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Last Updated on December 1, 2020

How to Avoid Binary Thinking and Think More Clearly

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How to Avoid Binary Thinking and Think More Clearly

Unfortunately, we live in a world of either/or, with us or against us, black or white thinking. You’re either conservative or liberal. You’re for gay rights or against them. For goodness sake, now you’re either pro-putting a mask on your face or against it. All of this has to do with the human tendency to engage in binary thinking.

What is Binary Thinking?

Binary thinking, also known as dichotomous thinking, happens when even complex concepts, ideas, and problems are overly simplified into being one side or another. The gray area in the middle is ignored or goes unnoticed.

Binary thinking helps us feel a sense of certainty. In a complex world, binary thinking can feel comforting. The uncertainty of complexity can be scary and anxiety-provoking, so it’s no wonder people fall into binary thinking, especially during uncertain times like we’re currently experiencing.

As Bob Johansen says, “Categories move us toward certainty, but away from clarity.”[1]

If I’m worried about a global pandemic, racial unrest, and the future of my family’s survival, thinking about the complexity of the world can be overwhelming.

No one understands everything about, well, everything. Therefore, our brains take a shortcut to make us feel better, and we oversimplify things into general categories, resulting in binary thinking.

The Problem With Binary Thinking

The problem with binary thinking is that it isn’t accurate. Gray area does exist. All the time. It may make us feel better to think in terms of this or that, us or them, him or her, but it’s not actually how the world works.

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When we’re engaging in binary thinking, we’re stuck making assumptions. As Johansen says, “Being stuck in categorical thought doesn’t actually involve much thinking at all—you just assume without thinking that new experiences will fit into your old boxes, buckets, labels, generalizations, and stereotypes.”

Binary thinking also leads to conflict and detachment. When we make assumptions about others by lumping them into preconceived categories, we aren’t being curious about them, and we aren’t trying to investigate nuance that might actually bring us closer together.

So, how can we stop thinking in a binary way?

7 Ways to Avoid Binary Thinking

1. Try New Things

If we’re ever going to break out of the bad habit of binary thinking, we need to go to new places and try some new things. Life is complicated and messy, so when we get out there and do some living, we at least put ourselves in the position to encounter new ideas and perspectives.

Take a class, learn a language, find a new hobby, travel, or just do things differently than you did yesterday. Part of breaking our old habit of binary thinking is switching up our everyday lived experience.

2. Meet New People

The same goes for meeting new people. If everyone in your social media feed looks and thinks like you, you’re probably stuck in a feedback loop. You spout off some binary thinking, and then your friends agree with said binary thinking, and the cycle continues.

Break out of binary thinking by meeting new people—people from other cultures, races, religions, and backgrounds. But it’s not enough to just meet them. We also need to be curious and open to their perspectives.

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3. Cultivate Curiosity

Even when you don’t agree with someone, it’s important to ask lots of questions and approach each interaction with a sense of authentic curiosity in order to break out of your binary thinking.

I like to play a game I call Curious Detective[2] when I meet new people. Instead of talking about myself, I pretend my job is to learn as much as I can about them. Either that, or I’ll play a game called Hard-Hitting Reporter where I pretend to be a reporter who’s really trying to get to the bottom of what makes this person tick. This helps me to be genuinely curious about other person instead of approaching conversations as an opportunity to gab about myself.

4. Listen With an Open Mind

It’s also important to slow down. Our initial, gut reactions are often examples of binary thinking. We tend to make assumptions and snap judgments before we gather all the information needed to truly gain clarity.

Break that habit by slowing down your reactions. Pause and reflect before you jump to conclusions, and if you do find yourself mentally lumping things into broad categories, catch yourself, stop, and then try to see the broader picture.

And listen. Instead of trying to cram new information into the limited categories you already have, keep your mind open. Let new information be confusing and complex instead of fitting neatly in those binary categories you’re used to.

5. Build Empathy

Brene Brown writes, “Perspective taking is listening to the truth as other people experience it and acknowledging it as the truth.”[3] This means that when you’re meeting those new people and trying those new things, you need to actually listen for the truth in their experience instead of trying to force them to fit into your preconceived assumptions.

