The question “What do flavonoids do?” has been on my mind, but flavonoids aren’t merely on my mind; they’re also in my brain! They got there by passing through a high-security checkpoint called the blood-brain barrier (BBB).
The term blood-brain barrier refers to a unique characteristic of the small blood vessels running through our central nervous systems and brains. The walls of these blood vessels strictly regulate the molecules, ions, and cells passing between the blood and brain.
The BBB reminds me of The Lord of the Rings scene with Gandalf pounding his staff on the stone bridge’s surface and thundering at Balrog of Moria, “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!”
Similarly, the BBB effectively bars toxins and pathogens from entering the central nervous system, protecting the brain from inflammation and disease.
One of progressing neurological diseases (such as stroke, MS, brain injury, or neurogenerative disorders) most damaging effects is the loss of BBB function.
The Blood-Brain Barrier vs Flavonoids
However, one drawback to having a healthy BBB is that it sometimes blocks beneficial nutrients’ access to the brain. So what do flavonoids do to get passed the blood-brain-barrier?
Many of them break down into smaller components or derivatives capable of reaching the nervous system to interact with our neurons! Others, however, are small enough to pass through unchanged.
Take the anthocyanin flavonoids found in blueberries. USDA-ARS Research Psychologist Barbara Shukitt-Hale, Ph.D., has shown they have no difficulty getting past the BBB.
What do flavonoids do after reaching the brain? Dr. Shuckitt-Hale’s research also found that blueberry anthocyanins positively affect cognitive performance.
They assist many of the brain’s areas with memory formation, including the :
- cerebral cortex
All these regions are vulnerable to aging and neurodegenerative disease.
Significant research has examined two other widely consumed flavonoids, soy isoflavones and cocoa flavonols. It overwhelmingly suggests eating flavonoid-rich whole foods improves cognitive performance while delaying the age-related advance of cognitive impairments.
Unfortunately, our brains don’t store flavonoids. To enjoy their benefits long-term, we need to keep eating them!
What Do Flavonoids Do for Our Blood Flow?
By increasing nitric oxide’s bioavailability, flavonoids positively affect our vascular tone and vasodilation.
Improved vascular tone leads to better cerebral blood flow and cerebral endothelial function, which directly impacts brain activity.
Considering the links connecting insufficient nitric oxide and vascular dysfunction to:
- Alzheimer’s disease
what flavonoids do to increase nitric oxide also helps prevent age-related brain diseases.
What Do Flavonoids Do for BDNF?
BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) molecules help our brains remember, and adapt to, the changes constantly happening around us.
Eating high-flavonoid foods is one of the healthy habits known to increase BDNF. Regular exercise is another. Besides keeping us mentally sharp, BDNF also reduces depression and dementia.
It does this thanks to our brain’s neuroplasticity, a remarkable ability to reshape itself. According to this NutritionFacts video, “aerobic exercise and cognitive training” change the brain’s physical structure.
Think “practice makes perfect.” Neuroplasticity alters your brain’s structure every time you learn a new skill, such as riding a bike or playing a musical instrument.
And contrary to a long-held belief, aging doesn’t eliminate neuroplasticity. Old dogs are genuinely capable of learning new tricks!
So, What Do Flavonoids Do for Us? Provide Two-Way Brain Protection!
The beauty of flavonoids is that they indirectly impact the brain by increasing nitric oxide and directly impact it by increasing BDNF.
I’m thrilled that my blood-brain barrier is ever vigilant against invading pathogens yet allows flavonoids and their derivatives a free pass.
Will I always have flavonoids on my mind? Probably not, but by eating the right foods, I’ll always have them in my brain!