Pop up ads for memory-enhancements bombard us today. The claims these products make are pretty tough to ignore. Everything from “Dramatically sharpens focus” to “Improves memory and concentration.” So, how well do they really work, and are they worth the cost?
The answer is: It’s pretty unclear since the FDA does not require supplement manufacturers to prove that the supplements they make are effective, as long they do not make any claims about specific diseases. The efficacy also depends on how each supplement is produced. Quality is important.
So what makes sense to take to get brain-health benefit?
Here’s what the medical community says, (some of which may surprise you):
The oil from Omega 3-rich-fish supports healthy brain cell structure for the human brain’s over 100 billion cells. Each cell has an outer membrane which is made up of fat (lipids). Fats account for over half of the overall mass of the brain. The typical human brain is 60% fat so we need to include fats in our diets if we want our brains to operate optimally.
Omega 3s not only help in the formation of healthy brain cell membranes, but they also contribute to the overall flexibility and ‘fluidity’ of those membranes. In addition, they help to regulate the flow of proteins and neurotransmitters which act as chemical messengers, and are directly associated with fluctuations in mood. The Brain Health Education and Research Institute provides a wealth of information on this. To learn more, visit: brainhealtheducation.org.
Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin with alpha-tocopherol, which is the only form used by the human body. Its main role is to act as an antioxidant, scavenging loose electrons or “free radicals” that can damage cells including brain cells. Experts say most people should stick with food sources like nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils, which naturally contain vitamin E such as:
- Wheat germ oil
- Sunflower, safflower, and soybean oil
- Sunflower seeds
- Peanuts, peanut butter
- Beet greens, collard greens, spinach
- Red bell pepper
Curcumin is the natural active compound found in curry powder. It has been hailed for its antioxidant powers. A small 40-person UCLA study found that people who took curcumin fared better on memory tests and had less buildup of abnormal proteins in their brains, but more studies are needed for conclusive proof.
B vitamins include B6, B12, and B9 (folic acid). Each of these has a role in brain health, but unless you’re deficient or pregnant (folic acid helps prevent birth defects), a B-vitamin supplement is unlikely to help with memory or brain health. For most, the best way to benefit from vitamin B is to get them from natural food sources such as:
- Whole grains (brown rice, barley, millet)
- Meat (red meat, poultry, fish)
- Eggs and dairy products (milk, cheese)
- Legumes (beans, lentils)
- Seeds and nuts (sunflower seeds, almonds)
- Dark, leafy vegetables (broccoli, spinach, kai lan)
- Fruits (citrus fruits, avocados, bananas)
Some coffee may be good for your brain, as long as it doesn’t worsen your sleep or make you jittery. Caffeine is a stimulant that helps perk you up and promote energy by blocking brain receptors for a chemical called adenosine.
L-theanine seems to have some potential for improving mental performance, especially when combined with caffeine, but again, it needs more comprehensive studies. A natural amino acid, it can be found in green tea.
Although Ginkgo Biloba a staple in traditional Chinese medicine, modern research has found that ginkgo supplements probably won’t protect your memory or slow dementia.
Ginseng is another popular supplement traditional Chinese herb that has links to brain enhancement. However, an AMA (American Medical Academy) review of several trials concluded there’s “no convincing evidence” that ginseng will protect mental skills.
In Europe, CDP-choline is a prescribed drug with reasonable medical evidence that it can benefit memory in elderly people with memory problems. However CDP-choline has yet to be proven on whether it can prevent memory decline in healthy people.
The conclusion? More research is needed. Proceed with caution and with medical supervision.
Don’t blindly trust marketing claims. Research brands to determine which provide the purist forms of ingredients with the least amounts of fillers. Supplements can cause side effects, just as many medications do. There are risks in mixing vitamin and herbal supplements with prescription drugs. Be sure to periodically review all the drugs and supplements you’re taking (or considering) with your doctor or pharmacist, so they can help you determine what makes the best sense for you.
Here at INDY Neurofeedback, we know that research supports that our brains can benefit from the inclusion of Omegas and the inclusion of a wide variety of healthy foods in our diet. It is always our goal to work toward brain health that does not require the support of prescription medications.