The food-memory connection isn’t new. For Marcel Proust, it was the aroma of the Madeleine cookies that brought back his memories.
But the notion that certain foods strengthen your brain and don’t just jog memories is starting to gain speed. And the timing couldn’t be better. Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are threatening to become so huge they are eclipsing all other medical problems put together while the government-industrial-medical complex is asleep at the switch.
Science doesn’t know as much as it should about cognitive function and memory, thanks to a history of serious government underfunding. Compare that to the funding for politically correct diseases like HIV/ AIDS (which is 100% preventable in the first place) and breast cancer (for which many good screening and treatment approaches already exist).
Unfortunately, the government is not likely to ever catch up because, the era of big government research funding is over and the big medical research bubble is about to burst.
As I’ve mentioned in previous Daily Dispatches, Alzheimer’s disease doesn’t have the political pull of other conditions. But there are a few things beyond age we do know have a negative influence on memory, including stress, sleep, medications and poor nutrition—and even excessive hygiene. And there are also some things we know can promote better memory and cognitive function.
Three-pronged brainpower boost
Your real “intelligence quotient” is dependent upon three factors:
1. Your total number of brain cells
2. The effectiveness of the communications between brain cells
3. The overall health of individual cells
The brain and every cell in it are highly metabolically active. It needs a constant supply of adequate oxygen and energy (sugar), both of which are carried in the blood. So having a healthy heart and circulation are critical.
One incredibly potent brain protector that everyone who wants to stay sharp should consider is berberine. As I wrote in my report The Insider’s Answer for Dodging Dementia, experimental studies have found that berberine can shield brain tissue from the dangerous effects of oxidative damage. But it also attacks the memory-killing enzymes that contribute to Alzheimer’s and promotes healthy blood flow to the brain. It’s truly a new, breakthrough brain supplement. I recommend a daily dose of 500 mg of berberine, taken two or three times per day to achieve steady levels.
I also recommend lutein, which is best known for its eye-health benefits. One study showed that alone or with omega-3s (which I’ll tell you about below), lutein improved cognitive function, verbal fluency, learning ability, and memory in older women.1 A dose of 12 mg per day of lutein should be effective for keeping the brain functioning at its best.
When it comes to diet, several nutrients and other plant biochemicals get across the blood-brain barrier and help brain cells. The flavonoids anthocyanins and quercetin, which help give plants their red-purple-blue colors—help cognition and memory. They appear to help prevent the breakdown of brain cells. Both are abundant in apples, blueberries, and red onions.
Other important nutrients are the B vitamin folate and omega-3 fatty acids.
All brain and nerve cells (neurons) are protected by a myelin sheath, which acts like insulation on a wire to support effective transmission and communication of nerve cell signals. Healthy fats, such as omega 3s and other essential fatty acids, are critical for brain health.
So beware the knee-jerk recommendations of some “experts” to cut all fats from your diet. You can’t be healthy without some fats— just make sure they’re the right kind. (Come to think of it, cutting all fats should not be called a “knee-jerk” recommendation, since nerve reflexes can’t happen without adequate nutrition from the right fats.)
Now that you know what individual nutrients make for better brain health, let’s look at the foods that put them all together. After all, people eat foods…not nutrients.
Berries sit out in the air and sun all day, where they ripen and develop their colors thanks to the active plant pigments that are produced to protect them. It makes sense then that they’d be good sources of “protective nutrients,” also known as antioxidants. But as I’ve explained before, simply invoking the word antioxidant is oversimplified and incomplete. We have to look beyond this broad and somewhat non-specific term to individual biologically active plant chemicals—like the anthocyanins and flavonoids I just mentioned.
Blueberries in particular have received a lot of attention for their abundance of these plant chemicals, as well as their benefits for the eye. What does that have to do with the brain? Well, the eye is a form of specialized nerve tissue, which means the way nutrients behave there is a good sign of how they’ll behave in the brain.
Green, leafy vegetables
Look to green, leafy vegetables like Brussels sprouts, cabbage, collard greens, kale, mustard greens, and turnip greens, for a healthy dose of the right carotenoids. Leafy greens are also a good source of folate (folic acid is the form found in supplements and foods that are artificially fortified). A very clear example of folate’s importance in the nervous system is its ability to prevent spina bifida and neural tube deformities during development in utero.
Folate lowers homocysteine levels, which is important since high homocysteine has been linked with memory decline. (Not to mention heart disease.) An Australian study found that a diet high in folate was associated with faster information processing and better recall memory…after just five weeks!
Since brain cells and neurons are so dependent on healthy fats like omega 3s, it’s no surprise fatty fish is important for brain health. Even years ago, when fish consumption was relatively rare in many parts of the United States, people considered fish “brain food.” And modern research backs that up: A study in the Archives of Neurology found that people with the highest levels of omega-3s have the lowest rates of dementia.2 The best sources of omega 3s include herring, mackerel, sardines, and salmon.
An earlier study from the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago followed more than 3,000 men and women for six years and found that those who ate fish at least once a week had a 10 percent slower decline in memory than those who did not eat fish.3 In effect, fish gave them an “extra” three years in terms of memory and cognitive ability compared to other people in their age-group.
Ideally, you should aim for three servings of fish per week. If that doesn’t work for you, make sure to take a high-quality fish oil supplements. To find out how to choose a fish oil supplement, check the October issue of Insiders’ Cures.
Anyone who has ever tried it can tell you that coffee can quickly and temporarily sharpen memory and focus the mind. What every coffee drinker knows from experience was scientifically proven two years ago. Researchers at the University of Innsbruck in Austria gave volunteers the amount of caffeine contained in two cups of coffee.4 They then used MRIs to watch for reactions in the brain. The findings? Brain activity was increased in two locations—one of which is critical for memory.
These effects may be even stronger in women. Another study found that women 65 years and older who drank more than three cups of coffee per day (or the equivalent amount of caffeine from tea) had about one-third less memory decline than women who drank one cup or less per day.
Some studies have occasionally found certain health problems with high consumption of instant coffee, as well as boiled coffee and other processes that do not involve filtration. To be safe, stick with filtered coffees. And learn to drink coffee and tea without added milk (and its extra lactose, calories and fats), and without sugar or artificial sweetener.
With all these safe and natural approaches to protecting brain health—as well as the old standbys (keep your brain active, get enough exercise, do the crossword puzzle)— there’s no reason to consider memory decline an inevitable part of aging. You can take charge of your brain health, just as you can with any other area of healthy aging.
 Johnson EJ, McDonald K, Caldarella SM, Chung HY, Troen AM, Snodderly DM. Cognitive findings of an exploratory trial of docosahexaenoic acid and lutein supplementation in older women. Nutr Neurosci. 2008;11(2):75-83.
2 Schaefer EJ, Bongard V, Beiser AS, et al. Plasma phosphatidylcholine docosahexaenoic acid content and risk of dementia and Alzheimer disease: the Framingham Heart Study. Arch Neurol. 2006;63(11):1545-1550.
3 Morris MC, Evans DA, et al.“Fish consumption and cognitive decline with age in a large community study.” Arch Neurol. 2005;62(12):1849-53
4 Koppelstaetter F, Poeppel TD, Siedentopf CM, et al. Caffeine and cognition in functional magnetic resonance imaging. J Alzheimers Dis. 2010;20 Suppl 1:S71-84.
5 Ritchie K, Carrière I, de Mendonca A, et al. The neuroprotective effects of caffeine: a prospective population study (the Three City Study). Neurology. 2007;69(6):536-545.