We all know that we should be eating our 5-7 servings a day of fruits and vegetables. But there’s good reason to make quite a few of those servings berries. Berries, like blueberries, strawberries and cranberries, have all kinds of nutritional benefits because of their color – no, really.
The main pigments which color berries the bright blues and reds are anthocyanins, which just happen to be more than just colorful. They’re powerful antioxidants which have benefits similar to the Vitamin E in nuts. In the plants, these pigment molecules serve to protect the fruit from sun damage, bacteria, viruses, fungi and the harmful free radicals that are produced during photosynthesis.
When eaten, they pass these effects on to us. Anthocyanins turn on and off important genes in our brains, allow cells to respond quickly and efficiently to signals, and even promote the growth of new nerve cells. Though present in all kinds of vegetables, fruits, and flowers, anthocyanins are found at their highest levels in:
- black and red raspberries
- black and red currants
- red grapes
- red wines
Blueberries and Beyond
Blueberries are often touted as a ‘superfood‘, having so much good stuff packed into each delicious bite – and for good reason. Blueberries have been shown to contain more antioxidants than 50 other fresh fruits and vegetables, which protect our brains from aging-related degeneration and improve cognitive function. They also have been shown to improve short term memory, coordination, and navigation skills due to how the compounds support neurotransmission, improve blood vessel elasticity and ramp up protective kinases like ERK and PKC.
A 2007 symposium on berry health benefits showed that blueberries (and other berries, like cranberries) may alleviate the cognitive decline occurring in Alzheimer’s disease and other conditions of aging. Studies in rats have found that dietary blueberries improve mental abilities, and those genetically prone to Alzheimer’s-like brain problems can prevent the neurological symptoms by consuming blueberry extract.
Blueberries even wear capes!
But that’s not to dis other berries. Strawberries contain fisetin, which has been found to improve long-term memory. They’re also rich in iodine, which is key for the brain and nervous system to properly function, and Vitamin C, which also acts as an antioxidant. One study, published in Neurobiology of Aging, found that different berries had different positive effects, and that the best thing for us, then, is a mix.
Strawberries helped rats memorize and run a maze faster while blueberries boosted their memories and ability to run it backwards, processes which use two different parts of the brain. And other berries are great for us, too. Black raspberries and cranberries are even under investigation as treatments for cancer! So the best thing is a combination of berries to get all of their nutritious brain-boosting goodies.
The best part is that gorging on berries has few, if any, drawbacks. They’ve been shown to help reduce bad cholesterol and enhance weight loss, so you don’t have to worry about packing on a couple extra pound or two by overdoing it. They’ve been linked to good heart health, particularly when you start young. And, just to make them seem too good to be true: research has indicated that a combination of berries and the fatty, Vitamin E filled nuts is even better, with the two acting synergistically to provide more brain-boosting benefits than the sum of their individual effects.
Don’t Weed Out Greens
While berries are fantastic, other veggies, particularly leafy greens, are also super brain foods. Vegetables have all kinds of good nutrients in them, including the Vitamin E found in nuts, and they’ve been shown to help keep brains sharp as we age. In one study, eating 2.8 servings of vegetables a day led to 40% slower rates of cognitive decline than eating less than one serving per day.
Spinach and other greenery are rich sources of B vitamins, which are essential for the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. These chemicals not only boost your thinking and memory, they balance your mood to help keep you balanced and focused on the task at hand. They also help fight the degenerative affects of aging on our brains.
Low levels of B vitamins have been linked to cognitive decline in aging men. Another study found that people the lowest levels of dietary B vitamins were 80% more likely to have Alzheimer’s. These veggies also contain folate, which can help prevent the strokes which lead to brain degeneration.
Green, leafy veggies are also high in iron. Iron is a key nutrient for our brains, and its deficiency, called ‘anemia’, can have devastating impacts. Numerous studies have found that a lack of iron, particularly when we’re young, has strong consequences on our minds. Iron deficiency in youth can lead to irreversible changes in brain chemistry, organization and structure. But it’s not just kids who need iron.
One study found that adult women lacking in iron performed worse and more slowly on mental tasks than those who had enough in their systems – a difference that was erased when the anemic women were given iron supplements for two months. Anemia, which causes a lack of heme, the body’s way of transporting oxygen to cells, can lead to brain cell death.
Other vegetables, like tomatoes, are full of great nutrients like Vitamin C and Vitamin A. And legumes, leafy greens, and other vegetables are even high in protein, which the brain uses as neurotransmitter building blocks. And you don’t just have to eat all these vegetables raw. As we told you before, some vegetables actually have more antioxidants and other nutrients when steamed, boiled or fried than they do uncooked.
And, like berries, the best part is it’s pretty tough to overeat greens. My grandpa always tells a story about a conversation he had with his nutritionist. “I don’t lose weight no matter what I do,” he said. “I could get fat on just broccoli!” Her response was simple: she just smiled and said “Go ahead. Try it.”
Eat more salads and vegetables and you’ll be maintaining a slim figure while keeping your brain sharp!
In Short: Feed Your Mind
Keep this in mind: our brains, which are about 2% of our body by weight, use up 20% of our daily calorie intake. So to keep it sharp you have to keep it fed. Particular parts are extremely sensitive to dropping blood sugar levels, especially those related to thinking and clarity. After all, if you’re a little hungry, you don’t want to stop breathing, so the portions that control basic functions are fairly resilient. But you’ll find that if you starve yourself for a little while, you start to lose the ability to do easy math or memorization – tasks not required, specifically, to live.
It’s important that you keep your blood glucose even for the best brain power, and having a snack (particularly of brain-boosting foods!) in and of itself will help you think sharper in between meals. That doesn’t mean eat all the time or too much. High glucose levels and the immune system’s response to them are damaging to all types of cells. It’s even been suggested that high glucose levels for extended time periods can lead to Alzheimer’s – so don’t overdo it! But keeping your brain fed, especially with the foods above, will keep you at your sharpest all day long, even above and beyond their other brain-boosting effects.
- Joseph JA, Shukitt-Hale B, Denisova NA, Bielinski D, Martin A, McEwen JJ, & Bickford PC (1999). Reversals of age-related declines in neuronal signal transduction, cognitive, and motor behavioral deficits with blueberry, spinach, or strawberry dietary supplementation. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 19 (18), 8114-21 PMID: 10479711
- Gordon, M., Diamond, D., Shukitt-Hale, B., Morgan, D., Joseph, J., Denisova, N., & Arendash, G. (2003). Blueberry Supplementation Enhances Signaling and Prevents Behavioral Deficits in an Alzheimer Disease Model Nutritional Neuroscience, 6 (3), 153-162 DOI: 10.1080/1028415031000111282
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- Shukitt-Hale, B., Carey, A., Jenkins, D., Rabin, B., & Joseph, J. (2007). Beneficial effects of fruit extracts on neuronal function and behavior in a rodent model of accelerated aging Neurobiology of Aging, 28 (8), 1187-1194 DOI: 10.1016/j.neurobiolaging.2006.05.031
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- Atamna, H. (2002). Heme deficiency may be a factor in the mitochondrial and neuronal decay of aging Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 99 (23), 14807-14812 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.192585799