Food and the Brain: Antioxidants

This is a guest blog post by Jennifer Lee, Ph.D.

Everybody is talking about antioxidants. It’s hard to keep up with all the latest “superfoods” and their supposed antioxidant benefits. But few people can explain why it is that we need so many antioxidants. We’ll try to elucidate …

What you need to know:

As it turns out, antioxidants may be very important for your nervous system’s health (and the rest of your body, too). They seem to prevent the harmful consequences of too much of a basic process called oxidative stress.

Oxidative stress is a cellular process that takes place in our brains and bodies every day, all the time. To a certain extent, it is normal: Our cells contain “reactive oxygen species.” These are chemically reactive, oxygen-containing molecules (like peroxides) that are a natural result of oxygen metabolism. In high volumes, these molecules are up to no good. But the body can handle them and detoxify itself at low levels.

However, our modern, industrial world includes an abundance of environmental stressors, from toxins in our food supply, air, medications, stress, even sunlight. These stressors can increase our levels of reactive oxygen species to a detrimental extent, causing cell structure damage. Our systems can no longer detoxify as well as they need to. And that’s how toxins and free-radicals can accumulate in the body. It’s a vicious cycle.

The central nervous system is particularly vulnerable to some of the toxic effects of oxidative stress. Examples include changes in calcium buffering ability, reductions in redox active iron and glutamine synthetase, alterations in membrane structures and microenvironments, and other scary stuff.

This can lead to degenerative changes in brain regions such as the striatum, cerebellum, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex––regions responsible in part for motor function (e.g. balance, coordination) and cognitive ability (e.g. spatial learning, memory). Deficits in these areas make for some of the neurological downgrades of aging and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Schizophrenia, and even Autism in the developing brain.

So how do we make our brains less susceptible to over-stressing (oxidatively, that is)? What can we do to prevent––or reverse––such crippling neurological and behavioral deficits?

The easiest answer is probably to consume more antioxidants.

All plants synthesize a multitude of chemical compounds that enhance the plant’s survival odds. Some of these compounds are anthocyanins: natural pigments responsible for the yellow, red, and blue hues of fruits, flowers, and vegetables. They protect the plant from UV overdose, among other things.

Ever heard that the more intense the color of the fruit or vegetable you’re eating, the better it is for you? Perhaps this is why. Anthocyanins are reportedly potent antioxidants, working by chemically reducing the effects of oxidative stress. Animal models of antioxidant effects in the brain have revealed the benefits of these super-nutrients at the behavioral, neurological, and cellular levels. Their helpful effects also apply to brains and nervous systems that are both young and healthy (prevention), and diseased and aged (reversing damage). The antioxidants used in most of these studies are derived from:

  • Blueberry
  • Strawberry
  • Spinach
  • Boysenberry
  • Cranberry
  • Black currant
  • Dried plum
  • Grape
  • Vitamin E

To summarize, research suggests that antioxidants enhance neuronal function in areas of the brain affected by aging or disease. This allows for more effective communication among areas of the brain, which facilitates ideal cognitive and motor function. And since oxidative stress starts in the young brain and accumulates in the old, early consumption of antioxidant-rich foods may prevent or delay the onset of neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s.

So invite antioxidants to the family dinner table more often. Most of them taste great, and they might even help you remember those moments later in life!

Information in part from “Oxidative Stress and Inflammation in Brain Aging: Nutritional Considerations,” Neurochemical Research, 30 (2005) 927-935.

Jennifer Lee is a behavioral scientist who received her Ph.D. in psychobiology and learning.  She is a psychology instructor, researcher, and writer in studies of human and animal behavior.


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  • Jenn

    My son is autistic and I have found his diet plays an important role in his behaviors. The more healthy (organic) the foods are, the better his day goes. This has proven to be difficult for my son prefers peanut butter or macaroni and cheese at every meal. I have had to be very sneaky such as mashing blueberries or strawberries and use it as “jelly”. I also make our own “ice cream” with fruit and veggies pureed. It take trial and errors to find a right balance. But in the end it’s worth it.

  • Pingback: Food and the Brain: Antioxidants via @Fooducate « Thor's Reads

  • Anonymous

    For Jennifer, can you cite some research about your statement regarding antioxidant foods preventing or delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s, specifically the prevention of Alzheimer’s.  Would this include people with a genetic tendency for Alzheimer’s?

    I recently went to a conference that partly focused on Alzheimer’s, and what I got out of it, is that regular exercise may have a role in delaying the onset of symptoms.

    Certainly diseases like hypertension and diabetes, which have a connection to healthy eating, might hasten the appearance of symptoms of cognitive decline.

    • Jennifer Lee

      I believe this would include people with a genetic tendency for Alzheimer’s, although that is a tricky question to answer because we really don’t know enough about genetic causes for Alzheimer’s yet.  Here are some articles for you (although this list is in no way comprehensive!):

      Casadesus et al. (2002).  Qualitative versus quantitative caloric intake: are they equivalent paths to successful aging?  Neurobiol.  Aging 23:747-769.

      Joseph et al. (1998).  Long-term dietary strawberry, spinach, or vitamin E supplementation retards the onset of age-related neuronal signal-transduction and cognitive behavioral deficits.  J. Neurosci. 18(19):8047-8055.

      Joseph et al. (2004).  Fruit extracts antagonize AB or DA inducted deficits in CA2+ flux in M1 transfected COS 7 cells.  J. Alzheimer’s Disease 6:403-411.

      Joseph et al. (2003).  Blueberry supplementation enhavnces signaling and prevents behavioral deficits in an Alzheimer disease model.  Nutritional Neurosci. 6:153-163.

      Schroeter et al. (2002). MAPK signaling in neurodegeneration: influences of flavonoids and of nitric oxide.  Neurobiol. Aging 23:861-880.

      Hopefully some of those will at least point you in the right direction :]

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  • blah

    jennifer , is it feesible for me to smoke weed everyday as my brain slowly melts into oblivion??

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