King of the nuts may help combat Alzheimer’s disease

On Tuesday, I told you about a new study showing flavanols–found in dark chocolate–appeared to help older men and women take up to 30 years off their cognitive age. Today, I’ll tell you about another one of Nature’s brain boosters: the walnut. Science shows this food, called “king of the nuts,” is a real brain powerhouse.

In fact, a new study found that walnuts might help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) in lab animals. For this study, researchers at the New York State Institute for Basic Research in Development Disabilities put mice bred to develop AD on a special daily diet that contained either 6 percent or 9 percent walnuts. In humans, that amount of walnuts is equivalent to 1 ounce and 1.5 ounces per day, respectively.

The control group–mice bred to develop AD who did not receive walnuts–showed severe memory deficits, impaired spatial learning, poor motor coordination, and anxiety.

By contrast, both groups of AD mice fed a walnut-rich diet showed significant improvements in learning skills, memory, and motor development. They also had lower anxiety levels.

It’s refreshing to see some good news coming out of centers researching development disabilities. These researchers recognize that there’s no known cure for Alzheimer’s disease. But their study suggests promising directions for future human research on the brain benefits and the protective effects of walnuts.

The researchers suggested the high antioxidant content of walnuts might be a contributing factor in protecting the brain against the type of degeneration typically seen in AD. Indeed, experts believe oxidative stress and inflammation are prominent features of this disease. But as I’ve pointed out before, people like to throw around the term “antioxidant” without a full appreciation of the real chemistry or biochemistry.

Plus, why not consider the fatty acids found in walnuts as a contributing factor? Previous research links the essential fatty acids found in walnuts and other nuts with many health benefits…from preventing diabetes and heart disease to benefitting the brain and nervous system.

Many scientists still can’t seem to think about any fats as having health benefits. (Perhaps the government’s misguided recommendations gave fat the “bad rep” for decades.) But essential fatty acids are especially important to brain and nervous tissue.

If we crack the shell, and put the whole picture together, we don’t necessarily have to reach for the old “antioxidant” hypotheses to explain all the health benefits of nuts.

Of course, you may have also noticed the walnut looks like the human brain. And that may not be just a strange coincidence.

In ancient Greece and Rome, through the Middle Ages in Europe, and up to colonial times in America, scientists, physicians and natural philosophers believed Nature’s divine “signature” could provide clues about the plant’s activities. So since a walnut looks like a brain, it helps the brain. Many called this natural philosophy the “Doctrine of Signatures.”

Of course, anything that increases blood circulation to the brain is beneficial. So you may get some added benefits by simply cracking open the walnut shells. Not to mention all the exercise you’ll get looking around the house for the nutcracker. (Though, at this time of year, those nutcrackers should be handy.)

Nowadays, it’s also much easier to find shelled whole walnuts in the grocery store.

If you buy shelled nuts at the store, that’s fine. But I recommend purchasing smaller quantities at a time so they don’t go rancid. (Walnuts in the shell stay fresh longer, as designed in Nature for seeds to winter-over and be potent for germination in the spring.)

Store shelled walnuts in a cool, dry place to help keep them fresh. Just 4 to 5 walnuts per day should do the trick.

You can also make walnut butter, walnut paste, and walnut oil. Again, they are now commercially available, but you can also make your own by grinding up any nuts. (You may need to add a little additional oil.)

Walnuts always make me think back to Artie Johnson on Dan Rowan & Dick Martin’s “Laugh-in” TV show. He was the dirty old man who was always offering the little old lady his “walnetto,” a chocolate-walnut candy. It seems we now have to find another explanation for his “demented” behavior. He certainly wasn’t running low on this natural brain booster. Or maybe he was just giving it all away, or trying.


  1. Dietary Supplementation of Walnuts Improves Memory Deficits and Learning Skills in Transgenic Mouse Model of Alzheimer’s Disease. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, Volume 42, Number 4 / 2014