Wasabi Could Improve Memory and Boost Brain Health, Study Finds

a little bowl with japanese wasabi and chopsticks
Study Finds Wasabi May Boost Memoryolgakr - Getty Images

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  • Wasabi, a plant often used in Japanese cuisine, may have a positive effect on memory.

  • Researchers found that consuming wasabi extract saw “significant” boosts in two aspects of cognition.

  • Experts explain the findings.

While there are plenty of brain-healthy foods that can help you lower your risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, it turns out a spicy condiment may be worth adding to the list. According to a study, wasabi boasts memory-boosting powers.

The study published in the journal Nutrients investigated the positive impact of wasabi (a plant that is often made into a paste and served alongside sushi as a spicy condiment), on cognitive functions like memory. The study involved 72 healthy subjects, aged 60 to 80. Half of them took 100 milligrams of wasabi extract at bedtime, while the rest received a placebo.

After following this regimen for three months, the group who consumed wasabi extract was found to have “significant” boosts in two aspects of cognition, working (short-term) memory, and the longer-lasting episodic memory, based on standardized assessments for language skills, concentration, and ability to carry out simple tasks. However, the researchers did not find that the wasabi group had any improvement in other areas of cognition, such as inhibitory control (the ability to stay focused), executive function (self-control and reasoning), or processing speed.

However, researchers did find that the wasabi group’s long-term memory scores jumped an average of 18% and scored on average 14% higher than the placebo group overall. Compared with the placebo group, the researchers noted that participants who consumed wasabi “showed improved verbal episodic memory performance as well as better performance in associating faces and names, which is often the major memory-related problem in older adults.”

Wasabi contains a bioactive compound that is both an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent, says Melissa Prest, D.C.N., R.D.N., national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and member of the Prevention Medical Review Board. “The theory on why wasabi would improve memory is that the combination of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties decreases both damage to the brain and inflammation—this protects the brain and allows for better nerve signaling which leads to improved memory,” she explains.

These antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects impact some of the critical mechanisms of memory loss, such as inflammation, he explains. Wasabi may also lower blood pressure and improve metabolic syndrome, adds Dale Bredesen, M.D., neuroscience researcher and singleton chair in neurology at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute.

It should be noted that the trial, which showed memory improvement but no other cognitive functions (such as executive function, or planning ability), was performed on people with no cognitive complaints, so it is not yet clear whether this memory-enhancing effect may extend to those that already suffer with memory loss, notes Dr. Bredesen. “It is also not clear whether wasabi would be superior to other anti-inflammatories such as curcumin (which is found in turmeric).”

And, “It should be noted that this is a small study in a very specific patient group, so the results may not work for all,” Prest notes. Dr. Bredesen agrees, saying, “It will be important to determine whether this memory effect occurs in those with memory loss, not just in those with normal memory.”

But, if you’re looking to incorporate wasabi into your routine, make sure you’re consuming the real thing. Interestingly, many people have consumed fake wasabi since it is uncommon to find real wasabi outside of Japan, says Prest. “Wasabi comes from a plant that needs very specific growing conditions and is quite costly to grow.”

Fake wasabi only contains about 1 to 3% of the real wasabi plant, notes Prest. “One way to tell if you are eating fake wasabi is if it is smooth and paste-like. Real wasabi is typically freshly grated for just the right amount needed and a little gritty.”

If you want to be sure that you’re getting the real thing, you can ask for the shaving to be done in front of you, adds Dr. Bredesen.

If eating wasabi with food isn’t at the top of your list, you can take wasabi supplements says Dr. Bredesen. “The trial used 0.8 mg of 6-MSITC, which is the active ingredient in wasabi, and you can get this much in a relatively small dab of real wasabi,” he says.

Since true fresh wasabi is not readily available throughout the U.S., and if you’d rather not add another supplement to your routine, you can try stirring 100% wasabi powder into foods like mustard, mayo, salad dressing, guacamole, hummus, or mashed potatoes, suggests Jackie Newgent, R.D.N., C.D.N., chef, nutritionist, and author of The Plant-Based Diabetes Cookbook. “It elevates the culinary experience and may offer bonus benefits for your brain.”

Ultimately, wasabi is another anti-inflammatory that has the potential to improve memory, says Dr. Bredesen. “This further increases the size of the arsenal for memory—there is much that we can all do to improve memory, and here is yet another potential tool.”

Dr. Bredesen suggests starting by following a “plant-rich diet [such as the Mediterranean or MIND diets], getting plenty of exercise, optimal sleep, and stress management,” which can all go a long way in preserving your memory.

Be sure to regularly include “brain foods” in your eating repertoire, like nuts, seeds, beans, dark leafy greens, avocados, tomatoes, and blueberries, says Newgent. “Consider sipping green tea and treating yourself to decadent bites of dark chocolate (think 70% cacao!).”

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