Of all the things to worry about in the world right now, you’d be forgiven if dementia—aka the loss of cognitive function—failed to make the top of your list. However, dementia is on the rise in the U.S; its most prevalent form, Alzheimer’s disease, is now the sixth-leading cause of death. So while you shouldn’t add this to an increasingly ceaseless inventory of things-which-prevent-sleep, it can’t hurt to ever-so-slightly tweak your diet to be more brain health-centric.
Simply put, this means eating more plants, and that includes spices and herbs for brain health. While research is still fairly early stage, Gary W. Small, M.D., director of the UCLA Longevity Center, says that existing studies so far suggest that the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits of certain plants can positively affect brain health.
“Plant-based compounds called polyphenols are effective antioxidants, and oxidation is not a good thing in the brain when it creates free radicals that can screw up cellular functioning,” says neuroscientist Nan Wise, PhD. Meanwhile, after certain anti-inflammatory drugs, e.g. Aleve or Motrin, were shown to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s in older people, Dr. Small and other researchers became interested in safer ways to exert those effects via plants, (since the drugs tend to have side effects).
Below, all the deets on which herbs and spices look promising with respect to brain health based on the existing research, so you can curate your (quarantine) herb garden and spice rack accordingly.
According to Dr. Small, there’s epidemiological evidence showing that rates of Alzheimer’s disease are lower in some parts of the world than others—like this village in India—and one hypothesis is that spicy food contributes to this decreased risk. “Particularly, curry,” he says. “And curry is made made up from curcumin.” Curry, ICYMI, gets its curcumin primarily from the spice turmeric.
He put this hypothesis to the test in a small double-blind study, published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychology, which showed that curcumin did have a significant effect on memory and attention in adults aged 50 to 90 who had mild memory complaints. Over 18 months, curcumin improved memory in this population by 28 percent. They also experienced mild improvements in mood. Though the exact mechanism by which this effect happens is not known, Dr. Small says it likely has something to do with curcumin’s anti-inflammatory benefits. Dr. Small is currently at work organizing a study that will demonstrate these benefits in a larger cohort.
According to Dr. Wise, the curcumin in turmeric has also been shown to make Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) more available in the brain. DHA is a form of omega-3 fatty acids that is critical for maintaining brain health—decreases in DHA in the brain are associated with cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s onset. As an added bonus, this has mental health benefits, too, as higher DHA levels are associated with lowered anxiety.
What can’t turmeric do? A top dietitian explains its many health benefits beyond brain health:
The antioxidant-rich spice saffron has been used medicinally since at least the 7th century BC and today, research is showing it may have neuroprotective benefits. According to Megan Obreiter, RD, clinical dietitian at USC Verdugo Hills Hospital, a small 2010 study showed that a daily dose of 15 milligrams of saffron produced a significantly better effect on cognitive function than a placebo; however, after 22 weeks this effect disappeared. Still, another study out of Iran found that saffron was comparable in efficacy to the Alzheimer’s drug memantine after one year of use, and another study found that it protected mice from neurotoxins. While more research clearly needs to be done, it’s not the worst idea to add this spice to your diet if you can afford it, especially given that it’s extremely delicious. (But if not, no worries—there are lots of other brain-healthy herbs and spices on this list that are great too.)
Rosemary is one of the best herbs for brain health. Obreiter says it has been shown to improve memory in older adults. It’s also been shown to inhibit brain cell death and protect against neurodegenerative diseases, among other benefits, likely thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties.
Sage has been utilized traditionally for its brain benefits, and studies bear out the wisdom in this approach. Both Obreiter and Dr. Wise mention that the herb has been shown to improve learning and cognition in older adults with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s. Improved memory in healthy individuals has also been noted.
A 2015 animal study showed that an extract made from cinnamon helped protect lab rats from cognitive impairment, says Dr. Wise. It might also have neuroprotective benefits in Parkinson’s patients. It’s also long been used to improve circulation and can even potentially help regulate blood sugar levels.
Some research suggests that a nutrient found in the ubiquitous-at-the-holidays spice nutmeg may help improve cognition and memory.
Ordinary old pepper is not to be overlooked either, says Wise. It’s been shown to improve memory deficit.
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