Here's what experts and research suggest.
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It's normal to forget things every now and then. This is especially true if you're in a rush, distracted, or simply have a lot on your mind. But if you're on a mission to support long-term memory, it might be time to fuel up on flavonoid-rich foods. Here, discover what flavonoids can do for your brain, according to research and experts.

What Are Flavonoids?

Flavonoids are plant chemicals known as phytonutrients, or natural compounds found in plant foods, says Dr. Rana Mafee, M.D., ABoIM, neurologist at Case Integrative Health. Currently, scientists know of at least 8,000 different types of flavonoids, but they're constantly discovering more. "These compounds are found in all fruits and vegetables, herbs, chocolate, tea, and wine," explains Mafee. Flavonoids are also found in some seeds, grains, and legumes, she adds.

Variety of fresh fruit on platter
Credit: Claudia Totir / Getty Images

How They Boost Memory

In order to understand how flavonoids affect memory, it helps to know the basics of oxidative stress. According to the journal Frontiers in Psychology, oxidative stress happens when there are too many free radicals in the body. Free radicals are molecules that are normal byproducts of cellular process (think: metabolism). But things like environmental pollution, cigarette smoke, and inflammation can boost free radical production, leading to cellular damage called oxidative stress. Over time, this oxidative stress can cause chronic conditions like heart disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes. It can also affect the brain, resulting in cognitive and memory decline, says Dr. Casey Kelley, M.D., ABoIM, founder and medical director of Case Integrative Health. What's more, as oxidative stress progresses, it can eventually lead to a loss of neurons (nerve cells) and dementia, explains Kelley.

That's where flavonoids come in. Flavonoids are antioxidants, which are beneficial molecules that protect cells from oxidative stress. They work by changing the molecular structure of free radicals, ultimately making them harmless. In fact, plants have antioxidants for this exact reason—they rely on antioxidants (including flavonoids) to protect their cells from environmental stressors like UV rays. So, when we eat said plants, we also reap the benefits of those antioxidants, says Mafee. In our case, they offer protection against chronic disease and—you guessed it—memory decline.

Case in point: In a 2021 study, researchers examined the link between long-term flavonoid intake and memory. The study spanned over 20 years and included more than 77,000 adults. The researchers found that folks who ate more flavonoid-rich foods over time were less likely to experience cognitive difficulties (e.g., recalling recent events or navigating familiar roads) in their 70s. Specifically, "those with the highest flavonoid intakes were 19 percent less likely to report issues with cognition when compared to those with lowest intakes," notes Mafee. Similarly, another 2021 study found that flavonols (a type of flavonoid) in cocoa can support memory function and cognition in older people. Moreover, according to a 2020 scientific review in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, antioxidants in general protect the structure of nerve cells, further promoting brain health. Bottom line: Thanks to their stellar antioxidant properties, flavonoids can play a role in keeping forgetfulness at bay.

Sources of Flavonoids

As noted earlier, flavonoids are found in myriad plant foods. "Among fruits, the superstars are berries like blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries," says Mafee. "Citrus fruits like oranges, lemons, limes, tangerines, and grapefruits are also good sources of flavonoids," she adds. Meanwhile, among vegetables and herbs, plants like kale, red cabbage, onions, and parsley are particularly high in flavonoids—but again, all vegetables offer the compound. In the tea department, black, oolong, and green tea are exceptionally high sources of flavonoids, notes Mafee. Dark chocolate and cocoa are also superb options, though she recommends choosing unsweetened versions for optimal nutrition. Adding any of these ingredients to your diet is a fantastic way to boost your flavonoid intake and "set yourself on a path toward lower risk [of] cognitive decline," she says.

But how do you know if you're eating enough flavonoids? It's quite simple: "Eat the rainbow," says Kelley. "The more colorful [your food], the better." It's also worth noting that eating for brain health is all about consistency, rather than eating a handful of blueberries every now and then. "We encounter oxidative stress daily, [but] when we eat foods high in flavonoid antioxidants, we help our cells repair," shares Kelley. That said, simply adding a handful of colorful plants to every meal will keep your cells healthy and well. Your brain will thank you!

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