kris ulland

Your Nutrition Partner

Your brain faces two major threats: the tiny strokes of cerebrovascular disease and the plaques and tangles of Alzeheimer’s. And both can start long before you know it.

“Beginning in early adulthood, freedom from cardiovascular risk factors like diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, obesity, lack of exercise, smoking, eating unhealthy food should have benefits later in life,” says David Knopman, a professor of neurology at the Mayo Clinic.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 5 million Americans suffer with Alzheimer’s disease and 1 of every 3 seniors dies with some form of dementia.

Give your brain the fuel it needs to function optimally and to improve your current cognitive function and creativity. Feeding your brain the right food now might prevent poor brain health in the future. Your brain needs fuel to nourish neurons, boost production of neurotransmitters and protect against damage and degeneration.

There are two types of fuel your body and brain can use to convert into energy. Either carbohydrates or fats may supply your brain and body with the energy it requires to survive. Although your brain can use both, there is evidence to suggest that the metabolic product of fats, which are called ketones, will help restore and renew neurons, even after damage has started.

A primary source of these ketones are medium chain triglycerides (MCT). These triglycerides are not processed by the body in the same way as long-chain triglycerides. Usually, a fat is mixed with bile from your gallbladder before it is broken down in your intestines. MCTs are digested like carbohydrates, entering your bloodstream more quickly but without the release of insulin associated with carbohydrates. Besides MCT oil, coconut oil has the highest percentage of MCTs.

While ketones from the breakdown of MCT may provide an excellent fuel for your brain, some areas of your brain require glucose for fuel. Fortunately, your body can turn amino acids, the building blocks of protein, into glucose through a process called gluconeogenesis. Your liver can also create glucose. In this way the part of your brain that requires glucose receives a steady supply, even when your carbohydrate intake is low.

During one study, researchers found individuals with Alzheimer’s who were treated with an MCT supplement for 90 days experienced significant improvement in their cognitive function compared to those in the control group. Reducing the number of healthy fats you consume by choosing low-fat, high-carbohydrate diets, you can essentially starve your brain cells. A low fat diet will also prevent effective detoxification and diminish the structural components necessary for cognition, memory and learning.

While ketones provide your brain cells with effective fuel and are neuroprotective, they aren’t the only nutrient that may help keep your brain healthy.

At the 251st Meeting and Exhibition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), research was presented that supported the use of blueberries in the prevention and potential treatment of cognitive deficits associated with Alzheimer’s. Two studies were conducted. In the first, researchers compared freeze-dried blueberry powder to a placebo. In the second, they compared blueberry powder, fish oil and a placebo.

Participants in the first study had measurable cognitive decline. However, those in the second study only felt they were experiencing cognitive issues. In both studies, those taking the blueberry powder demonstrated improvements over those taking the placebo. In the second study, the participants taking the fish oil also experienced improvement. According to Robert Krikorian, Ph.D., lead author of the studies:

“The blueberry group demonstrated improved memory and improved access to words and concepts.”

The team also performed functional magnetic resonance imaging studies that showed increased brain activity in the participants who took the blueberry powder.  Blueberries are loaded with antioxidants which reduce your potential from developing dementia as the antioxidants collect in greater concentration in areas of the brain responsible for memory and learning.

The food you eat nourishes your brain and significantly impacts your ability to think, learn and remember. These foods not only are important to your brain but also to the rest of your body:

  • Avocados – Powerhouses filled with healthy fat, energy and flavor. The nutrients in avocados are important to your brain and skin, and they help stabilize your blood sugar.
  • Blueberries – High in antioxidants, they protect your brain from neurodegeneration. They are packed with flavor and vitamins. Balance the natural sugars in blueberries by increasing your fiber intake to reduce your net carbs (grams of carbohydrates minus grams of fiber equals net carbs).
  • Broccoli – High levels of vitamin K and choline in broccoli help protect your brain. Add florets raw to your salad, or steam broccoli spears for a maximum of three to four minutes to optimize the sulforaphane content.
  • Celery – While extremely low in calories, celery is high in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties. Clean a bunch and place in a bowl of clean, fresh water in your fridge to make them last for well over a week.
  • Olive Oil – Not all olive oil is created equally, and fraud is commonplace. Look for third-party validated extra-virgin, cold pressed oils to boost your intake of polyphenols. These powerful antioxidants may improve your learning and memory as well as help to reverse the signs of aging and neuron damage in your brain. Olive oil degrades rapidly at high heat, so add the oil to your salads or vegetables after cooking. Use avocado or algae oil for cooking.
  • Walnuts – Walnuts are high in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. A handful each day may help improve your cognitive skills. Eat walnuts as a snack in the afternoon or as an addition to your salad.
  • Turmeric – This ancient root is one of the most powerful nutrients found in nature. Turmeric is one of the spices that gives curry a distinctive flavor and the chemical curcumin in turmeric has antioxidant effects on your body.
  • Rosemary – Carnosic acid found in rosemary protects your brain against free radical damage that triggers neurodegenerative changes. Add the herb to your favorite soup recipe or spice up your salad with a few sprigs.
  • Coconut – Coconut oil is full of MCT and is one of the foundational foods you may use to feed your brain, reduce inflammation and prevent memory loss. It does wonders for your skin and is a natural antibacterial as well.
  • Beets – These are one of the most nutritious root vegetables you can include in your diet. Beets are high in antioxidants and the natural nitrates boost blood supply to your brain and improve performance.

