Brain Food: The Value of Nutritional Supplements for Brain Fitness

Well, the idea that you can just pop a pill to improve your mem­o­ry and atten­tion lost some ground today.

The Asso­ci­at­ed Press released an arti­cle on DHEA, a steroid pre­cur­sor to testos­terone and estro­gen used to improve ath­let­ic per­for­mance, increase sex dri­ve, and reduce fat as well as fight dia­betes and heart dis­ease. The con­clu­sion of a two-year study at the Mayo Clin­ic in Min­neso­ta and Uni­ver­si­ty of Pad­ua in Italy was that it did not improve strength, phys­i­cal per­for­mance, or oth­er mea­sures of health. The pos­i­tive news was:

No harm­ful side effects were detect­ed. That is good news, but it does not mean the sup­ple­ments are alto­geth­er safe, said Simon Yeung, man­ag­er of the Web site on sup­ple­ments and inte­gra­tive med­i­cine at the Memo­r­i­al Sloan-Ket­ter­ing Can­cer Cen­ter in New York.

Glad to hear it’s not harm­ful, but not an over­whelm­ing endorse­ment either! Fur­ther­more, some pri­or research sug­gests “DHEA car­ries risks and may cause side effects.” I would­n’t run to the store just yet to get DHEA supplements.

Gink­go bilo­ba is anoth­er over-the-counter mem­o­ry-enhanc­ing sup­ple­ment we have heard a lot about recent­ly. Paul Solomon from Williams Col­lege found “these data sug­gest that when tak­en fol­low­ing the man­u­fac­tur­er’s instruc­tions, gink­go pro­vides no mea­sur­able ben­e­fit in mem­o­ry or relat­ed cog­ni­tive func­tion to adults with healthy cog­ni­tive func­tion.” Nicholas Burns from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ade­laide, Aus­tralia just pub­lished his results from a dou­ble-blind, place­bo-con­trolled study assess­ing the effects of gink­go on a wide range of mea­sures of cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties, exec­u­tive func­tion, atten­tion and mood in healthy 55–79 year olds as well as 18–43 year olds. He found longer-term mem­o­ry improved in the old­er pop­u­la­tion, but no improve­ment on any oth­er mea­sure for either the younger or old­er par­tic­i­pants. On a pos­i­tive note, the report­ed side effects were mild. Sarah Elsabagh from King’s Col­lege Lon­don found gink­go improved atten­tion and mem­o­ry in the short term. How­ev­er, there were no ben­e­fits after 6 weeks, sug­gest­ing that a tol­er­ance devel­ops quick­ly. Again, not an over­whelm­ing endorsement.

And what about the omega‑3 fat­ty acids found in cold-water fish such as mack­er­el, her­ring, salmon, and tuna? They fare bet­ter with Giu­liano Fontani’s work at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Siena in Italy. He asso­ci­at­ed omega‑3 sup­ple­men­ta­tion with an improve­ment of atten­tion­al and phys­i­o­log­i­cal func­tions, par­tic­u­lar­ly those involv­ing com­plex cor­ti­cal pro­cess­ing. He con­cludes his study by saying:

This was shown by the improve­ment of reac­tiv­i­ty, atten­tion and cog­ni­tive per­for­mances in addi­tion to the improve­ment of mood state and the mod­i­fi­ca­tions of some neu­ro-elec­tri­cal para­me­ters. These results have been obtained from a small study group and need fur­ther con­fir­ma­tion in a wider group of sub­jects and in par­tic­u­lar for the pos­si­ble influ­ences of age and gender.

While the news looks promis­ing for omega‑3 fat­ty acids, there are still many out­stand­ing ques­tions and more research needs to be done.

What can you do right now? Eat a bal­anced diet, get plen­ty of phys­i­cal exer­cise, stay cog­ni­tive­ly active, and reduce your stress. And as always, talk with your doc­tor about any con­cerns. Com­bine these things, and you should stay healthy and active well into your lat­er years. 

Fur­ther Links
Fish Food for Thought
Class­es on Brain Fitness
Brain Gyms Explained
Phys­i­cal Fit­ness and Brain Fitness
Man­ag­ing Stress

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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