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Choosing Supplements for Brain Health

Nov 26 2020
By Richard Carmona
9 min read
Close-up of woman pouring supplements out of bottle into her hand.

When it comes to nutrition, there is no question that whole foods have a greater positive effect than any individual supplement can have.

Whole foods work synergistically, which means that the colors on your plate, or the ingredients in any one dish, contain different chemical compounds that work together to create the greatest impact. However, there are times when you may need to use nutritional supplements in addition to following a healthy diet – when you are significantly and clinically deficient in a particular vitamin or mineral your body needs to work properly, for example.

At Canyon Ranch, we believe that your current health status is the most important indication of what role supplements can play to prevent or delay symptoms of poor brain health. For example, if you fall into a high-risk category for developing Alzheimer’s disease, you may need to take supplements that a person who is at lower risk does not.

The four major risk factors of Alzheimer’s disease include:

Age: According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the greatest known risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s and other dementias is increasing age, although it is not a direct cause of these conditions. Most people with Alzheimer’s are 65 and older, and the risk doubles every 5 years after age 65; after age 85, the risk reaches nearly 33 percent.

APOE4: This gene is one of the most significant genetic risk factors for developing dementia, according to a study from the National Institute on Aging. That said, inheriting the gene doesn’t guarantee that a person will develop Alzheimer’s disease or related conditions.

Atherosclerosis: Receiving a diagnosis of atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, has long been suspected of playing a role in cognitive deterioration. The link between the condition and increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s continues to be studied.

Chronic inflammation: Seen in arthritis and other systemic inflammatory disorders, inflammation can put you on the path to a number of serious conditions, including Alzheimer’s.

Below is a short list of nutrients that have been clinically shown in some patients to enhance brain health and potentially reverse symptoms of cognitive decline; achieving the proper levels of these nutrients is crucial for maintaining brain health.

Remember, it’s always best to talk with your doctor or nutritionist before you begin any type of supplementation program; he or she can help determine if you’re deficient and, if so, define specific dosages that are right for you.

Vitamin B

Vitamin B12 is probably the most significant of the B vitamins for brain health. Brain nerve fibers and cells can degenerate as a result of a B12 deficiency, which may contribute to cognitive decline. We also know that a B12 deficiency can cause dementia. If you’re following a vegan diet, you can easily become deficient in this nutrient because it is found naturally only in animal products such as meats, eggs, and poultry.

Another B vitamin, folate (or folic acid), is also necessary to support brain health. The Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging found that people taking 400 micrograms of folic acid had half the Alzheimer’s rates compared with those who didn’t take the supplement. Thiamine is another B vitamin that’s critical for the brain. Most grain products are fortified with this nutrient, but if you’re cutting down on grains, you may need more from another source.

You can get B vitamins through a multivitamin, a B-complex vitamin (typically featuring all B vitamins), or a single-nutrient supplement.

Vitamin D

This essential nutrient is found in the food we eat, and is also a hormone produced by our skin through exposure to sunlight. Vitamin D protects the brain, reduces inflammation, and is thought to combat depression and improve cognitive function. Additionally, Vitamin D has been shown to correlate with a decreased level of amyloid plaques in the brain, the same ones known to be present in Alzheimer’s disease.

Food sources do not provide sufficient quantities of vitamin D to meet your daily needs. A better source of D is actually the sun, but this is effective only if you live in a warm climate where the sun is bright. And sunscreen, while important for warding off skin damage and skin cancer, prevents vitamin D production. Because of these issues, most doctors and nutritionists agree that the best way to get the right amount of the vitamin is through supplementation. There are two types of vitamin D supplements, D2 and D3; each is effective, but the dosages are different, so be sure to talk with your healthcare provider for guidance.

Fish Oil

Omega-3s are critical for brain health and are highly concentrated in cold-water fatty fish and in some nuts and seeds. The two types of omega-3 oils found in fish are EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).

Look for fish oil supplements in a liquid or a soft gel form, which are derived from harvested fish caught in deep waters far removed from major shipping lanes. The best sources are “molecularly distilled” fish oils that have been tested for PCBs, heavy metals, and mercury in particular. When shopping for this supplement, look for the International Fish Oil Standards Program (IFOS) seal of approval. You’ll also want to confirm that the total amounts of EPA and DHA are both at least 1,000 milligrams.

Antioxidants

Researchers believe that dietary antioxidants work synergistically with one another to offer the greatest protection for your brain, so we recommend taking an antioxidant formulation that contains many compounds, instead of supplementing only one type at a time. In a Oregon Health & Science University study, researchers found that taking an antioxidant formula containing vitamins B, C, D, and E was associated with better cognitive function and larger brain volume.

Resveratrol

Resveratrol is a specific type of antioxidant found in the skins of dark berries and grapes. It has been found to help repair genes and make them more resistant to damage, thereby increasing neuroplasticity by decreasing cellular death. This antioxidant is thought to be one of the beneficial nutrients in red wine, however to see the benefits you’d need to consume the beverage in large quantities – and with that comes another trade-off. Any type of alcoholic beverage is considered to be a neurotoxin: It kills brain cells. While one glass of wine daily may be protective, having more than two glasses a day may actually make things worse. If you want the benefits of resveratrol without the negative side effects of alcohol, supplementation might be your best bet.

Probiotics

Probiotics (healthy bacteria) are a class of nutritional supplements known to balance immune function and decrease inflammation, which, again, is one of the risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease. Probiotics are most effective when they are combined with a high-fiber diet or a fiber supplement. The fiber acts as the fertilizer that makes the probiotics grow. And because probiotics interact with the digestive system, each strain performs differently depending on your gut’s unique environment. This means that one type of probiotic doesn’t work the same for everybody. In order to find the supplement that will work best for you, choose a broad-spectrum, high-potency probiotic combined with fiber. Broad spectrum means that it contains more than one strain of probiotics.

Turmeric

Turmeric is known to be an effective blocker of TNF alpha, a naturally occurring chemical that has been implicated in a variety of human diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis. Turmeric is also thought to break up amyloid plaques, a hallmark of Alzheimer’s. However, you need more than a dusting on your foods to get these important health benefits, so a turmeric supplement may be as good as, or even better than, liberally using the bright-yellow spice in your cooking.

Some Final Thoughts on Supplements

Keep in mind that taking supplements does not give you a free pass to revert back to bad habits; they are not an antidote to eating poorly or a magic pill that will keep your brain cognitively active, no matter what you’ve seen or heard in the media. To achieve optimal brain health, you need to consistently eat right, exercise both your brain and your body, sleep, avoid pollutants, and reduce stress. Simply put, supplements can be an important component for achieving better brain health, but they are not going to do all the hard work for you.

This article is adapted from 30 Days to a Better Brain, by Richard Carmona, MD, MPH, FACS, 17th U.S. Surgeon General, Chief of Health Innovation, Vice Chairman of Canyon Ranch, and President of Canyon Ranch Institute®.