A great example of this is happening with the Black Lives Matters protests the world over. White people are not taking perspective when we lump all Black people together or interpret their experiences through our own perspectives. Perspective taking is when we actually listen to their experiences and acknowledge them as truth.

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We invite gray area back into our lives when we acknowledge that just because someone’s truth is different than ours, it doesn’t mean it’s not true.

This builds empathy. Brown explains, “Empathy is incompatible with shame and judgment. Staying out of judgment requires understanding. We tend to judge those areas where we’re the most vulnerable to feeling shame ourselves.” Instead of shutting down because we feel shame or judgment, real empathy comes from honoring other people’s experiences and truths and being open to the multiplicity of perspectives.

People don’t all think and feel the same way, and that’s actually a good thing.

6. Don’t Fall for the Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is when you know a little about a topic and are, therefore, overly confident about your expertise in that topic[4]. When people don’t know anything about a topic, they have low confidence in their expertise. However, as soon as they know a tiny bit, their confidence soars.

Then, the more people learn, the less confident they become because they begin to realize that it’s more complex than they initially realized. Once someone starts to actually become an expert in a field, their confidence finally starts to gradually increase again.

Knowing about the Dunning-Kruger Effect is important if you want to avoid binary thinking. Our smartphones give us access to the basics about any and every topic. This primes us for feeling way too confident about our understanding of way too many things.

If you know a little bit about something, please also know that your confidence is probably unjustifiably high. You are not an expert and do not understand the complexities of the field yet.

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Stay humble and learn more before bragging and boasting about how much of an expert you are. Also, binary thinking should be a good clue for you that you’re actually just making assumptions and generalizations instead of actually being an expert in the field.

7. Embrace Uncertainty

Finally, if we want to stop our binary thinking, we need to remind ourselves every day that the world is complex and that we don’t know nearly as much as we sometimes think we do. While this may cause anxiety, it’s an important realization to embrace if you want to grow intellectually.

Full-Spectrum Thinking

Johansen calls the antidote to binary thinking full-spectrum thinking. Instead of making assumptions and broad generalizations, full-spectrum thinking is when we investigate the nuance and explore the gray areas.

That’s what we’re aiming for if we want to avoid binary thinking. We need to stop ourselves when we start making broad generalizations and assumptions and actively look for complexity and gray area. Slow down, learn more, and let there be more truths than the one you’re used to. Sit with complexity and uncertainty and let it motivate you to learn more instead of being overly confident about your expertise.

Final Thoughts

Binary thinking, while useful for human survival, can be harmful as it limits the experiences we have. If more people primed themselves for full-spectrum thinking, we certainly wouldn’t live in such a disconnected and divisive world because more people would be engaged with each other’s diverse perspectives instead of lumping each other into preconceived categories. Start developing full-spectrum thinking and open yourself up to more possibilities.

More on Thinking Clearly

Featured photo credit: Sharon McCutcheon via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Clay Drinko

Clay Drinko is an educator and the author of PLAY YOUR WAY SANE (January 2021 Simon & Schuster)

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Published on August 9, 2021

12 Best Brain Foods To Help You Focus Like A Laser

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12 Best Brain Foods To Help You Focus Like A Laser

Do you ever feel like your brain can function better than it is currently? Have you ever had moments of laser sharp focus and wished they stayed with you forever?

We have all had those moments where we found ourselves being super productive and having lengthened periods of concentration and focused attention, and if there was a way we could make such kind of mental state a permanent state for us, we would definitely go for it.

And while we cannot make the state come back and stick with us forever in just an instant, there is a way we can slowly cultivate it in our lives in the long term.

One of these ways is by being keen on eating brain boosting foods. Some foods enhance the regions of the brain that are linked to concentration, focus, reasoning, thinking abilities, and overall brain health. By eating these foods regularly, you can also improve your brain function and slowly work to a healthy and well performing brain.

Let’s take a closer look at the 12 best brain foods to take to boost your focus and overall mental health.

1. Coffee

Coffee is among the most popular beverages that sharpen your focus and increase productivity. Millions of people across the world rely on it to help them through demanding tasks at work and assignments at school.

The reason why coffee has proven to be effective over the years is due to the two components in it that largely enhance the brain.

