Are berries good for the brain?

Dementia is an issue many of us would rather avoid as we age, and in recent years there has been considerable interest in specific dietary strategies that might help here. Seeing as about 70 per cent of the dry weight of the brain is fat (much of it saturated), I’m inclined to think a diet low in fat (as advocated by our governments and most health professionals) may not the way to go. The brain also contains about a quarter of all the cholesterol in the body, and this substance performs critical functions within the brain. This fact gives me another reason to doubt the wisdom of driving cholesterol levels to ever-lower levels.

One theory about the processes that underlie dementia concerns inflammation. Inflammation is generally a sign that something needs healing within the body. For example, an in-growing toenail can lead to inflammation – the cardinal signs of which are pain, redness and swelling. Inflammation results from the action of white blood cells (immune system cells) and the release of inflammatory substances. Sometimes, though, inflammation is not localised, but generalised throughout the body. This generalised inflammation, sometimes referred to as ‘systemic’ inflammation, is usually long-term (chronic) in nature, and it might pose hazards for the brain.

Inflammation in the lining of the arteries supplying blood to the brain might cause narrowing of these vessels leading to reduced blood supply to the brain (‘hypoperfusion’ of the brain). Also, there is increased risk that small areas of the brain will die (infarcts of the brain) due to lack of oxygen and nutrients. In fact, sometimes dementia is diagnosed as ‘multi-infarct dementia’. Apart from a negative effect on blood vessels, inflammation may be directly toxic to the brain.

Keeping inflammation to a minimum would seem to be good for the brain (as well as the rest of the body), and a couple of worthy strategies here would be to avoid spikes in blood sugar (these are inflammatory), and ensure we have a decent amount of omega-3 fat (generally anti-inflammatory) in the diet and not too much omega-6 fat (generally inflammatory). Some oily fish and/or grass-fed meat in the diet and a general avoidance of processed foods and vegetable oils will go a long way to achieving this end.

In addition to omega-3 fats, other dietary elements which may quell inflammation include plant chemicals known as polyphenols which are found in foods such as fruits, vegetables, coffee and cocoa. One class of polyphenols that have attracted recent attention with regard to brain health are known as anthocyanins, found abundantly in berries such as strawberries, raspberries and blueberries. Another potentially beneficial polyphenol which goes by the name of resveratrol is found in red grapes.

The value of these nutrients and the foods that offer them was recently highlighted in a review published on-line in the British Journal of Nutrition [1]. The review points our attention to evidence that shows supplementation with fruit juice appears to have the ability to enhance brain function in the elderly.

Another recent review highlighted the fact that berries can enhance beneficial signalling in the brain [2]. And a small study found some evidence for benefits in learning and memory in elderly individuals after 12 weeks supplementation with blueberry juice [3]. There’s nothing conclusive about this study, but it might provoke larger, longer and better-designed studies which will provide better insight into the role of polyphenols in maintaining and even enhancing brain function.

In the meantime, I don’t think it would be a bad idea to include some berries (fresh or frozen) in the diet.

References:

1. Cherniack EP. A berry thought-provoking idea: the potential role of plant polyphenols in the treatment of age-related cognitive disorders. Br J Nutr 2012 Apr 5:1-7. [Epub ahead of print]

2. Miller MG, et al. Berry Fruit Enhances Beneficial Signaling in the Brain. J Agric Food Chem. 2012 Feb 3. [Epub ahead of print]

3. Krikorian R, et al. Blueberry supplementation improves memory in older adults. J Agric Food Chem. 2010;58(7):3996-4000

11 Responses to Are berries good for the brain?

  1. Richard David Feinman 6 April 2012 at 6:05 pm #

    Don’t forget the value of the intense color in berries. As pointed out in my recent blog post at http://wp.me/16vK0, this is at the cutting edge of nutritional science.

  2. MikeS 6 April 2012 at 6:16 pm #

    Along the same lines — forestalling dementia — I’ve just read an outstanding book on Alzheimer’s and the ameleorating effects, indeed the restoration of some brain function, with coconut oil. It’s titled “Alzheimer’s, What if There Was a Cure?” It’s by a neonatal physician, Mary Newport, and her experience treating her husband with coconut oil in order to create ketone bodies. Part of the book reads like a novel, as she tries to provide her data to the Alzheimer’s science establishment, part consists of some good solid science and tons of background material on ketones and ketogenic diets.
    http://www.amazon.com/Alzheimers-Disease-What-There-Cure/dp/1591202930
    While we’re talking about polyphenols, I hope everybody noticed that popcorn (the hulls really) are a good source of polyphenols:
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/26/antioxidants-in-popcorn-polyphenols_n_1380334.html

