Beaufort Memorial’s Living Well Blog brings health and wellness to Lowcountry living.

Can Supplements Boost Your Brain?

Posted by Living Well Team on Sep 26, 2016 11:47:19 AM

The supplement market is flooded with claims that we can save ourselves from Alzheimer’s disease, depression and more if we just take the right vitamin or herb.

Is it true? The jury’s out, says Paul Nussbaum, PhD, a clinical neuropsychologist and the author of a number of brain health books, including Save Your Brain. “We’ve learned that what we put in our bodies does have an impact on the brain in terms of energy, thought and emotion,” he says.

That considered, it makes sense that studies show promise for supplements such as ginkgo biloba and omega-3s. There is also research, however, that paints a less rosy picture.

“With supplements, the consumer is able to choose the particular strain that is specific to their health need,” says Kim Edwards, a registered dietician at Beaufort Memorial LifeFit Wellness Services. “As with any supplement, it important to note that probiotic supplements do not require FDA approval before they are marketed. 

Here’s a closer look at three potential brain-boosting supplements why they may hold promise.



What they are:

You’ve heard about these fatty acids in conjunction with heart health, but they are gaining traction in mental health, too. Some types of omega-3s are found in fish and shell- fish; others, in vegetable oils. They are essential to the body, playing a role in brain development and function, but we can’t produce them ourselves—we need to consume them.

How they might work:

First, you need to know that your brain is 60 percent fat. “The fat insulates the nerve tracks and helps information move rapidly,” Nussbaum says. “Omega-3s help to bathe the cells in the right fat that propels communication.”

What the research says:

Many studies have shown that eating omega- 3-rich seafood is healthy. Omega-3s are being explored as a treatment option for people with depression, attention-defi cit hyperactivity disorder, autism, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. What can’t be said for certain is whether the supplements actually work. 

What else to know:

Pregnant women are especially encouraged to get their omega-3s, which play a role in infant brain development. Doctors recommend a weekly intake of 8 ounces of seafood (excluding sushi and fish high in mercury, like swordfish). Because omega-3s increase blood flow, supplements are not recommended for people taking blood thinners or who have bleeding disorders.

Ginkgo Biloba  


What it is:

The ginkgo tree is one of the oldest around. While the seeds have been used in Chinese medicine for centuries, the leaves are used to make supplements. Some believe that ginkgo biloba can help boost memory and prevent Alzheimer’s disease. 

How it might work:

“Ginkgo is an herb that is believed to increase blood flow throughout the body and brain,” Nussbaum says. “As such, the body is receiving increased oxygen and nutrients in the blood that spurs cellular function.” Translation: More blood flow equals a boosted brain.

What the research says:

While smaller studies have shown a glimmer of promise for the ability of ginkgo biloba to improve memory, a larger study by the National Institute on Aging found that it had no memory-boosting effects on adults 60-plus who took the supplement for six weeks. One clinical trial showed that people who took it daily for six years did not experience slowed cognitive decline.

What else to know:

As with omega-3s, ginkgo supplements increase blood flow, so serious interactions (like hemorrhaging) are possible.



What they are:

Your body is full of bacteria. Some of it is bad, but some of it is good and necessary to keep you healthy. Probiotics, which you can obtain through supplements or foods like yogurt, are similar to the healthy bacteria found naturally in the body. The digestive system, in particular, needs the good microbes. An upset in the balance can lead to problems.

How they might work:

If we’re talking about mental health, why do we care what happens in the stomach? There appears to be a connection between the brain and the gut. Poor brain function can compromise gut health, and vice versa. Probiotics can help maintain that delicate balance, which can be eroded by an unhealthy diet. 

What the research says:

Most larger studies are focused on whether probiotics can help digestive issues, such as irritable bowel syndrome. Smaller studies, however, show a link between probiotics and better brain function, indicating that the communication highway is flowing both ways—from brain to stomach and vice versa.

What else to know:

Because probiotics are live bacteria, they can be risky for people with weakened immune systems. “Special considerations need to be met when introducing any probiotic into the diet,” Edwards says. “It is, for the most part, safe to add any of the foods that contain probiotics into a healthy individual’s diet, although there can be risks associated with taking a supplement for someone with a compromised immune system.” 

Better Recall

Occasional memory lapses aren’t cause for alarm, but there are steps you can take to reduce your forgetfulness. For tips to build memory, click here

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