A natural pesticide that protects plants against insects may actually help your brain defend itself against Alzheimer’s disease.
And you may be drinking it every day already.
It’s the caffeine in coffee, tea, soft drinks and energy drinks. Surprised?
Most of us down caffeinated drinks to give ourselves an energy lift and deal with the workload of everyday life. But for the plants that generate caffeine in the first place, it serves as a pesticide that drives away insects and animals that would like to munch on their leaves and fruit.1
In our bodies, caffeine stimulates the central nervous system and makes us more alert.
But scientists are finding that beyond its stimulating effects, caffeine induces the brain to make more of an enzyme that fends off Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
According to researchers at the University of Indiana at Bloomington, the enzyme, known as NMNAT2 (nicotinamide mononucleotide adenylyl transferase 2 – just in case you need to know) helps improve the health of the brain in two crucial ways. . .
- It guards neurons from the destructive effects of stress.
- It keeps a protein called tau from folding the wrong way and forming masses of harmful plaques among the brain’s neurons.2
Proteins in the body often have a complex geometry and have to fold in just the right way to keep cells functioning properly. Wrinkled up, misfolded proteins, say the Indiana scientists, are involved in diseases that disable neurons.
The misfolded proteins have been linked to neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis ( ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease) as well as Alzheimer’s.
Caffeine helps to keep those proteins straightened out and in the right configuration.
Reducing Stress in Brain Cells
In another study, researchers in Portugal and France have shown that caffeine can keep your memory humming along in good working order as you get older by hooking up with a particular brain cell receptor. Left on its own, this receptor increases stress in brain cells and can slow your mental abilities as you age.3
The lab tests show that caffeine cools off the activity of this receptor, known as adenosine A2A, and keeps it from disrupting memory circuits in the brain’s hippocampus and cortex.
Drinking More Caffeine Equals Less Alzheimer’s
The brain benefits of caffeine have also been confirmed by researchers who have looked at the brain health of older people who drink caffeinated drinks.
At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, researchers found that among older women, those who consumed more than 261 mg of caffeine a day had a 36 percent reduced chance of developing dementia during the 10 years of the study.4
261 mg is about how much caffeine there is in two or three 8-oz cups of coffee. 261 mg would also be found in about six 8-oz cups of tea or about eight 12-ounce cans of cola. These are all estimates. It depends on how strong you make your brew.
But don’t drink those colas! The sugar in soft drinks is devastating for your health. Get your caffeine from an unsweetened source. (There are other harmful ingredients in colas, but I’m not going there today.)
Oh, and one last thing to keep in mind – once you get past those 261 mg, you don’t get much more benefit from adding more caffeine to your day. For instance, a ten-year study in the Netherlands found that seniors who drank more than three or four cups of coffee didn’t experience more brain health from every extra cup.5
So don’t feel compelled to go overboard on caffeine. Taking too much of it can lead to excess feelings of anxiety, increase your heart rate and interfere with your sleep. For myself, I’m very sensitive to caffeine, and one cup of tea a day is about all I care to deal with. I’m plenty energized. If 261 mg are required, I’ll have to find another brain booster.
Caffeine also stays in many people’s systems much longer than they think. If you sleep poorly I strongly recommend cutting way back, or even cutting out coffee and tea altogether for a couple of weeks, then drinking less when you resume (not easy to do, I know).
While caffeine may be helpful to the brain, good sleep is absolutely essential. Besides contributing to memory loss, inadequate sleep also increases the risk of cancer.