The #1 spice for better brain health, recommended by dietitians

In recent years, there has been a growing interest in brain health, especially as the population ages. By 2030, one in five Americans will be 65 or older. While many people age in good health and well-being, some face chronic illnesses, such as memory loss and cognitive impairment, that affect day-to-day activities.

Many factors can affect brain health, and while some cannot be changed, research shows that lifestyle factors such as nutrition can make a difference. One of the smallest changes you can make to support your brain power is to include herbs and spices in your diet. Not only do they offer certain health benefits, but these ingredients can really boost the flavor of your meals. But there is one spice that tops the list as the most cognitively friendly. Read on to learn which specific spices dietitians recommend for brain health and why.

What is brain health?

Being mentally fit means you can perform all the mental processes you need, such as learning, judging, using language and remembering. When you feel like your memory is slipping away, it’s called subjective cognitive decline, and it’s one of the first noticeable symptoms of more serious memory disorders like Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. That said, aging naturally slows memory retrieval, so small memory lapses are not a sign of a memory disorder.

Research shows that the lifestyle behaviors of managing high blood pressure, eating nutrient-dense foods, being physically active, managing stress, and maintaining social connections are linked to brain health.

In two National Institutes of Health studies, data revealed that those who participated in physical activity, did not smoke, ate a high-quality diet, consumed light to moderate alcohol, and engaged in cognitive activities had a 60% lower risk of suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most common form of dementia.

Eating healthy and incorporating foods like herbs and spices can help brain health. While there’s no single one that can improve brain health, some herbs and spices may have a greater impact than others. These foods protect and improve brain health in a number of ways, says Maggie Moon, MS, RD, brain health nutrition specialist and author of The MIND diet. This includes neutralizing oxidative stress and neuroinflammation, improving the body’s internal antioxidant systems, and removing harmful proteins, he explains.

The #1 spice for brain health

DrumrollTurmeric is our number one spice for brain health. A spice native to Southeast Asia and grown primarily in India, turmeric has long been studied for its health benefits, helping with inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, anxiety, metabolic syndrome , high cholesterol and muscle recovery.

When it comes to cognitive abilities, the rhizome contains a powerful compound called curcumin, known for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Curcumin can help reduce inflammation, improve antioxidant capacity, and promote the growth of new brain cells, contributing to better cognitive function and potentially reducing the risk of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, says Patricia Bannan, MS, RDN , author of From exhaustion to balance.

In addition, Moon notes that population-based studies also show that regular intake preserves cognitive function, reduces cortisol and inflammation, and increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor, all of which support learning and memory. (Brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, is involved in neuroprotection and memory, among other functions.) However, it is important to note that there are limitations in research on turmeric and curcumin, as animal studies are promising, but human clinical studies are mixed and more are needed.

You can find fresh turmeric, turmeric as a stand-alone spice, or turmeric in curry powder. It’s the curcumin in turmeric that gives the spice its telltale yellow color. Although curcumin is known for its anti-inflammatory properties, the active component curcumin has low bioavailability. This means that the body does not absorb it efficiently on its own. To increase its bioavailability, studies show that combining turmeric with black pepper, which contains a compound called piperine, can improve absorption by 2000%. It is important to always combine turmeric with black pepper to maximize its health benefits.

Should You Take Turmeric Supplements for Brain Health?

Although there is promising research on turmeric for brain health, taking specific supplements should be discussed with your healthcare provider. However, consider focusing on food. The biggest benefit actually comes from eating several different herbs, which provide a variety of antioxidants that work together to support optimal brain function, Moon says. Turmeric should be used in addition to other herbs and spices as part of a brain-healthy lifestyle. There can also be drug interactions with turmeric, so be sure to check with your healthcare provider about whether a supplement is necessary and safe for you.

How can you include turmeric in your diet?

Adding turmeric to your diet can be a great way to explore a new spice and cuisine. The spice adds vibrant color and earthy flavor to a variety of dishes, including curries, rices and soups, says Bannan. And he adds that a Turmeric Latte is a hot and nutritious drink.

Also, try these creative ways to incorporate turmeric, recommended by Moon:

  • Includes turmeric powder in no-bake energy bites made with dates, oats, chia seeds and orange zest. These carrot cake energy bites are made with dates, oats, pecans and turmeric.
  • Browse your spice aisle for spice blends that include turmeric as one of their key ingredients. Experiment with savory tomato-based sauces, marinades and dressings. A meal that brings it all together is our Baked Tuna Fillets and Veggie Parchment Wrap with Creamy Turmeric Dijon Sauce.
  • Mix a small amount with apple cider vinegar and some black pepper for an invigorating homemade wellness kick. These Turmeric Ginger Shots are pleasantly bright.

The bottom line

There is promising research on the health benefits of turmeric for brain health. Adding turmeric to curries, soups, smoothies and drinks can be a great way to add variety to your diet and keep your brain healthy. However, it is important to take a holistic lifestyle approach to optimally support brain health and cognitive function. Eating a healthy diet, incorporating exercise, managing stress, and maintaining social connections can go a long way in supporting your intellectual future.

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