Can Spices Improve Your Brain Power?
by Dr. David Eifrig Jr.
“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance…”
–Ophelia to Laertes, Hamlet
There are only a few things that make me break out in a cold, heart-stopping, sweaty panic: getting stuck in a dark, tight cave; snakes; and dying alone. Oh, uh, uh… I almost forgot. There is one other thing: losing my memory… my mind… to a life-robbing disease such as Alzheimer’s.
For many of us, the experience of watching a person (be it family, friend, patient, or hero) in the throes of Alzheimer’s is sad, frustrating, and heart wrenching. How helpless it must feel to watch a once vibrant, intelligent, and competent person slowly lose his ability to tie his own shoelaces or recognize his own children. If you know someone close to you or have a friend, there is a wonderful book called The 36 Hour Day by Nancy Mace and Peter Rabins that drives home the point of how frustrating a day for the caregiver of an Alzheimer’s patient truly is. In fact, it is more like a day and a half – hence the title. Often the days are filled with impatience, anger, and “what ifs.” If you know anyone with memory problems or, like me, want to maintain your own mental prowess, try these simple spices in your food regularly. Just maybe we can avoid the predicament altogether.
One spice, Cinnamon powder or Cinnamon sticks, is especially powerful. It affects several physiologic functions of the body. Cinnamon kills bacteria and yeasts that cause stomach ulcers and urinary-tract infections, and even helps the body regulate blood sugar. But for me, the most important benefit of its consumption is increased brainpower. A few years ago, it was discovered that just the smell of cinnamon could improve cognitive function. In that study, it was true that either tasting (technically it was chewing) or smelling cinnamon worked to improve brainpower. WOW… this may lead me to renew my old grade-school days’ habit of chewing cinnamon toothpicks.
The second spice that should be on everyone’s mind (pun intended) is Ginger. It was reported several years ago that ginger might indirectly lower the risk of Alzheimer’s via its anti-inflammatory properties. It turns out that ginger decreases prostaglandins. These are the body’s chemicals that lead to inflammation and perhaps other chronic diseases. Thus, ginger may ease those minor aches and pains in much the same way as aspirin (without the side effects, such as upset stomach), while simultaneously helping maintain brainpower.
My third spice is in the ginger family. It goes by the name of Turmeric. This is the spice that makes Indian food yellow and is responsible for curry’s delectable flavor. It is also the spice that gives mustard its bright yellow color. Interestingly, in Biblical times, the smell of turmeric was so loved that it was used in perfume making. Its unique and quite pleasant scent makes this spice one of my all-time favorite aromas. Be careful though, some people use the term curcumin interchangeably with turmeric. But curcumin is just an extract of turmeric. So be sure to buy and use the whole spice turmeric, because it contains all of the ingredients and micronutrients. Studies have shown that turmeric activates the expression of a gene that is a powerful antioxidant in the brain. Moreover, researchers at UCLA reported five years ago that one of the ingredients in turmeric actually inhibited the production of amyloid plaques in the brains of rats. Guess what? These plaques are the same plaques implicated in Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, not only did the spice inhibit the NEWproduction of these plaques, the OLD plaques actually decreased! This is something no drug has ever done! Eat the spice turmeric whenever you can. It is a powerful chemical that probably deactivates the plaque-forming process due to its similarity to the plaque’s structure (just like ginger). More science is forthcoming, but it is pretty clear that this spice is another winner if you’re looking to improve your brainpower.
Finally, my fourth spice (well, it’s technically an herb) for your brain is Rosemary. This spice has similar structural and chemical properties to ginger. And as luck would have it, this spice is actually known as the spice of remembrance. Rosemary is quite complex, with more than a dozen antioxidants and a handful of anti-cholinesterases. These are all chemicals implicated in fighting Alzheimer’s disease. This is one spice I believe science will show should be in everyone’s backyard. In fact, I planted some last week, just a few feet away from my raspberry and blackberry bushes. When it comes to my brain… What do I do?
1. I use and smell cinnamon whenever and wherever I can, from my cinnamon-flavored Life cereal, to my cinnamon-flavored oatmeal, to my cinnamon-flavored tea in the middle of winter. I never tire of consuming this spice.
2. I try to eat Indian food at least once, but often twice, a week. Often I’ll eat a curry dish that is heavy on the turmeric.
3. I try to get eight hours of sleep a night and try to get up at the same time every morning. This has been shown to help support cognitive function.
4. I try to consume ginger regularly. This means a weekly trip to my local sushi bar and a request for extra ginger. I also drink ginger ale and, on occasion, will make it myself at home, which is simple, easy, and fun to do.
5. I eat blueberries whenever I can. They are known for their antioxidant properties and their support of brain function.
6. I eat cold-water fish three to five times a month in order to get the fish oil, which is thought to help preserve memory function as well as cut down on inflammation processes (another key component in Alzheimer’s).
Here’s to our health,
David Eifrig Jr., M.D., M.B.A.