimental mice that carried an Alzheimer’s gene, but also delayed neurodegeneration in the hippocampus memory center of their brains. 

Many people like Indian food, which contains the potent antioxidants turmeric, cumin seed and curry. For thousands of years, curcumin has been produced from turmeric, and used to make spices (curry, mustard), food coloring, and medicine to treat a variety of ailments. In part because of relatively lower rates of dementia in India compared with other countries, scientists are considering if eating curried foods might protect the brain from Alzheimer’s disease. UCLA researchers have demonstrated curcumin’s potent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-amyloid properties (beta-amyloid protein is the sticky "goo” that accumulates on the brain and prevents neurons from “talking” to each other; too much beta-amyloid is believed to cause Alzheimer's symptoms) – effects that are believed to protect the brain from Alzheimer’s disease. In one study of more than 1000 volunteers between ages 60 and 93, those who ate curried foods more frequently had higher scores on standard memory tests. 

Many experts believe that the oils used to cook the curried dishes help get the brain-protective ingredients into the brain’s neurons. Some people take curcumin supplements, but it is not clear whether the curcumin from supplements actually gets into the brain cells when it is not mixed in the oils used in the cooked Indian dishes. Some scientists argue that curcumin’s anti-inflammatory properties are general responses that occur throughout the body, triggered in the stomach when curcumin is initially absorbed, so direct brain penetration may not be necessary. UCLA researchers are currently studying this question and have recently begun a trial of a high-potency form of curcumin to determine if it will prevent Alzheimer’s disease and the accumulation of the brain plaques and tangles associated with the disease. Curcumin is available in capsule form at health food stores, or as turmeric in the spice section at the supermarket.

What we eat clearly affects our mental function and may be critical to maintaining brain health and delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. As we continue to learn about how our diet can protect our brain health, keep in mind the following strategies for your Alzheimer’s prevention diet:

  • Emphasize complex carbohydrates and whole grains while avoiding processed foods and high-glycemic index carbohydrates.
  • Calories count when controlling body weight, but individualize your diet plan to meet your needs. Low carbohydrate diets offer quick results, but it’s usually best to combine a high-fiber carbohydrate and a protein for longer-lasting satiety.
  • Eating omega-3 fats from fish at least twice a week not only protect the brain from Alzheimer’s but also stabilize mood and fight off depression.
  • Antioxidant fruits and vegetables are great brain foods. You can eat them fresh or dried, or drink them in juice form.
  • Healthy proteins from fish, poultry, lean beef or soybeans fortify muscles, satisfy hunger, and provide essential amino acids.  

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