Your brain is your greatest asset, but it is also your body’s most vulnerable organ. It requires constant support from other major organs and is your most susceptible organ to oxidative stress during aging.
Here are some brain facts:
1. Your brain makes up only 2% of your total body weight but requires 20% of your heart’s output of blood to sustain the amount of oxygen that it needs.
2. Your brain is the most oxygen-demanding organ in your body.
3. Your brain uses chemicals (neurotransmitters) to relay important messages to other parts of your body. These same chemicals are also involved in chemical reactions that produce damaging free radicals.
4. If your brain cells become weak or die they cannot repair themselves. Their functions can then be permanently lost if cell death or damage occurs.
Given these susceptibilities, your brain is especially vulnerable to conditions that threaten oxygen supply, such as in head injury, stroke, lung diseases and heart failure. Under these conditions, brain activity will continue even without enough oxygen. This can cause problems that lead to extreme levels of oxidative stress and the over-production of damaging free radicals.
In diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, other damaging factors are at work. In Alzheimer’s disease, a toxic protein called beta-amyloid forms in your brain tissue. This protein acts as an irritant and causes inflammation in your brain. This inflammation then causes the production of free radicals that can destroy any membranes and cells in their path.
Parkinson’s disease results from unregulated production of the brain chemical dopamine which, with the help of free radicals, becomes toxic to the brain cells that control your motor functions.
Even in a healthy brain, oxygen radicals are produced every moment during normal high-oxygen demand of neuronal activity. In a healthy brain, enzymes and nutritional antioxidants neutralize these radicals.
Benefits of dietary antioxidants
What safeguards can healthy people take to reduce risk of diseases and especially to protect their brains from oxidative stress over a lifetime?
The simplest answer is to follow a diet that includes abundant sources of antioxidant chemicals derived from plant foods. Evidence for the benefits of such a dietary regimen has only been demonstrated in experiments with animals up until now, but the results are convincing. Over the past eight years, the research activities of Dr. Jim Joseph of the US Department of Agriculture, Boston, have focused on how to protect the brain from oxidative stress with dietary use of antioxidant-rich plants such as strawberries, cranberries, elderberries, blueberries and spinach.
Dr. Joseph’s research findings — a message closely pertinent to this essay — can best be represented by a quote from one of his research reports in 1998: “increased antioxidant protection through diets comprised of fruits and vegetables identified as being high in total antioxidant activity might prevent or reverse the deleterious effects of oxidative stress on neurons.”
Oxidative stress is a major factor in brain aging. This stress can be combated or balanced by including dietary antioxidants into your daily life. The best way to do this is by eating lots of colorful fruits and vegetables each day.