Antioxidant foods for a brighter mind and better brainpower

Not only are berries, fruit, nuts, and chocolate delicious, but they may also help you or your child have a more brilliant brain! Research has found that when you eat certain coloured pigments in some fruits and other edible plants, known as Oligomeric Proanthocyanidins (OPCs), they can enhance cognition, processing, working memory, and focus.

These antioxidant-rich foods are not just beneficial; they are vital. They help repair brain cells from inflammation and oxidative stress when challenged by stressful events, ultra-processed foods, infections, or environmental pollutants. The brightly coloured antioxidants in these plant-based foods help to quell cell damage in two ways: directly within the brain and indirectly via the gut-brain microbiome axis.

For instance the damage can be quite marked for several weeks after an infection, which is why we need to look after ourselves after being unwell and why we might find our brain feels foggier during this time.

Genetics also influence how efficiently your natural repair mechanisms perform, and these clever antioxidants from food can pack a useful punch to keep your mind sharp; even if you don’t have the most robust set of genes to deal with the brain cell challenges that we all experience.

This blog shares the science behind how OPCs work with simple (and yummy!) ways to help keep you and your child’s brain sharp by topping up antioxidants daily in your diet, as well as some natural food supplements you can try. This small, proactive step can make a huge difference in managing the effects of stress, highly processed foods, illness and pollution on your brain health.

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The science behind OPCs

Here is a bit more of the science behind the magic of OPCs if you are someone who likes to know a bit more about the why! Learn how these edible powerhouses can help to repair brain cells, support neurotransmitter production in the gut, help you to maintain the right balance of minerals within the brain and dial down the inflammatory pathways which can magnify cognitive challenges.

  • The clever antioxidants within brightly coloured natural foods have been found to help improve memory, focus and executive function. This is partly thought to be due to the improvement of blood flow through the brain – think better brain circulation.
  • Antioxidant-rich foods play an important role in protecting the brain from being affected by toxins and inflammation by strengthening the blood-brain barrier. This barrier is a protective cellular layer that serves as a filter between the body and the brain. It prevents harmful substances and pathogens from entering the brain while retaining essential brain chemicals.
  • Polyphenols help to stimulate BDNF which is the survival pathway in the brain and helps to protect from cognitive decline. BDNF helps with neuroplasticity (ability to change and adapt) which in turn helps us to learn new things and to have a good memory.
  • OPCs can also maintain a healthy and diverse gut microbiome which helps to make the critical neurotransmitters that help with learning, cognition, focus and executive function such as acetylcholine, GABA and dopamine. They also help to preserve the integrity of tight junctions in the gut so that gut permeability does not lead to systemic inflammation.
  • The antioxidants in these healthy foods help to normalise mineral balance in the body and brain and can help reduce the oxidative stress associated with too much copper and not enough zinc in the system. Several studies have found that many neurodivergent youngsters are born with a shortfall of zinc and are sensitive to even mild imbalances between copper and zinc. The OPCs have been found to help to bind and remove excess copper over time which can help to reduce mood swings and improve learning outcomes.
  • Many people with ADHD and focus issues also struggle with allergies, hay fever, eczema or asthma which can lead to increased oxidative stress from the ongoing inflammation due to excess histamine. Interestingly both adults and children with an allergic disposition tend to ‘overdo and overreact’, and then to become strongly fatigued which is also quite typical of people with ADHD. Characteristics of a person dealing with ongoing allergies and a high histamine state include being impatient, talkative, irritable, distractable, fidgety, excitable and accident-prone. OPCs can help to dampen down excess histamine and restore a greater equilibrium. This is because many OPCs contain both anti-inflammatory and anti-histaminic properties.
  • Many neurodivergent folk are drawn to eating highly processed foods containing pro-inflammatory additives and artificial ingredients. The coloured pigments in the OPC-rich foods can help to reduce the build-up of inflammation from consuming too many of these foods. See OPCs from berries, chocolate and nut butter as great starting point to keeping the diet better balanced!

Which foods are rich in OPCs?

Here are the key foods which contain heaps of OPCs. We always have a stash of these foods at home to grab when we feel we need a bit of a brain boost. Eat them whole, fresh, frozen, dried, or smooshed up, and if you are not keen on these foods on their own then combine them with foods you do like to eat such as smoothies, or add them to your baking:

  • Red and purple foods – think cranberries, pomegranate, strawberries, blueberries, blackcurrants, cherries, red/purple grapes, goji berries, acai, plums, peaches, red cabbage and red onions.
  • Green foods – particularly apples, avocado, green tea and grape seeds.
  • Brown foods – OPCs are found in dark chocolate, raw cacao powder, cinnamon, and nuts (especially almonds and peanuts).

What else contains OPCs?

There are some other botanicals and food supplements that are rich in OPCs, and research has found them to help support cognitive health as well as some of the difficulties associated with neurodivergence. These include:

  • Pycnogenol from pine bark extract is a rich source of OPCs, has been found to significantly reduce hyperactivity and improve attention and concentration in children with ADHD. It also helps with visual motor co-ordination such as handwriting, use of scissors and copying from the board.
  • Ginkgo biloba is a herb which helps to improve cerebrovascular blood flow to the brain and influences the synthesis of several neurotransmitters. With better blood circulation within the brain many people report greater mental energy and a more positive mood.
  • Luteolin supplements can help to reduce cerebral oxidative stress. Luteolin-rich foods include celery, parsley, broccoli, spring onions, carrots, bell peppers, cabbages, apple skins and edible chrysanthemum flowers. Luteolin has been found to help spatial learning and memory impairment in the elderly as well as increase sociability and reduce anxiety in autistic children.
  • Quercetin-rich foods include apples, red onions, red peppers and pea shoots and can help when there is a high histamine picture (allergies, hay fever, eczema, asthma or mast cell activation). As a supplement it can also help to protect the brain from neurological damage and has been used in conjunction with luteolin in trials, which show improved sociability and receptive language in autistic children.
  • Rutin is in apples, buckwheat, most citrus fruit and figs, as well as black and green tea and it can help when there are any connective tissue issues and is strongly anti-inflammatory. Rutin can help strengthen and increase flexibility in the blood vessels within the brain and has been found to help with word retrieval and other memory deficits.

Round up

We all need a brain boost occasionally, and it is lovely to know that you can help yourself by grabbing a handful of antioxidant-rich foods. Whether you munch on some blueberries or dark chocolate or you opt to take an OPC-rich supplement, the choice is yours.

If you’re interested in exploring whether inflammation or oxidative stress are factors for your brain health or your child’s development , and would like to conduct specialist laboratory testing, then our NatureDoc clinical team is here to support and guide you.

Look out for my new book Brain Brilliance which gives you lots of lovely recipes to ensure you and your family are consuming plenty of OPCs to keep all your brains sharp and happy.

Lucinda Recommends

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