Keep your mind functioning at its best with smart choices and brain-boosting exercises.
The average brain weighs only 3 pounds but contains more than 100 billion neurons connected to each other by synapses. Synapses are comparable to telephone wires connecting communities, allowing them to communicate. Yet every phone line and wire in the world along with the trillions of messages communicated every day still do not compare to the complexity or the volume of activity processed by a single human brain.
When we think of brain potential, we most often think of geniuses such as Albert Einstein or Beethoven. But a baby’s brain potential far exceeds any adult’s for its vast information-processing network. An infant’s brain has about 1,000 trillion connections between brain cells by the time she is 8 months old. By the time she is 10 years old, she will have only half that number, and our synapses continue to change as we age.
When it comes to the brain, the adage “use it or lose it” is apt. The number of connections in the brain constantly changes in response to environmental feedback from sights, sounds, tastes, smells and physical touch. Some connections grow stronger through learning and experience while others weaken over time. When connections in the brain are not used or not used often, the brain eliminates them to focus on those that are used more frequently. That’s the equivalent of telephone wires and poles being dismantled because they haven’t been used in a while, and it’s what the brain does every second of every day.
By supporting your brain with the right foods, herbs and supplements, you can strengthen this organ’s capacity to function properly and to keep the synapses intact. By boosting your memory and challenging your brain function through learning, lifestyle choices and memory exercises, you help keep the synapses in your brain connected and working well. Here are some of the best natural options to help you build a better brain.
■ Replace White Foods. Research at the Veterans Affairs Puget Sound Health Care System in Seattle found a link between refined carbohydrates, such as white bread and white rice, and Alzheimer’s disease. Replacing these foods with whole grains, beans and vegetables resulted in lower levels of brain inflammation and better problem-solving abilities.
■ Tea Up. In a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, researchers found that people who drank two or more cups of tea daily were less likely to develop the brain disorder Parkinson’s disease. Black and green tea (especially green) contain potent antioxidants with 20 times the power to protect against free radicals, including those in the brain, than vitamin E. Green tea also lowers the risk of blood clots and clumping linked to stroke.
■ Take a Coffee Break. Research in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that drinking coffee regularly may counteract the age-related degenerative processes in the brain that lead to lower amounts of the brain hormone dopamine. Lower levels of this hormone have been cited as a key factor in developing Parkinson’s disease.
■ Buy Into Blueberries. Blueberries contain a group of plant nutrients called proanthocyanidins that give them their characteristic blue color. Proanthocyanidins have the unique capacity to protect both the watery and fatty parts of the brain against damage by environmental toxins, decreasing damaging free radicals between and within brain cells, according to J. Robert Hatherill in his book The Brain Gate. Research has also found that compounds in blueberries may reverse some age-related memory loss and motor skill decline.
■ Stock Up on Spinach. Apparently Popeye was building brain power along with muscles when he ate spinach. In a study published in The Journal of Neuroscience, middle-aged rats were fed diets with added spinach, strawberry extract or vitamin E for nine months. Spinach proved the most potent in protecting brain cells against aging.
■ Go for Grapes. Resveratrol is a plant nutrient found in grapes, grape juice and red wine. It protects the brain against Alzheimer’s disease by mopping up free radicals before they can cause brain damage. And while people may prefer to hear that red wine is the best source, the alcohol in wine can still be damaging to brain cells. Red or purple grapes are the best options to obtain resveratrol.
■ Give Your Brain an Oil Change. The brain is 60 percent fat and requires healthy fats to reduce inflammation (inflammation has been linked to most brain disorders). Omega-3 fatty acids such as those found in salmon, walnuts, hemp seeds, flax seeds and flax seed oil quell inflammation and boost memory. Choose wild over farmed salmon—high levels of mercury have been found in farmed salmon, which may have adverse effects on the brain. Choose cold-pressed seed or nut oils for cooking, as omega-3s are vulnerable to damage from heat.
■ Remember Your Tomatoes. Tomatoes don’t just make great pasta sauce; they also boost memory, according to research into the antioxidant lycopene. Research from the “Nun Study,” a study on nuns aged 77 to 99 funded by the National Institute on Aging, shows that those who consumed lycopene in their daily diets had sharper memories than those who didn’t. Lycopene is also found in watermelons, guava and pink grapefruit. Evidence suggests that lycopene is best absorbed when consumed with some fat, so eating it as food is likely more effective than as a supplement. And, unlike some nutrients that are damaged by cooking, lycopene is more readily available from cooked tomatoes than fresh ones.
■ Tune Up with Turmeric. If you’ve ever eaten curry, you’re already familiar with turmeric. The spice that adds yellow color and distinct flavor to many curries is also a potent brain protector. Research at the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at the University of California, Los Angeles has shown that its active ingredient, curcumin, protects the brain against inflammation and amyloid plaques—both linked to brain diseases including Alzheimer’s.
Enjoy freshly grated or powdered turmeric in soups, stews and, of course, curry dishes. You can also mix a tablespoon with water and honey and drink it to take advantage of turmeric’s anti-inflammatory and brain-protecting properties. Supplements usually go by the name of the active ingredient, curcumin. If you choose a supplement, 1,500 milligrams of standardized curcumin is a commonly recommended daily dose to help protect the brain. Curcumin is often absorbed by the body more efficiently when eaten as a food than when taken as a supplement.
■ Put Periwinkle to Use. Periwinkle is more than just a pretty flower—it may also protect against brain disease. Research shows that its active ingredient, vinpocetine, helps transport oxygen to the brain so it can function optimally. In a study published in the journal International Clinical Psychopharmacology, researchers tested 165 people with mild to moderate dementia. After 16 weeks, participants taking vinpocetine supplements daily had a 21 percent improvement in memory while the placebo group had only a 7 percent improvement.
