Brain Foods

Brain Foods

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Perhaps more than most organs, the brain is subject to attack from free radicals of oxygen, wildly reactive molecules given off in the normal course of events but also created by smoking, air pollution, injury, and disease. Free radicals act like biochemical bumper cars, damaging cell membranes and DNA with each collision. Cumulative damage from free radical reactions is implicated in the aging of skin, many cancers, and perhaps the aging of the human brain.

"The brain consumes more oxygen than any other organ. That means it might generate more free radicals," says John Weisburger, Ph.D., senior member of the American Health Foundation and preventive medicine researcher. Vitamin E is the body's natural antioxidant. Now recommended for heart health in amounts well over the current RDA of 12 IU (women) and 15 IU (men), it should also benefit the brain. But even a healthful diet supplies scant vitamin E, Weisburger finds. He suggests taking a daily supplement.

But there's more to antioxidants than vitamin E. Substances known as polyphenols, found naturally in the leaves used in green and black tea, are many times more potent than some antioxidant vitamins, says Weisburger. He points out that five cups of tea per day supply the same antioxidant dose as two servings of vegetables.

Fruits and vegetables contain thousands of antioxidants and other natural chemicals that should help maintain brain health. Among those known so far are the antioxidants lycopene, in tomatoes; isoflavones in soy protein foods; polyphenols in red wine; sulphoraphane in broccoli; and ellagic acid in strawberries. So packing your diet with fruits and vegetables is essential.

Still, one noted researcher doesn't shy away from recommending antioxidant supplements. E. Wayne Askew, Ph.D., nutritional biochemist at the University of Utah, is high on a couple of natural antioxidants -- pycnogenol, a potent substance derived from yew tree bark, and coenzyme Q10, which is made in the body but in minute quantities. As insurance there are also new commercial phytochemical formulas, containing potent antioxidants and other substances from fruits and vegetables.

"Many brain disorders incur oxidative damage," observes Lester Packer, Ph.D., nutritional biochemist at the University of California at Berkeley. "Therefore antioxidants may be especially helpful to people already suffering brain damage, or to prevent against it. Studies with animal models and human cells suggest that antioxidants may prevent damage due to stroke."

Packer singles out lipoic acid for particular promise as a supplement. Made naturally in body cells as a byproduct of energy release, it has an "amazing protective effect" in the brain. In one study he conducted, rats subjected to strokes were given lipoic acid -- 80 percent of supplemented animals survived.

Packer himself downs 50 mg of lipoic acid daily. In addition, he favors supplements of another antioxidant found in the body in tiny amounts, glutathione. And he recommends "four to five" times the RDA for vitamin C. The latter, an antioxidant in its own right, also prevents breakdown of vitamin E.

Count among the antioxidants vitamin A, also needed for proper cell differentiation, growth, and reproduction. Few studies exist of vitamin A and brain function. But older people consuming adequate amounts of the vitamin A precursor beta-carotene do better on cognitive tests than those who don't get enough beta-carotene. And retinoic acid, a vitamin A derivative (cousin of the acne medication), can actually regenerate nerve cells in aging animal brains. According to the University of Toronto's Greenwood, retinoic acid is one of a handful of substances that show real potential as potent anti-aging drugs, possibly available within the next decade.

Another is a form of choline, called cytidine dephosphocholine (or citicoline), that supplies the nutrient in amounts that render it a drug. In studies by psychologist Paul Spiers, Ph.D., at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, citicoline restored cognitive abilities to people aged 50 to 90 who scored below average for their age on a series of learning and memory tests. Given to others who had just suffered strokes, it more than doubled the proportion who eventually regained complete function.

The era of consuming nutrients to boost brain performance is only just beginning. Bon appetit.

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