What role does nutrition play in brain health?

December 20, 2017

With the fascination about human brain study coupled with the aging baby boomers’ passion about health, a new area of study and practice has arrived.

Brain health remains one of the most popular and researched topics in healthcare today. Despite studies, there is still a primitive understanding of how the brain works. Brain health is a process by which a person participates in behavior and environments to shape the brain to a healthier presence. Articles about brain health permeate not only healthcare, but the business sector, insurance industry, assisted living, libraries, media and religion. Brain health really is a lifelong take-charge behavior that includes social relationships, exercise, mental stimulation, proper nutrition and spirituality. Considering that nutrition is one of the important factors in brain health, learning what to feed the brain stands as a priority.


Spices used for hundreds of years as food supplements or pharmaceuticals now receive recognition for their powerful influence for a healthy brain. They not only add flavor, but also may stop or prevent neurodegenerative mechanisms related to aging. Studies show evidence that these plant-based foods may lower the risk of degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's.

Spices such as saffron, turmeric, pepper, zingiber and cinnamon not only decrease inflammation, but also play roles as antioxidants, preventing acetyl cholinesterase and amyloid B accumulation. Amyloid is aggregated protein in the form of insoluble fibrils. Amyloid deposition in human tissue - amyloidosis - is associated with a number of diseases including all common dementias and type II diabetes.

Information for the effectiveness of these spices has been published and reviewed by Medline/PubMed, Web of Science, Embase and Cochrane databases as recently as June 2016. All of these spices are under current research. The following information highlights the research and provides insight to those searching to improve brain health through nutrition.

Crocus (Saffron)

The flower Crocus sativus (saffron crocus) displays bright orange-red stigmas which are processed into saffron. Saffron is used not only as a food supplement, but also as a dye, and it is used to help separate various chemistry compounds. In test tube research using saffron, amyloid aggregation was prevented. Remember, this prevention stops the destruction of brain cells. Saffron has been compared to the drug donepezil in Alzheimer's disease research and has shown similar effectiveness.

Animal studies show saffron has a positive effect on the cognitive behavior of adult rats. With its antioxidant properties and as a metal-chelating compound, it provides a means in which minerals can be absorbed faster and more effectively by the body. When compared to tomatoes and carrots, saffron has stronger antioxidant activity. Three clinical trials with humans showed saffron's use, effectiveness and safety in Alzheimer's patients. Also, a one-year study showed it compared to a drug known as memantine for decreasing cognitive decline in patients suffering from moderate to severe Alzheimer's.

Turmeric (Curcumin)

Turmeric or curcumin, an ingredient of Indian curry powder, comes highly rated by scientists. It is widely used not only for flavoring, but also in Indian Ayurveda medicine and in other Middle East and Asian countries. Studies point to its powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Curcumin interacts with heavy metals such as cadmium, preventing poisoning of the brain by these metals. Researchers feel that these discoveries support curcumin's inflammatory damage prevention.

Curcumin's insolubility in water decreases its bioavailability. However, when cooked, turmeric becomes more available to be absorbed into the body's cells. Using a bit of oil during the cooking process increases the ability for it to be absorbed as well.

Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum nees)

A widely used spice, cinnamon comes from a tropical evergreen tree's bark. The tree grows in Sri Lanka, India, Madagascar and Indochina.

Utilized in a broad range of folk medicines and as a flavoring agent, cinnamon's identity as an antioxidant agent has been verified. Applying cinnamon therapy in diabetes has shown improvement in fasting blood glucose levels. New studies show cinnamon has properties for future use for an anti-insulin resistance effect, meaning it would help those whose bodies cannot use insulin.

Pepper (Piperine)

Piperine, the active prime ingredient in black pepper, is a nitrogenous strong biting spice. Black pepper serves in Middle Eastern folk medicine as a nerve tonic. One study shows that piperine in any dose can improve memory. With its anti-inflammatory effects, piperine may help nutrient absorption by decreasing irritation at the absorption site. Studies have proven that it does not mutate cells and cause cancer. Studies of pepper in mice show it improves the memory of those with memory impairment.

Zingiber (rhizome ginger)

Ginger contains plant-derived chemical substances that are valuable for health and well-being. Although noted for its pleasing aroma, its strong, sharp taste may not be pleasurable to some individuals.

Research has shown improvement in brain functioning because of its antioxidant properties. Ginger prevents oxidative stress in the brain. Simply explained, ginger halts an imbalance between the production of molecules that induce aging and the ability of the body to counteract or clear their harmful effects.

The path to improved health

One specific diet does not define what is best for brain health, but eating healthy is the key to overall health and well-being. Choosing foods and supplements that nourish your body and brain can prevent or delay health problems including conditions that increase your risks for dementia.

The best nutrition for brain health includes the following: eight ounces of fish weekly, six servings of fruits and vegetables daily, legumes, nuts, seeds and grains. Also, elimination of trans-fats and the reduction of sugar remain important for health.

Since no cure for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's exists, many individuals could have a sense of futility when it comes to working to improve brain health. The study of neuroscience provides proof now that personal control over health can provide a brain that functions in balance and at near-peak performance through a lifetime. The old adage remains true - "You are what you eat."

Lynn Toth, RN, MSN, NP-C, is a cardiovascular medical specialist at Beebe Healthcare and coordinates the heart failure and stroke programs, serving as chair. For more information, go to