Dietary supplements cannot replace medications, a balanced diet, or an active lifestyle. They can, however, help us to stay healthy, boost our immune system, provide us with extra nutrients, and greatly assist the development and functioning of our body.
Brain supplements are a very popular group of dietary supplements. The most probable reason for this is the stressful environment in which many of us live today. The fast-paced lifestyles often leave us feeling like our cognitive and mental abilities are not enough to cope with it.
Tiredness, inability to focus, “slow thinking”, and loss of memory are just a few common problems that make us reach for some kind of outside help. Brain supplements are a common first solution. They are easily available, usually inexpensive, and there are many kinds to choose from. Below is a review of a few commonly used “brain enhancers.”
Gingko Biloba, or just gingko, is a tree species native to China. It is an ancient plant with deep roots, known for its resistance to insects and diseases. Because of its health benefits, it has been widely used in traditional Chinese cuisine and medicine for thousands of years.
Ginkgo leaves are rich in phytochemicals such as:
· Phenolic acids
· Ginkgo bi-flavones
· Flavonoid glycosides
The extracts of these leaves are commonly used as dietary supplements, mostly because of their association with the improvement of cognitive function.
Ginkgo Biloba Brain Benefits
Supplements based on Ginkgo Biloba leaf extracts are proven to improve blood circulation. This results in a more abundant supply of oxygen and nutrients to the brain, boosting its function.
Ginkgo also improves short-term memory. It is recommended to take 40 milligrams per day. Its regular daily use can improve the quality of life of elderly people suffering from memory loss, dementia, or Alzheimer’s disease.
Another useful characteristic of ginkgo is its ability to lower the levels of cortisol, the so-called stress hormone.
Potential Side Effects
Higher doses (more than 350 mg a day) of ginkgo biloba are known to cause gastrointestinal upset and symptoms such as:
Gingko supplements should also not be taken together with anticoagulant medications (Warfarin, Aspirin, etc.), SSRI antidepressants ( Zoloft and Prozac) as well as by pregnant or breastfeeding women, and people with blood circulation disorders.
This organic compound, famous for being a part of many energy drink formulas like Red Bull, is commonly found in various human tissues. Largest concentrations normally occur in bile, muscles, brain, and the small intestine.
Taurine has a major role in the functioning and development of the central nervous system, including the brain. Much like cognitive abilities, the concentrations of taurine in the brain decrease with age. This fact makes the otherwise inexpensive and easily available, taurine a promising supplement and brain function booster.
Due to its antioxidative and cell membrane stabilizing effects, taurine can potentially be able to protect and preserve normal brain function.
Taurine Brain Benefits
Taurine helps protect the brain from the effects of environmental toxins. It significantly reduces the biological damage created by certain pesticides and lead.
The process of brain-aging and the progress of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, can be slowed down with regular taurine supplementation.
A good example of this is the ability of taurine to protect against the damage caused by beta-amyloid, a toxic protein that accumulates in the brain tissue of Alzheimer patients and severely affects cognitive function.
In a way, taurine also acts as a neurotransmitter. It improves the sensitivity of insulin receptors in the brain. This way, taurine reduces the risk of ischemic strokes and neurodegenerative disease development.
Antioxidative properties of taurine protect the brain from damage caused by oxidative stress.
According to some promising new studies, taurine might have a role in the transformation of stem cells into new human brain cells.
Taurine Supplementation Side Effects
Taurine supplementation has no known side effects, more research is needed.
Acetyl L-carnitine is an amino acid. More precisely, it is an acetylated version of L-carnitine. Acetyl L-carnitine is normally produced by the body, or found in red meat and in smaller amounts in fish and white meat, but it can also be taken as a supplement. Unlike many other amino acids, it is not used for protein creation.
The main role of acetyl L-carnitine in the human body is the transportation of fatty acids into the cellular mitochondria. Simply said, acetyl L-carnitine plays an important part in energy production.
This compound is also an anti-oxidant and a precursor of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. This means that acetyl L-carnitine protects the tissues from oxidative stress and has a part in the formation and functioning of cognitive abilities such as learning and memory.
Acetyl L-carnitine Brain Benefits
Acetyl L-carnitine is a natural and effective antidepressant. When taken as a supplement on a regular basis it boosts norepinephrine and serotonin, neurotransmitters strongly associated with depression. This results in a quick relief of depression symptoms.
Acetyl L-carnitine is also a mood booster, it improves focus, memory, and clarity. Similar to taurine, this substance increases the brain’s sensitivity to insulin and, therefore, reduces the risks of neurodegenerative diseases and other types of damage caused by high blood glucose levels.
