Feeling foggy, forgetful, or confused?You’re not alone. Causes of memory problems, fatigue, and difficulty learning range from impaired circulation to traumatic brain injury to plain old stress. But you can combat “brain drain;” try these smart supplements to stay sharp.
Citicoline is a chemical that occurs naturally in the brain and is involved in the synthesis of phosphatidylcholine, a compound in the brain that’s important for memory and proper neurological function. Levels naturally decline with age, but citicoline supplements can help improve mental acuity and slow brain aging. Studies are convincing, and several show citicoline can stabilize cell membranes, reduce free radical damage to neurons, and treat chronic cerebrovascular disorders. Other studies suggest citicoline can improve memory, treat attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), enhance recovery from stroke, prevent cognitive deterioration, and reduce or delay the onset of dementia.
Apoaequorin, a protein that occurs in certain species of jellyfish, has been shown to improve several areas of cognitive function and brain health. Originally discovered in jellyfish and now derived from manmade sources, apoaequorin is thought to work by binding to calcium: brain cells require a specific balance of calcium to be healthy, but too much can lead to impaired neuronal function and eventually neuron death. By binding to calcium, apoaequorin prevents further accumulation of calcium deposits in the brain. Several studies show apoaequorin supports cognitive function and tasks, including learning, word recall, and short-term memory. Apoaequorin may also improve sleep and mood, and can protect against certain kinds of stroke.
DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). DHA is a type of omega-3 fatty acid found in calamari and other fatty fish. In fact, calamari is thought to be the richest source of DHA. This omega-3 fat is the primary structural fatty acid in the brain, and is critical for cognitive function; it’s thought that DHA helps maintain fluidity of membranes and makes them more flexible to sending and receiving signals. As such, DHA plays a crucial role in brain activity, helps ensure the normal transmission of messages between nerve cells and in the eyes, and may help decrease memory loss. It can also work in conjunction with phosphatidylserine (see p. 42) to increase membrane fluidity and enhance the synthesis of neurotransmitters.
MCTs (medium chain triglycerides) are a naturally occurring source of dietary fat found most commonly in coconuts and coconut oil, and provide a fast, easy-to-access source of energy. Normally, the brain’s main supply of energy is glucose (sugar). But in people with cognitive impairment or dementia, brain cells are less efficient at using glucose for fuel; this can worsen cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s progression. By providing a substitute for glucose, MCTs can preserve brain function. Several studies show treatment with MCTs can improve memory and recall, reduce mental decline, and effectively treat cognitive dysfunction.
Phosphatidylserine (PS). PS is a type of phospholipid, a fat that’s found in the brain and in cell membranes throughout the body. In the brain, PS enhances the synthesis and release of neurotransmitters and regulates the actions of synapses, and is essential to normal brain function. Studies show PS can restore age-related memory loss, improve concentration, enhance learning, mitigate certain cognitive deficiencies, and restore the function of worn-out nerve cells.
Ginkgo. From the leaves of the Ginkgo biloba tree native to China, ginkgo has been used for thousands of years to promote brain health and improve cognitive function. It’s high in antioxidant flavonoids that protect against free radicals and boost circulation by dilating small blood vessels and increasing oxygen flow to brain cells. Though study results are mixed, many show ginkgo improves memory and concentration, enhances mental focus, and protects the brain from aging.
Acetyl-L-carnitine (ALC). ALC is a form of the amino acid carnitine that’s specific to brain function. Other forms of carnitine are geared toward muscle activity and weight loss; ALC, however, can cross the blood-brain barrier and helps diminish age-related deterioration of the brain and prevent damage to nerve cells that may occur with diminished oxygen supply. It may also help stroke victims recover more quickly, reduce mental deterioration in Alzheimer’s patients, prevent Parkinson’s disease, and decrease anxiety and depression.
Bilberry. Well-known for its beneficial effects on eyesight, bilberry can help brain function as well. Bilberry is thought to enhance brain health by promoting blood flow, a function of its high concentration of anthocyanins—antioxidants that increase capillary strength and enhance circulation. Studies show bilberry helps improve brain function, protects against stroke and enhances neurotransmission, and may also provide some protection against Alzheimer’s.
HARMING YOUR BRAIN?
“Do you eat a lot of fat?” the doctor asks a new patient. “Oh, no, I really try not to,” is the most common response.
