Why taking excessively high doses of antioxidants won’t save your brain

June 29, 2015
Volume 12    |   Issue 77

If you have a diet that is extra high in all the antioxidants, are you going to have better brain function as you get older than people who don't? I think that most people would guess that the more antioxidants you have in your diet the better your brain function is going to be. But a brand new study is putting a hold on that idea.

In fact, only one of the five antioxidants they studied was helpful at all. While most of the antioxidants didn't fare well, there was one particular food nutrient that was consistent right down the line for maintaining cognitive function with age. And I guarantee you will not guess what it is.

Researchers studied 2,613 men and women between the ages of 43 and 70 years old. First, they measured their cognitive function using a battery of neuropsychological tests. They scored the participants on total cognitive function, memory, mental quickness, and cognitive flexibility.

Then, during the next five years, the researchers kept track of their diets. They were looking specifically at the most common antioxidant nutrients: vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, lutein, and bioflavonoids. But they didn't stop there. They also tracked their intake of lignans. If you don't know what lignans are, hang on. I will tell you in a moment.

At the end of the five years, they repeated the cognitive tests and looked to see if any of the nutrients helped to maintain brain function. The results are going to surprise you.

First of all, the most common antioxidant, vitamin C, had no effect at all. Those who had a diet really high in vitamin C were no better off than those who had the lowest intakes. The same was true for beta-carotene and bioflavonoids. And the results for lutein were especially unexpected. The people with the highest intake of lutein actually had more mental decline than those with the lowest. Only vitamin E scored positively. The people with the lowest intake of vitamin E declined in the memory scores twice as fast as those with the highest intakes. But the real winner was lignans.

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Those with diets low in lignans showed twice the decline in brain function in every category across the board compared to their high-lignan friends. And the results were linear, which means that straight across every test, the higher a person's diet was in lignans, the better their scores. Even vitamin E couldn't touch that. The authors drew two conclusions. One, higher intakes of antioxidants do not help to maintain cognitive function with aging. And two, "Within the range of a habitual dietary intake, higher intake of lignans is associated with less cognitive decline." So what are lignans anyway?

Lignans are a class of plant nutrients that are especially high in flax and sesame seeds. In fact, flax seeds have seven times more lignans than sesame seeds, and an incredible 50-100 times more lignans than every other food. Certain fruits, including apricots, strawberries, and peaches, are high in lignans. So is multi-grain bread. But whole wheat bread is relatively low, as are most cereals. Of course, whole grain flax seed bread is the highest in the bread department. Cashew nuts, soy, and peanuts are also high. And most vegetables contain plenty of lignans. The highest sources are kale and broccoli, white and red cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, carrots, and green and red sweet peppers.

What's more, brain function isn't the only thing that lignans are good for. There are several studies that show that diets high in all of these lignin-rich foods reduce the risk of cancers (particularly prostate, ovarian, and breast cancer), osteoporosis, and cardiovascular disease. So you can hardly go wrong making sure you eat plenty of these foods. And here are two very powerful messages from this study.

One, you can take all the vitamins you want, even my Super Immune QuickStart powder, but it will never, ever make up for a nutrient-deficient diet. Make sure you eat real foods. That means plenty of non-GMO, non-processed, whole, fresh foods, including plenty of the foods mentioned above. And two, although taking antioxidant nutrients is obviously a good thing to do, taking high doses is not. They don't give you any extra benefit, and may even be excessive. That fact is shown in this study as well in many other studies. This is precisely why although I load up my QuickStart powder with a complete recipe of antioxidant nutrients, the doses are not excessive. And I believe that the combination of the nutrients and herbs in QuickStart with a healthy diet is about as close to a nutritional slam dunk as you can get.

Yours for better health,


Nooyens AC, Milder IE, et al. Diet and cognitive decline at middle age: the role of antioxidants. Br J Nutr. 2015 May;113(9):1410-7.

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