It really is all in your head—all three pounds and 100 billion neurons of it, that super biocomputer affectionately known as the brain. And now that Americans live, on average, for 78 years (three decades longer than they did in 1900), it doesn’t take, well, a brain surgeon to figure out that nurturing the brain’s health makes perfect sense. What do you need to do to feed your brain?
Studies clearly illustrate how lifestyle choices can directly impact the brain’s physiological well-being. Mental stimulation, loving companionship, social interaction, regular exercise, and a healthy diet undoubtedly benefit the brain—and the individual as a whole. Of course, our genes have their own fateful designs, and Father Time ultimately takes his toll—with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, stroke, or depression as the potential fee. Fortunately, a growing body of research suggests that certain natural substances may help protect the brain during aging, along with possibly enhancing its function in the short and long terms. Here are 10 to consider. Ginkgo biloba. Almost universally accepted as an effective treatment for deteriorating memory and early-stage Alzheimer’s disease, this age-old herb boasts high levels of antioxidants and enhances blood flow in the brain.
1. Omega-3 fatty acids
Used to manufacture and maintain cell membranes, omega-3s act as anti-inflammatories and mildly thin the blood. Omega-3s come in three major types: Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Omega-3s, especially DHA and EPA, may augment brain function by fortifying the myelin sheath, a fatty membrane that covers and insulates each nerve cell. They might also help the blood deliver nutrients directly into neurons. Results from a Harvard Medical School-McLean Hospital study found that DHA/EPA supplements significantly reduced depression and mania in bipolar-disorder patients. Dosage: 200 mg to 2 grams/day.
2. Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10)
CoQ10 activates specific enzymes in the “powerhouses” of cells, the mitochondria, to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the cells’ primary energy source. Then, in its role as an antioxidant, it helps neutralize the free radicals that get created during ATP production. Scientists from University of California, San Diego School of Medicine demonstrated that Parkinson’s patients had lower levels of CoQ10 than healthy controls, possibly indicating diminished ATP production in the patients’ brains. The research also showed that CoQ10 supplements actually slowed the functional decline of early-stage Parkinson’s. Dosage: 30 mg to 200 mg/day.
3. Acetyl-L-Carnitine (ALC)
Acetyl-L-carnitine (ALC helps deliver long-chain fatty acids into the nerve cells’ mitochondria for ATP production and acts as a potent antioxidant. Recent research suggests that levels of ALC decrease with age, which may lead to decreased ATP production and free-radical stress in neurons, potential factors in the loss of mental acuity or age-related dementias. Several studies have indicated that ALC supplements delayed the progression of Alzheimer’s disease and improved energy creation in the brain. Dosage: 500mg to 2 g/day.
4. Alpha Lipoic Acid
Involved in ATP production, alpha lipoic acid (ALA) also works as a first-rate antioxidant, counteracting free radicals both inside and outside cells. ALA may even contribute to the recycling of other important antioxidants, namely glutathione. Studies performed at the University of California, Berkeley, suggest that ALA might mitigate the age-associated decay of the brain’s mitochondria. Dosage: 30 mg to 200 mg/day.
5. Vitamins B12, D, E
B12 plays a critical role in red blood cell production and maintaining nerve cells’ myelin sheaths. Although rare, B12 deficiencies directly affect the nervous system. Dosage: 5µg to 200 µg/day. Vitamin D may act as an antioxidant by mitigating free radicals in red blood cells, possibly maximizing their nutrient-carrying capacity. Although D gets synthesized in the skin during exposure to sunlight, deficiencies are all too common. Dosage: 200 µg to 400 µg/day. Vitamin E, a well-known antioxidant, significantly slows the progression of Alzheimer’s and the stroke-related dementia. However, research shows that too much E does more harm than good. Dosage: 30 to 400 mg/day.
Another antioxidant, N-acetyl-L-cysteine (NAC), is the precursor of glutathione, an even more significant antioxidant and a key detoxifying agent in the liver. Research suggests that NAC levels may drop with age, which could lead to oxidative stress within brain cells, a conspicuous suspect in neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Dosage: 250 mg to 750 mg/day.
A key structural component of cell membranes and particularly concentrated in the brain, phosphatidylserine (PS) assists the flow of electrical signals within neurons. It also maintains cell-membrane fluidity, which is important for receiving and releasing neurotransmitters and for bringing nutrients into the cell and moving waste products out. Studies led the late William Crook, MD, acclaimed author of The Yeast Connection (Vintage, 1986), have shown that supplemental PS helped improve memory and cognition in elderly memory-impaired subjects. Dosage: 200 mg to 500 mg/day.
Derived from common periwinkle leaves and used as a stroke treatment in Eastern Europe and Japan, vinpocetine improves the flexibility of red blood cells, which allows them to flow more freely through the brain’s smaller vessels, providing damaged neurons with the benefits of enhanced circulation. In the States, vinpocetine has recently earned a reputation as an effective therapy for stroke- and other vascular-related dementia, thanks in large part to the work of David Perlmutter, MD, a board-certified neurologist and Linus Pauling Functional Medicine Award winner. Dosage: 5 mg to 10 mg/day.
And Just For Safety’s Sake
Along with a growing number of health-care professionals, David Perlmutter, MD believes that the potential benefits of certain brain supplements deserve national attention, especially since they typically cause far fewer side effects than many standard neurodegenerative treatments. “In general, there are no significant safety issues with omega-3s, CoQ10, ALC, ALA, NAC, or PS as brain-maintenance and -enhancement supplements,” says Perlmutter. However, he cautions, “Ginkgo and vinpocetine do come with caveats: While historically safe and effective, ginkgo should be limited to no more than 120 mg per day, and not be taken with blood thinners such as warfarin, since it can overly thin the blood. As for vinpocetine, I only prescribe it to patients suffering from dementia caused by vascular issues—it’s really not recommended otherwise. And, like ginkgo, it should not be combined with warfarin.”