Eat More Curry for a Brain Boost

Image courtesy Flickr/Howard Walfish

Looking to spice up your cooking with a serious brain booster? While many spices and herbs that flavor foods offer brain health benefits, few hold the promise of the active ingredient most curries – turmeric, the source of a special polyphenol called curcumin. We hope this Farmacy post will convince you to brighten your plate, expand your palette, and boost your brain health with a dash of turmeric. And we’ll even share one of Mother Nature’s top food synergies so you can maximize its brain health benefits.

Used for thousands of years in traditional South Asian cooking and traditional medicine, turmeric is a basic ingredient in curries. Also known as Indian Saffron, the spice gives these dishes their amber coloring and rich, earthy aroma…and provides you with a brain-boosting dose of curcumin. While used in India and China for centuries in various traditional remedies, it’s been garnering attention in the scientific and medical communities for its impact on mental health, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. In fact, over 4000 scientific publications have focused on curcumin in the last decade. One study of 1,010 participants found that even small amounts of dietary turmeric are clearly linked to lower rates of dementia.

According to studies of how curcumin works on a molecular level, there are three ways that that more curry is great for your brain.

Research in animal models indicates that the active chemical in turmeric, curcumin, can enhance the birth of new brain cells, a process called neurogenesis. The discovery that your brain can produce new cells has huge implications for your mental health. The production of these new neurons (brain cells) in the hippocampus and other brain areas is essential for optimal learning, memory and mood. In studies, curcumin enhanced neurogenesis by increasing the level of brain derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), a molecule at the forefront brain health today (and we’d argue food choices). BDNF not only encourages the birth of new brain cells, it also promotes connections to other brain cells and protects them from damage. Low BDNF is linked to serious brain illnesses such as major depression, OCD, schizophrenia, and dementia.

Secondly, curcumin is theorized to help fight illnesses like depression because it boosts the feel good neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. These neurotransmitters are fundamental for good moods, clear thinking, a healthy sex drive, and sharp focus. Curcumin blocks the monoamine oxidase enzymes that naturally break down these neurotransmitters. Thus, it functions much like a class of antidepressant medications called MAO inhibitors, which are used to treat both clinical depression and Alzheimer’s disease. In animal models of depression, curcumin actually enhanced the antidepressant effect of medications like Prozac and Effexor.

Lastly, curcumin is a potent antioxidant and so it helps protect the brain by quelling inflammation. A buzzword in medicine these days, chronic excess inflammation is linked to medical issues such as heart disease and diabetes as well as brain disorders like depression and dementia. Recently, a large study of 73,131 people found levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of systemic inflammation, were significantly associated with depression and psychological stress. Curcumin has also been shown to reduce the formation of the plaques that are typical of Alzheimer’s disease.

Since this blog focuses on brain health, we haven’t even mentioned the many other potential health benefits of curcumin being investigated but they include fighting many types of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, skin disorders, and enhancing liver function just to name a few. To say it simply, this golden spice is powerful medicine.

The only concern with curcumin has been is low “bioavailability” meaning the body does not absorb it well and excretes it quickly. Few things illustrate the power of real food as medicine like food synergies and it turns out that consuming curcumin with black pepper enhances the absorption and bioavailability by 2000 percent!

Closely resembling ginger root in its unprocessed form, turmeric is a member of the ginger family. It is readily available at local supermarkets as a fine yellow powder in the spice isle. Your local grocer should carry the spice for about $7 to $9 for an ounce or two, which is perfect for those beginning to experiment. You can also go all out and snag a pound for around $5 at local South Asian markets, an incredible deal for a brain booster. Another option is to use fresh turmeric. You can add thin slices to rice dishes or grate it, a nice addition to everthing from roasted vegetables to salad dressings.

While turmeric is largely known as a common component in curried dishes, cooking curry can be a daunting task. But you don’t have to spend hours by the stove to enjoy this spice at home. Turmeric is a surprisingly versatile spice and can be incorporated into many dishes. There are countless recipes to sample, but we’ve listed one of Mala’s favorites below to get you started. We hope this very tasty introduction will get you cooking and experimenting with this amazing spice.

Until next time, Eat to Build a Better Brain….with turmeric!

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Drew Ramsey, MD

Drew Ramsey, M.D. is a psychiatrist, author, and farmer. He is a clear voice in the mental health conversation and one of psychiatry’s leading proponents of using nutritional interventions. He is an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

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