Over the past few decades, the relationship between nutrition and ageing has been extensively studied in both animals and humans. It was rats that led researchers down the path to the incredible influence that berries, particularly blueberries, have on reducing the inflammation that can build up in our brain and nerves as we move through mid-life and head into our ageing years beyond.
Those of us who’ve already been through our menopause transition already know the effect of a fuddled brain on our cognition and performance, but few of us have little idea about why this is. However, as I keep reminding you, the loss of oestrogen has many and varied effects all around the female body, and some of these changes influence our brain and nerves, including the optic nerves and blood vessels. Various studies have observed a significant relationship between altered eye functions, such as dry or runny eyes and changes to vision and female reproductive hormones. (Bajwa, Singh & Bajwa, 2012). If you are in menopause and post-menopause and scrambling to find your reading glasses to read this, you won’t be surprised at this revelation.
Declining oestrogen levels affect the nerve endings (dendrites), making the pace that the nerve signals jump from one nerve to another slower. Furthermore, our blood vessels lose some elasticity with our declining oestrogen levels too and I’ve written about vascular stiffness in other articles. This means that with our oestrogen production declining as we enter peri-menopause, our brain blood vessels and nerves also become susceptible to the build-up of oxidative stress and inflammation – foggy brain and increased anxiety anyone? This elevated inflammation that is thought to contribute to the decline in cognitive and motor function as we age. (Shukitt-Hale et al, 2019).
As I began to un-tangle our menopause jigsaw as part of my women’s healthy ageing studies, I also became interested in the concept of food as our medicine for this particular age and stage of life. “What if the notion that HRT is the only way to manage menopause, or taking endless expensive supplements, isn’t the entire story?” was my curiosity. Having spent hundreds of dollars on these over my peri-menopause transition without really feeling that they ‘worked’, it was an intriguing question. But this sent me down the path of understanding the foods that are most beneficial to, not just our overall health during our menopause transition, but in particular, to our brain health. After-all, brain fog, dizziness and anxiety are due to changes in the our ageing nervous system and blood vessels as we oestrogen levels begin to decline as we move into our post-menopause years. This is what lead me to Blueberries and other neutraceutical foods, and I talk about these in the MyMT™ Food Guide which is part of my 12 week programmes.
Nutraceuticals are nutritional elements with medicinal characteristics, hence the name ‘Nutra’ stands for food and ‘ceutical’ means therapeutic properties. Food and food products listed as Nutraceuticals must meet the standards for having medicinal value and for providing health benefits as well as for their use in preventing or treating age-related diseases. As I positioned menopause in the ageing research, it made sense to explore foods that were evidenced to help us reduce inflammation as we age.
With over 1000 women part of my private coaching group at any time, there’s a lot of recipes that not only do I share as part of my food guide, but that are also shared from women in different parts of the world – and yes, some of them contain berries. Certain foods, such as blueberries, produce opposing effects against the degenerative and inflammatory processes in the body as we move into and through menopause. Many of these foods are evidenced to have beneficial effects on our immune and digestive systems, hence improving not only how we feel, but our quality of life.
What makes blueberries so special in helping to reduce inflammation and in protecting our eye health, is a compound called ellagic acid. This is believed to help prevent cellular changes and whilst all berries contain some ellagic acid, strawberries and blueberries have the most. Ellagic acid is a powerful antioxidant, which means that it helps to reduce damage caused by free radicals. The term ‘free radicals’ refers to harmful oxygen molecules that damage our heathy cells, so in effect, certain compounds in foods, such as ellagic acid, help to detoxify cells, reducing damage in them. The excessive production of free radicals has detrimental effects on our DNA, collagen, elastin and blood vessels – all of these structures are affected by our changing oestrogen levels in menopause. It’s important to protect them from further damage. But ellagic acid isn’t the only compound that is beneficial to our cells from blueberries – Vitamin C is important too and berries contain large amounts of Vitamin C.
Plants are prime producers of secondary substances that are known to help reduce inflammation as we age. These secondary substances, known as polyphenols, are abundant in fruits and vegetables. Numerous studies have been conducted on various polyphenols exploring which ones help to fight diseases attributed to ageing. Resveratrol is one of these compounds and is found in the skin of peanuts and grapes. Polyphenols in blueberries are another. Dietary intake of polyphenols, particularly anthocyanins found in blueberries, are being increasingly recognised as beneficial for modern human eye health (Huang, Yan et al, 2018). The high antioxidant potential of blueberries has been associated with improvement in memory, reduction of neuro-degenerative damage in the brain and in the improvement of eye health as we age. A wonder-food indeed and it’s why they are included as part of the MyMT™ programmes.
Wendy Sweet (PhD)/ Member: Australian Society of Lifestyle Medicine/ MyMT™ Founder & Coach
Aiyer, H. S., Vadhanam, M. V., Stoyanova, R., Caprio, G. D., Clapper, M. L., & Gupta, R. C. (2008). Dietary berries and ellagic acid prevent oxidative DNA damage and modulate expression of DNA repair genes. International journal of molecular sciences, 9(3), 327–341. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms9030327
Bajwa, S. K., Singh, S., & Bajwa, S. J. (2012). Ocular tissue responses to sex hormones. Indian journal of endocrinology and metabolism, 16(3), 488–489. https://doi.org/10.4103/2230-8210.95762
Huang, W., Yan, Z., Li, D., Ma, Y., Zhou, J., & Sui, Z. (2018). Antioxidant and Anti-Inflammatory Effects of Blueberry Anthocyanins on High Glucose-Induced Human Retinal Capillary Endothelial Cells. Oxidative medicine and cellular longevity, 2018, 1862462. https://doi.org/10.1155/2018/1862462