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5 Myths about Brain Health Supplements

A scientific study just proved that ‘brain supplements’ are completely useless.

So began the article which referred to a review completed by ‘The Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH)’ titled ’The Real Deal on Brain Health Supplements’. The report (not, in fact, a study) concluded: ‘Scientific evidence does not support the use of any supplement to prevent, slow, reverse, or stop cognitive decline or dementia or other related neurological disease such as Alzheimer’s’.

The problem is, aside from being poorly cited and lacking rigor, that the authors of both have their metrics all wrong. Analysis that ONLY looks at how single nutrients or nutraceuticals impact risk of chronic disease are behind the times. Our bodies and brains are complex systems with complex inputs and outputs, not vending machines. What happens in our bodies impacts brain health, and what happens with our diet, lifestyle & supplementation choices as a whole impacts both. 

Now, I know that it’s a wild, wild world of supplements out there. I hear often that’s it’s confusing to decide between supplements. I often see friends, family & clients choose supplements with promising claims but which are ineffective and backed by weak & wanting data. Just like medications, each supplement needs to be considered on it’s own merits. Unlike (many) medications, nutrients and nutraceuticals should be considered in light of multiple pathways of action.

That’s why it’s so important to be aware of these 5 common misperceptions.

Myth #1: Brain health is just about preventing dementia. Do you want to just avoid dementia…or to enjoy a brain which functions optimally day in and day out? If vitamin A can’t stave off Alzheimer’s, does it mean that the vitamin is not supportive for brain health? Yes, it’s easier to look at a single intervention and a single endpoint to make decisions about whether something works…but it’s an incomplete way to make decisions. If we focus on a more meaningful definition of brain health,  we can shift ‘brain health’ from an end point of Alzheimer’s or Dementia to maintenance of brain structure, function, creation of new brain cells (neurogenesis) & brain chemical communication. Why? These are the mechanisms that we can pinpoint, which are impacted by lifestyle choices AND which impact our brain health from day to day: including concentration, focus, mood & memory.

Myth #2: You only need a supplement if your bloodwork shows that you are deficient. It would be so helpful if we could measure the status of every nutrient needed right in your blood. But, alas, it doesn’t work. In fact, there are very few nutrients whose deficiency can be identified through blood work…and then, only in later stages. In the case of Iron, only late stage deficiency will show up as anemia while even earlier stages of iron depletion can impact concentration and memory. In the case of B12, simple blood tests of B12 are often unreliable because of poor specificity (hint: Methylmalonic Acid is a better indicator of B12 status).

Myth #3: You can get everything that you could benefit from through food. Some supplements contain beneficial compounds which would not be found in the same high doses in food-or which would not be cost effective, possible or practical to achieve from food. Some supplemental compounds can be delivered in forms with improved absorption as compared to their food based sources. Take Curcumin (from turmeric) paired with liposomal delivery systems (for superior absorption) as an example; both in- vitro and in-vivo studies have found that curcumin can boost synaptic plasticity (source). In addition, certain supplements can promote short term brain function in a way that is practically helpful on a day-to-day basis (such as Korean Red Ginseng, which acts as a nootropic). Would you DECLINE including a compound in your supplemental regimen that could be helping to promote new growth of brain cells? 

Myth #4: Large Studies didn’t show conclusive evidence, so the targeted nutrition or supplement ‘doesn’t work’ for brain health. The days of diving out the same intervention to everyone are coming to an end. The era of personalized nutrition is upon us, where multi-modal interventions will be essential to achieving positive outcomes. Just as there is not one single reason that cognition and thinking would be impacted, there is not a one-size fits all solution. If your ‘root cause’ is insulin resistance but your B12 stores are already topped off, you’re not going to experience benefit from supplementing with B12. If your poor concentration is from under-eating or food sensitivities, Gingko Biloba is not the answer. 

Myth #5: Benefits of food & supplementation in brain health always target our brains directly. As the science of the gut-brain axis grows and grows, increasing attention is being drawn to the ways that an out-of-balance microbiome could impact mood & cognition. Our microbiome is shaped in large part in early childhood AND is impacted by factors in and around us. Because of either environmental or developmental factors, our microbiome can be at a ‘disadvantage’. Although fermented foods are available and offer benefit, specific doses of probiotic strains are difficult to qualify through food based sources…versus supplemental sources of pre- and pro- biotic strains which deliver targeted, strain specific benefits.

Food & Supplementation for Brain Health: The Big Picture

Remember, there is no one nutrient or single food which will protect cognition over the short or long term. Dauncey said it well in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition: “Optimal brain function results from highly complex interactions between numerous genetic and environmental factors, including food intake, physical activity, age and stress. Future studies linking nutrition with advances in neuroscience, genomics and epigenomics should provide novel approaches to the prevention of cognitive decline, and treatment of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease” (source).

In order to take a comprehensive snapshot of nutritional brain health, a systems biology approach is necessary to assess for vulnerabilities, deficiencies & ‘fit’ of supplements and nutraceuticals. Brain healthy habits are BASED on lifestyle, given the powerful synergistic effects of movement, whole foods & community. I think of the foundation of lifestyle as ALLOWING supplemental compounds to be effective-at the end of the day, supplements should indeed be supplemental to a well designed, nutrient-dense & brain healthy diet.

Here’s are some questions to ask when evaluating a supplement for brain health: 

  1. What is the mechanism? Would this supplement & dose restore function in some way that will benefit brain health, whether through correcting a deficiency, influencing genetic expression or another relevant pathway? 
  2. Are active ingredients found in a known effective dose?
  3. Is the supplement formatted or packaged in a way that will be optimally absorbed?
  4. What kind of quality control is in place at point of production?
  5. Can you duplicate the effect with diet/lifestyle?
  6. Can the active compounds be found at a lower price point?
  7. How do supplemental compounds fit into overall lifestyle decisions?

Are you interested in learning more about nutrition and cognitive decline? Listen to Dr. Clare Morris discuss Eating to Prevent Alzheimer’s on the Nourished Brain Solutions Podcast.

About Sarah Ferreira

Sarah Ferreira,MS,MPH,RD,CDN,CNSC,IFNCP,CHWC is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with complementary certification as an Integrative and Functional Nutrition Certified Practitioner and Certified Health and Wellness Coach. She is the owner of Mindfully Nourished Solutions, where she uses a whole-person, whole-food approach to explore the impact of nutrition on mood and cognition. Her individualized approach integrates an assessment of nutritional, genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors into a collaborative nutrition care plan using cutting-edge research designed to facilitate meaningful and restorative changes based around client goals and priorities.

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