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They can cut your risk of heart attack and diabetes, ease stress, prevent Alzheimer’s, breast and prostate cancer, lower cholesterol — and might even improve your sex life. Yet this isn’t an expensive supplement, brilliant new drug or trendy superfood, but the humble walnut — a staple of Waldorf salads and Christmas stockings, but which haven’t enjoyed the popularity of peanuts or brazil nuts (perhaps because they are usually eaten plain, rather than salted or coated with chocolate).

But with new research revealing that walnuts contain more protective antioxidants than any other nut (antioxidants combat harmful free radicals — the disease-causing waste chemicals produced by our bodies as by-products of respiration, digestion and the action of muscles), attention has shifted on to these brown knobbly kernels.

The Romans thought that walnuts were a sex medicine, enhancing both desire and fertility, and scattered them over wedding couples like confetti.

While there is no solid evidence that walnuts do boost fertility, humans have relied on the nuts for sustenance for thousands of years.

A 2009 study by Tufts University in Boston also found that diets rich in the nuts seem to stave off dementia, while enhancing memory and other brain functions.

The research found that aged rats could navigate mazes better when put on a diet containing moderate amounts of walnuts, while researchers in Israel found last month that a diet rich in the omega-3 fatty acids found in walnuts significantly reduced the negative effects of one of the genes associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

In Ancient Greece and medieval Britain, doctors used walnuts to treat mental illness and headaches, believing that the nut’s skull-like shell and brain-shaped kernel symbolised its magical curative powers.Those who’d eaten walnuts had lower blood pressure throughout.Perhaps that’s one reason why we love eating walnuts so much at Christmas.In California, walnuts have been grown since the 1700s, brought to the state by Franciscan missionaries.Now, California grows 60 per cent of the world’s English walnuts — more than 303,000 tons a year.Walnuts contain a particular kind of omega-3 fatty acid, called alpha linolenic acid (ALA), which seems to have special benefits for body and brain — even helping humans to deal with the stresses of modern life.Last October, investigators at Pennsylvania State University revealed research showing that the ALA in walnuts decrease the cardiovascular reactions which happen in our bodies when we feel under pressure.Such heightened responses can put us at much greater risk of heart attacks and strokes.For the study, volunteers were asked to give a three-minute speech or to immerse one foot in cold water — both of which are triggers for stress.Most off-putting is their calorie count: two handfuls contain 650 calories.The new research suggests we eat seven kernels a day at most.

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