Berries Benefit the Brain

By Dr. John Briffa
Created: September 8, 2010 Last Updated: September 18, 2010
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Berries are beneficial to brain cells. (

Berries are beneficial to brain cells. (

I eat a reasonably varied diet, but there are a few stock items that recur in my overall food intake.

One example of this is a commonly eaten breakfast of Greek yogurt (10 percent fat), berries, and nuts. And while I sometimes use fresh berries, I rely for most of the year on frozen mixed berries. The berries, which include blackberries and red currants, can be a little sharp on the tongue, so I indulge with a little drizzle of honey, just enough to take the edge off.

This breakfast ticks a number of boxes for me. First, it’s relatively low-carb—certainly a lot lower-carb than normal breakfast fodder such as toast and cereal. It is also a quite nutritionally varied ensemble. Yogurt, berries, and nuts all have relatively distinct nutritional attributes and together form something that is relatively complete from a nutritional perspective.

I also like the fact that it’s super-quick to prepare and enjoyable to eat. An added and important bonus is that even a relatively small bowl of this stuff will generally last me (and others) well into the morning. This relatively simple breakfast has real staying power, with its relatively tempered release of sugar into the bloodstream coupled with a decent content of both protein and fat.

One other reason for choosing this particular breakfast has to do with the berries. I don’t eat an awful lot of fruit. Some years ago, I decided to do a bit of a “juice detox” over a weekend and ended up hungry and a few pounds heavier. I have since realized that fruit does not suit my metabolism particularly well, which I suspect has something to do with the fact that it’s generally loaded with sugar. However, I do eat quite a lot of vegetables.

Berries are relatively low-carb and quite rich in nutrients, particularly polyphenols, which are known to have antioxidant capacity. This means they can help neutralize free radicals—damaging, destructive chemical entities linked to disease.

Some research published on Aug. 24 in Science Daily suggests that polyphenols might be beneficial for the brain. This research, presented earlier at the national meeting of the American Chemical Association, has found that berry polyphenols help maintain and normalize the function of brain cells called microglia.

One of the functions of microglia is to remove and recycle biochemical debris that, if left to build up in the brain, might damage it and interfere with brain function.

As we age, the microglia can become increasingly less efficient at doing their job, and this can increase the risk of degeneration in the structure and function of the brain. From the report of this study, it seems as though berry polyphenols help to maintain the function of microglia in terms of their housekeeping function.

This study was done on rat brain cells cultured in a lab, which is far removed from human nutrition in the real world. However, we do have other evidence published in the September 1999 issue of Journal of Neuroscience that shows that feeding rats with berry extracts has the ability to improve motor function and cognitive function, including memory.

We just don’t know if eating berries has similar brain-preserving properties in humans. But their relatively low-sugar and highly nutritious nature means that I’ll continue to use them as a stock item at breakfast whenever possible.

Dr. John Briffa is a London-based physician and author with an interest in nutrition and natural medicine. His website is


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