Health and Nutrition

Neuroprotectors in Our Food

Gregg Carroll - Sunday, April 21, 2013

According to a 2010 report on neurodegenerative diseases, every year more than 10 million people suffer from neurodegenerative diseases globally, and this figure is expected to grow by 20% over the next decade. Pharmaceutical-based research reveals that the market for this sector is estimated at reaching $20 billion by 2014. For more than a decade, researchers have been looking at ways to prevent neurodegenerative diseases that will ultimately place a heavy burden on our health care system. These statistics are certainly not welcome news in an era of such tremendous technological advancement.

Neurodegenerative diseases are a group of progressive nerve disorders that damage or destroy the function of neurons. Various alternatives have been explored to find side-effect-free prevention and treatment methods for these diseases that threaten active living. Neuroprotectors that exist in our food is one such niche that has recently captured the attention of scientists and neurologists. Neuroprotectors are essentially nerve protecting nutrients and natural compounds that have play a role in preventing neurodegenerative diseases.

What Does a Neuroprotector Do?

Neuroprotection is a concept in neuroscience research that suggests that specific factors such as diet and lifestyle changes can offer protection to nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. Neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, and Parkinson’s are likely to have many causes, but studies suggest that dietary factors also play a significant role in protection from nerve degenerative conditions.

Most neuroprotectors in food are antioxidants or anti-inflammatory agents that offer protection from degenerative conditions by repressing trigger factors. Abundant evidence indicates that chronic inflammatory conditions play a predominant role in the development of neurodegenerative conditions. Extensive research over the last decade has indicated that certain foods and their nutrient components target the inflammatory pathways and thereby offer protective benefits from neurodegenerative diseases.

Food Neuroprotectors

Certain foods have long been in use among certain cultures for their profound neuroprotective abilities. These include, herbs, spices, seeds, and other plant parts. These foods have been incorporated into their daily menu in order to promote nerve and brain health. Some examples are spices, such as turmeric (curcumin), cinnamon, condiments like ginger and garlic, and herbs such as holy basil. The positive effects that these foods have in common include:

• Potent antioxidant activity

• Anti-inflammatory activity

• Anti-proliferative effect

What Do You Need for Better Brain and Nerve Health?

1. Sulfur-containing aminoacids: Sulfur is an important mineral component in protein-rich foods. The trace mineral sulfur is present in the aminoacids taurine, methionine, glutathione and cysteine. Sulfur is primarily stored in the brain and nerves, and the rest in the liver, nails and skin. Rich plant source of sulfur-containing aminoacids are kale, wheat germ, brussel sprouts, garlic, onions legumes and beans.

2. Phenylalanine rich foods: Phenylalanine is an essential aminoacid present in most plant foods. Phenylalanine is required for producing three vital chemical messengers in the brain. Phenylalanine is converted into tyrosine in the brain, which helps produce epinephrine, norepinephrine and levodopa. Deficiency of phenylalanine leads to fatigue, depression and Parkinson's disease. Most nuts, especially almonds, seeds, soy, asparagus, peas, lentils (chick peas, black beans, adzuki beans, red lentils, and mung beans are rich sources of this nutrient.

3. Tryptophan rich foods: Tryptophan is a precursor of two important compounds, melatonin and serotonin, that induce calmness and promote sleep. Melatonin helps to regulate the circadian cycle, and serotonin influences sleep, calmness, and appetite. Low levels of tryptophan are said to cause migraines, sleeplessness, hyperactivity in children and inflammation. Rich food sources include whole grains such as brown rice (providing nearly 20%), oats (25%), barley (40%) and beans such as kidney, black, navy, and chick peas.

4. Polyphenol rich foods: Polyphenols are the magic antioxidant compounds that are one of nature's powerful tools in fighting off free radical damage. Whole grains, legumes, unrefined plant foods, fruits and vegetables are rich source of polyphenols. Others include bitter astringent plant foods such as pomegranates, onions, and green tea.

5. Vitamin E rich foods: This fat soluble vitamin is well-known to prevent and heal nerve damage. Diabetic patients are encouraged to consume vitamin E rich foods and are prescribed vitamin E rich supplements as they are susceptible to nerve damage. Sunflower seeds, almonds, pine nuts, pea nuts, dried herbs, olives, wheat germ, whole wheat grain, broccoli, bell peppers, collard, kale, spinach, dried apricots, tropical fruits like papaya and kiwi are some of nature's best vitamin E sources.

