Dementia is as frightening to most people as the prospect of heart disease or cancer. You probably know that to avoid heart disease you want to control your weight, eat a healthful high-vegetable diet with very little processed food, get some vigorous exercise nearly every day and stay on top of your blood pressure and cholesterol. But how can you protect your memory? Diet and exercise are important, but some readers would like a bit more help.
Can You Protect Your Memory with Kitchen Spices?
Q. I’ve read that spices like cinnamon, cloves, rosemary, turmeric and the like are anti-inflammatory and help to prevent dementia and control blood sugar and blood pressure. As I understand it, they should be taken in moderation (1/4 tsp. or less) with food but frequently. What can you tell me about this?
Spices Against Brain Inflammation:
A. A compound called allylguaiacol is found in basil, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. Animal experiments show that this compound is neuroprotective and can help preserve memory in mice (Lim et al, Behavioural Brain Research, Feb. 26, 2018). Moreover, Ceylon cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum) converts poor learning mice to good learners (Modi et al, Journal of Neuroimmune Pharmacology, Dec. 2016). Cinnamon polyphenols prevent the accumulation of both beta-amyloid and tau, proteins that contribute to the characteristic plaques and tangles of Alzheimer disease (Pharmacological Research, April 2018).
Unfortunately, we don’t have studies showing whether cinnamon or other herbs and spices can benefit memory in human beings. However, scientists suspect that flavonoids found in spices and colorful vegetables can protect the brain (Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy, Jan. 2019).
However, there is growing evidence that brain inflammation may contribute to dementia (Richards, Robertson & Kastner, Human Molecular Genetics, April 19, 2018). In addition, certain spices, such as rosemary, inhibit inflammation (Jiang et al, Inflammation, March 2018; Ou et al, Food & Function, Feb. 21, 2018; Liu et al, Journal of Cellular Physiology, Aug. 2018). Does that mean you could use such common spices to protect your memory?
Will Sage and Rosemary Help Protect Your Memory?
Spices like sage, rosemary and lemon balm have been shown to improve memory (Perry et al, Phytomedicine, Jan. 15, 2018). However, only people less than 63 years old did better on word recall when taking a combined supplement than when taking placebo. Consequently, we would want to see stronger evidence.
A systematic review of eight clinical trials found that sage (Salvia officinalis and Salvia lavandulaefolia) improved the cognitive performance of older people (Miroddi et al, CNS Neuroscience & Therapeutics, June 2014). The scientists call for better studies, however, and we agree that would be desirable.
Nonetheless, your idea of taking small amounts of such spices frequently in your food is sound. You would be unlikely to experience unpleasant side effects with such a regimen. Until we have clearer information on the correct dose to protect your memory, this approach seems sensible.
Other Benefits of Spices:
Moreover, research supports the use of ginger or turmeric to help control blood sugar (Zhu et al, Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Jan. 9, 2018; Melo et al, Pharmacological Research, Feb. 2018). Controlling blood sugar has multiple benefits, and it may help protect your memory (Avadhani et al, American Journal of Medicine, Jan. 2015). You can learn much more about these and other health benefits in our book, Spice Up Your Health: How Everyday Kitchen Herbs & Spices Can Lengthen & Strengthen Your Life.