Sept. 22, 2004 -- We all know by now that eating a healthful diet rich in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables can help us stay slim and lower our risk for heart disease, but did you know that a growing body of research shows that this type of diet also preserves memory, boosts alertness, and may even stave off the blues and prevent Alzheimer's disease!
It's true! "Nutrition plays a significant and crucial role over the long run and the short run in brain health," says Ray Sahelian, MD, a Marina Del Ray, Calif.-based physician and author of Mind Boosters. "We can maintain a healthy and active mind well into our 80s and 90s by eating properly," he tells WebMD.
Eating More E
"For a long time, people believed that a common component of vitamin E called alpha tocopherol was most important, but another form called gamma tocopherol is definitely a protective antioxidant in brain disorders," says Aimee Shunney, ND, the coordinator of the educational and wellness program at Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn, N.Y.
When you consume food rich in vitamin E, including almonds, green leafy vegetables, corn oil, sunflower oil, hazelnuts, and whole-grain flour, you get both alpha tocopherols and gamma tocopherols, she says. If you are choosing supplements, look for vitamin E with "mixed tocopherols" and take 400 IU a day, she says. Vitamin functions as an antioxidant and the brain is particularly susceptible to free radicals (damaging, unstable molecules). Some research indicates that vitamin E can delay progression of Alzheimer's disease and/or prevent it from occurring in the first place by reducing the free radicals damage!
B Good to Yourself
"B vitamins are involved in helping the formation of brain chemicals such as dopamine, epinephrine, and serotonin," Sahelian says. In fact, each B vitamin plays its own role in preserving brain function and mental acuity. Starting from folic acid (a B complex), which helps in the early brain development, these vitamins help in many aspects of metabolism. A few recent studies have shown a link between declines in memory and Alzheimer's disease in the elderly and inadequate levels of folic acid, vitamin B12, and vitamin B6. Reduced levels of folate are associated with high levels of homocysteine -- a marker of heart disease and stroke.
"Vitamin B12 has a number of roles including helping in the formation of myelin," Sahelian says. Myelin forms layers or a sheath around the nerve fibers and acts as insulation. Sahelian points out that B12 is mainly found in meats (beef, pork, lamb, veal, fish, and poultry), and an as result, vegetarians may be deficient. This deficiency could lead to nerve damage, memory loss, low moods, and mental slowness. His advice? Shoot for between 3 and 100 micrograms a day.
It worked for nutritionist Molly Kimball's grandmother. "Sometimes as people age, they have impaired absorption of B12," says Kimball, a nutritionist at the Ochsner Clinic's Elmwood Fitness Center in New Orleans. In fact, B12 deficiency can present as similar to Alzheimer's disease, she says. "My grandmother couldn't make sense until her doctor supplemented her B12," she tells WebMD.
Filling Up on Folate
Folic acid or folate is another important B vitamin for the brain, says Sahelian. "Getting adequate folate can make one a little more alert, and improve memory and focus." It helps lower blood levels of the amino acid homocysteine that is known to damage brain cells, he explains. It's found in abundant supply in many foods including beans, fruits, green leafy vegetables, lentils, and whole-wheat cereals. Shoot for 400 micrograms a day, he says.
Stirring Up Serotonin With B6
Vitamin B6 helps convert 5-hydroxy-tryptophan (5HTP) in into the mood chemical serotonin and it also helps in making dopamine. "These are big mood and alertness chemicals," he says. Aim for roughly 2 to 10 milligrams a day if you supplement. B6-rich foods include bell peppers, cranberries, turnip greens, cauliflower, garlic, tuna, mustard greens, and kale.
Magnesium is an important brain nutrient because it protects the brain from neurotoxins," says City Island, N.Y.-based Carolyn Dean, ND, MD, author of The Miracle of Magnesium. "Some enlightened surgeons give extra magnesium to their patients before and during surgery, especially brain surgery, for this reason," she tells WebMD. The dosage for protecting the brain in general is 300 milligrams one to three times a day. According to Dean, nuts, seeds, dark leafy greens, and whole grains have magnesium, but most other foods have little, she says. "Cooked and processed foods also lose a lot of magnesium making it a very deficient mineral."
Seeing to More C
"Vitamin C is an important antioxidant that can intercept free radicals before they affect the brain," says Dean, also the health advisor to yeastconnection.com. It's found in foods such as broccoli, legumes, oranges, potatoes, and strawberries. If you are taking supplements, aim for 500 micrograms once or twice a day, she says. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University found that people taking vitamins C and E were 78% less likely to have had a diagnosis of Alzheimer's at the study's start and 64% less likely to have developed the disease four years after the study began.