Food for thought

You can sharpen your mind and prevent brain-related deterioration with various dietary and herbal supplements

Boy with laptopEveryday your brain churns out between 12,000 and 50,000 thoughts. That's as many as 18 million thoughts in a single year. We often take our mental activity and acuity for granted... until it's no longer something we can count on. And then, you might find yourself turning to crossword puzzles or a daily dose of Sudoku to help "sharpen the tool," so to speak. But, have you considered that what you're feeding your brain may be just as important - or even more so - than how you're exercising it?

New research suggests that there are various dietary and herbal supplements you can utilise to preserve the health of your brain, and to maintain or even improve your cognitive function*. With the increased prevalence of brain-affecting disorders such as Alzheimer's disease and dementia, this is one of those 18 million thoughts actually worth pondering this year. Interest in natural means of working with these particular brain-centred ailments is growing. Research supports the idea that cognitive function can be maintained, and in some cases increased, by changes in diet and lifestyle.

Your fatty brain

Much of your brain's tissue is composed of fat and, as the cells that make up brain tissue are replaced, your body requires dietary fats to create new, healthy brain cells. About 20 per cent of the human brain comprises docosahexaenoic acid [DHA]. Eicosapentaenoic acid [EPA], another brain chemical, is an anti-inflammatory substance that promotes hormones in the brain which directly contribute to the regulation of normal brain function. Both these chemicals are a component of omega-3 fatty acids, which are an important part of a healthy diet. Not surprisingly, studies indicate that people with low levels of omega-3 fatty acids in the blood have a greater decline in cognitive function. Indeed, research indicates that Alzheimer's patients tend to have low levels of DHA in the brain.

Add omega-3 fatty acids

Given the above, it doesn't take much brain power to deduce that supplementing the diet with proper amounts of omega-3 fatty acids is vital to maintaining healthy brain function. So consume foods that contain omega-3s: seafood [such as salmon, sardines, and mackerel], flax seeds, pumpkin seeds and eggs. If you can't consume these foods regularly, a good omega-3 supplement can certainly help. Such supplements will be fish or seed oil capsules. Whichever you prefer, be sure it is fresh and of good quality, and try to take between 1,000-6,000 mg daily.

Add phospholipids

Beyond omega-3s, however, is a group of fat-like organic compounds called phospholipids. These substances are a major component of all cell membranes, including those of our brain. Of the four classes of phospholipids, phosphatidylerine [PS] is most concentrated in the brain, where it contributes greatly to cognitive function by, among other things, stimulating neurotransmitter release. Unfortunately, aging causes a natural decline in PS throughout the body and the effects of its decrease are especially noticeable in brain functioning.

Supplementing with PS can have surprising results for those with cognitive decline, as it helps maintain cellular membrane integrity and protects brain cells against brain-related deterioration. Research suggests that doses between 75 mg and 500 mg are necessary to reap these cognitive benefits. What's even more exciting, is that combining omega-3 fatty acids with phospholipids has proven to have a positive synergistic effect.

But before you decide that a carefree high-fat diet is just what the doctor ordered to jumpstart your brain, take a good look at which fats are good for the brain and which are most certainly not. Avoid saturated fats, which raise your risk of heart disease and certain kinds of cancer. Arguably more dangerous, however, are trans fats, one of humanity's most unfortunate anti-nutrient creations.

Cut trans fatty acids

Trans fatty acids [sometimes listed as "hydrogenated" or "partially-hydrogenated" fats and oils on food labels] are simply unnatural. And while we consume them regularly, they don't belong in our bodies. Found in products such as french fries, margarine, potato chips and many other highly-sugared or high-starch "snack foods", trans fats actually disrupt communication in your brain. They do this by taking the place of DHA in your brain's cell membranes. By their nature, trans fatty acids are less flexible than DHA, and the result is the inevitable slowing and disruption of brain activity. If you're interested in improving your cognitive function, removing trans fats from your diet may be just as important as getting more omega-3s and phospholipids.

More brain boosters

Vitamin E - Vitamin E is an essential vitamin, necessary for life. It's also a powerhouse of an anti-oxidant and protects the brain from the ravages of aging. In people dealing with a decline in cognitive abilities, vitamin E may be especially helpful. In one study, high doses of vitamin E actually slowed the progress of Alzheimer's for up to seven months. Found naturally in wheat germ, soybeans, vegetable oils and many nuts, it can also be taken in supplement form.

Ginkgo biloba - Ginkgo biloba also tops the list of natural cognitive-boosting supplements. Packing a double-punch, Ginkgo biloba increases blood flow to the brain and fights free radicals that may contribute to inflammation there. In one study of 80 healthy women in Germany, researchers found that taking 600 mg of Ginkgo biloba significantly improved short-term memory only one hour later. To receive maximum, cognitive-enhancing benefit, a standard dose of 90-240 mg daily for a period of 8-12 weeks is recommended.

DMAE - Finally, consider supplementing with DMAE [dimethylaminoethanol]. Like omega-3s, this nutrient is readily found in fish [especially anchovies and sardines], and it passes easily into the brain where it is converted into essential phospholipids. DMAE has been shown to elevate mood, improve memory, increase intelligence and give a boost to physical energy, as well. A slow-acting stimulant that can be used as an alternative to antidepressant medications. A daily dose of 100-500 mg of DMAE can help bring your brain back into cognitive balance.

*Before making any dietary or lifestyle changes, or using any dietary or herbal supplements, check with your physician. While most dietary and herbal supplements are benign in nature, some may exhibit specific interactions with certain prescription medications and should not be used without proper medical direction and/or supervision.

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Ryan Harrison
Ryan N Harrison, a holistic health educator and consultant in private practice, holds a post-graduate degree in transpersonal psychology and certifications as nutritional consultant, holistic health practitioner, spiritual counsellor, quantum-touch practitioner; and advanced practitioner of EFT [Emotional Freedom Techniques]. He also teaches and lectures in online and traditional settings. He lives in California, USA.

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