What’s on your mind? 

Food for thought: Brain Health and Natural Medicine


Being a Baby Boomer, one of those who never want to grow up, I’m very keen to preserve both body and brain in order to enjoy life for as long as possible. I recently attended a conference (Brain Health and Natural Medicine, Swinburne University of Technology) that looked at ways of preventing brain-fade as we get older. Some key herbal remedies were mentioned, and an amazing array of activities and lifestyle options were identified as brain-enhancing. These included some I’m NOT advocating as they do not preserve body function as well: (smoking/nicotine, cocaine, amphetamines) and others should be taken in moderation (coffee/caffeine, alcohol, glucose, exercise, Red Bull, chewing gum)


The absolute best medicine for brains is moderate physical exercise.

Friends recently sent me two videos that show this very clearly. One presents the evidence for  walking just 30 minutes a day to save your life: 231/2 hours, see


The other is a program for motivating couch potatoes to start running: couch to 5km, http://www.coolrunning.com/engine/2/2_3/181.shtml



Mental exercise is also important, so learning a new language, and doing Sudoku’s and cross word puzzles is valuable, but physical exercise is THE most important element in improving and preserving vital blood circulation to the brain.Of course exercise is much more fun if you have the energy to do it. This is where foods that promote weight loss and herbs and natural therapies that improve circulation are valuable.For more information on what happens to your brain as you age, see my Research Articles page Getting inside your head.


Some well researched treatments that may save your brain cells.

Foods that have proved useful in well controlled clinical studies, (many carried out at Swinburne University, here in Melbourne) included:

1. Gingko and Ginseng extracts: these both improve brain circulation, with the combination of Gingko and Panax ginseng being most effective (Kennedy, Scholey et al. 2002).

2. Bacopa monnieri (available as liquid extract or tablets such as KeenMind from Floridis): is a good anti-inflammatory.. It has been shown to improve short term memory when taken over a three month period (Morgan and Stevens 2010).

3. Apples, grapes and green tea all contain high levels of proanthocyanidins. These phytochemicals play a role in maintaining blood vessel and muscle elasticity thus helping to preserve blood circulation in the brain and heart. They are found in many other plants, including, cinnamon, cocoa beans, cranberry, and black currants. Cocoa beans contain the highest concentrations. Studies show that proanthocyanidins are 20 times more powerful as antioxidants than vitamin C and 50 times more potent than vitamin E (Shi, Yu et al. 2003)

“An apple a day…..”  An apple contains about eight times the amount of proanthocyanidin found in a single serve of wine*, with some of the highest amounts found in the Red Delicious and Granny Smith varieties.

*Proanthocyanidins are the principal cardio protective chemical in red wine and are linked to a reduced risk of coronary heart disease and to lower overall mortality. Earlier studies that attributed this health benefit to resveratrol were incorrect, since is a negligible amount of resveratrol in red wine (Corder, Mullen et al. 2006). So it’s still OK to drink red wine (in moderation)

4. Maritime pine bark  A patented extract of maritime pine bark called Pycnogenol contains 65-75% proanthocyanidins. Studies at Swinburne (reported by C Slough) showed improved short term memory in older patients treated with Pycnogenol

5. Foods rich in vitamin B12 (meat, cheese, milk, eggs). Vitamin B12 is essential for nerve function and for efficient delivery of oxygen to brain cells. Deficiency of B12 is linked to senile dementia, with  slowing the flow of information in the brain, and blood low in haemoglobin causing oxygen deprivation of the brain cells..

6. Soy proteins, The American Heart Association recommended soy products such as tofu, soy butter, soy nuts. These foods are beneficial to cardiovascular and overall health because of their high content of polyunsaturated fats, fibre, vitamins and minerals and low content of saturated fat. The Swinburne studies also showed that soy foods improved cerebral blood flow.

7. Omega-3 fatty acids (in fish and flax oils) are essential fatty acids; they cannot be synthesized by the human body, but are vital for normal metabolism. Omega-3 fatty acids stimulate blood circulation, and can reduce blood pressure. In neurological studies supplementation with omega 3 fatty acids improved regeneration of nerve tissue, A number of studies also showed that these fatty acids improved both cardiac and cognitive function (Leslie Braun, Monash University).

8. CoQ10 This is a vitamin-like enzyme made by the body in the liver and used in the cellular energy transport system. It acts as an anti-oxidant and protects cell membranes Organs with the highest energy requirements (brain, heart, liver and kidney) normally have high CoQ10 concentrations. As we age, we produce less CoQ10, and deficiencies in vitamins B and C and taking oral Statins can cause CoQ10 deficiencies. Supplementation protects both heart and brain function (Lekli, Das et al. 2008) Meat, fish and vegetable oils are rich in CoQ10.

The bottom line:

The essential message here is that maintaining a healthy heart will keep your brain working well too. General good diet with adequate protein, carbohydrate and fat is essential for the maintaining brain function as we age (Kaplan, Greenwood et al. 2000). This, combined with moderate exercise (plus moderate wine, chocolate and caffeine!) may help us to think more clearly and enjoy life to the full during the inevitable aging process.

It’s all very well to live a long life, but we need quality of life as well as quantity in the years ahead.   




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