27 April 2021
A healthy brain is fundamental for functioning properly in daily life, minimising the risk of neurological diseases and ensuring quality of life – throughout life. Nutrients play a vital role in overall brain health
The human brain is the command centre for the nervous system and enables thoughts, memory, emotions and movement. A healthy brain is a major factor in ensuring good quality of life throughout life where we are able to focus, memorise and perform mentally and stay clear of serious neurological disorders.
So what can we do to avoid mental and cognitive health issues now and as we age? A healthy body leads to a healthy mind. The following areas are considered the six pillars of brain health: physical activity, a healthy diet and nutrition, social interaction, plentiful sleep and relaxation and control of medical risks.
Taking a closer look at nutrition, here is an overview of nutrients, namely minerals, vitamins and fats that are important to brain health, and nutrients from other sources that may have a positive effect on brain health:
Vitamins and minerals nourishing the brain
Supplements such as vitamin B, C, E, beta-carotene (provitamin A), magnesium or manganese may improve brain function, especially if you have a deficiency in one of them. Vitamin E, vitamin C, and beta-carotene act as anti-oxidants helping to protect cells from damage caused by free radicals. Research indicates that vitamin E, vitamin C and beta-carotene could lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease - a neurodegenerative disease, in which oxidative stress plays a vital role [1,2].
For vitamin B, especially vitamin B6, B9 (folate), and B12 have been linked with brain health. They can break down homocysteine, which is an amino acid in the blood. High levels of homocysteine have been associated with a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia . In addition, a study has shown that vitamin B6 intake may provide protection against cognitive decline in healthy older adults . B vitamins also help produce energy needed to develop new brain cells.
Vitamin E is not a single molecule, but consists of eight fat-soluble substances and can be sub-divided into two classes: tocotrienol and tocopherol. Tocotrienols is a super form of vitamin E, which are potent antioxidants with unique anti-inflammatory properties . Tocopherols are also antioxidants, but with a lower antioxidant capacity as compared to tocotrienols. Tocotrienols (α, β, γ and δ) and α-tocopherol are naturally sourced from e.g. the palm fruit. Research have shown that high serum levels of tocotrienols and γ-tocopherol are correlated with a lower risk of getting Alzheimer’s disease and mild cognitive impairment . In addition, research shows that vitamin E (α-tocopherol) may benefit the memory in older people with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease .
Magnesium is essential for human health and supports hundreds of cellular reactions in our body . It is needed for bone health and proper function of brain, heart and muscles. Magnesium plays an important role in delaying signals between our brain and body. Magnesium ions (Mg2+) can bind to specific sites on the N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors. NMDA receptors are found on the nerve cells in the brain and are involved in healthy brain development, memory and learning. Magnesium ions act as gatekeepers for the NMDA receptors. This means that if your magnesium levels are low, fewer NMDA receptors are blocked and nerve cells might get overstimulated, which could kill them and cause brain damage .
Furthermore, Manganese is essential for healthy brain function. It is part of the powerful antioxidant enzyme superperoxide dismutase (SOD) and is one of the most important antioxidants in our body . It helps to protect against free radicals that could otherwise damage the brain cells in the neural pathway. In addition, manganese can bind to neurotransmitters and stimulate movement of electrical impulses throughout our body. This may result in improved brain function. While healthy levels of manganese are necessary for the brain function, too much of the mineral can have negative effects on the brain .
Your brain needs fat
Fat is very important for proper brain function, but the type of fat is not unimportant. The healthy fats help the brain function more efficiently.
The omega-3 fatty acids - eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) - are incredibly important for normal brain function and development throughout all stages of life . Furthermore, EPA and DHA might also improve the brain function in people with memory problems . The best way to get EPA and DHA is from fatty fish, fish oil and algae oil. The body can make EPA and DHA from another omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). ALA is found in foods such as chia seeds, flaxseeds, canola oil, soybeans and soybean oil. However, humans cannot convert ALA to EPA and DHA very efficiently: approx. less than 10 % of the consumed amount of ALA is converted to EPA or DHA .
Botanical extracts for brain health
These botanical extracts may help maintain good brain health:
Turmeric (Curcuma longa L.) is a perennial, rhizomatous, herbaceous plant native to the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. It has long been used in India’s Ayurvedic medicine and is a key ingredient in curry. The active ingredient in turmeric is curcumin. Research has shown that curcumin can boost levels of the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) . BDNF is a type of brain hormone, which increases the growth of new neurons . Furthermore, curcumin might fight various degenerative processes in the brain and enhance the memory [17, 18]. A long-term study from 2018 with daily intake of a bioavailable curcumin showed significant memory and attention benefits in non-demented adults. Furthermore, the research indicated that the symptom benefits are associated with decreases in accumulations of plaque in brain regions modulating mood and memory . Plaque build-up is associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
Ginkgo biloba (Ginkgo biloba L.) is a tree native to China, but it is widely cultivated and has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for about 1000 years. Ginkgo biloba has been shown to improve memory and mental processing in healthy elderly people [20, 21]. Ginkgo’s health benefits might come from its high antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. However, Ginkgo also increases the blood flow and may play a role in how neurotransmitters operate in the brain .
