Protect your brain with this colorful plant compound

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cognitive-decline(NaturalHealth365)  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that one in every nine Americans over the age of 45 is affected by cognitive decline.  Characterized by gradual impairments in the ability to learn, reason, focus, and remember, this age-related condition can appear as an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease.

Recent research highlights the potential of a natural compound to improve this discouraging picture.  An analysis published in the journal Molecules suggests that lutein – the natural plant pigment, or carotenoid, responsible for yellow, orange, and reddish coloration in fruits and vegetables – may enhance cognitive function and prevent cognitive decline.  Read on to learn how lutein can help sharpen the mind and memory.

Recent review is the first meta-analysis to assess lutein’s effect on cognitive decline

To conduct the review, researchers analyzed multiple randomized, placebo-controlled trials in which patients received either dietary or supplementary lutein.  Researchers evaluated the effect of lutein on three areas: memory, complex attention (which involves sustained attention, selective attention, and processing speed), and executive function, which is vital for planning, decision-making, reasoning, and responding to feedback.

The team found that lutein caused modest improvements in all three areas – and cited several studies showing significant improvements in executive function.  (While most improvements overall were slight, the authors pointed out one significant finding: the groups who had received a placebo not only failed to improve cognitive abilities but experienced a substantial decline during the study). “The beneficial role of lutein,” noted the researchers, “is evident.”

It’s official: Higher lutein levels linked with sharper cognitive function

The review authors theorized that multiple mechanisms could explain the health-promoting effects of lutein.  Specifically, lutein has been found to have both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, allowing it to reduce oxidative stress and activate anti-inflammatory pathways.  In addition, lutein appears to increase blood flow to the brain while enhancing neural response.

The encouraging studies on lutein’s effects on cognitive decline continue to accumulate.  For example, an additional study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease showed that a daily supplement of 10 mg of lutein, along with other carotenoids, was effective in improving memory over the course of a year.

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Lutein, “sunscreen for the eyes,” protects against age-related eye diseases along with cognitive decline

Lutein, which accumulates in the retina as well as in the brain, contributes to macular pigment optical density – an important defense against eye diseases.  (Interestingly, increased macular pigment optical density is also associated with better cognitive health).  Studies have shown that lutein, especially when accompanied by the carotenoid zeaxanthin, can reduce the risk of cataracts and slow the progression of age-related macular degeneration, or AMD.

In the influential Age-Related Eye Disease Study, researchers found that patients with AMD who were given lutein and zeaxanthin reduced the occurrence of advanced AMD by 25 percent over five years.  Researchers aren’t surprised to find that lutein confers protective effects.  So potent is lutein’s ability to filter harmful ultraviolet rays and “blue light” that some researchers routinely refer to it as “sunscreen for the eyes.”

In other words, lutein may help keep both your mind and your eyesight sharp!

Boost lutein absorption with healthy fats

Lutein is an essential nutrient, meaning the body does not produce it and must be obtained through diet or supplementation.

You can increase your dietary intake of lutein with healthy amounts of avocados, corn, squash, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, and egg yolks.  Surprisingly, green leafy vegetables (which appear green only because their yellow hues are disguised by chlorophyll) also contain their share of lutein.

To increase absorption, integrative healthcare providers advise eating lutein-rich foods along with healthy fats such as EPA and DHA (the omega-3 fatty acids found in wild caught fish).  This is why avocados – which contain beneficial monounsaturated fat and lutein in the same nutritious “package” – are such a great choice for maintaining lutein levels.  Egg yolks, which contain both fat and lutein, are good sources as well.

Lutein is available in supplementary form, both as part of the AREDS formula and as a stand-alone supplement.  Integrative healthcare providers typically recommend 10 mg to 20 mg of lutein a day but check first with your own doctor before supplementing.  By the way, it may take up to four months before benefits are noticed.

Other natural techniques to preserve brain health include regular exercise, adequate amounts of restorative sleep, and proper nutrition.  Researchers at Harvard Medical School report that the Mediterranean diet – emphasizing fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, olive oil, and moderate amounts of fish, poultry, and dairy products – is associated with lower rates of cognitive decline and dementia.

In addition, meaningful social engagement and mental stimulation through puzzles, reading, or writing are also associated with preserving cognitive health.  Herbal interventions for cognitive decline include turmeric, ginkgo biloba, sage, ashwagandha, and ginseng.  Check with your integrative healthcare provider before supplementing.

As a traffic signal, the color yellow would indicate “caution.” But in nature, the yellow/orange hue created by lutein is a signpost pointing the way to better health for the brain, heart, and eyes.  Eat well to stay healthy – always.

To learn about how to naturally avoid the threat of dementia, own the Alzheimer’s and Dementia Summit, created by Jonathan Landsman and featuring 31 of the brightest minds in brain health.

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