Supplements that heal and protect
Paul Hrkal, ND
The effects of concussions and traumatic brain injuries can change a person's life forever. The latest research shows that natural supplements may reduce inflammation and help repair the brain.
Healthy brain function is paramount to optimal wellness, but conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and concussions are emerging as critical concerns for our health care system. As conventional medicine searches for solutions, cutting-edge research is starting to show that nutrients and herbal extracts may have beneficial effects on memory and brain function.
There are many diseases that affect the brain, but the one that’s on the brink of crippling our health care system is dementia. With the aging baby boomer population, there is an increased fear of a looming dementia epidemic. Experts predict the rate of dementia in Canada will double by the year 2031.
Concussions (also called traumatic brain injuries) are generating a huge amount of interest as public awareness grows about the detrimental impact on younger and more vulnerable (especially male) populations. A 2006 study found there are approximately 30,000 concussions or head-related injuries reported annually among the 16- to 34-year-old age group, with more than 85 percent being related to sports in some way.
In an effort to understand what’s driving the increase in brain-related diseases, researchers have identified that both brain trauma from a concussion and the slow progression of Alzheimer’s disease are driven by neuroinflammation. The good news is that emerging evidence is finding natural substances have powerful properties that not only reduce neuroinflammation but also promote brain repair.
Coconut oil is one of the richest natural sources of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). The unique aspect of MCTs is that they can be readily converted into ketones, which are an important fuel source for brain cells independent of sugar and insulin. This has driven research interest in using MCTs to improve neurodegenerative disease, weight loss, and sports performance. As we await more scientific evidence to confirm their benefits, they are an easy and safe addition to a brain-healthy diet.
Omega-3s contain the active components docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which play a critical role in nerve cell communication and anti-inflammatory pathways. Since the human body cannot efficiently convert plant-based essential fatty acids (such as flaxseed) to EPA and DHA, supplementation with fish oil is the best source of these active components. Numerous studies have found that DHA-rich supplements improve brain function in both chronic diseases and acute injuries.
Acetyl-L-carnitine (ALCAR) provides a wide range of beneficial neurological effects. Multiple studies have found that supplementation with ALCAR improved brain function and short-term memory. In a 2011 double-blind, placebo-controlled trial in patients with mild dementia, researchers found that improvements in memory scores in the group using ALCAR were 2.8 times higher than in placebo-treated individuals.
It’s also important to consider common deficiencies of vitamins such as D, E, and B-complex vitamins, including B12, which are essential for nerve function, antioxidant protection, and inflammation control.
Ginkgo biloba is a popular herb that’s used to boost memory, but the latest research is targeting curcumin as a potential therapy for a number of neurological conditions. This potent extract from the spice turmeric has attracted much interest as a promising treatment for many chronic diseases including Alzheimer’s disease, brain injuries, cancer, and heart disease due to its powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. While results are still preliminary, innovative curcumin extracts are showing positive benefits in reducing neuroinflammation and oxidative stress in both animals and humans.
A number of other plant compounds such as green tea, resveratrol (found in red wine), and anthocyanidins (found in berries) have also shown neuroprotective effects. Unlike pharmacological medications, the key advantage of plant compounds is that they have multiple modes of action and work synergistically with each other to reduce inflammation and repair the nervous system.
Maintaining our brain health in the face of traumatic brain injuries and dementia may be one of the most challenging current health issues, but natural foods, nutrients, and herbs offer a promising way to recover from injury and help us stay mentally sharp. Stay tuned as researchers discover more cutting-edge strategies to support healing, prevent decline, and optimize brain function.
A 2009 study found that cognitive functioning was improved when healthy elderly subjects reduced the number of calories they consumed daily by 30 percent. This strategy improves the function of insulin and promotes the production of ketones, a unique but ultra efficient fuel source for the brain.
The simplest evidence-based way to protect your memory is to avoid refined sugars and saturated fats. A 2009 study found that consuming walnuts, blueberries, strawberries, and grape juice as part of your regular diet can help enhance cognitive and motor functioning in the aging brain.