Phytonutrients and How They Benefit Brain Health
Nowhere is the adage “you are what you eat” more true than when it comes to brain health. Despite representing only about 2% of your body weight, your brain uses 20% of the body’s oxygen and calories! Putting unhealthy foods into your body may leave you feeling foggy, sluggish, or mentally unfocused. As a result, it is essential to eat healthy foods that nourish your brain and body. A special group of nutrients called phytonutrients have gotten a lot of recent attention for their significant benefits for brain health.
What Are Phytonutrients?
The word “phytonutrient” literally means “plant nutrient.” Also called phytochemicals, these are beneficial nutrients derived from plant sources. Phytonutrients play a variety of roles in the cells of plants. They prevent insect attacks, protect the plants from harmful UV radiation, repel bacterial infections, and help to support plant life.
Scientists have long known that fruits and vegetables are healthy. However, the primary focus of many nutrition experts has been on macronutrients (such as fats, carbohydrates, and proteins) as well as essential vitamins and minerals. Now, researchers are beginning to characterize the health effects of micronutrients such as certain phytochemicals.
Unlike many vitamins and minerals, your body does not depend on phytochemicals for healthy functioning. For example, you would die without enough calcium or vitamin D. You will not expire from lack of phytonutrients, but your brain and body may not function optimally. Phytonutrients provide the boost that many of us need to stay happy and healthy.
Types of Phytonutrients and Their Effects on Brain Functioning
There are more than 20,000 forms of phytonutrients found in nature. Scientists have just scraped the tip of the iceberg in studying how they affect human health. However, several phytonutrients have emerged as major contributors to brain health. These include:
• Resveratrol. Resveratrol is a potent phytochemical found in the skin of red grapes. Eating foods rich in resveratrol lowers blood sugar and reduces inflammation. Even more exciting, resveratrol may benefit brain health. A recent study found that in older adults, taking resveratrol improved verbal memory. Those who took a resveratrol supplement also had greater connectivity between the hippocampus and other brain areas. The hippocampus is the brain’s center for learning and memory. Although scientists do not yet understand how resveratrol has its positive effects, it may prevent memory decline.
• Pterostilbene. Pterostilbene is a chemical cousin of resveratrol. It also appears to improve cognitive functioning and may lead to clearer mental thought. Additionally, pterostilbene benefits cardiovascular functioning. Because the brain relies on constant blood flow to perform optimally, better vascular health translates to superior brain health.
• Sulforaphane. Sulforaphane is a phytonutrient found in cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage. This molecule is an antioxidant, meaning that it combats ongoing damage to brain cells. Sulforaphane has powerful anti-inflammatory properties. Although the exact mechanism by which it improves brain health is not entirely understood, it is likely that this anti-inflammatory effect leads to an improvement in thinking. Too much inflammation in the brain can slow down mental processes and interfere with concentration. Eating foods rich in sulforaphane may help.
• Carotenoids. The carotenoids include such phytonutrients as lutein and zeaxanthin. These are found in green leafy vegetables and corn. It has long been known that these carotenoids improve eye health, but researchers have recently discovered that they also benefit the brain. In a study of older men, those who consumed high levels of carotenoids had better memory and verbal skills.
Boost Your Diet to Include More Phytonutrients
Eating a poor diet may lead to a variety of cognitive issues. Consider the following common cognitive symptoms:
• Feeling mentally foggy
• Difficulty concentrating
• Misplacing everyday objects
• Slowed processing speed
• Difficulty finding the right word to say
These cognitive problems can manifest in individuals of any age. Diet plays a big role in cognitive health, and altering the foods you eat can alleviate many of these symptoms. In particular, it is essential to focus on getting enough phytonutrients to support your brain.
To ensure you get enough phytonutrients, aim to eat 5 to 7 servings of fruits and vegetables per day. If this seems like a lot to you, start small. Add one fruit or vegetable serving to your plate each day. After a month, add another daily serving to your diet. Soon, you will find abundant ways to get the fruits and vegetables you need.
Phytonutrients are found in nearly all fruits and vegetables, but some are more beneficial than others. Look for fruits and veggies with deep colors, and eat across the color spectrum. Each day, select from dark green (e.g., kale, mustard greens, broccoli), purple or deep blue (e.g., blueberries, red grapes, beets), orange (e.g., carrots, mangoes, pumpkin), and red (e.g., strawberries, tomatoes, pomegranate) foods. This ensures that you get a good balance of phytonutrients.
As you relax in the evening, enjoy a glass of red wine. Red wine is full of resveratrol, a phytonutrient known associated with improved cognitive functioning and decreased risk of dementia. Women should limit themselves to just one glass per day, while men may have up to two glasses daily. For non-drinkers, peanuts, red grapes, and dark berries also contain relatively high levels of resveratrol.
Changing your diet to include more phytonutrients is an investment in your mental and cognitive health. Consider this a lifelong change toward a healthier, happier, and clearer-thinking you.