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Tune Up Your Brain

If you have ever forgotten where you left your car keys or drawn a blank on a familiar name, you may have wondered if these “senior moments” were the first subtle signs of age-related memory loss.

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As we get older, our speed of processing information, and the efficiency of our short and long term memory naturally decline. It is also a fact that the brain regions dedicated to these functions actually shrink in size as we age. The aging brain also loses some of its ability to protect itself against inflammation and free radicals. This could certainly make you worry about losing your mental edge with each passing birthday.

However, these changes are not as dire as they may seem. Several years ago, researchers at Princeton University found new nerve cells being created in the brains of monkeys. According to their study, neurons are regenerated deep in the center of the brain. Once reborn, they move to other parts of the brain associated with higher mental functions, like the hippocampus, the major neural region associated with long-term memory storage. This study may have implications for human memory function. In other words, the aging human brain may be more resilient than we thought.

Smart Brain Supplements

Cognition and memory can be enhanced by a variety of herbs and nutrients that increase blood flow, support antioxidant levels in the brain and protect it from inflammation. Following are some of the most promising and effective.

Acetyl-L-Carnitine: Similar to the amino acid L-carnitine, acetyl-L-carnitine can protect the brain from neurotoxicity and oxygen deprivation. It also preserves the energy-producing mitochondria in brain cells. People without cognitive problems or memory loss can also benefit from acetyl-L-carnitine. During one recent study of 96 people over the age of 70, Italian researchers found that those taking acetyl-L-carnitine had less mental and physical fatigue. The supplement group also experienced a boost in cognition.

Alpha-Lipoic Acid (ALA): ALA is an antioxidant that has been researched as a treatment for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. Both fat- and water-soluble, ALA travels throughout the body and may protect cells by enhancing other detoxifying agents such as glutathione, which serves as an antioxidant in brain tissues. ALA also contributes to metabolic functions that affect the brain, including glucose metabolism. It is so effective that studies show it can halt the oxidative damage that occurs as our brains age. ALA also has the ability to recycle vitamins C and E, increasing their effectiveness. Additionally, there is preliminary evidence that combining alpha lipoic-acid with acetyl-L-carnitine provides enhanced antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and metabolic regulation in the brain, which, in turn, improves cognition.

B Vitamins: There is some evidence that this family of vitamins—particularly folic acid and vitamin B6—helps guard against age-related memory loss and dementia. Folic acid, with the aid of B6 and B12, may support memory by moderating homocysteine—an amino acid found naturally in the body that, in high amounts, is considered a significant risk factor for heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and dementia.

In a study of more than 1,200 people, French researchers found that those with homocysteine levels higher than 15 μmol/L had a risk of cognitive decline three times greater than people with lower levels, below 10 μmol/L.

Fish Oil. This is an excellent source of the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an essential fatty acid in the brain, necessary for neural integrity and function. In double-blind, randomized, controlled trials, accelerated cognitive decline and mild cognitive impairment were found to be related to lower tissue levels of DHA and another omega-3 fatty acid EPA, also found in fish oils. Supplementation with fish oil, however, improved cognitive function.

In one study conducted at Tufts University, higher dietary intakes and plasma concentrations of DHA were associated with low risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Among the large group of elderly Americans who took part in the nine-year Framingham Heart Study, those with the highest blood levels of DHA were about half as likely to develop dementia and had a 39 percent lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease than those with the lowest DHA levels.

Ginkgo Biloba: Perhaps the most well known memory-enhancing herb, ginkgo biloba boosts blood flow in the brain, destroys free radicals, and protects brain cells from premature death. One study of 262 adults found that those taking 180 mg of ginkgo for six weeks scored better on memory tests than those taking a placebo.

Huperzine A: Used to treat dementia and memory loss, huperzine A (HupA) inhibits acetylcholinesterase, an enzyme that degrades the neurotransmitter acetylcholine in the brain. HupA also lowers oxidative stress and reduces the death of brain cells caused by exposure to toxins.

Phosphatidylserine (PS): PS is an essential fatty acid that makes up part of every cell membrane in the body. In the brain, it helps cells effectively communicate with each other.

A number of double-blind trials have validated the ability of supplemental plant-derived PS to improve memory, learning, concentration, word recall, and mood in both middle-aged and elderly subjects suffering from age-related cognitive dysfunction. In one study, 425 elderly volunteers were given either 300 mg of PS or a placebo for six months. Researchers measured cognitive function at the end of the trial and found that the subjects in the treatment group had significantly higher memory and learning scores than those taking the placebo.

Turmeric: This curry spice is an excellent source of curcumin, a potent anti-inflammatory that reduces oxidative damage in the brain. Recent studies suggest that curcumin may also inhibit the formation and accumulation of amyloid plaque. Turmeric bolsters brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a signaling molecule involved in mood. In the Singapore National Mental Health Survey of the Elderly, which involved more than 1,000 people, researchers found that those who ate the most curcumin-rich curry had a significantly lower risk of cognitive impairment than those who rarely consumed it.