Bacopa monnieri (Bacopa monnieri) is a perennial, creeping herb native to India, Australia, Europe, Africa, Asia, and North and South America. It is used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine to improve memory and treat various ailments. Preliminary research indicates that Bacopa monnieri may improve cognition [23, 24]. The main nootropic constituents of Bacopa monnieri plant extracts are believed to be the triterpenoid saponins known as bacosides. Bacosides protect the brain from inflammation  and oxidative stress . Reduced oxidative stress improves signalling in the hippocampus, an area of the brain where memories are processed .
Panax ginseng (Panax ginseng), also known as Korean ginseng, is found in cooler climates such as the Korean Peninsula, Northeast China, and Russian Far East, Canada and USA. Roots of Korean ginseng have been used in traditional medicine for centuries. Ginseng is recorded to improve brain functions like memory, behaviour and mood [28, 29]. However, it is still unclear how Panax ginseng boosts brain functions. It might be due to its strong anti-inflammatory effects, which help to protect the brain from oxidative stress and enhance its function .
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera L.) is a short, perennial shrub belonging to the Solanaceae family. It is native to India, Nepal, China and Yemen. The plant has been used for centuries in traditional Ayurvedic medicine to boost memory. The main phytochemical constituents are the withanolides. Research indicates that ashwagandha have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that may protect nerve cells from harmful free radicals . There is only a small amount of human research conducted in this area. In one study, 20 healthy men took 250 mg ashwagandha extract (root and leaves) twice daily and reported significant improvements in their reaction time and task performance . Another study in 50 adults showed that taking 300 mg of ashwagandha root extract twice daily significantly improved general memory, task performance, and attention .
Green tea (Camellia sinensis) is made from the leaves and buds and has not undergone the same withering and oxidation process as for example black tea. Green tea originated in China, but its production and manufacture has spread to other countries in East Asia. Green tea contains caffeine, which is a known brain-boosting compound. Caffeine might affect the brain by blocking adenosine, an inhibitory neurotransmitter, and in this way increase the neuronal firing and the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine . Green tea also contains the amino acid L-theanine, which can cross the blood-brain barrier . L-theanine increases the activity of the inhibitory neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which has anti-anxiety effects and increases dopamine. Studies indicate that L-theanine has neuroprotective effects and might improve memory and learning [36, 37]. Research has also shown that caffeine and L-theanine can have synergistic effects, which means that the combination of the two has a higher effect on improving the brain function than caffeine or L-theanine alone . Furthermore, a human study showed that green tea might improve memory .
Gotu kola (Centella asiatica L. Urban) is an herbaceous, perennial plant native to the wetlands in Asia. Triterpenoids are the major components responsible for the medicinal activity of the Gotu kola plant. The plant has been used in traditional Ayurvedic, Chinese and Indonesian medicine to treat various conditions such as dermatitis, diabetes, cough, cataracts and other eye conditions, and to improve memory. A small study from 2016 indicates that Gotu kola may improve cognitive function in patients after a stroke . Preliminary studies have shown that Gotu kola has the ability to enhance memory and nerve function , which may give it potential in treating Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, one study has shown that extract from Gotu kola has some effect on protecting brain cells from toxicity. This might protect the cells from forming plaque associated with Alzheimer’s and have a positive effect on Alzheimer’s disease .
Red grapes (Vitis vinifera L.) - Resveratrol: The skin of red grapes and red vine contains the antioxidant resveratrol. Research indicates that resveratrol might prevent the deterioration of the hippocampus, an important part of our brain associated with memory . Animal studies have also indicated that resveratrol could improve memory and brain function [44, 45]. A study on healthy older adults reported that taking resveratrol improved memory performance .
Marigold (Calendula officinalis L.) - Lutein: Lutein is a carotenoid found in Marigold and in dark green, leafy vegetables, avocados, corn and eggs . It is mainly known for its eye benefits. Lutein and its isomer zeaxanthin are able to cross the blood–retina barrier and to accumulate in the macula of the eye. Here lutein and zeaxanthin can help to protect your eyes from harmful high-energy light waves like ultraviolet rays in sunlight and might reduce your risk for age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and cataracts. However, recent research also indicates that lutein is involved in brain development, cognitive performance and long-term brain health . Lutein is not naturally created in our body which is why supplements are required to get optimal amounts.
Berry extracts – Antioxidants: Bilberry, blueberry, blackcurrant and other deeply coloured berries have a high content of phytochemicals such as anthocyanins. They are known to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Antioxidants act against both oxidative stress and inflammation, conditions which may contribute to neurodegenerative diseases and brain aging . Interestingly, some antioxidants in blueberries are able to cross the blood-brain barrier and accumulate in the brain, and thereby help to improve the communication between brain cells . Furthermore, research indicates that blueberry may help memory in older adults with early memory decline .
Want to know more about our range of nutrients for brain health?
Getting a good night’s sleep is important for the brain
Sleep affects our overall health. A good night’s sleep is essential for feeling rejuvenated during the day. It helps our body and brain function and can improve our learning ability, memory, creativity and decision-making .
Some herb extracts may help us sleep better. For example extracts from plants such as valerian and hops contain the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA that promotes sleep by reducing neuronal excitability throughout the nervous system. Velvet bean (Mucuna pruriens) is another sleep-promoting plant. It contains L-dopa which the brain needs to produce dopamine, a neurotransmitter that has many brain-related functions such as mood, motivation, memory, and sleep regulation.
Read more about which ingredients can support sleep and improve sleep quality. in our paper ”Healthy Sleep - Getting enough sleep & improving sleep quality”.
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