These components are antioxidants and caffeine.

Antioxidants help with protecting the brain from common mental health conditions such as stroke, Parkinson’s disease, cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.[1][2]

Caffeine, on the other hand, is responsible for influencing the brain in various positive ways including blocking out a brain chemical called Adenosine that makes you want to sleep and increasing the levels of serotonin neurotransmitters which in turn boosts your mood, increase your level of alertness and concentration.[3][4][5][6]

However, it is important to note that taking coffee with moderation is the way to make the most of it. If you take more than 4 cups a day, you might be setting yourself up for the nasty side effects that come with it which are restlessness and inability to sleep.[7]

Striking a good balance between coffee and other beverages will help you avoid the chances of experiencing the side effects. You can try drinking coffee only on those days you want to tackle tedious tasks, and only when you are working on them to maximize its effects in your life.

2. Fatty Fish

When the words fatty fish are mentioned, you naturally direct your attention to salmon, pollack, cod, sardines, mackerel and tuna.

These contain omega 3 fatty acids, which are known to help with improving learning abilities and memory, not to mention helping with building nerve and brain cells.[8][9][10][11]

Improved cognitive performance brought about by omega 3 fatty acids can be attributed to the fact that they help increase flow of blood in the brain. [12]

Also, when it comes to general mental health, eating oily or fatty fish helps to delay the mental decline that comes with age, as well as depression and reduce learning problems. [13] [14]

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Omega 3 has also been associated with the lowering of the protein called Beta-amyloid in the brain that is responsible for forming destructive clamps in people who struggle with Alzheimer’s.[15]

You are encouraged to add fatty fish to your eating plan and consider having it often.

Also, if you would like to obtain omega 3 fatty acids without having to feel like you have to eat fish every time, you can use other alternatives such as walnuts, flaxseeds and avocados. They are also good sources of omega 3.

3. Maca

Maca is a plant from Peru that is grown in Central Andes and has been cultivated a little over 2000 years now. Its scientific name is Lepidium meyenii and is used as a foodstuff as well as a medicinal plant.

It is said to bring about many health benefits including boosting learning abilities and memory, improving mood, increasing energy levels and endurance, improving sexual health in men, and regulating blood pressure.[16]

When it comes to the mental health benefits, Peruvian natives in the Central Andes attribute their children’s good academic performance to regular use of maca.[17]

While there are different varieties of maca, studies have found that the black variety is the one that shows strong effects on mental health improvement, and both hydroalcoholic maca extract and boiled aqueous maca extract have the same effect on the brain.[18]

Scientific studies on maca are still in their infancy and the cause of the effects that it has shown are not yet fully established. However, it is suggested that Macamides, which are maca compounds, might be behind its potency.[19]

You can add maca to your smoothies, energy bars, oatmeal, and any baked foods to enjoy its benefits.

4. Green Tea

Green tea is another known stimulant that helps you remain alert. It contains two compounds that go a long way in influencing the brain.[20]

First, it contains caffeine which accounts for the alertness.

Although coffee contains a much higher quantity of caffeine than green tea, the latter is found suitable to use for those who prefer a well toned effect of caffeine.

Caffeine helps with regulating neurotransmitters like norepinephrine, dopamine and adenosine, as earlier mentioned, that helps with keeping you awake and in good balance in terms of moods and brain function.[21][22]

Second, it contains. L-theanine.

L-theanine is an amino acid that can cross the blood-brain barrier and into the brain which then promotes increase in GABA (Gamma aminobutyric acid) which promotes relaxation.[23][24][25]

It also increases the alpha waves in the brain which are responsible for the calm, conscious and relaxed mental state.

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When L-theanine and caffeine are combined, they both have a much powerful effect, and this explains why taking green tea for many people has been found more rewarding than coffee.

L-theanine has also been linked to other mental health benefits such as improving memory and protection from mental illnesses like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.[26][27]

Taking green tea in the morning and just before going for a physical exercise helps.

5. Green Leafy Vegetables

Greens are packed with nutrients that enhance the brain in great ways. Broccoli, Swiss chards, kales, dandelion greens, collards and spinach are among the vegetables that have high nutritional value that make them useful for brain health.

