Q. Mike: I was listening to your program on my local NPR station (KRPS) earlier this year, and heard you mention to a caller that the plant they were having trouble growing was a natural memory booster. I was driving and couldn't write it down. Was it oregano, maybe? I couldn't recall the name just two days later, so I definitely need to do something in this department! Do you recall what I'm talking about?
- ---"RR" in Pittsburg, Kansas
A. It was probably that other Mediterranean herb, rosemary. My good buddy Dr. Jim Duke, a retired USDA botanist and best selling author ("The Green Pharmacy"; Rodale books; 1997), has long touted "the herb of remembrance" as living up to its name.
But I like the basic idea behind your question a lot. And a USDA news release about blueberries and strawberries holding off age-related memory decline in animal studies had just been sent our way by Community Gardener Sharon Gordon. So I decided to try and find out just how many plants ordinary gardeners could grow that might have memory improving and/or dementia preventing powers.
Dr. Duke suggested I begin with an old friend of his "who had to be involved" with that blueberry study: Dr. Jim Joseph, Director of Neuroscience at the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston. A fabulous suggestion, as Dr. Joseph (whose most recent book, "The Color Code; a revolutionary eating plan for optimum health" from Hyperion Press, details the benefits of eating fruits and veggies of many colors), had many growables to recommend.
"Blueberries are absolutely at the top of the list", he explained; "packed with antioxidants that have direct positive effects on the brain. We used to think that you were born with a certain number of brain cells, and no new ones were ever created. But now we know that the brain can make new cells, and studies have shown that eating blueberries—a pint a day is the amount most often recommended—really increases this 'proliferation'. Blueberries also increase the survival rate of these new cells, and reduce the effects of stress on existing cells."
So blueberries build better brains three different ways!
"If I could only pick one food to eat to keep my brain healthy, I would have to pick blueberries," says Dr. Joseph; "they are the gold standard." He says he buys them frozen when they're out of season, so that "I can eat my berries every day." And luckily for us gardeners, blueberries are VERY easy to grow! Just plant them in a 50/50 mixture of peat moss and compost (blueberries thrive in a naturally rich, acidic soil) and have lots of bird netting handy to protect your crop; our feathered friends like these tasty treats as much as we do!
Then come "strawberries, cranberries, purple grapes like Concord, sweet and tart cherries, and blackberries." Nice—even those cranberries are easy for backyard gardeners to produce. But what about raspberries? "We'll put them next in line," he said, adding, "there are no bad berries. If you look at a chart showing the antioxidant content of foods, you'll find berries of all kind clustered at the top. Some are just more researched than others."
Any non-fruits? "Oh yes—especially walnuts and avocadoes, which are very rich in lipid-soluble antioxidants, making it much easier for them to enter the blood stream and get to the brain. (Although they will take a bit of time to produce their first crop, most gardeners can grow the English walnuts this refers to; but only our friends in California and Florida and the like can hope to achieve outdoor avocados.)
"Spinach is also a very powerful brain food," he continues; "and garlic. And beans—both fresh green beans and dried beans, especially the red colored ones used to make red beans and rice. And, of course, the physical activity of gardening itself is also a well-documented and powerful aid to brain health."
But what about herbs like rosemary
"That's more Dr. Duke's territory. I'd take his recommendations on 'the spices'."
Which brought me back to the always-dependable Dr. Duke. "Let's look at three other ways certain foods can help prevent 'brain drain'", he begins.
"First, foods that naturally contain 'Cox II inhibitors', a type of anti-inflammatory that caused terrible side effects when used in synthetic form in prescription drugs like Vioxx. Those drugs were designed to fight arthritis, but have also been used extensively against Alzheimer's. You find these inhibitors—without the side effects of the synthetic versions, of course—in hot peppers, ginger and turmeric."
Turmeric? What's that?!
"Turmeric is the spice that gives curry its flavor and French's mustard its distinctive yellow color; it comes from the root of Curcuma longa, a leafy plant that you grow and use just like ginger, to which it is closely related. To get the most benefit from either ginger or turmeric, grate some up and use it fresh in recipes. Both are even hardy outdoors over the winter in some of the more Southern areas you say you preach to."
I mentioned to Jim that I personally grow ginger for the tasty roots in my PA garden, and pot the plants up and bring them indoors for the winter. "I do that myself," agreed Jim, who gardens just outside of Washington, DC, "and turmeric as well."
"Then we have foods that help prevent the breakdown of acetylcholine in the brain, which is very important. This includes all of the highly aromatic mints, like peppermint; and lemon balm, sage, and rosemary. Although you get some benefit from teas, you lose a lot of potency as they steep, so I suggest cooking with the rosemary and inhaling the aromas of the others. I try and rustle up those plants and breathe them in deeply when I'm out in my garden, and I love mowing a field of mint. I also highly recommend steeping the fresh leaves in a warm bath; you'll absorb some dermally that way as well."
And the third? "Foods that inhibit the formation of cerebral plaque. This is the new rage in the brain field; so new the topic isn't even mentioned in my best book on this subject, "The CRC Handbook of Medicinal Spices". Some researchers disagree about the importance of the plaque that's been found in the brains of Alzheimer's patients, but I very much like the idea of eating foods that can prevent it. Your beloved garlic appears to be very good at this, but ginger and turmeric appear to be the best.
"The Ginger family is very hot in Alzheimer's research right now; these plants have very active beneficial compounds," explains Jim, who concludes with, "increasing your consumption of all the foods we've mentioned could help delay or diminish the onslaught of dementia and other age-related decline, but for my money, the spices are the best medicine."