Nutrients for Brain Health: Protect Your Cognitive Function

By Esther Blum, MS, RD, CDN, CNS

“Of all the things I have lost, it’s my mind that I miss the most.” Can you relate to this expression? If so, you are not alone. America’s increasing proportion of older people has resulted in a rising prevalence of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. In 1986, healthcare costs were estimated at more than $50 billion per year for dementia and associated diseases. If you are concerned about your risk of nerve degeneration, don’t despair. There are plenty of ways to combat age-associated memory loss, without side effects. In fact, you can even improve cognitive function with the right supplements and a proper diet. In addition, if you have a family history of Alzheimer’s, you can greatly decrease your risk of brain degeneration if you follow the simple guidelines listed below.

Phosphatidyl Serine If you can pronounce it, you’re already ahead of the game. Phosphatidyl Serine (PS) is a phospholipid that is present in every cell membrane in the body, though it is most prevalent in brain tissue. PS is present in trace amounts in foods, but to obtain optimal amounts through the diet, you would have to actually eat animal brains. Supplementation is therefore ideal for obtaining PS, since commercially available PS is synthetically derived, and free of all animal products.

What is the role of PS in the body? PS is like the superintendent of the brain; it is actively involved in the repair and maintenance of each cell’s structure in the body and the nervous system. Its benefits include memory improvement, improved learning, alleviation of Alzheimer’s symptoms and early dementia, greater attention span, mood enhancement, fighting depression, and combating stress. PS readily crosses the blood-brain barrier and shuttles glucose to the nerve cells so they are well fed and energized.

It works rapidly, too; studies have shown PS to be effective within 30 minutes of oral administration. I use PS for my patients with age-associated memory decline, Alzheimer’s, brain injuries, attention deficit disorder, or for those who simply want to enhance their mental power. The therapeutic dose of PS is 300 to 500 milligrams per day, and the memory-enhancing effects of PS can last for up to a month after supplementation is discontinued. Note that PS should be avoided while using prescription anti-coagulants such as Coumadin or Heparin.

Acetyl-L-Carnitine Acetyl-L-Carnitine (ALC) is another vital nutrient for brain health. A number of scientific studies have shown that carnitine, a nutrient consisting of the amino acids lysine and methionine, helps slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. L-carnitine is used as a fat burner and a heart-supporting nutrient, while ALC enhances concentration. ALC has many of the benefits of PS, such as fighting depression and brain aging, improved learning, and stress management, but it also regulates sleep/wake cycles and improves long-term memory. And the benefits of taking ALC can be seen as early as three months.

Those with Alzheimer’s and dementia, peripheral neuropathies, memory loss, and major depression should use ALC, and it also has clinical uses in chronic fatigue syndrome and bodybuilding. Around the age of 40, the body’s production of ALC begins to decline, making it a required supplement for protection against age-associated memory loss and neurodegenerative conditions. The dosage ranges from 1,500 to 3,000 milligrams and should be gradually introduced over the course of a week. It has been documented as safe for long-term use, though anyone with a seizure disorder should avoid ALC, as it is questionable whether or not it will overly stimulate the nervous system. ALC can be extremely energizing, so be sure to take it before 4 p.m.

Ginkgo Biloba The Ginkgo tree is the longest surviving tree species on the planet, dating back 200 million years. It has two fan-shaped leaves with a notch in the middle, dividing the leaves into two lobes; hence the name biloba. Ginkgo is extremely resilient and is found growing in many cities due to its ability to resist pollution, viruses, and insects. It is rich in flavonoids, which are antioxidant compounds found in plants that protect against cancer, heart disease, and premature aging.

The Chinese used Ginkgo nuts for thousands of years as a remedy to promote longevity, improve impaired hearing, asthma, and to increase sexual endurance and improve circulation. More than three hundred studies have demonstrated that ginkgo helps protect and promote memory and relieve signs of senility, probably due to the increased blood flow to the brain.

One study conducted at the New York Institute for Medical Research on patients suffering from dementia showed a significant improvement in 30 percent of those people taking ginkgo. This is very exciting news, since very few drugs have been shown to have any positive impact on dementia. Ginkgo can also help protect brain tissue against potentially dangerous chemicals called free radicals because it is rich in antioxidants.

The appropriate dosage for ginkgo can range depending on the indication. For general mental acuity, take 120 milligrams per day, and for Alzheimer’s or vascular problems take 240 milligrams per day. No serious side effects have been reported with its use, and long-term use is believed to be safe. Choose a supplement that contains ginkgo-leaf extracts (24 percent flavone glycosides and six percent terpene lactones) to ensure a potent and effective product. Ginkgo should be used with caution in patients taking anti-platelet drugs such as Warfarin (coumadin) or aspirin, antidepressants (tricyclics) and certain duretics, because the effect of platelet aggregation inhibitors may be increased. If you are taking any of these drugs, talk with your doctor before taking gingko.