“Wrong answer,” says David Perlmutter, MD, board certified neurologist and author of Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar—Your Brain’s Silent Killers. The emphasis on avoiding fat, says Perlmutter, has increased the amount of carbohydrates in our diet to such an extent that they’re driving soaring rates of Alzheimer’s disease, while depleting us of fats that are building blocks for healthy brain function. But with the right diet, Alzheimer’s is, as he puts it, “absolutely a preventable disease.”
This flies in the teeth of common wisdom, as does Perlmutter’s assessment of the cause of Alzheimer’s. In conventional medical thinking, brain plaques are believed to cause the disease, or at least be the chief contributing factor.
Not so, says Perlmutter. “Alzheimer’s is inflammation of the brain,” he says. “The plaques are a response that the brain is mounting against the inflammation, not the other way around.” The latest imaging studies show that half of people with high plaque levels are completely normal, he adds, and drugs that target plaque make patients more demented, not better.
The Genetic Key
We can’t change our genes. However, says Perlmutter, “We have the profound ability to modify our genetic expression, based upon our lifestyle choices.” And genetic expression is what determines whether or not we get Alzheimer’s or other diseases.
Our food influences which genes are turned on or off. The combination of carb overload, lack of the right fat, and often gluten, turns on genes that raise risk for Alzheimer’s, says Purlmutter.
Carbs and Sugar—Eating too many carbs and too much sugar for too long leads to chronically high blood sugar levels. Imaging studies show that chronic high blood sugar, at levels that are medically considered “normal,” contribute to shrinkage of the brain.
More specifically, an A1c test measures blood sugar during the previous three months. A reading below 5.7 is considered normal; 5.7–6.4 is prediabetic; and 6.5 or higher is diagnosed as diabetes, which doubles risk for Alzheimer’s. But risk for the disease, says Perlmutter, begins to increase when A1c is higher than 5.2.
Fats—It’s well known that omega-3 fats from fish, and fat in olive oil, are anti-inflammatory and good for every aspect of our health, but saturated fats are misunderstood, says Perlmutter. Studies show that saturated fats (even butter) neither raise nor lower inflammation but are necessary building blocks for the brain. There is one caveat: Fat from conventionally raised animals is toxic, because they’re fed pro-inflammatory corn and pesticide-laden feed, which isn’t their natural diet.
Good sources of saturated fat include meat, eggs, and dairy products from animals that are grass-fed, free-range, and raised without the use of hormones, antibiotics, or pesticides. Coconut oil and avocados are other good sources of beneficial fats.
Gluten—Sensitivity to gluten can trigger dementia, says Perlmutter. And it’s underdiagnosed—so much so that he recommends everyone get checked with a comprehensive test such as that from Cyrex Laboratories (cyrexlabs.com). Many commonly used tests aren’t sensitive enough to detect intolerance. But gluten poses a much bigger problem.
“Even in small amounts, in everybody, not just those who are so-called gluten-sensitive, it actually disrupts the junctions in the gut,” he says. This leads to a leaky gut, which triggers autoimmune reactions and inflammation in the whole body, including the brain.
Although the degree of reaction to gluten varies from one person to another, says Perlmutter, it’s an ingredient that is best avoided by everyone.
Perlmutter’s dietary suggestions are pretty simple: Skip over gluten-filled grains, starchy vegetables, and sugar, and eat anything that’s left, making sure to choose only organic, grass-fed meat and dairy products, fish that isn’t toxic, and organic versions of everything else. To learn more, visit drperlmutter.com.
BARLEAN’S MCT Swirl in Coconut delivers the brain-boosting benefits of MCTs in an easily absorbable, delicious liquid with the taste and texture of a tropical smoothie.
KEYVIEW LABS Procera AVH Memory combines the power of acetyl-l-carnitine with two other nutrients shown to support memory: vinpocetine, and huperzine.
NAWGAN Alertness Beverages contain a secret weapon for focus and concentration—Cognizin, a proprietary form of citicoline. Shown here: Red Berries flavor.
NORDIC NATURALS DHA Xtra is a high-dose DHA supplement in purified, potency-guaranteed capsules for powerful brain, memory, and mood support.
QUINCY BIOSCIENCE Prevagen is the only product that contains Apoaequorin, and it has been clinically shown to improve memory and support brain function.
Lisa Turner is a certified food psychology coach, nutritional healer, intuitive eating consultant, and author. She has written five books on food and nutrition and developed the Inspired Eats iPhone app. Visit her online at inspiredeating.com.