Eat Your (Dark Green) Vegetables for Better Brain Health
We’ve heard for years that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is the cornerstone of good health. In recent years, a particular group of vegetables – dark green leafy vegetables – have emerged as superstars in the specific realm of brain health. This group, which includes kale, spinach, collard greens, and Swiss chard, among others, boasts a rich nutrient profile that has been linked to a host of cognitive benefits. So let’s explore into the scientific evidence supporting the notion that consuming more dark green leafy vegetables is indeed good for the brain and conclude with a very recent study that validates this notion.
- Rich in Antioxidants: Dark green leafy vegetables are abundant in antioxidants, such as vitamin C, beta-carotene, and flavonoids. These molecules combat oxidative stress by neutralizing free radicals – reactive molecules that can damage cellular structures, including those in the brain. Oxidative stress has been linked to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. By countering oxidative stress, the antioxidants in leafy greens may well go a long way to offering neuroprotection.
- Vitamin K and Cognitive Health: Vitamin K, abundant in dark green leafy vegetables, is a fat-soluble vitamin crucial for the synthesis of sphingolipids, a type of lipid present in high amounts in brain cell membranes Recent studies have suggested that individuals with higher intakes of dietary vitamin K have superior cognitive performance and slower cognitive decline than those with lower intakes.
- Folate and Brain Function: Folate, another essential nutrient found abundantly in leafy greens, has a well-established role in neurodevelopment. It assists in the synthesis and repair of DNA and RNA, aids in the methylation processes crucial for normal neuronal function, and is vital in the production of neurotransmitters. A deficiency in folate has been linked to developmental cognitive problems and increased risk of depression.
- Nitrate-Rich Greens Improve Blood Flow: Dark green vegetables such as spinach and lettuce are high in dietary nitrates. In the body, these nitrates are converted into nitric oxide, a molecule that dilates blood vessels and thereby improves blood flow, including to the brain. Enhanced blood flow can augment cognitive function by ensuring a steady supply of oxygen and nutrients to brain cells. A study published in “Nitric Oxide” reported that dietary nitrate intake from greens enhanced the efficiency of the cells in the brain’s frontal cortex, an area associated with executive function. In addition, nitric oxide is important for the function of insulin which facilitates the brain’s ability to use glucose. To learn more about this fascinating topic, watch this interview I had with Dr. Nathan Bryan.
- Lutein and Zeaxanthin – Protecting the Brain: Lutein and zeaxanthin, carotenoids found predominantly in dark green leafy vegetables, accumulate in the brain and appear to have neuroprotective properties. Emerging evidence suggests that higher lutein and zeaxanthin levels are linked to improved cognitive function across the lifespan.
- Phytochemicals and Brain Health: Dark green leafy vegetables also contain other phytochemicals such as glucoraphanin, the precursor to sulforaphane (found in broccoli), and quercetin (found in kale). These phytochemicals have been demonstrated to have anti-inflammatory properties and may protect against neurodegenerative diseases by combating inflammation, a known contributor to several brain diseases.
In a new study, published this year entitled, Association of Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay and Mediterranean Diets With Alzheimer Disease Pathology, researchers, publishing in the journal, Neurology, studied the brains of 581 individuals after they had died. Prior to the deaths of these individuals, their dietary patterns were analyzed.
The study revealed that those individuals who had pursued nutrition more in line with the popular Mediterranean diet had a significantly lower level of brain changes including accumulation of what many consider to be as toxic form of a protein called β-amyloid as well as another marker of Alzheimer’s-related changes called phosphorylated tau tangles.
And importantly, those who reported higher rates of consumption of a specific food group also showed a remarkably reduced propensity for the Alzheimer’s brain changes. And what were the foods? You guessed it. It was the dark green vegetables.
So, there’s quite a bit of scientific evidence supporting the notion that consuming more dark green leafy vegetables has numerous benefits for the brain. Whether it’s the antioxidant properties that combat oxidative stress, the cognitive benefits derived from Vitamin K, the mood-regulating properties of folate, or the improved blood flow from dietary nitrates (think nitric oxide) – the message is clear. Including more of these green superfoods in our diet can offer tangible benefits to our cognitive health and overall brain function.