Brain-boosting supplements may help you address an often overlooked component of wellness.
Physical wellness is a hot button topic. There seems to be an endless amount of information describing diet plans, nutritional supplements, exercise protocols, and methods of recovery.
But did you know that your state of wellness involves more than just your physical wellbeing?
In fact, the same steps you take to ensure your body is fine-tuned should also be applied to your brain. That’s right, diet, exercise, and perhaps even the strategic addition of a dietary supplement can all serve to keep your brain happy.
While all of these components are important, the focus of this article will be on brain-boosting supplements.
We’ll review some of the most commonly used ingredients to determine if they can help you achieve complete wellness.
First, a bit more about your brain.
Brain Health: What to Look Out For?
From simple to complex, no matter what you’re doing at any given moment, your brain is running the show.
It has a variety of functions vital for life that include:
- Facilitating movement
- Coordinating hormones
- Learning and memory
- Communication and problem solving
There are a number of factors that can leave the brain vulnerable to conditions like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or stroke.
While age may play a role, other risk factors can include a sedentary lifestyle, poor diet, lack of mental stimulation, or the absence of social connections.
Signs that you should speak to someone about your mental health can include feeling depressed, experiencing memory loss, or having continued episodes of confusion.
If you notice any of these signs, or you feel that your mental health is regressing, seek the care of a physician.
As there are a variety of underlying causes, identifying the source should be the first step.
While treatment may include medical management and lifestyle changes, there may be a role for brain-boosting supplements.
Brain-Boosting Supplements: Does the Research Back the Ingredients?
While physical health-related topics remain at the forefront, vendors have been developing dietary supplements that they claim target your brain.
Do these products actually offer some benefits, or are these companies just looking to cash-in?
We’ll review the available scientific support for some of the ingredients most commonly included in supplements with purported brain-boosting effects.
Polyphenols are the micronutrients responsible for giving plants their color and protecting them from harm.
They are often included in brain-boosting supplements as they are thought to offer protection against free radicals, molecules associated with causing the harmful oxidative stress associated with a wide variety of diseases.
These effects have been demonstrated in rats.
Those that consumed a blueberry extract rich in polyphenols experienced protection from the oxidative stress associated with kainic acid exposure. In another study, the polyphenols in blueberries improved memory in aging rats.
Research has included human subjects as well. Elderly adults that consumed polyphenol-rich foods (wine, chocolate, and tea) experienced improvements in intellectual exam scores.
The opposite relationship was also seen when elderly subjects were followed over a 10-year period. Those with the lowest polyphenol consumption experienced regressions in mental status exam scores.
Polyphenols may also offer brain-boosting effects that can benefit students.
In 30 healthy college students, those that took 600mg of grape and blueberry polyphenols scored better on a battery of mental examination when compared to placebo.
While more research is needed to understand the exact mechanisms, it seems that there is a clear relationship between polyphenol intake (or deficiency) and indicators of mental status.
Ginkgo Biloba (GB)
This herb is obtained from trees that can live over 1,000 years and has been used in natural medicine for centuries. Now cultivated worldwide, GB is a common dietary supplement.
Its brain-boosting actions are thought to be made possible by improving blood flow to your brain.
In healthy college students, 120mg improved performance on sustained-attention and pattern-recognition memory tasks administered 4-hours later. These benefits were not sustained after 6-weeks however.
A review of 8 randomized trials examining subjects with schizophrenia or dementia found that GB improved mental status and the ability to perform activities of daily living.
In fact, GB treatment provided equal results when compared to an Alzheimer’s medication in two of the clinical trials analyzed in this review.
While GB may offer benefits to those with dementia, more long-term work is needed to characterize its role in healthy individuals..
Another common brain-boosting supplement ingredient that has actually been in use for centuries.
Coffee remains one of the most consumed beverages in the world, but did you know that you may be supporting brain health with your morning cup?
The caffeine in your coffee increases energy, heightens concentration, reduces reaction time and promotes visual during demanding tasks.
In healthy individuals, caffeine consumption may also prevent age-related declines in mental health. Drinking 3-5 cups of coffee per day at midlife seems to reduce your risk for dementia by 65%.
Also, consumption was associated with an enhanced performance during morning memory examinations in college students. This is impressive as students’ tendency to underperform during morning examinations is well documented.
Benefits with caffeine consumption are likely in older individuals as well.
Over 7,000 healthy elderly men and women over the age of 65 were studied. Women that consumed 3 cups or more of caffeine daily over 4 years experienced less memory decline than women who drank one cup or less.
The effects of caffeine have been well studied. While this ingredient seems to offer a variety of brain-boosting benefits, consuming too much can be associated with unwanted effects (see safety section below).
