The One Vegetable Brain Experts Want You to Eat for Better Cognition as You Age

Nutrients in broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables have health benefits, especially for your brain.
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More and more people are in search of the best diet for brain health that will keep you sharp well into your golden years. The combination of an overall healthy diet and lifestyle will have a positive effect on your cognition, and knowing which foods to eat is a first step in the right direction.

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Broccoli is on the list of cruciferous vegetables, which also includes nutrition powerhouses like cabbage, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts. Including more of them in your diet is linked to a number of benefits, like lowering inflammation and protection against cancer, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

And now, emerging research suggests that compounds in broccoli and other crucifers may have impressive effects on keeping your brain healthy as you age.

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We asked William Li, MD, a physician, scientist, president and medical director of the Angiogenesis Foundation and author of Eat To Beat Disease: The New Science of How Your Body Can Heal Itself, for his thoughts on eating broccoli to his patients and the possible effects on cognitive health.

Why Broccoli Is Good for the Brain

1. It Contains Sulforaphane

While sulforaphane is probably a new word, it soon may become as standard in your nutrition vocabulary as beta-carotene or flavonoids.

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This is the compound in broccoli, and all cruciferous vegetables, that scientists are focusing on for its benefit in brain health, according to a March 2021 review in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences‌.

It's important to point out that the majority of the research on the link between sulforaphane and the brain has been done on animals or in test tubes. But experts say those studies have shown a decrease in inflammatory compounds linked to Alzheimer's Disease, which is significant info for older adults, according to the ‌International Journal of Molecular Sciences‌ review.

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Small studies done on humans have shown sulforaphane may play a positive role in treating autism and schizophrenia, and potentially, other brain-related conditions, according to a May 2022 review in General Psychiatry.

"This bioactive compound stimulates the body's defense mechanisms leading to improved circulation, nerve cell development, gut health and immunity while lowering inflammation," Dr. Li says.

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It's worth noting that the few sulforaphane studies done on humans have shown positive benefits using supplements or high-potency extracts, which may not be comparable to the amount of sulforaphane available in foods.

2. It's Rich in Vitamin K

Vitamin K is often taught as a necessary nutrient for blood clotting, but it does so much more than that, especially when it comes to your brain function.

Dr. Li touts the importance of vitamin K for the brain. "Vitamin K2 is a special form of vitamin K that can lower inflammation and has antioxidant properties, which can protect brain cells."

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In a study with 325 older adults, researchers found that those with higher levels of vitamin K in the brain were 17 to 20 percent less likely to develop dementia or mild cognitive impairment, per the April 2022 research in the Alzheimer's Association Translational Research and Clinical Interventions‌.

3. It's High in Fiber

While we wait for more human studies to explore the link between specific compounds in broccoli and improved cognitive function, one sure thing is that the benefits of fiber in broccoli are not disputed.

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The connection between eating fiber and cognition might not be obvious, but there is evidence that what happens in the gut affects the brain.

The gut-brain connection explains the concept that the central nervous system and gut microbiome communicate bi-directionally. In other words, the state of each one affects the state of the other one, and what's going on in your gut may influence brain plasticity and cognitive function, according to an April 2015 review in Annals of Gastroenterology.

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"Broccoli also contains dietary fiber that promotes gut health by feeding the good bacteria in the microbiome," Dr. Li says. "Well-fed gut bacteria produce their own substances that have been shown to improve metabolism, lower inflammation and help ward off harmful visceral fat." And all of this affects your brain.

In a 19-year-long study, researchers found people who ate the most fiber (an average of 20 grams per day) had the lowest risk of dementia, and people who ate the least fiber (an average of only 8 grams per day) had the highest risk, per the results in the February 2022 issue of Nutritional Neuroscience‌.

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The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends adults get about 14 grams of fiber per 1,000 calories eaten in a day. This comes out to about 25 grams per day for people assigned female at birth (AFAB) and 38 for people assigned male at birth (AMAB).

One cup of chopped broccoli will give you 2.4 grams of fiber with only 31 calories.

How Much Broccoli Should You Eat?

There is no general recommendation for how much broccoli you should eat daily, but there is a recommendation for how many fruit and vegetable servings you should get in a day.

In a study that analyzed the diets of over 66,000 people, researchers found that eating five servings of fruits or vegetables per day provided the most health benefits, according to the March 2021 results in Circulation‌.

"I recommend eating broccoli to my patients because it is a nutritious vegetable with bioactive compounds — including sulforaphane — that support their body's health defense systems, and so, aid and protect their brain function."

Work to get anywhere from 1/2 to 1 cup of broccoli a couple of times per week, and keep a wide variety of cruciferous vegetables in your diet for the most benefit.

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