Fruits, Berries, Spinach and Memory!  What do they all have in common?

Guest author, Dr. John Baker, PT, NCS, GCS, NDT, DScPT
Director, Rehabilitation Development LifeBridge Health

bowl of berries I would guess we all agree that it is important for a baby to get good nutrition to help with the young brain’s development. That’s one reason medical providers encourage pre‐natal vitamins and nutrients and breast milk or nutrient rich baby formula after birth. A lot of studies have demonstrated this. That is one of many reasons why there are free school meals for low‐income children at school. As a community, we decided that good nutrition was an important investment in a child’s early brain and body development.

A Pop Tart on the way out the door won’t cut it.

Now that we are living longer, there are new diseases that rarely occurred until the last 150 years. Osteoporosis and some dementias are now more common because we are living longer. 200‐300 years ago, the average “working person” lived to be about 50. That was the norm.

Now, someone born in 2023 is expected to live to be twice that, about 100. So, if good nutrition is important in developing early brain development, is it also important maintaining or even improving brain health as we age into our later years, to assist with attention, learning and making memories?

A lot of research in the last few years have focused on “gut‐health” and we have learned that keeping the “gut” in good standing is desirable and advantageous to our overall well‐being. But what is “gut‐health?” To keep it simple, your gut microbiome is the foundation of your physical health. Good gut health occurs when you have a balance between the good (helpful) and bad (potentially harmful) bacteria and yeast in your digestive system. In fact, we now know that 80% of your immune system is in the gut, and the majority of your body’s serotonin is, too.

Remember serotonin is a neurotransmitter involved in many things, including cognition, learning, and memory So, simply, if your gut isn’t healthy, then your immune system and hormones won’t function, and you will get sick. Your body will struggle to get rid of toxins which begins a downward spiral that tons of articles and research now supports.

The term “brain fog” is now correlated well to poor gut health. More recently, much research is looking at what nutrients in foods can help with attention, learning and memory. It has already been established long ago that for learning to occur, you must have someone’s attention. Many of us know the benefits of coffee beans, or the substance in them called caffeine that have short‐term effects to increase mental alertness, necessary for attention…the starting point for learning or for a memory to be made. My wife and I start our day with coffee…before a conversation or John may not remember what she said, really!

Late last month, a large study was published that covered a 15‐year period and was funded by National Institutes of Health and the Mars Edge…think big candy company. Dr Scott Small, a professor of neurology and director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons states in a U.S. News & World Report article, “This is the first time we can conclude that flavanols are acting as a nutrient for the aging brain. We show in this study, because we had biomarkers of flavanols, that if you’re relatively deficient in your flavanols, that seems to be driving your age‐related memory decline…I’d like to believe that this is one of the first studies that is beginning to establish that dietary recommendation,” Small said.

Why did researchers look at flavanols? Because previous research in mice found that a particular substance in flavanols called epicatechin enhanced the growth of neurons and blood vessels, improving memory. Impressive.

Emma Laing is director of dietetics at the University of Georgia and a national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that “the role of flavanols on neurological health is an exciting, ongoing area of research with a lot to learn but intentionally adding flavanol‐rich foods to your eating pattern is a relatively simple lifestyle change that you could make to support your health.” As a physical therapist, I want to be quick to add that getting enough sleep, daily exercising, staying well‐hydrated and avoiding alcohol are all very important too.

But, I digress.

But what foods are rich in flavanols? Think colorful foods…blue and red berries, peaches and apples…yes, the red apple skin, yellow, red and orange peppers, vegetables, tea, and of course dark chocolate…thus the Mars candy company funding for some of the research. So, if you consider yourself a “meat and potatoes guy,” maybe it’s time to reconsider.

Your memory may depend on it.

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