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Flavonoids and Your Brain – What You Need to Know

Natalie
Stein
March 17, 2021
Flavonoids and Brain Health
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It has become quite clear that eating plant foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is very beneficial to our health. That's why Lark recommends eating a wide variety of plant foods regularly, especially those that are packed with nutrients like leafy greens, berries, and more. Evidence from new research is just adding to the list of reasons why eating nutrient-rich plant foods like these is important. Recent research findings suggest that a type of compound found in certain plants called flavonoids can increase blood flow to the brain and improve our cognitive function.

What Are Flavonoids?

Flavonoids are a specific type of compound found in plants. The general classification of flavonoid encompasses a large family of over 5,000 compounds that share a similar chemical structure. Within that larger group, there are six subclasses of flavonoids, including anthocyanins, flavonols, and flavanones.[1,2]

We consume flavonoids in our diet when we eat various plant foods and certain drinks like fruits, vegetables, and tea. They help to provide the bright coloration to many of these foods, like berries for example.

Researchers became interested in the benefits of flavonoids for human health in the 1990's, and since then a large body of scientific evidence has grown that has helped us to better understand their effects.[1]

In the human body, flavonoids can have a wide variety of benefits, from acting as antioxidants to altering cell-signaling pathways. Flavonoids have been shown to reduce inflammation, improve insulin and blood sugar responses, and much more, positively affecting conditions like cardiovascular disease and diabetes.[1]

One of the powerful effects of flavonoids on human health is their potential to increase cognitive function and protect our brains from harm. New research published in the last year has helped us better understand why: they can help improve blood flow to the brain.

New Research Links Flavonoids To Improved Blood Flow In The Brain

In a November 2020 study published in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers looked at what happened to the brain of 18 healthy adults when they ingested flavonoids from cocoa.[3]

The results showed that after consuming the flavonoid-rich cocoa, the participants' brain oxygenation responses were stronger and faster than without the flavonoids. The researchers believe that they specifically increased blood flow to the frontal cortex, an area of the brain that is involved in planning and decision making.[3]

Additionally, the participants performed better on cognitive tasks that challenged their brain function when they ingested the flavonoids. For example, they were able to correctly solve problems 11% faster than they did without the flavonoids.[3]

This is just the latest in many studies that have helped us to better understand the positive effects of flavonoids on brain function.

The Many Benefits of Flavonoids For Brain Health

Flavonoids found in foods like cocoa beans are thought to be able to counteract cognitive decline and improve cognitive performance via several different mechanisms.

In addition to enhancing blood flow, flavonoids also appear to reduce inflammation, protect against toxic substances like free radicals, prevent the formation of amyloid plaques, alter signaling pathways in the brain, promote growth of neurons and synapses, and much more.[1,4,5,6,7]

These effects can help to improve general cognition, attention, processing speed, and working memory. And ultimately, they may help us to stave off or hinder the progression of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's disease.[1,4,5,6,7]

How To Get More Flavonoids In Your Diet

If you are interested in taking advantage of the health benefits of flavonoids, it is easy to get more of these powerful compounds into your daily diet. The simplest way is to eat a variety of plant foods every single day.

Foods High In Flavonoids Include:
  • Berries
  • Grapes
  • Tea
  • Cocoa
  • Apples
  • Citrus fruit
  • Parsley
  • Thyme
  • Celery
  • Peppers
  • Broccoli
  • Onions
  • Red wine
  • Plums
  • Radishes
  • Red cabbage
  • Pecans
  • Pistachio
  • Kale
  • Spinach
  • Oregano
  • Peppermint
  • Cinnamon [1,2]

Takeaways

The way we eat can have profound impacts on the way our brains function. Certain foods can help to improve our cognitive performance and can even help protect our brains from neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer's disease down the line.

Flavonoids are one important class of plant compounds that has the potential to improve brain function. In this latest study, researchers found flavonoids to improve blood flow to the brain and increase cognitive performance on challenging tasks.[3]

Flavonoids are found in foods like berries, tea, cocoa, citrus fruits, and more.

If you want to eat for your brain health, it is really quite simple. Researchers at Harvard Medical School suggest eating plant-based foods as much as possible, choosing a wide variety of colorful foods, and aiming for five to nine servings of fruits and veggies per day.[2] In the words of the Mayo Clinic, the most important thing you can do is to "diversify your plant portfolio."[8]

Along with flavonoid-rich foods, the Mayo Clinic also adds plant foods like avocados, watermelon, dark leafy greens, beets, whole grains, legumes, fatty fish, olive oil, nuts, sesame seeds, and rosemary to the list of foods that support your brain health.[8]

References

  1. Higdon, J. Flavonoids. Oregon State University. Reviewed February 2016. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/dietary-factors/phytochemicals/flavonoids.
  2. The thinking on flavonoids. Harvard Medical School. October 2020. https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/the-thinking-on-flavonoids.
  3. Gratton G, Weaver SR, Burley CV, et al. Dietary flavanols improve cerebral cortical oxygenation and cognition in healthy adults. Sci Rep. 2020 Nov 24;10(1):19409.
  4. Socci V, Tempesta D, Desideri G, De Gennaro L, Ferrara M. Enhancing Human Cognition with Cocoa Flavonoids. Front Nutr. 2017 May 16;4:19.
  5. Ayaz M, Sadiq A, Junaid M, et al. Flavonoids as Prospective Neuroprotectants and Their Therapeutic Propensity in Aging Associated Neurological Disorders. Front Aging Neurosci. 2019 Jun 26;11:155.
  6. Bakoyiannis I, Daskalopoulou A, Pergialiotis V, Perrea D. Phytochemicals and cognitive health: Are flavonoids doing the trick? Biomed Pharmacother. 2019 Jan;109:1488-1497.
  7. Rendeiro C, Rhodes JS, Spencer JP. The mechanisms of action of flavonoids in the brain: Direct versus indirect effects. Neurochem Int. 2015 Oct;89:126-39.
  8. Maximize memory function with a nutrient-rich diet. Mayo Clinic Health System. October 7 2020. https://www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/speaking-of-health/maximize-memory-function-with-a-nutrient-rich-diet.

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