Anti-aging, especially in terms of the brain and cognitive function, has become a focus of both the public and scientific community in the quest to find the fountain of youth in the natural health field. All you have to do is walk into a bookstore and look at the health section to find that at least one third of the books are about “improving your memory” or “healthy brain aging.” Every week there are a number of research bulletins released showing that some type of natural substance, extract or food, has “promising” effects on memory or brain health. With the baby boomer population aging, there is an increased fear of a looming dementia epidemic. Experts predict that the rates of Alzheimer’s dementia will increase exponentially over the next few decades.
This article will highlight a number of natural health interventions that have shown promising evidence in promoting healthy brain function and even for stimulating regeneration. Exercise, caloric restriction and stress reduction are 3 very powerful lifestyle interventions that stimulate and protect brain function, but they will not be directly addressed in this article. A key molecule that will be discussed is called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This “neuro-horomone” is essential to the structure of nerve cells and it stimulates neuroplasticity and neurogenesis.
Proline-rich polypeptides (PRP) are compounds found in bovine colostrum (the first milk secreted after giving birth) with promising effects for treating cognitive decline. Bovine colostrum is traditionally used to help stimulate the immune system and promote healing of the digestive tract since it contains powerful immune stimulating proteins. Preliminary results from animal studies have shown that supplementation may reduce inflammation (by decreasing NF-kappaB), decrease the toxic B- amyloid proteins, and stimulate nerve growth (Janusz and Zab?ocka 2010). In 2 human trials that were conducted, memory scores improved after 15 weeks (Leszek et al 2002). The results are promising but more research is needed to confirm the findings. They do highlight that a substance that influences the immune system can potentially have a powerful effect on nerve growth and protection. This is further supported by the recent discovery that Alzheimer’s disease has been tied to activated immune cells within the brain (Lue et al 2010).
It is well known that omega 3 fatty acids have a beneficial effect on inflammation and brain health. This was confirmed by the Framingham heart study that found those people with the highest intake of DHA, which is a specific fraction in omega-3 fatty acids found in nerve cells, had a decreased risk of developing dementia. Other studies have confirmed the opposite was also true; low DHA levels were characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease patients and those experiencing age associated cognitive impairment. One of the most exciting mechanisms of DHA is the ability to increase BDNF and therefore promote the growth of nerve cells. One promising animal study that highlights the neurogenic potential of DHA found that it counteracted learning disability after a traumatic brain injury. Interestingly, a diet high in saturated fat and refined sugar decreased nerve growth and promoted oxidative damage (Wu et al, 2003 and 2004).
ALCAR is a widely-known nutrient with a range of well-documented, beneficial effects. Recently, Dr Oz has increased its popularity for use in weight loss, but the effects are much more powerful. ALCAR is useful for preventing damage to nerves, blood vessels and brain cells. It is important to note that ALCAR is more beneficial for nerve health than L-carnitine since it has better absorption into the brain; it can also act as precursor to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Multiple studies have found that supplementation with ALCAR improved cognitive function and short-term memory and slowed decline. One of the mechanisms by which these effects are achieved is from protecting the mitochondria and stimulating nerve growth factor (Wollen 2010).
PQQ is a recently discovered compound that is part of the B-Vitamin family. It offers potent antioxidant and nerve growth effects. It works as an antioxidant within mitochondria protecting it from oxidative damage. There are a number of animal trials that have shown exciting effects on nerve regeneration and growth (Zhang et al 2011). A study conducted in Japan in elderly patients found that there was an improvement in memory (after 12 weeks) when PQQ and Coenzyme Q10 were supplemented together. They also found a 40x higher level of BDNF and that the antioxidant effect of PQQ was 30 times more effective than Vitamins C or E (Nakano et al. 2007).
There are many natural substances that have promising effects on reversing cognitive decline and regenerating nerve tissue. The above discussion highlights the options with the most promising and best supporting evidence. As more research is conducted, we can continue to build on the intervention options that are available for patients experiencing memory loss, cognitive decline or who are recovering from brain injuries. As with all serious medical conditions I recommend you see a qualified healthcare practitioner who can create a brain health recovery plan best suited for you. Remember also, when it comes to brain health and memory, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Protect your head, stay active, eat a diet low in refined foods and stay sharp!
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