You know how dangerous high blood sugar can be for your brain, as well as your body. In fact, I suggested several years ago that dementia might be considered “type 3 diabetes.”
So while it is important to support and protect your cognitive function at all times, it is particularly critical if you are struggling with high blood sugar or type 2 diabetes.
Here’s a look at new research showing how some surprising nutrients can help boost your brain health…especially as you age.
Lutein and zeaxanthin — not just for eye heath
Many studies show the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin are effective for macular degeneration and other eye issues — including those caused by diabetes.
And now, researchers have discovered that these versatile carotenoids can support better cognitive function as well.Although it’s a wonder that this research even occurred at all.
Back in the 1980s, the National Cancer Institute science bureaucrats I had to work with were focused on just one carotenoid: beta-carotene. Fortunately, I helped convinced them to fund some real research with some real nutritional scientists at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Lab.
Working with this new team, I discovered that the carotenoids of real importance for human nutrition were ones that the NCI had never heard of — including lutein, lycopene, and zeaxanthin. But the NCI would not allow me to publish these blockbuster findings on carotenoids. I finally got them published when I went to work at Walter Reed Army Medical Center — where they awarded me the Young Scientific Investigator prize for my work on carotenoids.
Lutein, zeaxanthin, and lycopene have gone on to show numerous health benefits in scientific studies (and spawned entire new natural products industries — whether they pay attention to the science or not. In fact, trying to find good-quality, science-based supplements from the natural products industry is a crapshoot. That’s why I created my own Smart Science Nutritionals supplement line). Which leads me to the latest research on lutein and zeaxanthin’s effects on brain health.
Studies have found that lutein makes up 60% of the carotenoids that pass through the blood-brain barrier. But lutein comprises only about 12% of dietary carotenoids. In other words, your brain needs lots of lutein, but chances are you aren’t getting enough of it.
Not getting enough lutein may also be a big problem for normal cognitive development during childhood. And studies in middle-aged and elderly adults also support the importance of lutein for cognitive function.
In one new study, Irish researchers analyzed data from 4,076 adults age 50 or older. They discovered that higher levels of lutein and zeaxanthin in the blood were associated with better scores on tests of cognitive function, memory, and executive function.1
The researchers cited the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities of these carotenoids for these benefits.
Another new study showed that lutein and zeaxanthin may reduce stress — which, as you know, is a major factor in chronic diseases of the body and brain…including dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Observations from the LAMA Trial (Lutein Vision and Mental Acuity) indicated that six months of supplementation with these two carotenoids led to improvements in cortisol (a stress hormone), as well as measures of emotional and physical health.2 (I published a paper with Dr. Ken Seaton in 1999 proposing that cortisol is the stress and aging hormone.)
Researchers recruited 59 healthy, young adults to participate in the trial. They discovered that reductions in cortisol lasted for as long as a year, at doses of 2 mg of zeaxanthin/10 mg of lutein, as well as 4 mg of zeaxanthin/ 20 mg of lutein.
Exercise and beetroot juice can make your brain younger
Another new study that intrigued me looked at the effects of exercise and beetroot juice on the aging brain.3
Amazingly, the researchers discovered that the beetroot-exercise combo helped the older adults’ brains not only perform more efficiently, but actually mirror the operations of a younger brain.
Exercise has been observed to have a positive effect on older people’s brains, most likely by stimulating blood circulation.
Beetroot juice has also been found to increase blood flow to the brain. And since beetroot juice has been shown to enhance exercise performance, researchers proposed that drinking beetroot juice and then exercising may be hard to beat when it comes to beating dementia.
Researchers gathered 26 participants with an average age of 65, and divided them into two groups. Both groups did a moderately intense, 50-minute walk on a treadmill three times a week for six weeks. One group drank beetroot juice an hour before they exercised, while the other group drank a placebo.
The researchers discovered that the participants who exercised and consumed beetroot juice showed greater function within the motor regions of their brains. They also had brain networks that more closely resembled those of younger adults.
As I’ve pointed out before, when it comes to maintaining your health, exercise alone will not get you there. You can’t outrun a deficient diet. But eating the right foods (including beets) and taking the right nutrients along with exercise will create positive results and keep you from feeling like you are just running on a treadmill to nowhere.
1“Plasma Lutein and Zeaxanthin Are Associated With Better Cognitive Function Across Multiple Domains in a Large Population-Based Sample of Older Adults: Findings from The Irish Longitudinal Study on Aging.” J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci2017 glw330.
2“Supplementation with macular carotenoids reduces psychological stress, serum cortisol, and sub-optimal symptoms of physical and emotional health in young adults.” Nutr Neurosci. 2017 Feb 15:1-11.
3“Beet Root Juice: An Ergogenic Aid for Exercise and the Aging Brain.” J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci 2016 glw219.