For all the things you ‘d be worrying about right now in the world, you’d be forgiven if dementia – including the loss of cognitive ability – failed to top the list. Dementia, however, is on the rise in the United States; its most common form, Alzheimer’s disease, is now the sixth-leading cause of death. So while you shouldn’t add this to an increasingly unceasing inventory of things-which-prevent-sleep, it can’t hurt to tweak your diet ever-so-slightly to be more health-centric to the brain.
Or put it plainly, that means eating more foods, including spices and herbs for brain health. Although work is still pretty early, Gary W. Small, M.D., director of the UCLA Longevity Center, says current studies to date indicate that some plants’ antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits may have a beneficial impact on brain health.
“Plant-based compounds called polyphenols are effective antioxidants, and oxidation is not good for the brain when it creates free radicals that can screw cellular function,” says neuroscientist Nan Wise, PhD. Meanwhile, after certain anti-inflammatory drugs, e.g. It was found that Aleve or Motrin decreased the risk of Alzheimer’s in older adults, Dr. Small and other researchers became interested in healthier ways of treating these effects through plants (because the medications appear to have side effects).
According to Dr. Small, there is epidemiological evidence that Alzheimer’s disease levels are lower in certain areas of the world than others — like this Indian village — and one theory is that spicy food is contributing to this reduced danger. “Besides, curry,” he says. “And curry is made of curcumin.” Curry, ICYMI, gets their curcumin mainly from the turmeric spice.
In a small double-blind study published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychology, he put this hypothesis to the test, showing that curcumin had a significant effect on memory and attention in adults 50 to 90 years of age who had mild memory complaints. Curcumin has improved memory in this population by 28 per cent over 18 months. Also, they experienced mild mood improvements. While it is not known the exact mechanism by which this effect happens, Dr. Small says it possibly has something to do with the anti-inflammatory benefits of curcumin. Dr. Small is currently working to organize a study that will demonstrate these advantages in a larger cohort.
The curcumin in turmeric was also shown to make docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) more available in the brain, according to Dr. Wise. DHA is a type of omega-3 fatty acids that is essential to the preservation of brain health — decreases in brain DHA are associated with cognitive impairment and the onset of Alzheimer. This, too, has mental health benefits as an added bonus, as higher rates of DHA are correlated with lower anxiety.
Until at least the 7th century BC the antioxidant-rich spice saffron has been used medicinally and today evidence suggests it can have neuroprotective benefits. A small 2010 study found that a daily dose of 15 milligrams of saffron provided a significantly better effect on cognitive function than a placebo, according to Megan Obreiter, RD, clinical dietitian at USC Verdugo Hills Hospital; however, this effect vanished after 22 weeks. Still, another Iranian study found that saffron after one year of use was comparable in efficacy to the Alzheimer’s drug memantine, and another study found that it protected mice from neurotoxins.
Although more work obviously needs to be done, adding this spice to your diet is not the worst idea if you can afford it, particularly because it is extremely delicious. (But if not, there’s no worry — there’s plenty of other brain-healthy herbs and spices on this list, too.)
Rosemary is one of the best brain-healing plants. Obreiter says memory improvement has been seen in older adults. Owing to its anti-inflammatory effects, it has also been shown to prevent brain cell death and protect against neurodegenerative diseases, among other benefits.
Sage has traditionally been used for its brain benefits, and studies in this approach bear wisdom. Both Obreiter and Dr Wise note that in older adults with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s, the herb has been shown to enhance memory and cognition. There was also significant enhanced memory in healthy individuals.
A 2015 animal study found that a cinnamon extract has helped protect laboratory rats from cognitive dysfunction, Dr. Wise says. It might also have neuroprotective benefits in Parkinson’s patients. It has also been used for a long time to boost circulation, and can theoretically also help control blood sugar levels.
A nutrient found in the ubiquitous-at-the-holidays spice nutmeg can help improve cognition and memory, some studies suggest.
Ginger offers many health advantages and has been proven particularly effective in the diagnosis of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. It is great for digestion and inflammation fighting too.