Supplementation with acetyl L-carnitine is considered beneficial for Alzheimer patients and individuals struggling with alcohol abuse, especially the alcohol-induced memory loss.
Acetyl L-carnitine Side Effects
The usually prescribed daily dose of acetyl L-carnitine for Alzheimer’s disease treatment is between 600 and 4000 mg. Higher than recommended doses can sometimes result in symptoms such as:
In rare cases, body odor resembling the smell of fish can appear too. Acetyl L-carnitine is not recommended for people with low thyroid function or in a combination with blood thinning medications.
Famous for its yellow color and distinguished aroma, curcumin has been gaining popularity as a dietary supplement recently. This bioactive substance, naturally found in turmeric root, is associated with various health benefits and brain health is not an exemption.
Curcumin has been widely used as a spice in traditional Indian cuisine for centuries. Some people even attribute India’s extremely low rates of Alzheimer’s disease to this fact alone. However, the truth is probably more complex.
Curcumin Brain Benefits
The use of curcumin-based dietary supplements can help to reduce inflammation and increase the blood flow to the brain, bringing more nutrients to the tissues. It is also found to affect the rise of dopamine and serotonin (the “happiness hormone”). This property of curcumin makes it a potentially powerful antidepressant.
However, the most important characteristic of curcumin, when it comes to brain health, is its antioxidative effect. By protecting the brain cells from chronic damage, curcumin reduces the risk of cognitive impairment and conditions such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.
One study performed on mice showed that intravenous injections of curcumin reduce the accumulation of beta-amyloid in the brains of patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Beta-amyloid is a malformed protein responsible for cognitive impairment associated with Alzheimer’s.
Side Effects of Curcumin Supplementation
A normal daily dosage (1200 to 1800 mg) of curcumin should not cause any side effects in healthy individuals. Some supplements can also contain a smaller quantity of the substance, but in a formula that increases bioavailability (absorption) of curcumin. You can usually recognize these by the addition of black pepper or cayenne pepper extracts.
Higher doses than recommended can cause side effects such as:
· Vomiting, and
People should avoid curcumin supplements if on:
· Blood Thinners
· Diabetes medications
· Hypertension drugs
· NSAID painkillers, or
Curcumin should also not be taken with other supplements that have blood-thinning properties (e.g. gingko).
Fish Oil (DHA and EPA)
The health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids are well researched and scientifically confirmed. Two of these, the docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and the eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), are most often linked with brain-health benefits.
DHA and EPA are, most abundantly naturally found in wild, cold-water fish oils. The fish species such as mackerel, salmon, trout, sardines, and herring are considered the best dietary options for the consumption of these omega-3 fatty acids.
However, many people do not include enough fish in their diet. This fact and the proven health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids makes quality dietary supplementation a must.
Aside from aiding the development and functioning of the brain, omega-3 fatty acids health benefits also include:
· Reduced risk of cardiovascular disease
· Improved eye health
· Reduction of ADHD symptoms
· Cancer prevention
· Improved bone health
· Reduced inflammation
· Sleep improvement
DHA and EPA Brain Benefits
DHA is a major contributor to brain health and a structural element of brain tissue. This fatty acid makes up a quarter of all fat found in brain cells. It is also an important component of the cerebral cortex, a very important area of the brain where many vital functions such as memory, emotion, creativity, judgment, language, vision, hearing, abstraction, and attention occur.
Low DHA levels cause a decline in brain function. Some psychiatric disorders, as well as depression, are often associated with low DHA levels. DHA supplementation boosts brain function, shortens the brains reaction time, and improves memory and skills. Higher levels of DHA can also improve the symptoms of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, attention deficit disorder, and memory loss.
EPA is another omega-3 fatty acid important for brain health. It is a building block of brain cell membranes, has a part in emotional well-being, and is linked with improved mood and depression symptoms relief.
DHA, which is considered the most beneficial fatty acid when it comes to brain health, is considered safe to use. No side effects of DHA supplements use have been recorded.
On the other hand, fish oils which are another common brain-health supplement are known to sometimes decrease blood pressure and increase blood sugar levels. Fish oils should not be taken in combination with warfarin, aspirin, and blood-thinning medications.
Citicoline is a substance that naturally occurs in all cells of the human body. The largest concentrations are in the organs. It is commonly sold as a dietary supplement under an array of different names. It is capable to cross the blood-brain barrier and remain present in the brain as citicoline, after a complex transformation process.
Citicoline has a role in the construction of brain cell barriers. It also plays a part in enabling the brain to grow and develop during one’s lifetime (brain plasticity).
