Shaun Ward MSc ANutr
Nutrition has a large influence on the composition, function, and performance of the brain.
Nutrients provide the building blocks for the brain to create and maintain neural connections, and also influence neuronal function and plasticity, which are all crucial factors for optimal cognition.
Unfortunately, the estimated prevalence of cognitive impairment in adults over 65 years old is ~20% , and the rates of serious cognitive impairment are only increasing year by year. In turn, this contributes towards disabilities, depression, and a poor quality of life .
It is well-known that creatine monohydrate supplementation can increase muscle creatine stores and improve improve exercise performance during intense exercise.
However, what is not as common knowledge is that creatine also has a key role for brain health.
In the brain, creatine acts as an alternative fuel source to help the brain have a continuous energy supply to always achieve its necessary functions, including the maintenance of electrical membrane potentials and nervous system signaling .
This allows creatine to have a large influence on brain function in scenarios where energy supply to the brain is suboptimal .
Especially during situations where there is a high rate of brain ATP turnover, such as during complex cognitive tasks, or during states of oxygen or sleep deprivation, creatine supplementation will facilitate a constant production of ATP in the brain.
This benefit can be seen in both mentally-impaired populations, and healthy individuals with no brain issues .
For example, young healthy adults supplementing with creatine had a measurable ~15% reduced dependency on oxygen supply to the brain .
The reduced reliance on energy supply to the brain from creatine supplementation may also reduce oxidative stress, improve mitochondrial function, and lower the risk of cognitive decline .
2. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3’s are essential fatty acids that are needed to support cellular signaling and influence synaptic function.
For a long time observational studies have found the link between omega-3 intake (usually through fish consumption) and its protective effect on cognition .
There are now a tonne of clinical and animal studies that clearly demonstrate the importance of this type of polyunsaturated fat in brain development and degeneration.
As omega-3’s are able to achieve this by inhibiting the synthesis of proinflammatory molecules, and decreasing the production of β-amyloid – the main component of the amyloid plaques found in the brains of alzheimer patients .
However, a certain type of omega-3 fatty acids called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) has been specifically identified to provide a number of unique benefits:
- Improves cell membrane fluidity and neural receptor activity .
- Regulates key biophysical properties such as acyl chain order, phase behavior, compression, permeability, fusion, flip-flop and protein activity .
- Increases the phosphatidylserine content (the major acidic phospholipid in cell membranes) of neuronal membranes which improves neuronal survival .
- May promote the differentiation of neural stem cells into neurons .
3. Vitamin D
Vitamin D is a group of fat-soluble secosteroids that are responsible for increasing the intestinal absorption of calcium, magnesium, and phosphate, among many other biological effects.
Recently, vitamin D is becoming increasingly recognized as a necessary “neuro-steroid” with various actions in the brain .
The main hypothesis behind why vitamin D improves brain health is its ability to prevent any increases in neuronal levels of calcium ions, which would otherwise drive the death of neurons and depression. In other words, vitamin D helps to “buffer” calcium ion levels in the brain .
In addition, vitamin D binds to vitamin D receptors in the hippocampus region of the brain and exerts anti-neurodegenerative action through its neurotrophic, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidative properties .
Concerningly, deficiencies in vitamin D in parents and babies have been heavily linked to learning and memory problems in early life, likely due to their altered neural expression of genes .
In fact, vitamin D levels need to be adequate throughout pregnancy to decrease the risk for schizophrenia and other mental illness in later life .
Systematic reviews also confirm an association between vitamin D concentrations in the blood and cognitive performance .
This being said, to our knowledge, there are no randomized control trials where vitamin D has been used as a supplementation intervention and measurably improved markers of cognition.
Although it is very likely that vitamin D supplementation would help people suffering from cognitive issues, human studies are needed to clarify this benefit, and to judge the extent to which it may help.
4. Ginkgo Biloba
Ginkgo biloba is a herb that is popular in many cultures to improve cognitive health.
It is theorized that the mechanisms by which ginkgo biloba may improve brain function are :
- Increased cerebral vasodilation
- Increased neurotransmitter receptor activity
- Reduced blood viscosity
- Reduced free radical activity
So far investigators on ginkgo biloba have not clarified whether it can change the the rate of cognitive decline in healthy older adults or those diagnosed with dementia .
Only a limited amount of trials have been conducted and there is still potential for the beneficial effects of gingko biloba to be seen considering its identified biological mechanisms of action, but more studies are needed.
Many supplements are being researched and advertised to improve brain function and prevent neurodegenerative diseases in later life, but most are not able to achieve such benefits.
The best supplements that have been found to work (or potentially work) are creatine, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, and gingko biloba.
As they all provide completely separate metabolic effects, supplementing with all these products together may possibly provide a synergistic effect and lead to the best results.