Brain Food: Keep Your Eyes on Spinach

Spinach (Spinacia oleracea) is a leafy green vegetable that is a member of the Amaranthaceae, or amaranth family. This family of flowering plants derives its name from a Greek word that means “unfading,” or “unwilting,” and is symbolic of immortality.

Popeye had a point. Spinach may not grow muscle, but its healthy properties make the body strong in other ways.

The Biological Activity of Spinach

A current review of the functional properties of spinach notes that, “Spinach-derived phytochemicals and bioactives are able to (i) scavenge reactive oxygen species and prevent macromolecular oxidative damage, (ii) modulate expression and activity of genes involved in metabolism, proliferation, inflammation, and antioxidant defense, and (iii) curb food intake by inducing secretion of satiety hormones. These biological activities contribute to the anticancer, antiobesity, hypoglycemic, and hypolipidemic properties of spinach. Despite these valuable attributes, spinach consumption remains low in comparison to other leafy green vegetables.”1

Nutrients Found in Spinach

Spinach is a good source of beta-carotene, vitamin C, vitamin K, magnesium, folate, manganese, calcium, potassium and fiber. It contains a significant amount of iron; however, its high oxalate content can bind to the mineral, rendering it unabsorbable. Spinach has gained the spotlight recently as a source of lutein and zeaxanthin. These carotenoids accumulate in the macula of the eye, where they are known as macular pigment.

Spinach for Eye and Brain Health

Increased intake of lutein and zeaxanthin help protect against age-related macular degeneration, a common source of vision loss. Not only is lutein helpful to the eyes, but a recent study also found an association between higher serum lutein levels and so-called crystallized intelligence: the ability to retrieve and use information acquired throughout life.2 Men and women enrolled in the study who had higher lutein levels also had thicker gray matter in the parahippocampal cortex of the brain, leading co-lead researcher Aron Barvey to conclude that "Gray-matter volume of the parahippocampal cortex on the right side of the brain accounts for the relationship between lutein and crystallized intelligence."

In a study reported in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society,higher lutein and zeaxanthin levels were associated with more efficient brain activity in older adults.3 "There's a natural deterioration process that occurs in the brain as people age, but the brain is great at compensating for that,” explained first author Cutter Lindbergh, of the University of Georgia. “One way it compensates is by calling on more brain power to get a job done so it can maintain the same level of cognitive performance."

"It's in the interest of society to look at ways to buffer these decline processes to prolong functional independence in older adults," he noted. "Changing diets or adding supplements to increase lutein and zeaxanthin levels might be one strategy to help with that."

A recent review suggests a role for spinach in the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease.4 Spinach’s ability to improve cognition, act as a source of antioxidant polyphenolic compounds, help protect against amyloid beta toxicity and inhibit the breakdown of acetylcholine could all help protect against the development of the disease or slow its progression.

Other Health Benefits of Spinach

In mice given a high fat, high fructose diet, nitrate-enriched spinach improved lipids, lowered insulin resistance and inflammation (as indicated by a reduction in serum C-reactive protein, tumor necrosis factor alpha and interleukin-6), and improved vascular endothelial function.5 Research has also uncovered a protective role for lutein and zeaxanthin against nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).6

In a rat model of menopausal osteopenia, spinach extract prevented bone loss in tandem with an increase in the expression of osteogenic genes.7 In animals that underwent induced fractures, bone regeneration was accelerated in association with the intake of dried spinach extract.

In a study in which 8 human subjects consumed 225 grams per day of spinach over a 16-day period, oxidative damage to DNA in lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell) was lowered while folate levels increased and homocysteine levels were reduced.8

There is evidence that spinach has an anticancer effect. A glycolipid fraction of spinach given for two weeks to mice that received colon adenocarcinoma tumor grafts resulted in a 56.1% decrease in solid tumor volume without side effects.9 Mechanisms identified include inhibition of angiogenesis (new blood vessel formation) in tumor tissue and a decrease in cell proliferation. Spinach glycolipid fraction has also shown an inhibitory effect against human cervical cancer in mice that received implanted tumors.10 In human prostate cancer cells, antioxidants derived from spinach, particularly NAO, inhibited cellular proliferation while decreasing reactive oxygen species.11 And in human gastric adenocarcinoma cells, powdered spinach extract inhibited cell proliferation and viability, as well as DNA synthesis.12

Fresh spinach sautéed with garlic in olive oil is delicious as a side dish. The leaves can be added to salads, blended with other vegetables or fruit in smoothies or chopped and added to pasta. However, if you truly don’t like spinach, you can now obtain some of its unique benefits in the form of lutein/zeaxanthin supplements, alone or in many eye support formulas.


  1. Roberts JL et al. Food Funct. 2016 Aug 10;7(8):3337-53.
  2. Zamroziewicz MK et al. Front Aging Neurosci. 2016 Dec 6;8:297.
  3. Lindbergh CA et al. J Int Neuropsychol Soc. 2017 Jan;23(1):11-22.
  4. Jiraungkoorskul W. Pharmacogn Rev. 2016 Jul-Dec;10(20):105-108.
  5. Li T et al. Food Nutr Res. 2016 Sep 9;60:32010.
  6. Murillo AG et al. Biology (Basel). 2016 Nov 8;5(4).
  7. Adhikary S et al. Menopause. 2017 Jan 23.
  8. Moser B et al. Eur J Nutr. 2011 Oct;50(7):587-94.
  9. Maeda N et al. Lipids. 2008 Aug;43(8):741-8.
  10. Maeda N et al. Nutr Cancer. 2007;57(2):216-23.
  11. Nyska A et al. Toxicol Pathol. 2003 Jan-Feb;31(1):39-51.
  12. He T et al. Biomed Environ Sci. 1999 Dec;12(4):247-52.


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