Exercise every day to help improve your memory, learning, and thought process. Exercise also helps you get a sounder sleep and supports a healthy mood. While exercising, your breath and heart rate increase, pumping new oxygenated blood throughout your body and to your brain. This in turn prompts neurogenesis – the production of brain cells or neurons. This increases brain mass and volume.

30 minutes of moving your body a day, three or four times a week, is all you need to reap the brain-health benefits.

For optimal brain health, do these things every day:

  • Spend time connecting with family and friends. Involve your brain by discussing new ideas.
  • Read or write.
  • Exercise, even if it is just a brisk walk.
  • Practice a new skill, particularly something that involves creating with your hands. This could be gardening, playing an instrument or sewing a face mask!

Blueberries

Blueberries are often labeled a superfood. They are low in calories and incredibly good for you. The blueberry bush (Vaccinium sect. Cyanococcus) is a flowering shrub that produces berries with a bluish, purple hue.

They are green in color when they first appear, then deepen to purple and blue as they ripen.

The two most common types are:

  • Highbush blueberries: The most common cultivated variety in the US.
  • Lowbush or “wild” blueberries: Typically smaller and richer in some antioxidants.

Blueberries are among the most nutrient-dense berries. A 1-cup serving of blueberries contains:

  • Fiber: 4 grams
  • Vitamin C: 24% of the RDI
  • Vitamin K: 36% of the RDI
  • Manganese: 25% of the RDI
  • Small amounts of various other nutrients

They are also about 85% water, and an entire cup contains only 84 calories, with 15 grams of carbohydrates.

Antioxidants protect your body from free radicals, which are unstable molecules that can damage your cells and contribute to aging and diseases. Blueberries have one of the highest antioxidant levels of all common fruits and vegetables.

The main antioxidant compounds in blueberries belong to a family of polyphenols antioxidants called flavonoids. One group of flavonoids in particular called anthocyanins is thought to be responsible for much of these berries’ beneficial health effects.  Blueberries directly increase antioxidant levels in your body.

Oxidative DNA damage is an unavoidable part of everyday life. It is said to occur tens of thousands of times per day in every cell in your body. DNA damage is part of the reason we grow older. It also plays an important role in the development of diseases like cancer. Because blueberries are high in antioxidants, they can neutralize some of the free radicals that damage your DNA.

In one study, 168 people drank 34 ounces of a mixed blueberry and apple juice daily. After four weeks, oxidative DNA damage due to free radicals was reduced by 20%.

Oxidative damage is not limited to your cells and DNA. It is also a problem when your  LDL cholesterol is oxidized. In fact, oxidation of LDL cholesterol is a crucial step in the heart disease process. The antioxidants in blueberries are strongly linked to reduced levels of oxidized LDL, making blueberries very good for your heart.

A daily 2-ounce serving of blueberries lowered LDL oxidation by 27% over eight weeks in obese people. Another study determined that eating 2.5 ounces of blueberries with a main meal significantly reduced the oxidation of LDL cholesterol.

A study in 93,600 nurses found that those with the highest intake of anthocyanins, the main antioxidants in blueberries, were at a 32% lower risk of heart attacks compared to those with the lowest intake.

Oxidative stress can accelerate your brain’s aging process, negatively affecting brain function. According to animal studies, the antioxidants in blueberries may affect areas of your brain that are essential for intelligence. They appear to benefit aging neurons, leading to improvements in cell signaling.

Human studies have also yielded promising results. In one of these studies, nine older adults with mild cognitive impairment consumed blueberry juice every day. After 12 weeks, they experienced improvements in several markers of brain function.

A six-year study in over 16,000 older individuals found that blueberries and strawberries were linked to delays in mental aging by up to 2.5 years.

Blueberries provide moderate amounts of sugar compared to other fruits. One cup holds 15 grams of sugar, which is equivalent to a small apple or large orange. The bioactive compounds in blueberries appear to outweigh any negative impact of the sugar when it comes to blood sugar control.

Research suggests that anthocyanins in blueberries have beneficial effects on insulin sensitivity and glucose metabolism. These anti-diabetes effects occur with both blueberry juice and extract. In a study in 32 obese people with insulin resistance, two blueberry smoothies daily caused major improvements in insulin sensitivity. Improved insulin sensitivity should lower the risk of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.

