Drink your milk, and you’ll grow up strong. At least that’s what your mom always said. But decades later, drinking your milk may help keep your brain young, according to new research published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
For the study, researchers from the University of Kansas Medical Center examined the dietary intake of 60 older adults over the course of a week. The team then performed brain scans on the participants to measure the levels of a naturally occurring antioxidant, called glutathione, floating through their noggins. It turned out, the subjects who had reported drinking the most milk had higher levels of glutathione – and possibly a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
“A long-standing theory of aging called the free-radical theory explains that oxidative stress plays a key role in aging, aging-associated neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease,” says lead study author In-Young Choi, an associate professor of neurology at the University of Kansas Medical Center. “Glutathione is a major antioxidant in our brains and is known to fight against oxidative stress and protect our nerve cells. Therefore, increasing glutathione concentrations could be an important strategy to promote brain health.”
Throughout our lives, the liver produces glutathione from a combination of amino acids. That glutathione is integral to scavenging free radicals to prevent their harmful effects throughout the body. “In a perfect world, our body should be able to recycle its own glutathione for use,” says registered dietitian Jaime Mass. However, pollution, lack of exercise, junk food and mental stress can all cause your body’s levels of circulating glutathione to drop. “Glutathione is a perfect example of how modern-day living could be playing a role in increased disease states and illness,” she says.
Unfortunately, the brain is particularly vulnerable to oxidative stress. So when glutathione levels get too low, so too can your cognitive health, says Dr. Richard Isaacson, director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College/NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and co-author of “The Alzheimer’s Diet.” Hence why, according to research published in The Journal of Nutrition, consuming foods that help the body produce more glutathione is critical to preventing Alzheimer’s disease.
How to Make More Glutathione
You can’t just eat more glutathione. You have to consume precursors of the molecule to help your body increase its levels naturally, Mass says. “That’s why dairy products may have a potential connection to glutathione levels. They are rich in cysteine, one of the building blocks of glutathione.”
Unfortunately, few adults meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 3-cup recommendation for daily dairy intake, Choi says. She notes that, in the current study, the closer subjects’ dairy intakes were to the recommended levels, the healthier their levels of glutathione in the brain.
“The dairy connection makes great sense and shouldn’t be ignored, but maybe this research on dairy is pointing us in a more efficient direction,” says Mass, who notes that the pasteurization process can possibly harm and limit glutathione precursors in milk. “What other foods may also help provide the body with the building blocks to support our glutathione? We need more research and this study could be the beginning of something bigger.”
Currently, one of the most popular ways to raise glutathione levels is by consuming whey protein. In fact, in a previous study published in Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, patients with reduced liver function improved their liver function, plasma glutathione levels and total antioxidant capacity after consuming 20 grams of cysteine-rich whey protein isolate a day for 12 weeks.
“When it’s manufactured well and does not undergo any high-heat processing, it retains glutathione precursors such as cysteine, lactoferrin and glutamate,” Mass says. To ensure that your whey protein is high in those precursors, she recommends choosing a product that has been produced using ultra-filtration methods and cold-processing techniques. “These methods allow us to consume protein powder that has higher levels of amino acids than other sources along with immunoglobulins, which support a healthy immune system to further prevent oxidative damage.”
Another benefit is that since whey protein contains very little lactose, or milk sugar, you may be able to consume the protein even if you are lactose intolerant. If it does upset your stomach, though, you can also get cysteine from meats, poultry, eggs and quinoa, Mass says. Sulfur-rich foods such as cruciferous vegetables (cauliflower, cabbage, bok choy, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and other leady greens), onions and garlic may also support glutathione synthesis in the body.
Whatever you eat to increase your glutathione levels, for optimal Alzheimer’s protection, you’ll also need to integrate other brain-boosting strategies into your daily routine. “To optimally reduce oxidative stress and Alzheimer’s risk, you have to hit from every angle,” Isaacson says. In addition to dietary changes, he recommends regularly working out, reducing stress and exercising your brain with continual learning, games and brain teasers.
But, come breakfast time, drinking a glass of milk is a perfect place to start.