    And on the topic Science magazine noted that our brain shrinks, because of the environmental insults we subject it to and its energy demands:

    “This is the million-dollar question,” Sherwood says. In the paper, the team points out that the larger human brain, which is more than three times as big as that of a chimp, also has much higher energy demands. Thus, the human brain uses up to 25% of the body’s total available energy when we’re at rest, compared with no more than about 10% for other primates.[ whose brains don't shrink].”
    Maybe if we relied more on ketones than glucose to fuel our brains we’d be better off.
    You can find the article here:
    http://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow/2011/07/the-incredible-shrinking-human-b.html
    Surely, Dr. Feinman will realize I’m not joking.

  3. Lesley 6 April 2012 at 9:10 pm #

    Whoops sorry John I thought your article was interesting and have shared it with my clients.

  4. ELIZABETH BRADSHAW 7 April 2012 at 3:46 pm #

    What about cranberries?

  5. Christopher Palmer 7 April 2012 at 7:39 pm #

    Dr Briffa,

    I wonder if you have time yet to explore the topic of ‘Earthing’ as covered in the book of the same name by Ober, Sinatra, and Zucker. If not I do highly recommend it.

    The idea of ‘Earthing’ is both simple and radical, and it seems all the more radical for being so simple. It is easy to be highly sceptical. But I can think of only one creature ‘intelligent’ enough to fashion so many constructs that result in insulation (electrical isolation) from the Earth itself. Where once we could scarcely escape having a proper connection with ‘ground’, our innovative abilities have resulted in a world in which the opportunities to ‘ground out’ can be few. Proper conductive contact with earth is a requisite for life with a precedent stretching back 3.9 billion years to the primordial soup. Now that is primal!

    If the ‘Earthing’ thesis is valid then it demands the medical textbooks be rewritten. Is it valid? I gave it a try and detected something.

    You’re right about the berries because they supply antioxidants that counter the free-radicals that signal and trigger inflammatory processes. Can tapping into free-electrons through ‘grounding’ also zap free-radicals?

    ‘Earthers’ claim to feel more wakeful and to be able to think more clearly – and I find it difficult, but (crucially) less so, to extricate myself from bed when the alarm sounds at 3am.

    Conditions seen as prevalent and on the rise in the developed world, such as dementia, Alzheimers, diabetes, MS etc., could owe their incidence to bilateral factors. First being the insults we throw at our bodies in the way of foods that don’t suit us and stressful lifestyles etc., ie factors associated with provoking inflammation – but then compounded by the second factor and circumstance in which free-radical zapping free-electrons are in short supply due to infrequent grounding.

  6. anthony Kerstein 8 April 2012 at 8:23 pm #

    In a New Scientist article some time ago two doctors found that an anti inflamatory anti-arthritis drug seemed to halt and even reverse Alzheimer’s. Their research also found that some old people with a lot of ‘plaques’ in their brains (shown on autopsies when they died) did not have Alzheimer’s. Sadly I cannot find the article but if I do I will pass it on.

  7. jake3_14 8 April 2012 at 11:31 pm #

    I’m not knocking the suggestion to eat berries (they’re great antioxidants), but based on my reading, it seems to me that dementia can have multiple causes at the same time:
    – inflammation
    – long-term overexposure to insulin — alzheimers as diabetes type 3 theory
    – insufficiency of cholesterol for neuronal signaling from statins

    I’d like to see Dr. Briffa do a longer review in the future where he considers the research literature for all three factors.

  8. Molly 11 April 2012 at 1:14 am #

    What about blackcurrants, blackberries, and elderberries?

  9. Bobbydean 13 April 2012 at 6:00 pm #

    So I need to take insulin, does that put me at higher risk of alzheimers?

  10. Donald G 22 April 2012 at 1:54 am #

    What about red wine?

  11. Mike 13 October 2012 at 1:53 pm #

    Although saturated fats and cholesterol are definitely good for you the brain actually doesn’t contain much saturated fatty acids. Instead it contains large amounts of Docasohexaenoic acid (22:6 omega 3) a Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid which has a very low viscosity to facilitate the high metabolic activity of this organ. The retina, heart, athletes skeletal muscle and spermatozoa also have high DHA levels. Good reading on this I’d suggest are Susan Allport’s Queen of Fats and Dr Artemis Simopoulos’s The Omega Diet. Both are superb reading :-)

Leave a Reply