Sunday, April 6, 2008

Berry Good For the Brain—The Role of Antioxidants

The following article is reprinted from my book The Spiritual Journey of Family Caregiving. The original article was published several years ago in a newsletter for Family Caregivers:

In the last few months I have written about Ayurvedic herbs and spices, in particular bacopa and turmeric, that appear to have a beneficial effect on the brain. Both of these herbs are antioxidants. The role of antioxidants has only just begun to be thoroughly researched but the implications for people with age-related brain impairment is potentially enormous. In this article I’ll attempt to explain what antioxidants are in simple terms and mention some tasty ways to add them to your life.

Why We Need Antioxidants

In the normal processes of digesting food and fighting germs and infection, the body produces tiny particles called free radicals which, in small quantities, are relatively harmless. We’re talking about something that happens on the atomic level. Free radicals are electrons that are pulled off their orbits around the nucleus of an atom and float free to interact with other atoms. There is nothing terribly frightening about this—it happens all the time. However, in sufficient quantities these particles can wreak havoc in our bodies because they have a magnetic charge that can pull electrons off of other atoms with which they come into contact. Those free radicals can destabilize even more atoms and, if the process isn’t stopped, eventually you can wind up with cell or tissue damage.

Luckily, antioxidants are designed to protect the body from this destructive cycle. When they meet a free radical they donate an electron to neutralize its electron-stealing tendencies but don’t become free radicals themselves because they have a highly stable atomic structure. Antioxidants are abundant in a healthy person who eats a varied diet rich in vitamins and other nutrients.

Unfortunately, when free radical production becomes excessive or antioxidants are missing, damage can occur. Poor health and environmental factors such as pollution, radiation, cigarette smoke and herbicides can all lead to excessive free radical production. The damage from this accumulates with age.

Eat Your Fruits and Vegetables!

The most abundant antioxidants found in the body are Vitamins E and C. Vitamin E is thought to be such an effective antioxidant that it has become standard practice to prescribe it in the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease and cardiovascular-related dementia. It appears to reduce the amount of plaque formation in arteries and veins and prevents tissue damage in the brain. Studies have shown that use of Vitamin E slows the course of Alzheimer’s Disease and may even reverse the effects of age-related memory loss in otherwise healthy people. Vitamin E is found in nuts, vegetable oils, wheat germ, whole grain cereals, eggs, and dark green leafy vegetables.

Vitamin C works synergistically with Vitamin E. It appears to have a particularly useful effect in combating free radical production caused by pollution and cigarette smoke and may offer some protection against cancer. Vitamin C is most abundantly found in fresh fruit and vegetables.

For most people adding Vitamin E and C supplements to the diet is probably not harmful but doctors warn against mega-doses because the long-term effect of large doses has not been determined. It is also likely that other nutrients found in natural sources of antioxidants may act synergistically with E and C to create beneficial effects. So do like mother told you and eat your fruits and vegetables! 5-8 servings a day is what nutritionists recommend. A serving is approximately the size of a tightly closed fist.

What food has the highest source of antioxidants?

Blueberries! The U.S.D.A. reports blueberries have 40% more antioxidant than the next highest foods, strawberries and spinach. Studies on rats at Tufts University showed that adding blueberry extract to the rats’ diet actually reversed age-related mental declines and improved balance and coordination. Previous studies have shown that blueberries can help lower blood pressure and improve vision.

Fresh berries are excellent but lightly cooked ones have an even greater effect. Try adding blueberries and nuts or wheat germ to your favorite muffin mix or pancakes. Here’s a quick and easy recipe you might enjoy:

Blueberry Clafoutti

4 c Blueberries
1 c Milk
1/3 c Sugar
2 Eggs
2 tsp Vanilla
1 1/4 c Flour
Dash salt
Grease and flour a baking dish or pie plate. Add berries. Combine milk, sugar, eggs, salt and vanilla in a blender. Add flour and blend until smooth. Pour over berries. Bake at 375º for 45 minutes or until golden and puffy.

Another Reason to Eat Your Fruits and Vegetables

According to a study by researchers at Boston University and Tufts University, people with high levels of homocysteine in their blood have twice the average risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease. Homocysteine is an amino acid which rises unacceptably in the body when a person’s diet is rich in animal protein but low in fresh fruits and vegetables. It is also associated with a higher incidence of heart disease and stroke. Fresh fruits and vegetables contain B vitamins and folic acid which help convert homocysteine into other amino acids which are not harmful.

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