The supplement industry is one of the largest, having an economic impact of roughly $4B in Arizona alone in 2020. An indication of a renewed focus on health and wellness by Americans, the danger lies in the lack of regulation on the industry, leaving manufacturers largely able to promote that their products provide benefits that have not been proven. The brain health sector is no different. Those looking for ways to maintain mental agility or prevent mental decline may have tried supplements like vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, and others. The question is- do they work?
Dietary supplements are not regulated as medications are, but rather under the umbrella of foods. Under existing law, the FDA can take action to remove products from the market, but the agency must first establish products are unsafe or marketed in a way that is misleading. As long as companies aren’t stating that supplements cure or reduce symptoms, etc. (claims which are only permitted for medications), they are generally allowed on the market.
We’ve previously shared how making sound dietary choices can benefit the body as a whole; including whole, plant-based foods (like in a Mediterranean diet) ensures that you are consuming foods that introduce essential vitamins and minerals like omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E, and B to your body. So wouldn’t supplements containing the same elements benefit us as well?
Not necessarily, but it’s not so much that the elements themselves “don’t work”. For example, studies done on omega-3 fatty acids have shown they prevent blood platelets from clumping together, which causes blood clots. This in turn supports brain function by helping lower the potential for ischemic strokes, which are caused by blood clots blocking arteries leading to the brain. Vitamins in whole foods (like dark, leafy greens, grains, and other plant-based foods) are also essential to bodily function, and you’d be hard-pressed to find any health provider that argued otherwise.
But, the question that remains unanswered is when it comes to your intake of such elements, do supplements further increase the benefit of what is gained from natural foods? Unfortunately, studies have not shown any proof that certain combinations, amounts, or other factors impact the benefit. To date, evidence from randomized clinical trials have also not shown that individual elements introduced to the body via supplements benefit brain health or function.
A word of caution
Apart from the uncertainty of what exactly may benefit brain function lies the unknown of what other ingredients may be included in supplements. As manufacturers only have to avoid stating their products cure or improve a symptom, guidelines for what is included in the product are generally flexible. It is not unheard of that supplements include ingredients that are dangerous in any quantity.
Some supplements may also interact with medications, causing serious harm to consumers. One often-shared example is that ginkgo biloba, an herb often hyped as able to improve memory, vascular and brain health, shouldn’t be paired with blood thinners, blood pressure medications, or certain antidepressants. More recent studies (read here), have also found that ginkgo biloba may actually increase the risk of stroke on top of not having any significant impact on memory.
Another example is vitamin E- there are recommendations floating around that doses higher than 400 IU should be taken on a daily basis. Yet, this is too much for those at risk for, or who have, cardiovascular disease and can actually increase the risk for prostrate cancer.
This is why it is so important to speak to your provider before taking any new medication (even over the counter products) or supplements.
Are there other ways to support brain health?
While it sounds like a great idea to take a pill that may benefit your health, being that supplements are not closely regulated, may conflict with other medications or health conditions, and have not been shown to actually provide the benefits manufacturers say they do- my recommendation is: try these proven ways to support your overall health and brain function instead.
While it is not yet established how (and if) certain elements, when introduced as supplements, may improve and protect brain function-research has shown that when introduced to your body via whole foods, certain elements most definitely make a difference.
These foods have been shown to promote overall vascular health (preventing heart disease and stroke, which are risk factors for memory and brain function):
- Swiss chard
- fatty fish (salmon, sardines)
- beans and lentils
- chia and flax seeds
Just glancing at that list, you’ve likely noticed that it includes several foods we’ve shared to also promote weight loss, lessen chronic pain symptoms, and generally support overall well-being. It’s just one more reason to eat a plant-based, whole food diet.
One large study estimated that one million cases of Alzheimer’s disease in the U.S. were due to a sedentary lifestyle. This has been proven several times, with additional studies showing that regular exercise- walking, strength training, yoga, or tai chi, to name a few ways- may delay cognitive decline (but not prevent it). The added benefit also lies in how exercise generally supports your health. Besides promoting brain health, physical activity helps maintain a healthy weight, improves mental/ emotional health, keeps your body limber and strong, and supports lung, heart, digestive, and other bodily functions.
Lack of FDA regulation over the supplement market can put consumers at risk. The absence of oversight can lead to consumers ingesting dangerous ingredients, consuming unhealthy amounts of vitamins and minerals, interactions with other medications, and no actual proven benefit. To avoid all the downfalls, I recommend instead of reaching for a bottle, eat healthy and keep active. Both are safe and proven ways to enhance brain health.