The foods we eat impact just about every aspect of our health. Certain foods help regulate issues like high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and high cholesterol. Others help tame our GI troubles, give us better gut health, or improve energy levels. The list goes on and on. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that a new study found the perfect diet to keep our brains healthy and strong as we age. Turns out that it’s all about the Mediterranean lifestyle.
What is neurodegeneration?
Brain health is always important, but especially as we get older. All those hard-working neurons that have kept us going from birth start getting tired, and that neural degeneration can lead to diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Neurodegenerative diseases like these happen when cells in our central nervous system stop working or die. The damage isn’t reversible but luckily, slowing down the process of degeneration is possible. And a recent study out of Israel shows how we can do that.
The study looked at data from 284 participants. The subjects, ranging from 31-82 years of age, were separated into three groups, each assigned a different diet. One group followed standard healthy dietary guidelines, another a Mediterranean diet, and the third a green Mediterranean diet. The group with the Mediterranean diet were given walnuts, rich in micronutrients called polyphenols. Meanwhile, those following the green Mediterranean diet were given greens that were also high in polyphenols, including daily cups of green tea and green shakes of Mankai duckweed, an aquatic plant strain. The third group was also told to minimize their consumption of red and processed meat.
The participants underwent whole brain MRI measurements before and after the trial to gauge the how effectively each diet decreased neurodegeneration. All groups were also encouraged to participate in physical activity that incorporated aerobic exercise.
How did the Mediterranean diet affect brain health?
After just 18-24 months, researchers started seeing dramatic brain atrophy reduction in the MRI measurements, specifically from the groups who adopted a Mediterranean diet. But those who followed the green Mediterranean diet had the most dramatic results, particularly in those participants 50 and older. Lead study author Prof. Iris Shai thinks this has a lot to do with the polyphenols in both diets.
“The beneficial association between the green Mediterranean diet and age-related neurodegeneration might be partially explained by the abundance of polyphenols in plant-based food sources which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory metabolites,” wrote Prof. Shai. “Polyphenols can cross the blood-brain barrier (BBB), reduce neuroinflammation, and induce cell proliferation and adult-onset neurogenesis in the hippocampus.”
Simply put, that means that polyphenols permeate the affected areas of the brain, reducing inflammation in our neurons while promoting healthy cell growth. As neurodegeneration attacks cells, this process directly reverses its negative effects.
What is the Mediterranean diet?
This diet is named after the countries that incorporate it, all bordering the Mediterranean sea: Greece, Italy, and Spain. These countries rely heavily on fresh fruits and vegetables, cheeses low in dairy like feta and manchego, and healthy fats like olive oil.
The diet also includes plenty of whole grain products as well as nuts and seeds. Thanks to their proximity to the sea, these countries have tons of seafood options and moderate amounts of meats (like chicken).
So, if you’re looking for a diet to boost brain health, eat like the Spanish (and Greek, and Italians) and stick to the diets of the Mediterranean!