A growing body of evidence suggests green leafy vegetables, such as kale, spinach, lettuce, and collards, could play a role in helping to protect brain health. One study, in particular, shows that older adults could benefit greatly from increasing their intake of vegetables rich in vitamin K, nitrate, folate, lutein, and other nutrients.
After reading this, you might just have a better understanding of why your parents always urged you to eat your vegetables.
U.S. researchers examined the role green leafy vegetables could play in reducing the risk of cognitive decline. Nearly 1,000 participants enrolled in the project, which involved increasing their consumption of kale, spinach, collards, and lettuce. None of the participants had cognitive issues, and their average age was 81.
Researchers found that several nutrients played a key role in protecting the participants’ brain health.
These included lutein, folate, vitamin K, alpha-tocopherol, and nitrate.
They also looked at beta-carotene, another nutrient typically found in green leafy vegetables. However, the researchers found that beta-carotene did not have as much of an effect as the others in slowing potential cognitive decline.1
This isn’t to say that beta-carotene isn’t important. In fact, it has several key health benefits. For example, beta-carotene helps to maintain the appearance and health of your skin.2 Beta-carotene may also help protect your eyes from certain degenerative conditions.3
Let’s take a closer look at the nutrients that were found to play a role in protecting brain health.
Vitamin K is better known for helping to make your blood coagulate, or thicken. But this nutrient, which is found in many green leafy vegetables, might also help boost brain health. It is believed that vitamin K helps to build a component of your brain known as the myelin sheath.This covering protects nerve fibers in your brain, and it helps to transmit nerve signals faster.4,5
There is also evidence that vitamin K helps to activate proteins that play a role in helping your brain thrive. Research indicates that it could help support memory in older adults.6,7,8
This could be a contributing factor to some of the damage caused by certain neurological conditions.9 Collards, kale, spinach, and cabbage are just some of the vegetables that contain vitamin K.
Another nutrient found in green leafy vegetables, lutein, may also help support brain health as you age. Kale and spinach are rich in lutein, but other sources include carrots and eggs.10
Research suggests that lutein can help improve cognitive performance. According to one study, researchers found that participants who had higher levels of lutein performed more like younger people than those of their own age when it came to cognitive performance tests.11
Unfortunately, nitrate has received a bad reputation because it is typically added to processed meats in order to give them a longer shelf life. And research does indicate that nitrate, when used as a preservative, could increase the risk of health issues.12
However, when consumed through plants, such as green leafy vegetables, nitrate has actually been associated with health benefits.13 It has also been shown to help improve physical and cognitive performance during exercise.14
Nitrate may also promote a healthier flow of blood to your brain via a process known as perfusion. As you age, perfusion tends to decrease. This can lead to an increased risk of cognitive decline. In one study, researchers found that participants who had a higher intake of plant-based nitrates from drinking beet juice had increased blood flow to the frontal lobes of their brains.15
In addition to beets, other green leafy vegetables that contain nitrate include spinach, chard, celery, lettuce, and cabbage.16
Folate is a form of vitamin B9. It has been shown to have an effect on many cognitive functions, such as concentration, mood, drive, and alertness. There is also evidence that shows a folate deficiency could increase the risk of certain serious issues affecting brain health.17
Alpha-tocopherol, or a-tocopherol, is one of the chemicals that make up vitamin E. There are actually eight chemicals that comprise the vitamin: alpha-tocopherol, beta-tocopherol, gamma-tocopherol, delta-tocopherol, and alpha-, beta-, gamma- and delta-tocotrienol. A-tocopherol is the form that has the most benefit to humans.18
Vitamin E is a fat-soluble antioxidant, meaning it helps to counteract some of the dangerous effects of oxidation. It is believed that oxidative stress is a contributing factor to conditions that lead to cognitive decline.19
Wrapping Up Green Leafy Vegetables
Evidence suggests that by increasing your intake of green leafy vegetables, you could help keep your brain sharp and high-performing as you age. As a result, you may be able to protect your brain health as you get older.
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