Diet and Brain Power Bear in mind that while all of the aforementioned supplements are remarkable, no supplement regime in the world can ever compensate for a poor diet. Excess sugar in the form of refined carbohydrates, poor-quality hydrogenated oils, and inadequate protein can also compromise mental acuity. Have you ever noticed how you feel in the mornings after eating a bagel versus an omelet? A typical New York bagel contains the carbohydrate equivalent of four pieces of bread, while an egg contains only one gram of carbohydrate per serving-a negligible amount-and is rich in protein and essential fatty acids. So if you feel like you’re eating healthy, but can’t seem to generate good mental power, then you may need to take a closer look at your diet.

Protein Protein is the building block of our tissues. It is needed to make every living cell in our bodies and promote muscle growth. It balances hormones and blood sugar, fights sugar cravings, strengthens the immune system, heals wounds, and in some cases, keeps the gut healthy. But most important, it can have a positive effect on our mental function. I can’t tell you how many times I see patients come in to my office feeling tired, lethargic, having PMS, difficulty concentrating at work, and crave stimulants like sugar or coffee. Many of them are deficient in protein, and their symptoms magically disappear when protein is eaten at every meal.

What are the best proteins to eat? Whole eggs, lean chicken, fish, turkey, lean beef, and lamb are all good sources. Be sure to buy organic products as much as possible to reduce your exposure to antibiotics and pesticides. Eat two to four ounces of protein per meal and if you are physically active, you may need up to two times this amount. I guarantee that you will feel an improvement in mental function and greater energy levels when more protein is added to your diet.

Fats Fats can have a critical effect on our health and play an important role in the prevention of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Instead of concerning yourself with a low-fat diet, focus on eating the right fats that are rich in monounsaturated fatty acids and omega-3 fats. Both of these types of fats improve circulation and help keep cholesterol levels low and arteries clear. When your arteries are clear, oxygen can be delivered to your organs (especially the brain) more effectively.

Unfortunately most of the foods we eat today contain partially hydrogenated vegetable oils and oxidized fats that are toxic to the body and clog up the arteries. Be sure to read the labels very carefully and avoid these fats at all costs; it can take up to two months to clear them from the body after they are eaten! A general rule of thumb is to simply avoid processed foods and you will avoid the toxic fats. Avocados, cold-pressed olive oil, olives, raw nuts and seeds, and fatty fishes contain beneficial fats that fight inflammation and will help fight the medical conditions that are prevalent in Westernized countries today. So think of fats as the grease on your squeaky wheel and give yourself an oil change!

Carbohydrates Last but not least, I will address carbohydrates. Before I do, though, let me ask you to think about this: What did we do before the flour mill was invented? We ate whole foods and carbohydrates were eaten in the form of fruits and vegetables. Over time, we gradually began farming and agriculture developed, introducing whole grains into the diet: rice, quinoa, millet, amaranth, and potatoes. Then we evolved as a civilization and all of a sudden we were eating highly processed carbohydrates, like bread, potato chips, cereal, and pasta-not even distant cousins to the grains from which they grew.

While technology has changed, the body has not yet genetically evolved enough to be able to understand these foods and break them down properly. As a result, many of us feel tired or lethargic after eating too many carbohydrates. I am not saying you should never eat carbohydrates, but if you must, make them high in quality and low in sugar. Choose healthy choices such as fresh fruit, vegetables, beans, brown rice, plain oatmeal, sweet potatoes, and buckwheat. Keep the portion size of grains small and balance them out with plenty of healthy fats and high-quality protein and you will have the mental power of an army!

Conclusion Using the supplements phosphatidyl serine, acetyl-l-carnitine, and ginkgo biloba in conjunction with a healthy diet can help improve mental and cognitive function. Taken together, these supplements promote optimal brain function and systemic circulation that can help offset the symptoms of senility, Alzheimer’s, and age-associated memory loss. If you wish to try a nutritional supplement or herbal product as a therapeutic measure, discuss it with a nutritionally-oriented physician first, especially if you are taking any prescription medication. Doing so can help you to avoid potential side effects and adverse reactions. In my experience, the supplements discussed above have been extremely safe for long-term use. However, each person is biochemically unique, and should work with a nutritionally-oriented professional to determine the supplement best suited for themselves.

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