If you want your brain to be at its best from now until a ripe old age, there’s one crucial nutrient that may be the most vital. For years everyone – including me – has thought of it as an eye supplement. And that’s true, but it’s turning out to be much more.
Lutein stands out as being linked to better brain performance in research that examined the blood levels of selected natural compounds in people in their 80s.
Lutein is a carotenoid pigment found in spinach and other green leafy vegetables.1 And these days you’ll see it in just about every natural eye formula. If you’ve been taking it, you’re lucky because you’ve reaped the benefit of a “side effect” – a better mind.
Being able to keep your attention focused on one particular subject or event while ignoring distractions is a central requisite for a sharper intellect that’s able to learn and retain information. There’s good evidence that lutein can strengthen this type of mental focus and resist its erosion as you age.
Researchers at the University of Illinois have found that if you are middle-aged, having more lutein in your body means your neurons can react to stimulation more alertly – in a similar manner to those of younger people. But in adults who lack this nutrient, the neurons are less responsive.2
“Now there’s an additional reason to eat nutrient-rich foods such as green leafy vegetables, eggs and avocados (which contain lutein),” says researcher Naiman Khan. “We know these foods are related to other health benefits, but these data indicate that there may be cognitive benefits as well.”
The Illinois researchers also point out that our neurons can start to show signs of aging even when we’re only in our 30s – so it’s important to consume lutein, which defends against a decline in neuron function throughout your life.
“Lutein appears to have some protective role,” says researcher Anne Walk. “The data suggest that those with more lutein are able to engage more cognitive resources to complete (mental) tasks.”
Keeping Your Neurons Connected
Another brain benefit of lutein shows up in its support of the brain’s white matter. White matter is the connective network that enables neurons throughout the organ to communicate with each other. Researchers believe that white matter, which makes up half of all brain tissue, has expanded even more rapidly during human evolution than gray matter, even though the latter has come to be associated with intelligence.
Scientists credit this expansion with giving us more mental power than other animals – including ones like elephants that have much bigger brains than ours.
And while the brain’s gray matter consists of cell “bodies” – the centers of the neurons where information is processed– the white matter is the fibrous network that facilitates the information transmissions that share information among neurons throughout the brain.
“The brain’s white matter can be thought of as a set of telephone wires which enable communication between gray matter ‘thinking regions’,” says researcher Brian Gold. Dr. Gold’s research has shown that deterioration of gray matter occurs early on in the development of Alzheimer’s disease.3
But tests at the University of Georgia show that lutein along with zeaxanthin (another carotenoid) helps keep white matter safe from injury. These benefits are linked to their antioxidant roles in the brain and their anti-inflammatory properties.4
In addition, investigations have found that the molecular structure of lutein enhances its role in keeping the membranes of brain cells intact while fending off free radical damage to the brain’s supply of docosahexaenoic (DHA). DHA is an omega-3 fatty acid, found in fish oil, that plays a key role in neuron function. (When stressed, brain cells use DHA to produce substances that fight off inflammation.)5
Best Ways to Get Your Lutein
To get an adequate supply of lutein, you can take lutein supplements or eat vegetables like kale, spinach, kiwi fruit and zucchini. Egg yolks and red grapes are also good sources.
And, according to researchers in Sweden, drinking a spinach smoothie is one of the best ways to get your lutein. They point out that the heat of cooking can destroy lutein, but by blending and mashing raw spinach in a smoothie, you make it easier for the body to absorb lutein.6 They also say that having some kind of fat in your smoothie – they suggest a little yogurt – helps the digestive tract absorb this fat-soluble nutrient.