Citicoline Brain Benefits
Citicoline is associated with an increase of dopamine and acetylcholine levels. These two neurotransmitters are involved in many brain functions. Dopamine is an important part of the pleasure-reward response. Its levels affect motivation, mood swings, and productivity. Low levels of acetylcholine are commonly present in patients suffering from multiple sclerosis, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Citicoline is also important for the learning and memory functions of the brain. For all these reasons, citicoline supplementation is aimed at the improvement of Alzheimer’s disease symptoms, motivation, concentration, attention, memory, and focus.
Citicoline supplementation can help the rise of acetylcholine levels in patients who are taking therapy involving one of the following anticholinergic groups of drugs:
Potential Side Effects of Citicoline Use
Levodopa, a drug used in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, should not be used in combination with citicoline supplements.
Some side effects of citicoline use are also possible. These include:
· Increased blood pressure
· Chest pains
· Blurred vision
Caffeine is probably the most widely consumed brain stimulant in the world. This reason alone is enough for it to deserve a mention on the brain supplements list. Caffeine has been a subject of numerous scientific studies and it is now clear that it has both positive and negative effects on the brain and the overall health.
Caffeine Brain Benefits
Caffeine stimulates the brain and the central nervous system. This stimulation results in an energized feeling, increased reaction time, memory boost, improved brain function, and general alertness. As with most stimulants, the effects of caffeine are short-lasting. There are no long-term brain health benefits associated with the regular use of caffeine.
Need for caffeine supplementation is possible but rare. People who consume coffee, tea, or energy drinks daily do not have a need for supplementation and might even be at risk of overconsumption.
Caffeine Side Effects
Too much caffeine is not good for the body and, therefore, the brain. More than one cup of coffee a day can sometimes be too much. Health issues (even death cases) with energy drinks are also usually associated with too much caffeine rather than other ingredients (e.g. taurine).
The usual symptoms caused by too much caffeine in the body include:
To put it simply, Tryptophan is the father of serotonin and, therefore, the grandfather of happiness. In chemical terms, Tryptophan is an amino acid and is a building block used in the creation of serotonin.
More tryptophan equals more material to create serotonin. More serotonin equals better mood and a lower risk of depression.
Tryptophan Brain Benefits
Tryptophan supplements provide the body with more building blocks to create serotonin. This is very beneficial for many brain functions, including:
· Appetite control
Tryptophan is a natural supplement that works similarly to well-known antidepressants such as Zoloft or Prozac. It increases the amount or the happiness hormone, serotonin, in the brain. The result is reduced depression and anxiety.
Tryptophan can also improve the symptoms of other mental disorders, such as:
· ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)
· OCD ( Obsessive-compulsive Disorder)
· Panic attacks
Low levels of tryptophan are also associated with short-term memory loss.
Because of the similarity of their effects on serotonin levels, tryptophan should never be used together with Prozac, Zoloft, and other Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants. The combination could trigger the serotonin syndrome, a potentially life-threatening condition.
In other cases, the side effects of tryptophan use are rare and may include:
· Loss of appetite
Tryptophan should also not be mixed with sedative medications such as Valium.
Phosphatidylserine is a fat compound and a cell membrane constituent with an important role in programmed cell death. Its concentrations in the brain are naturally high. As a part of the cell membrane, Phosphatidylserine provides protection to the cells from environmental factors such as:
· Other infectious agents
As a supplement, Phosphatidylserine is used to boost brain function and reduce the age-related cognitive decline, as well as the effects of stress.
Phosphatidylserine Brain Benefits
Phosphatidylserine is an FDA approved supplement for the treatment of dementia. It is also used as an ingredient in the treatment of ADHD in children.
Phosphatidylserine can potentially act protectively against cognitive decline in elderly people and conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. It can improve mood, relieve the symptoms of depression and boost learning, memory, attention, and concentration.
Phosphatidylserine is not recommended to be used together with medications intended for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, such as Razadyne, Aricept, Exelon, etc. because it can worsen their side effects.
The supplement is also known to interfere with the effectiveness of certain antidepressants and antihistamines. People allergic to soy should check for the source of their supplements as Phosphatidylserine is most commonly extracted from this plant. However, other options are available too.
Blood-thinning medications and anti-inflammatory drugs should also not be combined with Phosphatidylserine.
Otherwise, the most common side effects related to higher doses of this brain supplement are:
· Appetite issues
· Stomach upset
The Final Word
Some dietary supplements can be beneficial for brain health. This is especially true when it comes to protecting the brain from toxic or stressful external influences. Properties of certain brain supplements can potentially boost some cognitive functions, improve mental abilities, and increase energy levels. However, these effects are usually temporary and limited at best. A healthy diet and balanced lifestyle are truly the best ways to keep the brain sharp.