Spice Up Your Brain

Spicy foods like curry can help preserve brain function and slow Alzheimer's disease.

By Carlin Flora, published on June 4, 2004 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Here's a tasty thought: Kicking your food up a notch with spices could preserve brain function and keep your brain sharp and strong as you age.

Take turmeric, a spice that lends curries their yellow tint. It can curb mental decline and even slow the effects of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's.

Researchers find turmeric can also effectively fight oxidation, the process behind a variety of bodily diseases. In the brain, oxidation trips up communication between brain cells, impairing general functions such as memory.

Over time, all the body's organs undergo cumulative assault from oxidation. But the brain is especially vulnerable to decline brought on by oxidation because it has particularly weak antioxidant defenses.

The brain has a built-in toxin mopper-upper—the gene hemeoxygenase-1, or HO-1—but it must first be activated in order to do its job. Here's where turmeric pitches in. A research team from the University of Catania in Italy and from New York Medical College has found that curcumin, the key ingredient in turmeric, strongly induces HO-1 expression in the brains of animals, thereby rescuing neurons from oxidant destroyers.

"Oxidative stress causes inflammation, which causes cell death, then disease, and then neurodegeneration," says lead researcher Nader Abraham, of New York Medical College. "But curry can not only prevent disease, it could help keep the brain sharp as people age" he says.

Curcumin was singled out as a worthy spice to investigate in part because of the relatively low rate of Alzheimer's disease in India, where curries are a dietary staple. Curcumin's antioxidant activity gives it value as a food preservative, which is probably why it has been used; the flavor is just a bonus.

Indeed, spices have been found to act as a kind of antibiotic, preventing or inhibiting the growth of more than 75 percent of food-borne germs. Their rich pigments often contain antioxidants.

Doctors at UCLA's Alzheimer's Disease Research Center have found that curcumin has one additional property not shared by most spices: It directly inhibits the production of amyloid plaques, the sticky substances that directly cause Alzheimer's disease. Turmeric, in fact, seems to cut the number of amyloid plaques in half.

About a tablespoon of curry a day, or 200 mg of curcumin, does the trick, says Dr. Sally Frautschy, associate professor of medicine at UCLA. "I eat curry at least 4 times a week," she reports.

Other spices are thought to possibly contain medicinal properties. Ginger and cinnamon are getting a close look. A powerful antioxidant in ginger called zingerone appears so far to have brain-protective properties like curcumin's. Cinnamon may also have effects in the brain.

So hurry to add curry to your diet.