We all know about the healing power of superfoods like kale, avocados, and pomegranates, all nutritional powerhouses with numerous health benefits. Now, researchers from York University have added an unexpected health food to the list: Marmite. Eating just a teaspoon of Marmite a day is believed to boost brain activity, and may prevent dementia.

The British spread, made from yeast extract, appears to change the brain's chemistry via its high concentration of vitamin B12, boosting gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) levels, a neurotransmitter in the brain. The inhibitory neurotransmitter works by preventing the excitability of neurons in the brain in order to promote balance.

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"This study suggests that eating Marmite is potentially good for you in that it seems to increase a chemical messenger associated with healthy brain function," Daniel Baker and Anika Smith, lead authors of the study, told AFP.

Deficiencies in GABA have been linked with a series of neurological disorders, like epilepsy. Researchers believe people with epilepsy have an imbalance of GABA, which makes them more likely to get seizures because they can't reduce impulse transmission, or brain cell excitability. Several anticonvulsants focus on GABA levels due to its calming, relaxing effect on the brain.

Baker and Smith see the healing potential dietary foods like marmite can offer for neurological diseases.

“This is a really promising first example of how dietary interventions can alter cortical processes, and a great starting point for exploring whether a more refined version of this technique could have some medical or therapeutic applications in the future,” they said, in a statement.

In the study, published in Journal of Psychopharmacology, the researchers wanted to see if marmite reduced the brain's response, or cell excitability to visual stimuli. Electroencephalography (EEGs) were used to measure the brain response of 28 men and women as they watched images flickering on and off the screen at 7Hz or 7 times per second. The participants were instructed to either take a teaspoon of Marmite or peanut butter a day, in addition to their usual diet. Both groups would be tested a month later to evaluate the effect of the spreads on brain excitability.

The findings revealed on average, those who ate Marmite had a 30 percent decrease in the brain's response to visual patterns than their counterparts. The researchers believe these changes were brought on by a increase in GABA levels induced by eating Marmite. The spread contains 116 times more B12, known to produce red blood cells and protect the nervous system, than peanut butter.

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The Marmite group was retested two months later, and researchers found their response levels were still lower than baseline, but not as low as immediately after the first trial.

Baker and Smith caution they are not clinicians or dietitians, so they're unable to make any suggestions about what would be a healthy limit for Marmite.

"However, there is no evidence that normal consumption of Marmite has any negative effects," they said.

The researchers do suggest it could potentially reduce the number of seizures for people with epilepsy. Moreover, since they only observed responses to visual stimuli, the researchers could not show, but only imply, the impact Marmite has on dementia risk.

Recently, neuroscientists admit one of the biggest shifts in dementia research is prevention. This is attributed to numerous imaging studies that show brain changes from Alzheimer's disease and dementia appear 15 to 20 years before diagnosis. Dietary change is one measure of prevention several doctors approve; one option is the Mediterranean diet, which includes fresh fruits and veggies, whole grains, and cutting out red meat, and other processed and fried foods, among many others.

Adding marmite to our daily diet could potentially change how we treat neurodegenerative disorders.

Source: Smith AK, Wade AR, Penkman KEH et al. Dietary modulation of cortical excitation and inhibition. Journal of Psychopharmacology. 2017.

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