Broccoli, for instance, has antioxidants and Vitamin K, among other plant compounds that contribute to better memory, anti-inflammatory effects and brain protection benefits.[28][29][30]

Kale is heavily packed with nutrients like Vitamin A, B6, C, K, potassium, manganese, copper and calcium that promote brain development, slowing cognitive decline caused by age, depression and even various health conditions like Alzheimer’s.[31][32][33][34]

Generally, leafy vegetables contain a variety of nutrients including vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that elevate various regions of the brain that are associated with memory, alertness, processing of information and overall brain health.

Working with delicious green smoothies and recipes that use a lot of greens will largely contribute to a better functioning brain.

6. Dark Chocolate

Other than the sweet taste, dark chocolate also boosts your brain.

It contains three compounds that make this possible, which are, caffeine, antioxidants and flavonoids.

Since we have already seen that caffeine offers the stimulating effects that keep you alert and antioxidants help with keeping mental illnesses and cognitive decline at bay, let’s take a closer look at flavonoids.

Flavonoids are micronutrients that reduce neuroinflammation, protect neurons from neurotoxin-based injury and are potentially effective in enhancing learning, cognitive performance and memory.[35][36] [37]

Studies have also revealed that dark chocolate brings about a positive feeling.[38]

Dark chocolate contains cacao, which is often referred to as cocoa. Aiming to eat dark chocolate that carries more than 70% cocoa ensures that you get optimal benefits from it.

7. Nuts

Nuts such as walnuts, cashew nuts, hazelnuts, pecans, to name a few, contain several brain improving nutrients.

They come with the popular antioxidant, Vitamin E, that protects the brain cells and cell membranes from oxidative stress and damage by free radicals.[39][40][41]

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Long term consumption of nuts has contributed to a sharper memory, better academic performance and lower risks of getting mental illnesses too.[42][43]

They have also shown abilities to improve the factors that account for good heart and brain health.

All nuts have their nutritional benefits but you are encouraged to eat walnuts more as they have a much higher value due to the presence of high levels of alpha-linolenic acid, which is a type of omega 3 fatty acid.

8. Avocado

Avocado is surprisingly a berry, and it is referred to as a big berry.

Although it hasn’t been fully studied yet, it is believed to carry vitamins B5, B6, C, E and K. Also, it comes with folate and potassium.

There are also low amounts of other nutrients including copper, phosphorus, magnesium, zinc, manganese, and iron that are present in it.

Moreover, it contains a monounsaturated fatty acid called Oleic acid, which is part of what makes olive oil good to use. This fatty acid is known to have many benefits, some of which are lowering inflammation, and brain development.[44]

Adding it to your recipes or making smoothies, and regularly eating it together with your favorite fruits will help you take advantage of its nutritional value.

9. Eggs

There are 4 micronutrients in eggs that give the brain an extra edge, folate, choline, vitamin B6 and B12.

Folate helps to slow down the mental decline that comes with age.[45]

Choline is used by the body to increases the levels of a neurotransmitter known as Acetylcholine that is associated with memory, mental function and moods.[46][47][48]

The yolk of an egg is where the choline micronutrient is in high quantities, and people who desire to increase their choline levels in the body are encouraged to focus on that part.

Vitamin B6 brings down the high levels of an amino acid called Homocysteine in the blood that causes depression and other psychiatric issues.

It also plays the role of increasing the levels of neurotransmitters like GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid), serotonin and dopamine, which modulate emotions.

Vitamin B12 also helps with reducing the symptoms of depression as well as preventing losing neurons that in turn cause poor memory.[49]

10. Citrus Fruits

Citrus fruits are categorized into lemons (which include meyer lemons and eureka lemons), sweet oranges (which include blood orange, Valencia, cara cara and navel), limes (which include kaffir, Persian and key lime), mandarin (which include tangelo, tangor, satsuma and clementine), grapefruit (which include ruby red, white and oroblanco) and others such as yuzu, sudachi, citron and pomelos.

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They have the B vitamins as well as Vitamin C, copper, phosphorus, potassium, and magnesium. There are also lots of varieties of carotenoids, essential oils and flavonoids present in citrus fruits.

On top of that, they are also known to possess antioxidating and anti-inflammatory effects.

