Jul. 01, 2011

Berry Goodness

What do blueberries, strawberries, and acai berries have in common? The natural compounds called polyphenolics found in these red and blue fruits—and possibly in walnuts—activate the brain’s natural “housekeeper” mechanism, which cleans up and recycles toxic proteins linked to age-related memory loss and other mental decline. In other words, yummy berries may boost your memory as you grow older.

Polyphenolics have an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effect that may protect against age-associated decline, according to Shibu Poulose, Ph.D., lead scientist on a recent study conducted at the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging in Boston. Poulose conducted the research with James Joseph, Ph.D., a pioneering researcher on the role of antioxidants in fruits and nuts in preventing age-related cognitive decline.

Poulose and Joseph discovered that the decline in nerve function as we age is linked to a slowing of the brain’s natural- house-cleaning process. Cells called microglia remove and recycle biochemical debris that otherwise would interfere with brain function. As we age, microglia fail to do their work, and debris builds up. In addition, the microglia become over-activated and actually begin to damage healthy cells in the brain.

Previous research suggested that one factor involved in aging is a steady decline in the body’s ability to protect itself against inflammation and oxidative damage. This leaves people vulnerable to degenerative brain diseases, heart disease, cancer, and other age-related disorders.

The new research suggests that the polyphenolics in berries have a “rescuing” effect that seems to restore the normal housekeeping function.

Although berries and walnuts are rich sources of polyphenolics, many fruits and vegetables contain these chemicals—especially those with deep red, orange, blue, and purple hues. The colors come from pigments termed anthocyanins (from the Greek words for “plant” and “blue”). Foods that are richest in anthocyanins—such as blueberries, red grapes, and acai—are very strongly colored, ranging from deep purple to black. It’s best to eat the whole fruit, which contains the full range of hundreds of healthful chemicals. Frozen berries are also excellent sources of polyphenolics.

Because acai fruit pulp has been used experimentally as an oral contrast agent for MRIs of the gastrointestinal tract, consuming acai might affect MRI test results, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health. If you use acai products and are scheduled for an MRI, be sure to tell your health care provider ahead of time.

Summertime is a great time for smoothies, fruit salads, and fresh berries with cream. So, set aside that “to do” list and give your memory a treat it won’t soon forget! 

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