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Brain Foods: Supplements & Vitamins

By Betty Holt

Brain function is influenced by nutrition. Certain conditions and diseases of aging are found in people with low levels of specific nutrients. By adding vitamins and supplements to the diets of healthy people, the onset of some age-related diseases could possibly be slowed or avoided altogether.

The Brain

The human brain is a complex organ that controls our body while receiving, analyzing and storing information. Because of the brain, we can think, feel, see, hear, taste, smell and move. The average human brain, which weighs about 3 pounds, is composed of 40 percent gray matter and 60 percent white matter. Averaging only 2 percent of the body's weight, the brain uses 20 percent of the oxygen supply and 20 percent of the blood flow. The brain and spinal cord compose the central nervous system, which is quite fragile and needs protection from being infected with disease or damaged. The blood-brain barrier protects the brain from the intrusion of chemicals from the rest of the body.

Deficiencies and Disease

Although the precise causes of Alzheimer's disease, a form of dementia, are unknown, research into the disease reveals the influence of some vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Alzheimer's patients tend to have low levels of B-12 and zinc. B vitamins are necessary for cognitive functioning. The antioxidant vitamins A and E are also low in Alzheimer's patients. Antioxidants act a free radical scavengers to help repair oxidative damage. Deficiencies of selenium, potassium and boron have also been noted. The Alzheimer's Association explains that eating a healthy diet will help you get adequate intake of these essential brain vitamins, along with other nutrients you need for their proper absorption.

Attention Deficit Disorder, characterized by inattention and hyperactivity, is more prevalent in people lacking sufficient essential fatty acids. Adequate protein is necessary to make neurotransmitters in the brain from amino acids. Children with ADHD are often lacking in the amino acid L-glutamine, a precursor of GABA, a calming neurotransmitter.

Brain Foods, a site for people over the age of 60, recommends drinking at least ten glasses of water a day, noting that dehydration raises stress hormone levels and can cause serious brain damage. Next is fish, which contains the omega-3 fatty acid, DHA. Omega-3 fatty acids are also found in walnuts, pumpkin seeds and flax seeds. A lack of omega-3s has been linked to diminished intellectual performance and dementia. Fruits and vegetables rich in antioxidants help scavenge free radicals. Berries, spinach, brussel sprouts, broccoli, beets, avocados, red bell peppers, cherries and kiwis are also on the list.

Complex carbohydrates, which provide energy and fuel the brain, are found in whole grains and starchy vegetables and fruits. Green tea slows the build-up of amyloid plaque deposits in the brain and helps mental alertness. Eggs are rich in choline, a B vitamin shown to enhance memory and minimize fatigue. Lesser known nattokinase comes from fermented soybeans and facilitates blood flow throughout the body.


Gary Null, author of "Power Aging," recommends B vitamins for energy and hormone production. He notes that higher intake of vitamins A, C, E, and B complex are related to better performance on abstraction and visuospatial tests. Null further cites an article in "Archives of Internal Medicine" that concludes memory problems and neuropathy are improved with B-12 injections or supplementation.

Null also notes a study conducted by researchers in the division of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of California concerning acetyl-L-carnitine and alpha-lipoic acid in aging rats. When taken together, they improved performance on memory tasks by improving mitochondrial function and lowering oxidative damage.


Life Extension recommends the following supplements to enhance healthy brain function. Vinpocetine, an extract from the periwinkle plant, has been used throughout the world to treat cognitive deficits due to normal aging. Gingko biloba has shown specific actions that counter age-related vascular disorders. A large-scale study reported in the "Journal of the American Medical Association" found that gingko improved cognitive performance and social functioning in early Alzheimer's patients. Other research points to its function in preserving cognitive function in healthy people. Phosphatidylserine, an extract from soy, plays an important role in maintaining the integrity of brain cell membranes, thereby helping the transport of energy-producing nutrients into the cells. CoQ10, given in moderate amounts, produced profound anti-aging effects in the brain.

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