Vinpocetine: This extract from the seeds of the periwinkle plant rapidly passes through the blood-brain barrier where it increases circulation. Because vinpocetine increases cerebral blood flow, it may also help stroke victims.

One double-blind study divided 42 patients with chronic cerebral dysfunction into two groups. One group received 10 mg of vinpocetine three times a day for 30 days, followed by 5 mg three times daily for 60 days. The other group received a placebo. By the end of the trial, the patients on vinpocetine scored consistently better in all evaluations of the effectiveness of treatment.

Cocoa Enhances Mood and Brain Function

“Chocolate is a paradox—for many it’s a guilty pleasure, but it is more effective than antidepressants,” asserts medicinal plant expert Chris Kilham, author of several books on natural health including Medicine Hunting in Paradise, and a contributing columnist for FOX News Health. “The compounds in cocoa elevate serotonin and enhance a feeling of well-being,” says Kilham. “This is why many women are known to eat chocolate before their periods.”

Kilham continues, “The ancient Mayans drank cocoa in huge amounts. It was a mood alterer for them.” Cocoa contains anandamide, a cannabinoid, a member of the same family of psychoactive substances found in cannabis. In the case of chocolate, however, “the ‘mind-altering’ activity is entirely positive,” says Kilham. “It’s not just stimulation—your brain is being nourished by the phytonutrients in cocoa.”

Another mood-modifying compound in cocoa is PEA, or phenethylamine, which stimulates endorphins and potentiates the activity of dopamine, associated with the feeling of pleasure. PEA increases in the brain when we fall in love. “There’s is a reason why chocolate is considered a romantic gift, and not a bag of celery,” says Kilham. “Cocoa reproduces the feeling of being in love.”

Beyond boosting feel-good chemicals in the brain, cocoa has been linked to enhanced brain function. One recent study of 34 people ages 59 to 83 demonstrated the flavanols in cocoa increase blood flow to the brain. Those who drank a high-flavanol cocoa drink showed increased blood flow to brain by 8% after one week, and after two weeks by 10%. The researchers concluded that flavanols like those found in cocoa could play a promising role in treating brain conditions such as stroke and dementia.

Cocoa is available in supplement form, as well as powders. Kilham advises choosing cocoa that is not dutched (alkinalized), as this greatly reduces the phenolic compounds and antioxidant value. “Look for a pure product that’s certified organic,” says Kilham. Cocoa is safe in large amounts. However, Kilham recommends dosages of at least 2 capsules, a heaping tablespoon of powder added to a blender drink,
or half a dark-chocolate bar (look for bars with at least 70% cocoa content).

Exercise your Options

A growing body of evidence suggests that regular exercise—especially aerobic exercise—can have a positive impact on certain mental functions like memory and recall, concentration, decision-making and complex problem solving. A recent investigation showed that women who maintain a fit lifestyle as they age are more likely to have better clarity and acuity than their sedentary counterparts.

According to researchers at the University of Illinois, Urbana, exercise may slow the loss of brain tissue that naturally occurs starting in our 30s. The UI team examined MRI scans from 59 older adults, half of whom were assigned to an aerobic training group and half of whom were assigned to a toning and stretching control group. The neural tissue of those who participated in aerobic fitness was significantly denser than the participants in the control group. Apparently exercise doesn’t just help protect brain cells from deterioration, it may also enhance them. A recent meta-analysis by the University of Illinois’ Beckman Institute found that aerobic exercise boosts both the speed and sharpness of thought and the volume of brain tissue. As little as 50 minutes of brisk walking three times a week was found to have this brain-expanding effect.

aw good buys

Source Naturals Acetyl-L-Carnitine and Alpha Lipoic Acid supports neurons and cell membranes with a powerful antioxidant combination shown to enhance cognition and protect the aging brain.

Irwin Naturals Advanced Ginkgo Smart Maximum Focus and Memory helps you keep your memory keen with ginkgo, plus provides other brain boosters including choline for overall brain health and optimum functioning.

Solaray Cogni Clear combines a wide range of nutrients to help power-up brain function, including DHA; protective herbal antioxidants; and ginkgo, shown to support blood flow to the brain. Capsules are vegetarian.

Reserveage Organics Cocoawell Maximum Potency Cocoa from the rainforests of South America offers a rich source of brain nourishing flavanols and the health benefits of cocoa without the saturated fat or calories of chocolate.

Amerifit Brain Strong with DHA omega-3 fatty acid helps protect the brain against normal cognitive decline. Brain Strong contains life’s DHA, the only brand of DHA shown in a clinical study to improve memory.