Vinpocetine boosts circulation to the brain, improves the brain’s ability to absorb nutrients, and thins blood, making it a good choice to help prevent stroke and memory loss. Experts typically suggest supplement dosages up to 10 milligrams daily, but check with your doctor if you are taking any blood-thinning medications.
■ Get Wise with Sage. After learning about the brain benefits of sage, you’ll probably want to use this herb for a lot more than Thanksgiving dinner. Numerous studies show sage’s effectiveness in improving memory function. According to researcher Nicola Tildesley, the herb works by preventing the breakdown of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine—a brain chemical that ensures healthy communication between brain cells. Acetylcholine is essential for healthy memory and mood. The German Ministry of Health is currently considering adding sage as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease to its Commission E Monographs, which give the approved uses, contraindications, side effects and other essential information for the responsible use of herbs and plant medicines, according to the German government’s expert Commission E. While there are various species of sage, the one most commonly used in memory studies is Salvia lavandulifolia, or Spanish sage. Sage is most commonly available as a dried herb, which can be used for cooking or for tea (one teaspoon per cup of hot water steeped for 10 to 15 minutes), or as an essential oil. Because oil constituents vary by brand, follow package directions.
■ Go for Ginkgo. In Germany, ginkgo is approved as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. Ginkgo has a long history of use among natural health practitioners and herbalists to boost memory function and support brain health against illnesses such as depression and stroke. Ginkgo is believed to work by increasing oxygen and the availability of energy to brain cells. Most natural-health professionals recommend 40 milligrams of ginkgo supplements three times daily.
■ Break Out of a Rut. If you’re a creature of habit (most of us are), then it may be time to break out of that rut. Doing new activities helps the brain strengthen or build new connections between neurons. Simply taking a different route home from work, cooking something different for dinner, visiting or talking with new people, going to a museum or gallery, or taking a class to learn new things can keep your mind strong. Taking photos, going dancing or learning new words every day might be just what your brain needs to strengthen different pathways and boost your memory.
■ Get to Bed Earlier. According to a joint study by scientists at Boston College and the University of Notre Dame, getting to bed earlier to ensure a full eight hours of sleep per night improves the brain’s ability to think creatively. The researchers indicate that sleep helps the brain file memories and reconfigure them in a way that produces new insights.
■ Cycle and Stretch. A new study from the University of Hamburg in Germany found that riding a bike for one to two hours weekly results in a noticeable improvement in long-term memory after six months. The same study found that those people who did stretching exercises for the same duration each week boosted their short-term memory.
■ Grasp the Sparrow’s Tail. This suggestion doesn’t refer to wildlife, but the tai chi exercise. Actually, any tai chi exercise will do when it comes to boosting brain power. Tai chi reduces stress and strengthens the part of the brain involved with motor function and balance. Lyvonne Carreiro and her colleagues at the University of Florida found that people suffering from Parkinson’s disease who attended tai chi classes for an hour a week for 12 weeks were less likely to experience worsening of their condition or a loss of motor function.
While many nutrients are essential for brain health, this list includes some of the most important ones.
■ 5-HTP: The nutrient 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) is one of the raw materials needed to produce the brain neurotransmitter serotonin, which helps balance mood. You can increase your levels of 5-HTP by taking a high-quality supplement.
■ Alpha Lipoic Acid (ALA): A potent antioxidant in its own right, ALA also works by recycling other antioxidants such as vitamins C and E to ensure they last longer. Most healthy adults make enough ALA. It’s found in red meat, organ meats and yeast, and is also available as a supplement.
■ B-Complex Vitamins (niacin, B6, B9 and B12): All B vitamins help brain cells communicate with each other by assisting with the production of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. Studies even link B12 supplementation with decreased memory-related symptoms. Good food sources of B vitamins include green leafy vegetables, eggs, chicken, citrus, nuts and bananas. You can also take a B-complex vitamin supplement.
■ Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10): An important nutrient needed by every cell in the body including brain cells, CoQ10 aids the energy centers of brain cells so the brain has sufficient energy to perform its tasks. Good sources of CoQ10 include oily fish such as salmon and tuna, organ meats and whole grains.
■ Magnesium: Multiple studies have found magnesium to be critical in the maintenance of normal brain activity, including memory function. Good sources include nuts, beans and whole grains.
■ Vitamin C: A powerful antioxidant, vitamin C works by eliminating free radicals before they can cause brain damage. Excellent sources of vitamin C include broccoli, peppers, dark leafy greens, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and citrus fruits.
■ Vitamin E: The New England Journal of Medicine reported that vitamin E is effective in slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Its effectiveness could be linked to its ability to protect the brain from free radical damage. Top sources include sunflower seeds, nuts, greens and peanut butter.
My grandmother was as sharp as a tack into old age. Research is showing that her habit of sitting down to do a daily crossword puzzle may have played a role in keeping her memory sharp. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley found that any activity that stimulates a part of the brain that handles planning, memory and abstract thinking offers the two-fold benefit of keeping our memories strong and stimulating our immune systems. So we’ll get a stronger memory and fewer colds, too. You can do crossword puzzles, Sudoku, jigsaw puzzles or any other type of puzzle to reap the memory benefits. Websudoku.com has thousands of free Sudoku puzzles to challenge your mind.
Michelle Schoffro Cook, Ph.D., is a nutritionist and the best-selling author of The Brain Wash and 13 other books. She is also the publisher of the free e-newsletter World’s Healthiest News. Learn more about her work at drmichellecook.com.