The Protective Power of Purple Berries and How They Can Improve Brain Health


By Julie Morris, chef and New York Times bestselling author of Smart Plants: Power Foods & Natural Nootropics for Optimized Thinking, Focus, and Memory

Say hello to one of the most common, globally accessible, and arguably longest used nootropics: purple berries. These potent, sweet fruits are part of a broader “family” of edible berries that are characterized by their purple-ish pigment (the more saturated that pigment, the better!). Although blueberries are the most widely studied berries in this “purple” group, blackberries, bilberries, acai berries, maqui berries, elderberries, and even berries with smaller amounts of “purple,” like raspberries, strawberries, and cranberries, are all valued for their impressive brain-boosting benefits.

What They Do

Long before we knew much at all about medicine, humans were eating all kinds of purple berries as an important source of energy. Now we’ve come to discover there’s much more to this special class of superfoods.

Purple berries are a tremendous source of that all-important antioxidant group: flavonoids. While most berries contain many types of these beneficial compounds (and other antioxidants as well), purple berries are particularly rich in anthocyanins, which are often found in purple, blue, and black foods, as cyanin suggests. However, anthocyanins are unstable and can break down easily, and your body can only absorb a small percentage of what you consume. So, if you’d like to enjoy the antiaging benefits of anthocyanins, it is very important to obtain the most nutrient-dense sources you can find. In general, the easiest way to recognize high-antioxidant sources is to look for natural foods that have the darkest and most vibrant colors. Scientists have found that once they are digested, anthocyanins can cross the blood-brain barrier and travel directly to the hippocampus, where they can have a beneficial impact on learning and memory.

But antioxidant advantages are not the only health benefits offered by anthocyanin-rich berries. After I interviewed Dr. Barbara Shukitt-Hale (USDA staff scientist in the Laboratory of Neuroscience and Aging, USDA-ARS, Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging [HNRCA] at Tufts University in Boston), she clarified exactly what is at work in these berries that makes them so beneficial to our health: “It’s not only the antioxidant capacity that’s important; it’s their anti-inflammatory capacities, as well as their direct effects on the brain,” Dr. Shukitt-Hale explained. “In one of our studies, we found that blueberries and strawberries increased neurogenesis, which is the process of making new neurons in the brain . . . and we also saw changes in signaling and communication in the brain—the positive signals go up while the negative signals go down. So we think that antioxidants are important, but it’s not the whole story.”

Research hasn’t uncovered every aspect of what makes these berries so advantageous to our cognitive health, but we have discovered that improvements in the brain can occur rather quickly by simply adding them to a healthy diet. This was shown in one of Dr. Shukitt-Hale’s studies with a group of elderly people, who experienced improved memory after just three months of eating a healthy diet that included blueberries.

Similarly, my friend Dr. Paula Bickford, distinguished professor at the Center of Excellence for Aging & Brain Repair, Morsani College of Medicine, Department of Neurosurgery and Brain Repair, in Tampa, Florida, has also spent a large part of her lengthy neuroscience career studying blueberries, with some truly profound findings related to aging. Like Dr. Shukitt-Hale,

Dr. Bickford’s studies have shown that a diet enriched with blueberries can offer protection against cellular damage from oxidative stress, decrease inflammation in the brain, and enhance the health of brain cells overall.

Research has also shown that blueberry consumption can improve motor skills, like balance and coordination; amplify cognition skills, like fluid intelligence (the ability to think and solve problems in a flexible way); and enhance memory. And berries aren’t just useful later in life. A study showed that children aged seven to ten continued to improve their memory and problem-solving abilities proportional to the amount of purple berries they consumed, leading researchers to conclude that eating more blueberries resulted in higher test scores.

I asked Dr. Bickford if other berries were as beneficial as blueberries, and she confirmed my hunch: All edible berries—and especially purple ones—are highly valuable to the health of your brain, although each kind of berry will contain a slightly different cocktail of supportive antioxidants and nutrients.

How to Use Them

Few things are more delicious than simply eating a handful of fresh berries, but there are so many other ways to enjoy them, from smoothies and desserts to salads, breakfast bowls, and so much more. Conveniently, you can also use freeze-dried berry powders and frozen blueberries as ingredients for any number of recipes, which definitely saves money—and fear not: the nutrients in the berries are wholly retained in the freezing process. However, the anthocyanin content of berries is reduced when they are cooked or exposed to heat for long periods of time (although some of the content does remain—it’s not completely obliterated). Dr. Bickford observed that the anthocyanin content in cooked foods actually continues to diminish the longer the food sits, so if you briefly cook berries, it’s best to enjoy them soon after when the berries’ nutritional benefits are at a peak.

Bonus Benefits of Purple Berries

Heart protective and improve blood circulation, can help with diabetes management, help protect bone strength, carcinopreventive, increase longevity, detoxify heavy metals, and fight obesity.

Purple Berries Takeaway Checklist

  • Improve problem-solving, learning, and memory
  • Highly neuroprotective and antiaging
  • Help with fluidity of thought
  • Improve coordination and balance
  • Increase alertness and focus
  • Enhance potential for neurogenesis

Excerpted from Smart Plants: Power Foods & Natrual Nootropics for Optimized Thinking, Focus, and Memory by Julie Morris. 

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