Blueberries are closely related to cranberries. They also have substances called anti-adhesives that help prevent bacteria like E. coli from binding to the wall of your bladder.

Blueberry supplements may lessen the damage that occurs at a molecular level after exercise, minimizing soreness and reduced muscle performance. In a small study in 10 female athletes, blueberries accelerated muscle recovery after strenuous leg exercises.

People who are taking blood-thinners, such as warfarin, must not suddenly change their intake of blueberries or other sources of vitamin K. Vitamin K plays a key role in blood clotting, and it could affect the blood-thinning action of the drug.

How to Buy

Blueberries are available fresh, frozen, freeze dried, and in jellies, syrups, and jams. Be sure to check the label of frozen and dried blueberries for added sugars. When selecting jellies or jams, choose all-fruit spreads without added sweeteners, juices, or fillers.

When you buy fresh blueberries, look for berries that are firm, dry, plump and smooth-skinned, with a silvery surface bloom and no leaves or stems. Size isn’t an indicator of maturity but color is. Berries should be deep purple-blue to blue-black.

Reddish blueberries aren’t ripe, and won’t ripen once they are picked but you can use them in cooking. Avoid blueberries that look soft or shriveled or have any signs of mold. If you see juice stains in a container of blueberries, the fruit might be bruised.

You can find pre-washed, unsweetened frozen blueberries packed in poly bags or boxes in most co-op frozen food sections.

A bag of frozen blueberries should feel loose and not clumped together. They’ve been individually quick frozen so you can remove a few at a time or use them in larger portions.

 

How to Store

Refrigerate fresh blueberries when you get them home, either in their original pack or in a covered container. Wash your blueberries just before you start snacking, and eat them within 10 days of purchase.

Avoid keeping blueberries in the coldest part of the fridge, or they will get damaged from the cold. The best place to store the berries is on the middle or bottom shelf. Try not to keep them in the crisper.

Store frozen blueberries in the freezer.

How to Cook

  • Use blueberries as fresh toppings on oatmeal, waffles, pancakes, yogurt, or cereal for an extra burst of flavor and nutrition in your breakfast.
  • Whip up a quick and easy smoothie using frozen berries, plant-based milk or yogurt.
  • Mix fresh or dried blueberries into a spinach salad with walnuts.
  • Fold blueberries into muffins and breads.
  • Blend them in a food processor with a little water, as part of a fresh syrup to top desserts or breakfast foods.

Lemon and mint are common flavor pairings for blueberries, but there are plenty of others that often go overlooked. For example, rosemary, coconut, balsamic and banana all pair well with blueberries.

 

Vegan Blueberry Muffins

Julie, The Simple Veganista; photo credit Julie, The Simple Veganista

12 muffins

Ingredients

  • 2 cups all purpose gluten-free flour
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup organic coconut sugar (pure cane or turbinado sugar will work)
  • 1 cup unsweetened almond milk – In place of 1 cup almond milk, you can try adding 1/2 cup orange juice or lemon juice for added flavor, plus 1/2 cup of non-dairy milk.
  • 1/3 cup olive oil (or fruit infused olive oil: lemon or orange) For oil-free muffins, replace the oil with unsweetened applesauce. If using oil, any oil will do. Also, melted vegan butter will work.
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 – 2 cups blueberries, fresh or frozen – Smash 1/2 cup of the blueberries, adding it to the batter before mixing in the whole blueberries.

optional garnish

  • a few extra blueberries
  • sprinkle of cane sugar

Instructions

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  • Mix wet ingredients: In a 2 cup measuring cup, add the milk, sugar, oil and vanilla, stir to combine a few times to help soften the large grains of sugar.
  • Mix dry ingredients: In a large mixing bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder and salt.
  • Combine wet & dry: Pour the wet mixture into the dry mixture and mix until just combined. Don’t over-mix, over-mixing the batter tends to make the muffins less tender.
  • Add blueberries: Toss in the fresh or frozen blueberries and gently fold them into the batter.
  • Scoop: Fill each muffin lined hole with batter. For uniformity, fill muffin tin using a 1/4 measuring cup or large ice cream scooper to scoop up the batter and pour into the muffin holes.

Topping: Optionally, add a few blueberries on top and sprinkle the top with a little coconut sugar. The sugar will add a nice crunch to the tops

Bake: Place in the oven and bake for 30 minutes. Let cool a few minutes and enjoy warm or at room temperature.

Storing:

  • Counter & Fridge: Once completely cooled, store the muffins with a paper towel underneath and on top in a container on the counter for up to 3-4 days. The paper towels will soak up moisture and keep them from getting moist and lose the delicious crunchy top. They are also fine loosely covered for 1-2 days. Or store in the refrigerator for up to a week.
  • Freezer: Once completely cooled, wrap muffins individually and store in a freezer safe container or baggie or up to 2 months. When ready to eat let thaw to room temperature.

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