B vitamins are found in meat, seeds, and nuts and may support brain and nerve function in addition to many other important roles.
The inverse relationship between B vitamins and homocysteine, an amino acid, may offer some insight into the potential ability for these vitamins to support brain health.
The risk for mental decline is greater with low B vitamin levels and the associated elevations in homocysteine.
In a 10-year study with over 1,000 subjects, those with higher B9 intake had a lower risk for dementia, though no association was found for vitamins B6 and B12.
A review of 4 randomized trials found that B vitamins reduce homocysteine levels, though this did not result in improvements in mental function.
A review examined the effects of dietary supplements in school-aged children and found that B vitamins may offer a marginal benefit for intelligence and academic performance.
While the link between B vitamins and dementia seems to be well understood, the available support for the benefit of supplementation is lacking.
Omega-3s are fatty acids that can be obtained in foods like walnuts, flaxseed, and fatty fish.
The most common omega 3s are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). They are thought to offer a wide array of health benefits related to cardiovascular and mental health.
In a review of 25 randomized control studies, researchers concluded that omega 3 supplementation can increase EPA and DHA levels.
Increasing these levels seem to be associated with improvements in a few different aspects of mental health in both younger and elderly populations.
Omega 3 supplementation improved reading ability in school-age children, stabilized anger and confusion in young adults, and enhanced memory in the elderly.
In students aged 15, consuming fish more than once each week was associated with better test scores 3-years later when compared to those who consumed less fish.
Similar results were seen when reviewing fish consumption in high school-aged students. Higher fish intake was associated with a more advanced vocabulary and higher grades
While omegas are also thought to offer protection from dementia, they may also offer an ability to enhance cognitive function in students.
Are These Ingredients Safe?
Though many supplements claim to offer brain-boosting effects through natural ingredients, even natural ingredients can be consumed in excess and cause unwanted effects.
A comparison of the dose offered in your supplement to those used in research studies can give you a good idea of both the safety and efficacy of the product. For example, your supplement includes smaller doses of ingredient X than those found to be effective in research studies.
This makes it more likely that you will not experience the side effects of consuming too much, though it also means you may not be consuming enough to achieve the desired results.
If the ingredient has not been researched in studies with human subjects, it’s best to find another that has. Results demonstrated in laboratory or animal models may not be relatable to human subjects.
Of the most common brain-boosting ingredients we’ve reviewed, you’re most likely to notice side effects with respect to caffeine use.
In fact, adding a caffeine-containing supplement to your regular coffee, soda, or tea intake can greatly increase your chances of consuming hazardous amounts.
Food Regulation Authorities have found that caffeine is not harmful if consumption is less than 200mg in a single sitting (2½ cups of coffee) or no more than 400mg daily (5 cups of coffee).
Consuming more can result in nervousness, anxiety, irritability, nausea, tremors, sweating, restlessness, dizziness, irregular heartbeat, and elevated blood pressure.
While serious side effects are rare in the other ingredients that we’ve reviewed, it’s safest to discuss supplements with a physician before use, especially when they include caffeine or other stimulants.
Don’t underestimate natural means of improving mental health. A healthy diet, regular exercise, good sleep, and mental stimulation are all aspects that should be incorporated in your daily routine – start here first.
Dietary supplements may support these lifestyle changes. With so many products available, purchasing the right one may seem like a daunting task.
Smart shopping includes more than simply looking for the most cost-effective product. Review the ingredients label so you know what you’re consuming.
Your supplement should be tested in human subjects, not only in laboratory or animal models. Be aware of the potential side effects and ask a doctor of the dose offered is enough to be effective, but less than an amount that would cause unwanted side effects.
Common red flags can include:
- The company has a poor rating with the Better Business Bureau
- Pricing is much higher than other similar products
- Ingredients are not backed by science
- By definition, supplements are not intended to diagnose or treat a medical condition – avoid those that claim they will
Lastly, know what users are saying. While supplements may not work for everyone, user reviews can provide insight into important aspects like common side effects, hidden fees, customer service and more.
The Bottom Line
You’ve probably taken steps to maximize your physical wellness, make sure your brain gets the same treatment.
Just as you would when you are physically ill, be sure to see a doctor when experiencing symptoms related to your mental wellbeing.
Together, you can map out the best plan for recovery. Brain-boosting lifestyle changes will likely be a vital part of this process, though the addition of a dietary supplement may offer benefits as well.
Selecting the right one for your needs requires that you do your homework and include your doctor in the decision.
Taking the steps described above will ensure that you select the safest and most effective product.