Supplements for the Brain (and Nerves)

“For Your Peace of Mind…”

Recent research on supplements for memory, cognition and other neurological functions
You may remember (we hope you remember!) the Scarecrow’s petition to the Wizard of Oz for a brain. Be advised–we at NYBC do not stock new brains, so don’t come to us with that request.

However, we do follow the sometimes startling new research on supplements, brain function and related neurological issues. In this department, there’s special cause for concern for people with HIV. According to a Canadian study released in 2010, in a group of 1615 people receiving treatment for HIV during the decade 1998-2008, one fourth had neurological problems, including memory loss, cognitive impairment and peripheral neuropathy. Of course being worried about brain function–and neurological function in general–is not unique to people with HIV. As people age, they are more likely to experience memory loss or forms of dementia such as Alzheimer’s. And the nerve condition called peripheral neuropathy (pain, tingling in the feet and hands) is found not just in people with HIV, but also among the growing population with Type 2 diabetes.

Now, on to what we see as some of the most valuable recent findings about supplements and brain or neurological function:

B vitamins can be considered a foundation because they are needed in so many processes essential to the brain’s operation, from energy supply and healthy blood flow, to the formation of neurotransmitters (=chemical messengers of neurologic information from one cell to another). Furthermore, there is evidence that several groups of people, including those over 60 and those with HIV, have a greater risk for Vitamin B deficiencies. So supplementing with a B complex vitamin is a sensible start to cognitive health. More specifically, there is good research linking deficiency of vitamins B12 and B6 to mood disorders like depression—and depression earlier in life is associated with higher risk of dementia in later life. Last, there is also some evidence that B vitamins may reduce stroke risk in older people.

Omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil) support cognitive health in a variety of ways. In 2008, UCLA researchers reported on a lab study showing that the omega-3 fatty acid DHA, together with exercise, improved cognitive function. This caught our attention, because there is wide agreement that regular exercise strongly supports brain function as we age, and here the suggestion is that omega-3 fatty acids multiply that known benefit. A diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids/fish oil has also been linked to lower risk of depression—another plus. And still more: recent research found that omega-3 fatty acids block the development of retinopathy, a chief cause of blindness as we age. (The retina of the eye is actually part of the brain–it is full of nerve cells essential for vision.) All in all, the neurological benefits of omega-3 fatty acids seem both wide-ranging and quite convincing, so it’s high on our recommended list.

The amino acid acetylcarnitine has shown benefit for brain function in a number of studies with humans. In the last decade, acetylcarnitine has also been investigated for peripheral neuropathy in people with HIV. (Some recommend using it with evening primrose oil and Vitamin C.) A 2008 study found that acetylcarnitine influences a chemical process in the brain that triggers Alzheimer’s, so researchers are continuing to puzzle out how this supplement produces its neurological benefits.

Antioxidants. There’s much suggestive research about how antioxidants counter destructive oxidative processes in the brain, thus blocking memory loss and cognitive decline. For example, a 2003 report found that the antioxidant combination alpha lipoic acid and NAC reversed memory loss in aged laboratory mice. And there’s also been a lot of attention to the combination acetylcarnitine and alpha lipoic acid for memory impairment. Furthermore, other antioxidants such as curcumin are under study for their potential to fight the processes that lead to declining brain function.

Acetylcholine. The first neurotransmitter to be identified, acetylcholine is closely associated with memory, with lower levels linked to memory loss. NYBC currently stocks two combination supplements that support acetylcholine levels in the brain, while also providing other nutrients for neurological function: Neuro Optimizer (Jarrow), which includes acetylcholine enhancers, acetylcarnitine, and alpha lipoic acid; and Think Clearly (SuperNutrition), which includes B vitamins, as well as acetylcholine enhancers and a botanical traditionally used for cognitive support, ginkgo biloba.

Resveratrol. In the past decade, there has been intense scientific interest in this compound, most famously found in red wine. While some research ventures have hoped to find in resveratrol a life-extending supplement (a capacity demonstrated in animal studies), others have focused on its therapeutic value for conditions like diabetes or cognitive decline. For example, Cornell researchers reported in 2009 that resveratrol reduced the kind of plaque formation in animal brains that causes Alzheimer’s. And a year later another lab investigation, this one at Johns Hopkins, found that a moderate dose of the compound protected animal brains from stroke damage.

Ginkgo biloba, a botanical derived from Earth’s most ancient tree species, has been widely used for cognitive function. In the late 1990s, two reviews of dozens of ginkgo studies concluded that it could improve symptoms of dementia. However, a long-term trial of ginkgo published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2008 found that the supplement did not prevent development of dementia in a group of more than 3000 older people who had normal cognitive function at the start of the research. One possible conclusion: ginkgo may help symptoms of cognitive decline, but doesn’t address underlying causes.

NYBC’s RECOMMENDATIONS: A B complex supplement (like Jarrow’s B-right) and fish oil (like Jarrow’s Max DHA) are foundations for maintaining cognitive health, especially important for people with HIV or people over 60. There is some evidence for acetylcarnitine, alpha lipoic and acetylcholine supplementation for memory impairment and possibly for cognitive decline. Acetylcarnitine and other supplements can be used to address peripheral neuropathy. And stay tuned for emerging research on preserving brain function with compounds like resveratrol, NAC and curcumin.


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