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Keto-Friendly Brain Boosting Nutrients: Caffeine, Choline & Dietary Nitrates

Keto Coffee Brain

To finish our series on Keto-friendly brain boosting nutrients, we are going to cover…Caffeine, Choline & Dietary Nitrates!

Caffeine

Caffeine is the most widely used psychoactive substance in the world, and, in the US, coffee is the largest contributor to caffeine intake. There are two main components in both coffee and tea that can help boost your brain power—caffeine and antioxidants.

The number of positive effects that caffeine has on the brain include its potential to:

  • Increase alertness by blocking adenosine, a chemical messenger that makes you sleepy
  • Improve mood by boosting your serotonin level and other ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitters
  • Help you focus on tasks that require concentration1

Long-term coffee consumption has also been consistently associated with a lower risk of neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, even after adjustment for smoking and other categories of exposure2. Interestingly, the reduced risk of developing Parkinson’s was greatest for those consuming multiple cups of coffee per day. In addition, a compilation of data from multiple studies has linked caffeine intake to lower risk of depression as well as cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease3. Caffeine also appears to reduce cognitive decline in women with dementia and it may prove to be of potential use in delaying a diagnosis of dementia.

Best of all, this protective effect of caffeine was observed to actually increase with age4. Aside from its potent antioxidant capabilities, another mechanism responsible for caffeine’s ability to protect against neurological diseases is its protective effects on the blood-brain barrier (BBB). Emerging evidence suggests that dysfunction of this strategic barrier plays an important role in the development of both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Research has found that caffeine has the ability to stabilize this barrier, potentially making it a safe and readily available therapy against these neurological disorders5.

Sources of caffeine: include coffee and coffee beans, tea and tea leaves, cocoa/cacao beans and solids, and kola nuts.

Choline

Choline is an essential nutrient that is important for the structural integrity of cell membranes, including those of brain cells. It is also needed to produce acetylcholine, an important neurotransmitter for memory, mood, muscle control, and other brain and nervous system functions6Our bodies can produce choline in the liver but the amount that we naturally synthesize does not appear adequate enough to meet our needs, underscoring the importance of regularly including choline in our diet. The daily Adequate Intake (AI) recommendation for choline has been set at 425 mg per day for women, 450 mg for pregnant women, 550 mg for breastfeeding women, and 550 mg for men7.

Sources of choline: include beef and chicken liver, salmon, whole egg (egg yolk is one of the most concentrated sources in our diet), chicken (meat and skin), beef, bacon, Shiitake mushrooms, broccoli, cauliflower, almonds, pecans, peanuts, and flaxseeds.

Dietary Nitrates

Nitrate is a precursor of the bioactive form of nitric oxide (NO), which has many functions in the human body, including regulation of nerve transmission and increasing blood flow throughout our body—including our brain8. In these capacities, nitric oxide has been shown to have many performance and health benefits—both physiological and cognitive.

Vegetable and fruit-based dietary nitrates serve as important raw materials the body uses to generate the nitric oxide molecule. When we consume dietary nitrate, it is recirculated into the saliva where bacteria in the mouth convert it to nitrite. This nitrite is swallowed and can be further converted into nitric oxide either in the stomach, blood vessels, or within tissues (e.g. heart). The conversion of dietary nitrate to nitric oxide is dose-dependent, meaning a greater intake of nitrate from food we eat equals more nitric oxide. Therefore, this increased intake of dietary nitrate could potentially provide a benefit in a number of disorders stemming from inadequate nitric oxide, such as cognitive decline9. Many other nutrients, such as vitamin C, folic acid, flavanols, CoQ10, and arginine are nitric oxide boosters, enhancing its production and availability. Both a continuous and regulated generation of nitric oxide is essential for the health of the nervous system, in addition to the cardiovascular and immune systems10.

Sources of nitrates: include dark green leafy vegetables such as arugula, chard, spinach, kale, and lettuce, as well as radish, beetroot, cabbage, leeks, rhubarb, green beans, garlic, sweet pepper, green pepper, cucumber, and turnips.

Key Takeaways

Aside from the fundamental role of adequate sleep and exercise, what you choose to eat on a ketogenic diet can be a viable strategy for not only enhancing brain health, but actually protecting it from damage, promoting its repair, and counteracting the effects of aging. By taking advantage of the rapidly growing body of knowledge highlighting the unique role of nutrients on brain function, you can further optimize the Keto Diet’s health impact.

  • Omega 3s: The extensive evidence on the multiple health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids underscores the importance of eating foods rich in omega-3’s on a routine basis. Supplemental omega-3’s are definitely an option to help ensure an adequate intake.
  • Polyphenols & Dietary Nitrates: Both the polyphenols and dietary nitrates found in a variety of plant foods positively affect cerebrovascular blood flow, offering an effective mechanism for their positive impact on brain health and mental performance. As with omega-3 fatty acids, polyphenols also have anti-inflammatory properties, potentially shielding cell membranes from free radical damage and helping to slow mental decline.
  • Caffeine: Caffeine has been shown to exert positive effects on the brain, including increased alertness, greater focus, and improved mood.
  • Choline: As a precursor of a key neurotransmitter and structural component of brain cell membranes, choline is involved in memory and may help to prevent or delay age-related cognitive decline.

Our aging brain is more prone to the development of neurological degenerative diseases such as dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Many studies have demonstrated strong associations between the five nutrients we covered in this series and their potential role in reducing the risk of developing these disorders. You can help support your brain health and boost your alertness, memory and mood by strategically including these foods in your diet.

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  1. 20 Effects of Caffeine on Cognitive Performance, Mood, and Alertness in Sleep-Deprived Humans:  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK209050/
  2. Coffee consumption and health: umbrella review of meta-analyses of multiple health outcomes:  https://www.bmj.com/content/359/bmj.j5024
  3. Neuroprotection by caffeine: Time course and role of its metabolites in the MPTP model of Parkinson Disease: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2849921/
  4. The neuroprotective effects of caffeine: A prospective population study (the Three City Study): http://n.neurology.org/content/69/6/536
  5. Caffeine protects against disruptions of the blood-brain barrier in animal models of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3086010/
  6. Choline Dietary Requirements and Role in Brain Development https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2518394/
  7. Choline: An Essential Nutrient for Public Health: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2782876/
  8. Performance and Health Benefits of Dietary Nitrate Supplementation in Older Adults: A Systematic Review: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5707643/
  9. Vascular effects of dietary nitrate (as found in green leafy vegetables and beetroot) via the nitrate‐nitrite‐nitric oxide pathway: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3575935/
  10. Nitric oxide enhancement strategies: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5137939/
Mary Paley

Fearless Dietitian; 30+ years as a professional dietitian; Master’s Degree in Nutrition and Dietetics at the MGH Institute of Health Professions; Lead research dietitian for several major pharmaceutical companies; Currently focused on health and wellness and the benefits of ketogenic diets for both obesity and diabetes management. MS, RDN, CDE, LD/N

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