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posted: 12/12/2011 6:00 AM

Include walnuts in foods good for the brain

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It has been said that fish is good for the brain, but what about other foods like walnuts? Medical research strongly suggests that brain function is very dependent on the food we consume. The brain needs a lot of nutrients, fats, minerals and vitamins. A recent medical study suggests that eating the wholesome walnut can help the brain and improve the reasoning process in college students.

Walnuts are a pretty good food with medical benefits. They are the seeds of the walnut tree and the most common type of walnut comes from the Persian walnut tree. Walnuts are rich in bioactive compounds like alpha-linolenic acid, antioxidants, minerals, vitamins, melatonin and phenolic oils. Compared to other commonly eaten nuts, they contain the highest level of antioxidants. Eating walnuts may reduce the risk of a cancer and it may directly prevent tumors from growing. Medical research suggests that regular consumption of walnuts may reduce body fat as well as limit damage to arteries by a high-fat diet. In one study, adding walnuts to the diet of old rats significantly improved motor function and memory.

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Most research on the benefits of food and supplements on brain function have involved older populations or animals. Is there a benefit on young, healthy people? The current study, done at Andrews University, examined the effect of walnut consumption on memory and cognition in healthy college students.

In this study, 64 volunteers were divided into two groups with Group One eating a half cup of walnuts (in banana bread) for eight weeks followed by six weeks of nothing (washout period) followed by a placebo (in banana bread) for eight weeks. Group Two had the placebo for eight weeks followed by six weeks of nothing followed by eight weeks of walnuts.

The students were tested after the eight weeks of either walnuts or control. It was an interesting and powerful study design because each group was able to act as its own control.

The results were remarkable in that walnuts did not seem to improve memory or mood in this population. One reason may be that these college students may not be depressed and may have good memories. The researchers also tested for interferential reasoning … being able to process information and come to conclusions. The ability to reason well is very important in college and everyday life. In this measure, eating walnuts significantly improved the test scores (11.2 percent improvement).

This is an important medical study that can have a direct and significant impact. Although there is little research on walnuts and mental function, the potential benefit is noteworthy. A daily ration of a handful of walnuts may have a profound benefit for brain function. Walnuts are safe to eat (raw is better) and are readily available throughout the year … especially during the holidays. In communicating with Dr. Pribis, lead author of the study, he said "Long live walnuts" and I agree.

Patrick B. Massey, M.D., Ph.D is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine for the Alexian Brothers Hospital Network. His website is www.alt-med.org.

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