Cognitive decline isn’t “natural”We used to think that when it comes to cognition, age eventually takes its toll. It seemed natural. But the number of years you’ve lived is irrelevant. What’s relevant is how well you’ve lived them—how well you’ve defended yourself against a lifetime of exposure to toxins, stress, trauma, unhealthy food, and other threats. Here are some of my trusted, proven natural brain supplements to keep your wits about you.
Ginkgo biloba—unforgettableA tree that lives for 2,500 years has something special going on. That’s the estimated age of a ginkgo tree in China. And that’s how long Chinese and Indian medicine have used its leaves to improve memory. I give my patients ginkgo for that reason, and also to:
- Protect and improve mental processing speed
- Relieve and reduce symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s
Bring on the bacopa…the what?You might know bacopa as waterhyssop. It’s another traditional healer, used centuries ago in India and China—and far more recently in the US and Europe. It’s a multi-talented tamer of cognition problems like Alzheimer’s disease, and a proven memory improver. As with ginkgo, bacopa’s powers are well documented. Healthy participants over 55 were given either bacopa or a placebo. Subjective memory assessments were performed at 12 weeks, along with tests for “delayed word recall memory” and “audio-verbal and visual memory.” Bacopa significantly improved memory acquisition and retention. Added bonus: in the bacopa group, anxiety levels declined and heart rate decreased over time. In another study, adults 45–65 were given a placebo or a 3-month supply of bacopa. The bacopa group was significantly better at retaining new information.
Rhodiola comes in from the coldRhodiola is found in the arctic regions of Europe, Alaska, and Asia. It’s long been used as a medicine throughout Europe. And it’s rumored to have been a staple of the cosmonaut diet since Russia first joined the “space race.” As an “adaptogen,” it helps the body adapt to and resist physical, chemical, and environmental stress. It’s used to do everything from improve cognitive function to preventing liver damage to improving hearing and more. A group of 56 young, healthy night-duty physicians was given rhodiola to test for its effect on their overall level of mental fatigue during night duty. The tests involved perceptive and cognitive functions, including:
- Associative thinking
- Short-term memory
- Calculation skills
- Ability to concentrate
- Speed of audio-visual perception
Omega-3s—essential fatty acidsOmega-3 essential fatty acids (EFA) are nutrients our bodies can’t make. We can get them only from food or supplements. They’re not called “essential” for nothing, especially when we’re talking about cognitive decline. Numerous studies have found that:
- Older people with high blood levels of EFAs scored better on mental function tests than people with low levels
- Alzheimer’s patients have subnormal brain concentrations of the EFA known as DHA, which makes up about 40 percent of your brain and is, yes, essential for building cell membranes
- When Alzheimer’s patients were given omega-3 supplements for 6 months, they had improved markers for brain-damaging inflammation and for the disease itself
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Unmanaged stress
- Poor diet
- High blood pressure
- Being obese or even overweight
Vitamin D3—a fair weather friend that needs helpThe “sunshine vitamin” has earned a proud reputation for its ability to keep your bones healthy, regulate your immune system, reduce high blood pressure, and much more. But there’s still more good news. Vitamin D deficiency can play a significant role in cognitive decline, generally, and Alzheimer’s, specifically. Over the five years of a recent study, people with low levels of vitamin D lost major thinking skills 2.5 times faster than people with adequate vitamin D levels. One of the skills lost was episodic memory—our life story, our who, when, where, why, and how. Witnessing this loss in a loved one is a heartbreaker like no other. Also lost—executive function, the skills that help us manage our days—setting goals and planning how to meet them, for example. A link between these losses and brain shrinkage isn’t confirmed, but I suspect it will be. One sure source of vitamin D is sunshine. We absorb the sun’s UVB rays into the skin and use them to convert cholesterol into vitamin D. But keep it safe—no more than 20 minutes a day of direct sun exposure. Then sunscreen, move into shade, or cover up with light, loose-fitting clothes. But from October to May, the sun’s rays aren’t strong enough in most parts of the country, for us to make vitamin D. Aging also slows our ability to produce the vitamin. Eating more vitamin D-rich foods helps intake stay adequate—wild-caught salmon, mackerel, tuna, sardines—but 2–3 times a week only. Free-range meats, egg yolks, and canned fish also help. If you’re not sure about the vitamin D content in your daily diet, a vitamin D3 supplement is a sure-fire solution. Make sure you get your doctor’s signoff and recommended dosage before trying that. Take good care.
- Brooks, Megan. “Low Vitamin D Linked to Cognitive Decline” Published September 14, 2015. Last accessed April 18, 2017.
- “Ginko biloba: Dosing” Mayo Clinic. Published NA. Last accessed April 18, 2017.
- “Rhodolia” Published NA. Last accessed April 18, 2017.
- “Your Care Team shares tips on the benefits of breast milk” Mayo Clinic. Published August 3, 2015. Last accessed April 18, 2017.
- “Bacopa” Published NA. Last accessed April 18, 2017.
- Connealy, Leigh. “Omega-3: Definition, Benefits, Sources” Newport Natural Health. Updated December 4, 2015. Last accessed April 18, 2017.