This is the story of antioxidants and your brain. Blueberries get all the limelight. But, behind the scenes it is about the delicate balance of nature and how that relates to us as people.
All patients who come to my office receive a fact sheet with tips to optimize brain health. Invariably, they also hear about the importance of physical exercise and a brain-healthy diet for combatting whatever brain condition they have. It’s not that I am against medications that may be indicated for conditions like migraine, ADHD, or Parkinson’s. Those certainly have a role. It is just that it is critical to do all you can to optimize your brain health. For many conditions, evidence shows that the non-pharmacological things we can do to improve brain health are as good or better than the available medications. But, changing diet and doing regular exercise is hard. So, it is worth reading about what this is really all about and then you may be motivated to act. In this article, I will focus on the nutrition that is best for your brain.
Let’s start with something that may sound obvious, but that you have likely never thought about in this way. Everything you do in life is controlled by your brain. Your brain is critical for processing and interpreting all the sensory information that you receive during every waking moment, and its function underlies your current knowledge and past memories of everything and everyone that make up your world. Your brain controls your motion, balance, dexterity, and ability to drive. It even controls all unconscious body organs, such as your stomach, intestines, and heart. You may be aware that your brain influences your hormones and your immune system. All this is critical for survival, but does not even start to describe the absolute role that your brain has in your thinking, your perception of who you are, and the way you interact in relationships,
So, your brain health is important when you are going about your daily activities. You want to feel good and perform your best. It is no wonder that taking care of your brain is even more important to protect against brain disease.
Fine. But, what does all this that have to do with blueberries – a fruit that does not grow in Israel? In yesterday’s Jerusalem Post, Judy Siegel wrote an article about nutrition that ‘prevents’ or ‘promotes’ dementia[i][ii]. As with many such articles, blueberries are the star. The main take-home points echo the Global Council on Brain Health Report[iii].
- The typical Western-style diet (high in salt, sugar, excess calories, and saturated fats) is not good for the brain.
- The healthiest for your brain is a Mediterranean-style diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, fish, poultry, beans, and healthy fats like in olive oil, avocado, and nuts.
- No single food acts as a silver bullet for improving or maintaining brain health. The combination of different types of food and nutrients together in our diets likely determines health benefits.
What is it about blueberries? First, it is not just blueberries – cranberries, apples, raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, and many other fruits have a lot of chemicals that act as antioxidants. Many other natural foods, such as cherries, kidney beans, Russet potatoes, and nuts are also rich in antioxidants. So, it turns out that eating a variety of fruits, nuts, and vegetables in your diet will give you a good supply of antioxidants.
The question you may be asking is “what are antioxidants, and why are they good for me?”
The answer starts from the bottom line. Nature is provided to us in a way that is balanced just right. When it comes to oxygen, we breathe it to sustain life – exactly in the concentration that we have in our atmosphere. If we are deprived of oxygen for even a short time, our brain cells die. You may think that more is better. But, it turns out that too much oxygen also causes our brain cells to die. Oxidative cell death is not only caused by breathing too high a concentration of oxygen – it may also be caused by stress and chemical processes that occur during brain disease. To a degree, it also happens as part of the aging process. Oxidative stress causes release of ‘free radical’ chemicals inside nerve cells, and these are the mediators of cell damage and cell death.
It turns out that nature provided us with protection against the bad effects of oxidative stress. The foods that have high levels of antioxidants are plentiful. However, the diets adopted by most people in Western societies are not rich in antoxidants. Processed foods, fast foods, fried foods, and high fat foods are the mainstay, and fruits, vegetables, and berries are nice-to-have. The message here is that the table has to be turned. Hamburgers, steaks, and French fries should be relegated to rare treats, and the natural foods of Mediterranean-type diets should be eaten as the main components.
When you think about it, taking care of your brain is more than just ‘being healthy.’ Of course, you want to feel good, think clearly, and perform your best. It all depends on your brain health.
Dr. Ely Simon is a neurologist working in Modiin, Israel and is the author of Embracing the Unknown: A Fresh Look at Nature and Science. For more information about brain health and common brain conditions, visit the website of Modiin Neurology Clinic.
[ii] I do not intend to critique the article or the study. I agree with main points, but I caution the Reader to interpret the words ‘prevent’ and ‘promote’ loosely. You should not think that there is a guarantee against getting Alzheimer’s disease if you eat blueberries and tuna fish.