Vitamin C reduces inflammation, offers protection to neurons from oxidative stress, modulates neurotransmission (communication between neurons), and also influences neuronal development.[50]

Some of the minerals in citrus fruits have been found to reduce symptoms of depression in women.[51]

They have also been associated with influencing communication through the nerves and regulating neurotransmitters.[52]

The flavanoids protect the nervous system from damage through the anti-inflammatory effects they have. And this helps to keep mental health conditions like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s away.[53][54]

11. Turmeric

Turmeric is a spice we add to our foods to make it delicious that also does a bit of magic to our brains.

Curcumin is a primary active component in turmeric that easily passes the blood brain barrier.

It brings about anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects that drag along the benefits of improved memory, promoting growth of new brain cells and managing moods.[55][56]

Also, it has shown potential to handle Alzheimer’s diseases, although it has not been fully confirmed as reliable treatment.[57][58]

12. Beetroots

Beetroots which are commonly referred to as beets are also great brain enhancers.

They can help prevent mental decline that is associated with poor blood flow to the brain. They have nitrates that encourage blood vessel dilation that then allow more blood and oxygen to flow to the brain, and thus enhance its functions.[59]

More specifically, they improve flow of blood to a part of the brain known as the frontal lobe.

This is a region that is linked to higher cognitive functions including concentration and attention, problem solving, reasoning and judgment, motor function, impulse control, memory, social interaction and emotions.

Conclusion

There you go, the best brain foods that you should make your closest friends.

You should aim to have them often if you would like to see an improvement in your brain function in the coming months. Looking for recipes that use the foods mentioned above as ingredients and adding them to your recipe book is a good place to start.

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Also, mixing them up with the foods you like eating goes a long way in not only making sure that you are minding your brain health but also enjoying what you eat in the process.

