What to know about supplements for the brain

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Many people take dietary supplements to help with brain function and health. However, scientific research does not always support the claims that supplement manufacturers make, and a person may wish to check with a doctor whether a certain product is safe to use.

Keep reading to learn about which supplements may benefit brain health, how to choose a product, and the risks to keep in mind.

Which supplements help the brain?

There is evidence to suggest that various supplements may benefit a person’s brain health, including omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidant supplements, and B vitamins.

Omega-3 fatty acids

Researchers often study omega-3 fatty acids — the main types of which are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) — to try to determine their potential benefits for brain health.

An older study identified an association between eating omega-3 fatty acids from fish and a reduced risk of impaired cognitive function in middle-aged individuals.

However, a 2010 studyTrusted Source concluded that DHA supplements did not slow cognitive decline in people living with mild-to-moderate Alzheimer’s disease compared with a placebo.

Additionally, a 2015 literature review concluded that although levels of DHA and EPA may be lower in people with neurodegenerative conditions, early evidence suggests that DHA may better serve older adults without neurodegenerative conditions.

Antioxidant supplements

An older 2012 animal study found that dietary antioxidants may provide benefits against cognitive decline resulting from aging.

The study found that there was a significant increase in reactive oxygen species (ROS) in the brain as the animals aged, causing oxidative stress, which experts believe contributes to age-related cognitive decline.

The authors noted that antioxidant supplements almost completely reversed the buildup of ROS in the brain.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA)Trusted Source recently ruled that one of the supplements used in this study, N-acetyl cysteine (NAC), is ineligible for dietary supplement marketing.

B vitamins

2016 reviewTrusted Source found that scientific studies into the benefits of B vitamins on brain health have mainly focused on three of the eight vitamins in this group — vitamins B6, B9, and B12.

It states that B vitamins are essential for every aspect of brain function and that high numbers of people in developed countries live with a vitamin B deficiency. This deficiency may have negative health consequences, such as impaired brain function.

This author concludes that people may benefit more from taking supplements that include the whole group of eight B vitamins than from concentrating on supplementing their diet with one or two specific B vitamins.

When taking brain supplements may help

A person may not need to take a brain supplement if they can get enough vitamins and minerals from their everyday diet. However, if this is not possible, they may benefit from taking a supplement.

For instance, people who follow a plant-based diet may be more likelyTrusted Source to experience a vitamin B12 deficiency, as this nutrient primarily comes from animal products.

A person can work with a doctor to find out whether they are deficient in any vitamins or minerals that may be particularly important for brain health.

FDA regulations on supplements

The FDATrusted Source does not review dietary supplements for their safety or effectiveness. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the manufacturers and distributors to ensure the safety of products before marketing them.

If a product contains a new ingredient, the FDA reviews the safety of the ingredient but not its effectiveness.

The FDA will stop the sale of supplements if they prove unsafe. They will also stop the sale of supplements that come with false or misleading health claims.

How to choose a product

The FDATrusted Source stipulates that supplementary products must adhere to labeling regulations and avoid claiming that they can treat, diagnose, prevent, or cure diseases. As such, supplement manufacturers cannot state, for example, that supplements can lower high cholesterol or treat heart disease.

When shopping for a supplement, a person can consider the following advice from the FDA:

  • Individuals can use noncommercial sites such as the FDA, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to find out about supplements instead of relying on information from sellers.
  • It is important to proceed with caution when looking at products that overpromise their effects, such as being better than a prescription drug or having no side effects.
  • People should recognize that although a product contains natural ingredients, this does not always mean that it is safe.
  • A person can ask a doctor or other healthcare professional for advice regarding the safety of a supplement they are considering and whether it will likely benefit them.
  • It is best to avoid taking supplements that claim to work instantly, promise miracle results, or make drug-like claims.

The Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) also warns that if a person takes a dietary supplement and experiences immediate or dramatic effects that resemble the effects of a drug, the supplement may not be safe.

Safety

The 2019 CRN Consumer Survey on Dietary Supplements reports that 77% of adults in the United States take dietary supplements.

2020 study investigated the validity of health claims about 12 dietary supplements that manufacturers were marketing for brain health and cognitive performance. The authors note that advertisements and product labels are sometimes deceiving, which could put people at risk of experiencing an adverse reaction.

They state that approximately 22% of users report one or more adverse events from taking supplements.

According to the FDATrusted Source, it may be dangerous to use supplements incorrectly, as many contain strong active ingredients that have biological effects on the body.

The FDA states that a person should avoid:

  • combining supplements
  • using supplements with prescription or over-the-counter (OTC) medications
  • replacing prescription medication with supplements
  • taking too much of a supplement, such as vitamin A, vitamin D, or iron

The organization also states that a person should contact a doctor about taking supplements before, during, or after surgery.

Pros and cons

Below are some pros and cons of supplements for a person to consider.

Pros

  • Supplements are widely available.
  • These products are convenient and often affordable.
  • There is some evidence suggesting that supplements promote good brain health.
  • A person can get the right amounts of essential nutrients if they find it difficult to get them through their diet.

Cons

  • Some supplements may interact with prescription or OTC medication.
  • Some supplements may have adverse effects before, during, or after surgery.
  • These products may sometimes contain unlisted ingredients.
  • Advertising and product labels may mislead individuals or overpromise effects.
  • A person may be able to get sufficient nutrients through their everyday diet and have no need for supplements.

When to see a doctor

A person may wish to contact a doctor if they are concerned about their cognitive health.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, there are 10 early warning signs that a person may be developing Alzheimer’s disease. These include:

  • memory loss that disrupts daily life
  • finding planning or solving problems hard
  • difficulty completing familiar tasks
  • confusion about times and places
  • difficulty understanding images, judging distances, or reading
  • problems with following or joining conversations and difficulties with vocabulary
  • losing possessions
  • difficulty making decisions and managing personal hygiene
  • withdrawing from work or social activities
  • changes in mood and personality

A person may wish to consider speaking with a neurologist if they have concerns about symptoms they are experiencing.

Summary

Many manufacturers produce supplements that they claim can benefit a person’s brain health. Researchers have extensively studied many of these supplements, such as omega-3 fatty acids and several B vitamins, to try to determine their effects on the brain. However, there is still not enough solid evidence to suggest that supplements have any significant positive effects on the brain.

Additionally, a person may be at risk of adverse health events from taking supplements due to inaccurate product labeling or misleading advertising.

As a result, if a person is concerned about their cognitive health or would like to explore taking supplements, they may wish to contact a doctor to discuss their symptoms and find out whether a supplement may be right for them.

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