The neurons in your brain need a lot of nutritional support to do their jobs, because they never stop working.
They need a steady stream of nutrients to protect them from destructive oxidation and keep their cellular structures intact.
And research into brain health shows there’s a crucial nutritive category that helps your brain develop when you’re younger and then makes it more likely you’ll keep your wits about you as you enter middle age and beyond.
The nutrients I’m talking about are the pigments in many fruits and vegetables called carotenoids – the natural substances that put the red in tomatoes and the orange in carrots. Studies show they keep your neural networks on track.
In my posts about how the brain works, I’ve often discussed how well-developed connections between and within neural networks in the brain are crucial for a better memory and for learning new information and skills.
Well, according to researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, carotenoids form a central group of nutrients you must consume in your food in order to support efficient brain connectivity and maintain the mental abilities you need to deal with your daily life.
In this study, the Illinois scientists analyzed folks’ intake of carotenoids by measuring biomarkers in their blood that reflected their intake of these pigments. Then they scanned the brains of the people in the research with an imaging system known as fMRI – functional magnetic resonance imaging. This scanning technique displays brain activity by showing changes linked to blood flow in different areas of the brain.
The tests showed that the people whose blood contained the highest level of carotenoid biomarkers – along with other important nutrient biomarkers – had brain networks that operated more efficiently than other people who were low in these substances.1
That efficiency showed they had healthier brains. Their neural networks accessed information faster and easier.
“Efficiency has to do with how information is communicated within the network,” says researcher Aron Barbey. “If your network is more efficiently configured, then it should be easier, on average, to access relevant information and the task should take you less time.”
In other words, you can expect to think quicker on your feet if your blood is carotenoid-rich. And the information your brain pulls up – when you’re trying to think of somebody’s name, an address or other important knowledge – will usually be more accurate.
And it all happens when you eat more carrots, tomatoes, watermelon, squash, sweet potatoes and leafy green vegetables.
Use Foods to Resist Cognitive Loss
Studies that have examined how carotenoids affect your chances of developing brain problems as you age also show their benefits.
Carotenoids may help the brain resist cognitive impairment as you get older: A test conducted by researchers in France of people in their 70s found that folks who had high levels of the carotenoids lycopene (which puts the red in tomatoes and watermelon) and zeaxanthin (in leafy greens and egg yolks) scored better on tests of intellectual capacity and memory.2
Vitamin C and carotenoids may reduce your risk of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS): A review study at Harvard that analyzed the results of five large studies involving more than a million people found that consuming a diet rich in vitamin C and carotenoids lowers the risk of ALS – Lou Gehrig’s disease.3
Along with coming to the aid of your brain, carotenoids have been shown to possess a wide range of other health benefits – in fighting cancer, keeping up your digestive health and defending your heart health as well as supporting better vision.
An important tip – When you eat vegetables with these nutrients, include a little bit of fat with your meal like olive oil or coconut oil. The fat helps your digestive system absorb more carotenoids.