Boost Brain Health by Strengthening Your Body’s Natural Antioxidant System

Physical, psychological, and environmental wear-and-tear can lead to chronic oxidative stress, a condition in which the body produces an overabundance of unstable molecules called free radicals that are closely linked to aging, disease, and cell damage. Fortunately, Mother Nature has devised a powerful antidote to this threat. It is an intricate natural defense mechanism involving substances called antioxidants, which are designed to help prevent and repair oxidative damage to cells to ensure a healthy body and a sharp brain.

“As you age, it’s important to take steps to protect your brain by minimizing oxidative stress,” says David Mischoulon, MD, PhD, Director of the Depression Clinical and Research Program at MGH. “Oxidative stress is thought to increase vulnerability to diseases of all types, lowering the threshold so that certain disorders may develop more readily. In the brain, chronic oxidative stress is a major contributor to cognitive decline and pathologies such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. It also plays a role in physical diseases that affect the brain, such as atherosclerosis and diabetes.”


The following strategies have been associated with reducing levels of oxidative stress:

Getting regular exercise—at least 30 minutes per day, five days per week

Getting plenty of sleep—about six to eight hours at night. Treat sleep disorders, if necessary.

Reducing stress by avoiding distressing situations, if possible, and finding ways to unwind with relaxation techniques and other activities

Avoiding exposure to toxins, such as chemicals and pesticides

Antioxidants are a potent source of protection against oxidative stress, and they are clearly important to overall physical and mental health. Those antioxidants derived from a diet rich in fruits and vegetables—called exogenous antioxidants—are associated with many health benefits, although researchers are still establishing their specific effects. Other, even more powerful types of antioxidants called endogenous antioxidants are produced by the body itself, and these antioxidants appear to lead the battle against oxidative stress. Understanding how the two types of antioxidants differ and how they work together to lower oxidative stress can help shed light on their complex interplay.

Boosting the Endogenous System

“Dietary strategies are among the most effective options for protecting the brain from the impact of chronic oxidative stress,” says Dr. Mischoulon.

Research suggests that the vitamins C and beta-carotene—provided by a variety of fruits and vegetables—play an important role in the endogenous antioxidant system, as does vitamin E, which is found in whole grains and high-quality, properly extracted and protected vegetable oils. Certain minerals are also involved in facilitating the functioning of this innate defense system. Ensuring that your diet includes plentiful sources of the following five minerals is one way to help your body fight chronic oxidative stress.

 Zinc. Sources: Egg yolk, brewer’s yeast, spinach, soybeans, liver, fish, and red meat.

 Iron. Sources: Wheat germ, dried beans, whole-grain cereals, leafy green vegetables, eggs, fish, red meat, poultry, and nuts.

 Copper. Sources: Shellfish, whole grains, beans, nuts, potatoes, organ meats, dark leafy greens, and dried fruits.

 Selenium. Sources: Brazil nuts, fatty fish, beef, turkey, egg, whole grains, spinach.

 Manganese. Sources: Egg yolks, walnuts, leafy green vegetables, celery, bananas, and whole grains.

A Changing Balance

Since aging and age-associated health problems are linked to a gradual decline in the body’s endogenous antioxidant system, increasing your intake of exogenous antioxidants from dietary sources as you age is one important way to ensure that you remain sharp and active. Always try to eat a variety of nutrient-rich foods to help supply a broad array of antioxidants and provide the basic materials your body needs to manufacture endogenous antioxidants. Be sure to add these antioxidant powerhouses to your menu for an extra brain boost:

Artichokes: This spiky vegetable was among the top vegetable sources of antioxidants. Moreover, researchers have found that the antioxidants in artichoke leaf are not broken down by gut microbes or by liver enzymes, boosting their benefits for the body.

Leafy greens, such as spinach, kale, and collard greens, are great sources of the powerful antioxidant lutein, which has been linked to higher cognitive function and lower dementia risk in older adults.

Walnuts: All varieties of nuts are nourishing, but walnuts contain more brain-healthy antioxidants, vitamin E, and folic acid than other nuts, and are the only nut that contains a significant amount of the plant-based omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).

Strawberries: This berry is rich in the antioxidant fisetin, a compound that has been found to have ­anti-cancer and neuroprotective properties. An animal study published in the July 2017 issue of Journals of Gerontology Series A suggests that fisetin can significantly slow cognitive decline.

Dark chocolate: A few squares of dark chocolate with more than 70 percent cocao are an excellent source of antioxidants—among them the chemical epicatechin, which animal studies suggest may enhance memory and spur the growth of blood vessels in the brain. A recent brain-imaging study showed that blood flow in the brains of human subjects increased after the subjects drank a chocolate drink.

Cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts, contain powerful antioxidants that boost cellular defenses.

Citrus fruits contain flavanones and phenols that help neutralize free radicals and strengthen cellular defenses.

Garlic: The compound allicin, which gives garlic its flavor and aroma, is a very powerful antioxidant. Garlic may also help improve memory and protect against stroke by reducing blood pressure in people with elevated systolic blood pressure.

How Antioxidants Work

“Free radicals are molecules with unpaired electrons that steal electrons from other molecules and cause cellular damage,” explains Dr. Mischoulon.“Some antioxidants disarm free radicals directly, either by contributing an electron to stabilize the molecules or by eliminating the free radicals altogether.”

Antioxidants with direct effects on free radicals include vitamins C, E, and beta-carotene supplied by the diet. They also include the endogenous antioxidant enzymes produced by the body, such as glutathione peroxidase, catalase, superoxide edismutase, alpha-lipoic acid, uric acid, and co­enzyme Q-10.

Other antioxidants, mainly supplied by plants, work indirectly, in ways that have not yet been clearly defined.

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