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Boosting brain health with functional foods

by Activated Nutrients |

There are some simple science-based food strategies that can gently enhance brain health and support neurological functions. Some unique foods stand out for their potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects:

 

1. Spirulina 

This blue-green algae, is believed to be one of the oldest life forms on Earth. Its tremendous nutritional value is the reason the Aztec populations used spirulina to boost stamina and endurance. Now, centuries later, it is used as an essential food for NASA astronauts.

Human clinical studies are increasingly associating seaweeds with having brain-protective and cognitive-enhancing effects. In particular, Spirulina due to the unique plant chemicals it contains as well as being high in amino acids, vitamins and essential minerals, is currently under investigation for its potential neuroprotective and cognitive-enhancing functions. Spirulina contains a powerful plant-based protein called phycocyanin which evidence shows may provide antioxidant, pain-relief, anti-inflammatory and brain protective properties (1, 3). 

As well as human studies, numerous in vivo evidence has also provided support for the brain health potential of spirulina, also highlighting antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective and memory-enhancing actions. Specifically, spirulina may protect brain function and memory from free radical damage by increasing the activity of two special enzymes called catalase and glutathione peroxidase. These two particular enzymes can continue to neutralise free radicals for as long as the vitamins and minerals they need are also present. This makes them much more powerful than individual antioxidants that can only neutralize single free radicals before they become inactive. When these two antioxidants are functioning well, they make the brain more resistant to the damage that aging can cause (1,3). 

Spirulina research has also hinted it may protect the brain from Alzheimer’s disease, by reducing levels of amyloid-beta proteins. These proteins contribute to the development of plaques we see in Alzheimer’s disease.  Animal subjects that eat spirulina are known to have scored higher on tests of memory and brain function (2).

 

2. Acai

Acai contains an overabundance of antioxidants, boasting three times the amount that are found in blueberries. Studies have shown that the numerous plant compounds in acai could also protect your brain from damage as you age (5).

The antioxidants that are found in acai counteract the damaging effects of inflammation and oxidation in brain cells, which can negatively impact memory and learning. The human brain participates in a process called autophagy; this is basically cleaning up of brain cells that have died or are no longer working. This “housekeeping” allows new nerves to form, thus enhancing the communication between brain cells. This cleaning up process becomes less active and slower as the brain ages. In laboratory tests, acai extract has shown the ability to help stimulate this “housekeeping” response in brain cells. Eating the antioxidant rich acai berry, may help to counteract the slowing down of brain processes and enhance longevity (5).

 

3. Curry Leaves

Research has shown that curry leaves have memory-boosting properties and may offer brain protective activity. A study which was published in Phytotherapy Research in March 2009, confirmed that a diet that included curry leaves offered significant improvement to memory scores and reduced amnesia. The diet reduced the brain cholinesterase activity (a family of brain enzymes) and total cholesterol levels with researchers stating that the benefits are most likely due to the cholesterol-lowering property of the leaves (4).

 

4. Maca Root 

According to research in 2006, maca root directly effects two regions of the brain (the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland) to assist in improving focus. Various studies have shown that maca, particularly black maca, may improve learning and memory. Further research also discovered that maca root may stimulate brain activity, boost physical and mental energy, as well as alleviate stress, depression and anxiety (6,7). 

In a 2016 study maca root powder was shown to improve cognitive function, motor coordination, and endurance capacity. The study suggested that maca root could prove to be an effective functional food for slowing down age-related cognitive decline (8). 

Other studies have shown that maca root may even improve mindfulness and quality of life. In a 2008 study discovered that maca proved helpful in decreasing anxiety and maintaining a healthy mood in post-menopausal women (10). 

 

5. Pomegranate

Research shows that consuming pomegranate regularly may improve brain health. A 2013 study of adults with mild memory complaints discovered that the people who consumed pomegranate juice performed better on memory tests, specifically in visual and verbal memory. The twenty-eight subjects of the study were randomly assigned to drink 235ml of either pomegranate juice or a placebo drink for 4 weeks.  Researchers suggested the high level of antioxidants found in pomegranate juice assists blood flow to the brain, which in turn benefits cognitive function. Another study in 2020, found drinking pomegranate juice for 12 months enhanced the memory of middle-aged and older adults. Studies suggest the antioxidant nutrients such as the polyphenols in pomegranate juice may prevent damage to brain cells (9, 11.)

 

References:

1. Deng R, Chow TJ, (2010). Hypolipidemic, antioxidant, and antiinflammatory activities of microalgae Spirulina. Cardiovasc Ther;28(4):e33-e45. 

2. Hwang JH, Lee IT, Jeng KC, Wang MF, Hou RC, Wu SM, Chan YC (2011). Spirulina prevents memory dysfunction, reduces oxidative stress damage and augments antioxidant activity in senescence-accelerated mice. J Nutr Sci Vitaminol;57(2):186-91. 

3. Sorrenti V, (2021). Spirulina Microalgae and Brain Health: A Scoping Review of Experimental and Clinical Evidence, Mar. Drugs; 19;293.

4.Vasudevan M, Parle M, (2009). Antiamnesic potential of Murraya koenigii leaves. Phytother Res. 2009;23(3):308-16.

5. Poulose SM, Fisher DR, Bielinski DF, Gomes SM, Rimando AM, Schauss AG, Shukitt-Hale B, (2014). Restoration of stressor-induced calcium dysregulation and autophagy inhibition by polyphenol-rich açaí (Euterpe spp.) fruit pulp extracts in rodent brain cells in vitro. Nutrition;30(7-8):853-62.

6. Meissner HO, Mscisz A, Reich-Bilinska H, et al, (2006). Hormone-Balancing Effect of Pre-Gelatinized Organic Maca (Lepidium peruvianum Chacon): (III) Clinical responses of early-postmenopausal women to Maca in double blind, randomized, Placebo-controlled, crossover configuration, outpatient study. Int J Biomed Sci;2(4):375-394.

7. Gonzales GF, (2012). Ethnobiology and Ethnopharmacology of Lepidium meyenii (Maca), a Plant from the Peruvian Highlands. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med;193496

8. Guo SS, Gao XF, Gu YR, Wan ZX, Lu AM, Qin ZH, Luo L, (2016). Preservation of Cognitive Function by Lepidium meyenii (Maca) Is Associated with Improvement of Mitochondrial Activity and Upregulation of Autophagy-Related Proteins in Middle-Aged Mouse Cortex. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med;4394261.

9. Bookheimer SY, Renner BA, Ekstrom A, et al, (2013). Pomegranate juice augments memory and FMRI activity in middle-aged and older adults with mild memory complaints. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med;946298. 

10. Brooks NA, Wilcox G, Walker KZ, Ashton JF, Cox MB, Stojanovska L, (2008). Beneficial effects of Lepidium meyenii (Maca) on psychological symptoms and measures of sexual dysfunction in postmenopausal women are not related to estrogen or androgen content. Menopause;15(6):1157-62.

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