6. B vitamin rich foods: Vitamins, B6 and folic acid are popular nutrients in nerve health. They help maintain the key metabolic processes, calm the nerves and support adrenal function. B6 in particular is necessary for production of neurotransmitters, and is involved in preventing depression and premenstrual syndrome. Folic acid is used widely in the treatment of macular degeneration of the eyes, Alzheimer's disease, depression, sleep problems, and nerve pain. Folic acid is given as a supplement for pregnant women as it is crucial for the development of the neural tube in a fetus. Most dark greens, beans, nuts and seeds are rich in B vitamins.

7. Essential fats: These are polyunsaturated fats that are needed for essential brain function, hormonal function, and normal metabolism. Besides maintaining nerve health, they also promote heart health and prevent strokes. The brain requires omega-3 essential fats that are present in nuts, seeds, algae, and cold water fatty fish such as salmon and mackerel. The omega-3 fat ALA is abundant in plant sources such as nuts, and seeds. The human body converts ALA to another omega–3 fat EPA by adding two carbon atoms. Studies show that the conversion is efficient, however conversion of EPA to DHA is not and is largely depend on enzymes. If a given diet is high in omega-6 fats, there is a competition for these enzymes in the body, and consequently there is a poor conversion rate to DHA. Most recommendations therefore are to restrict omega-6 fats in the diet and increase the ALA-rich omega-3 fats. Another way to boost DHA is to consume algal supplements that are naturally high in DHA. According to Dr. Neal Bernard, if a diet is predominantly plant-based with nuts, fruits, vegetables, legumes and beans the food automatically provides an ideal 2:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega 3.

8. Include herbs and spices: Turmeric is a potent antioxidant spice that also has anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial effects. The compound curcuminoid is responsible for the yellow hue and nerve protective benefits of turmeric. Add a pinch to your recipes such as lentil soup, broth, gravies, vegetable preparation and rice dishes. Another important herb that has captured attention is the holy basil (called Tulsi) which has been shown to exhibit anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and antioxidant benefits. Thyme, oregano and scores of other herbs and condiments used in small quantities can have great protective benefits to you body.

Other Ways to Shield Your Nerves and Brain From Damage

Refrain from consuming meat: Study after study clearly indicates that meat contains saturated fat and cholesterol which increases the chance of Alzheimer's disease and stroke.

Steer clear of fish: Fish does contain omega-3 but it also comes with high cholesterol, as well as toxic contaminants which are all the more dangerous for nerve health. Dr. Neal Bernard in his book Power Foods For the Brain warns that many fish species are fatty, with only 15-30% of the required omega-3 fats with the remaining 70-85% a blend of saturated and unsaturated fats. A eighteen-month old study on fish oil supplementation among patients with Alzheimer's showed no benefits.

Avoid too much omega-6 fats: Omega-6 fats compete for carbon atoms, hinder the efficient conversion of ALA to DHA, and thereby the activity of omega-3.

Say no to high fructose corn syrup, refined carbohydrates and trans fats: High fructose corn syrup lurks everywhere, in bread, flavored drinks, certain canned foods, fruit juices, jellies and so on. The hydrogenated oil in processed and deep fried foods are strongly inflammatory.

Nutrient Importance Food
Sulfur containing foods. Synthesis of nerve protectors. onions, kale, legumes, beans
Phenylalanine rich foods. Produces chemical messengers. seeds, almonds, chick peas, adzuki, red lentils
Tryptophan rich foods. Promotes sleep, calms and maintains appetite. brown rice, barley, whole grains
Polyphenols Antioxidant effects. green tea, dark greens, whole grains, legumes, pomegranates, astringent tasting foods
Vitamin E Antioxidant, prevents nerve damage, used in treatment of depression. sunflower seeds, almonds, pine nuts, pea nuts, dried herbs, olives, wheat germ, whole wheat grain
Vitamin B Production of neurotransmitters , supports adrenal function, relieves stress. most dark greens, beans, nuts and seeds
Essential fats. Normal metabolism and brain function. rich availability in nuts and seeds as ALA, small amounts in fruits and vegetables.

Apart from the above mentioned nutrients there are several others present in natural foods that play a role in maintaining good nerve health. In addition, it is also necessary to adhere to a regular exercise schedule and de-stress through meditation and a good night's rest.

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