People around the world, especially those with access to a healthy lifestyle and good medical care, are living longer lives than in times past. But are they staying sharp mentally, able to remain independent and enjoy their later years?
Alzheimer’s is on the rise, and its prevalence is troubling. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 5.8 million Americans currently suffering from the disease, most over the age of 75. As the population ages, these numbers will only increase. We may be living longer, but the possibility of living with dementia, or even just age-related cognitive decline, can be frightening.
As Alzheimer’s has no known cure, prevention may be the best medicine – and it’s best to start early. Even if you have no risk factors for Alzheimer’s, who doesn’t want the best possible cognitive function? There are a number of nutrients that may help to broadly support the health of your brain with few negative side effects.
8 Supplements That Support Brain Health
Here is an overview of eight nutrients you may want to add to your wellness protocol to help keep you sharp well into your later years.
1. Marine-based omega-3 fatty acids (DHA)
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is a type of omega-3 fatty acid found in cold water, fatty fish. Our nerve cells are composed of high concentrations of DHA, both in the brain and the central nervous system. Without sufficient DHA, nerve cells may become more prone to inflammation, and nerve signaling can be compromised. Fortunately, it may be possible to reverse some nerve damage by increasing DHA through diet or supplementation.
A 2010 study looked at the effects of administering DHA to adults with age-related cognitive decline. The authors determined that a 24-week course of supplementation with 900 mg of DHA improved learning and memory function.
DHA is easy to take in supplement form, and you can also increase it in your diet. DHA is found in cold water fish such as sardines, mackerel, salmon, sea bass, oysters, shrimp and trout. Whether you choose supplements, dietary sources or both, be sure your sources are clean. Wild caught, smaller fish generally accumulate less mercury and are free from the antibiotics often fed to farmed seafood. Make sure supplements are mercury free as well.
2. Marine-based omega-3 fatty acids (EPA)
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) is another omega-3 fatty acid found in cold water, fatty fish, such as salmon, tuna and anchovies. EPA is known to help lower systemic inflammation and has also shown to lessen symptoms of depression.
A 2016 review looked at previous studies to determine which types of fatty acids helped with diagnosed depression and bipolar disorder. EPA lowered symptom scores more than a placebo.
As with DHA, it’s easy to supplement with EPA, to increase it in your diet, or both. Again, just make sure you choose sources that are toxin and additive free.
Choline is another nutrient that may support brain health. Choline is a precursor to acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter critical to the health of the brain and central nervous system. Choline can be taken as a supplement and is-found in foods such as salmon, eggs, chicken, oysters, shrimp, navy beans and broccoli.
A 2019 study on mice determined that supplementing pregnant mice with choline reduced age-dependent cognitive decline, and the benefits persisted through two generations of mice. More study is needed on humans, but increasing choline in your diet or by supplementation may be a safe way to support brain health.
Phosphatidylserine is an amino acid derivative found in neural tissue. Though the body can synthesize its own phosphatidylserine, it’s also found in dietary sources such as organ meats, eggs, mackerel and cod.
In a 2011 study, 18 college aged males took 400 mg of soy-derived phosphatidylserine over 14 days. The authors concluded that supplementation improved cognitive function more than a placebo.
5. Acetyl-L Carnitine
Carnitine is a nutrient found in most animal products, especially red meat. Acetyl-l carnitine is a form of the nutrient that is more easily absorbed through the gut. Either form of the nutrient may be beneficial for brain health, especially with regards to depression.
A 2012 study on mice determined that supplementation with acetyl-l carnitine over 25 days increased energy levels. It also increased levels of noradrenaline and serotonin, which the authors concluded was consistent with acetyl-l carnitine’s efficacy as an anti-depressant.
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6. Vitamin D
A 2014 study on 1,658 elderly people over the course of 5.6 years concluded that vitamin D deficiency greatly increased the risk for all types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.
Many people are vitamin D deficient because we spend much less time outdoors than our ancestors, especially in colder climates. Though many foods contain added vitamin D, it may be worth testing your vitamin D levels through your doctor to determine whether supplementation could be of benefit.
7. Vitamin B12
A vitamin B12 deficiency can contribute to memory problems and symptoms of brain fog, while high levels of B12 may support a healthy brain. A 2010 study that followed 271 elderly people for seven years concluded that lower levels of B12 could be linked with developing Alzheimer’s, and that more study was needed. Another 2010 study showed that supplementation with vitamin B12 could slow cognitive impairment in the elderly. Just as with vitamin D, it may be worth testing your levels of B12 to determine if supplementation is right for you.
8. MCT oil
Though typically the brain is fueled by glucose derived from sugars, it can also run on a different source of energy derived from fat known as ketones. In some cases of Alzheimer’s disease, the brain can become insulin resistant, in which case burning ketones may be more efficient. MCT oil, a supplement made from a type of fat called medium-chain triglycerides and usually derived from coconuts, is a pleasant tasting fat that easily converts to ketones in the body. Some people, with or without cognitive decline, take it in supplement form to support the production of ketones as fuel.
In a 2009 study, 152 people diagnosed with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease were given an oral ketogenic compound for 90 days. At the end of the study, their ketones were significantly elevated, and their cognitive scores improved.
There exists quite a variety of options in terms of foods and supplements to support optimal brain health as we age. Talk with your health care provider to determine if you are deficient in vitamin D or B12, as basic nutritional values are a great place to start. From there, explore other options such as eating more cold water, fatty fish, or supplementing with different fish or krill oils. Choline, phosphatidylserine, acetyl-l carnitine, or MCT oil are other options to support your cognitive function. It’s even worth looking into a mild ketogenic diet, if that appeals to you. Investing in good brain health is something we can all agree is worth the effort, especially if we’re hoping to live the better part of a century.
Shona Curley lives and works in San Francisco. She is co-owner of the studio Hasti Pilates, and creator of the website www.redkitemeditations.com. Shona teaches meditation, bodywork and movement practices for healing Lyme disease, chronic illness and pain.
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