Featured photo credit: Maddi Bazzocco via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] PubMed.gov: Effects of coffee/caffeine on brain health and disease: What should I tell my patients?
[2] US National Library of Medicine: Neuroprotective and Anti-inflammatory Properties of a Coffee Component in the MPTP Model of Parkinson’s Disease
[3] PubMed.gov: Effects of caffeine on mood and performance: a study of realistic consumption
[4] PubMed.gov: Caffeine and adenosine
[5] PubMed.gov: The role of adenosine in the regulation of sleep
[6] PubMed.gov: Roles of adenosine and its receptors in sleep-wake regulation
[7] US National Library of Medicine: The Safety of Ingested Caffeine: A Comprehensive Review
[8] National Center For Complimentary And Integrative Health: Omega-3 Supplements: In Depth
[9] PubMed.gov: Omega-3 Fatty Acids and their Role in Central Nervous System – A Review
[10] National Library of Medicine: A meta-analytic review of double-blind, placebo-controlled trials of antidepressant efficacy of omega-3 fatty acids
[11] PubMed.gov: Novel insights into the effect of vitamin B₁₂ and omega-3 fatty acids on brain function
[12] PubMed.gov: Quantitative Erythrocyte Omega-3 EPA Plus DHA Levels are Related to Higher Regional Cerebral Blood Flow on Brain SPECT
[13] PubMed.gov: Omega-3 fatty acids and dementia
[14] PubMed.gov: Fish consumption and cognitive decline with age in a large community study
[15] Harvard Medical School: Foods linked to better brainpower
[16] US National Library of Medicine: Acceptability, Safety, and Efficacy of Oral Administration of Extracts of Black or Red Maca (Lepidium meyenii) in Adult Human Subjects: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study
[17] PubMed.gov: Ethnobiology and Ethnopharmacology of Lepidium meyenii (Maca), a Plant from the Peruvian Highlands
[18] PubMed.gov: Effect of three different cultivars of Lepidium meyenii (Maca) on learning and depression in ovariectomized mice
[19] US National Library of Medicine: Ethnobiology and Ethnopharmacology of Lepidium meyenii (Maca), a Plant from the Peruvian Highlands
[20] PubMed.gov: Effect of Green Tea Phytochemicals on Mood and Cognition
[21] Wiley Online Library: Adenosine, Adenosine Receptors and the Actions of Caffeine
[22] PubMed.gov: Caffeine and the central nervous system: mechanisms of action, biochemical, metabolic and psychostimulant effects
[23] PubMed.gov: The neuropharmacology of L-theanine(N-ethyl-L-glutamine): a possible neuroprotective and cognitive enhancing agent
[24] ScienceDirect: L-theanine—a unique amino acid of green tea and its relaxation effect in humans
[25] PubMed.gov: L-theanine, a natural constituent in tea, and its effect on mental state
[26] PubMed.gov: Green tea extract enhances parieto-frontal connectivity during working memory processing
[27] PubMed.gov: Neurological mechanisms of green tea polyphenols in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases
[28] PubMed.gov: Vitamin K status and cognitive function in healthy older adults
[29] Increased dietary vitamin K intake is associated with less severe subjective memory complaint among older adults
[30] US National Library of Medicine: Assessing Competence of Broccoli Consumption on Inflammatory and Antioxidant Pathways in Restraint-Induced Models: Estimation in Rat Hippocampus and Prefrontal Cortex
[31] ScienceDaily: B vitamins and the aging brain examined
[32] PubMed.gov: The Importance of Maternal Folate Status for Brain Development and Function of Offspring
[33] PubMed.gov: Treatment of depression: time to consider folic acid and vitamin B12
[34] PNAS: Preventing Alzheimer’s disease-related gray matter atrophy by B-vitamin treatment
[35] US National Library of Medicine: Flavonoids and brain health: multiple effects underpinned by common mechanisms
[36] Harvard Medical School: The thinking on flavonoids
[37] PubMed.gov: Epicatechin, a component of dark chocolate, enhances memory formation if applied during the memory consolidation period
[38] PubMed.gov: The sweet life: The effect of mindful chocolate consumption on mood
[39] PubMed.gov: Effects of vitamin E on cognitive performance during ageing and in Alzheimer’s disease
[40] PubMed.gov: The effect of adrenaline and of alpha- and beta-adrenergic blocking agents on ATP concentration and on incorporation of 32Pi into ATP in rat fat cells
[41] PubMed.gov: Vitamin E-gene interactions in aging and inflammatory age-related diseases: implications for treatment. A systematic review
[42] US National Library of Medicine: LONG-TERM INTAKE OF NUTS IN RELATION TO COGNITIVE FUNCTION IN OLDER WOMEN
[43] PubMed.gov: Cognition: the new frontier for nuts and berries
[44] US National Library of Medicine: Neuroprotective effects of oleic acid in rodent models of cerebral ischaemia
[45] US National Library of Medicine: Brain foods: the effects of nutrients on brain function
[46] PubMed.gov: Choline: an essential nutrient for public health
[47] Pubmed.govThe relation of dietary choline to cognitive performance and white-matter hyperintensity in the Framingham Offspring Cohort
[48] NCBI: Dietary Reference Intakes for Thiamin, Riboflavin, Niacin, Vitamin B6, Folate, Vitamin B12, Pantothenic Acid, Biotin, and Choline
[49] PubMed.gov: Vitamin B-12 concentration, memory performance, and hippocampal structure in patients with mild cognitive impairment
[50] PubMed.gov: Preventive and Therapeutic Potential of Vitamin C in Mental Disorders
[51] NCBI: Association between Lower Intake of Minerals and Depressive Symptoms among Elderly Japanese Women but Not Men: Findings from Shika Study
[52] Harvard Medical School: Precious metals and other important minerals for health
[53] PubMed.gov: Role of Quercetin Benefits in Neurodegeneration
[54] PubMed.gov: Neurodegenerative Diseases: Might Citrus Flavonoids Play a Protective Role?
[55] PubMed.gov: Efficacy and safety of curcumin in major depressive disorder: a randomized controlled trial
[56] PLOS ONE: Curcumin Enhances Neurogenesis and Cognition in Aged Rats: Implications for Transcriptional Interactions Related to Growth and Synaptic Plasticity
[57] US National Library of Medicine: The effect of curcumin (turmeric) on Alzheimer’s disease: An overview
[58] NCBI: The effect of curcumin (turmeric) on Alzheimer’s disease: An overview
[59] NCBI: The Potential Benefits of Red Beetroot Supplementation in Health and Disease

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