Are brain boosters worth it?
You get in the car, start driving, and forget where you’re headed. You can’t recall the name of a book you just read; you blank on the name of a good friend. Synapse-lapses are standard as we age, with causes ranging from stress to medication side effects to vitamin deficiencies, according to the Brain Institute at Oregon Health and Science University.
Products with names like True Focus, Memoprove, and Cognitex promise to sharpen the mind. What are they exactly? Each mental-energy formula, in pill or powder form, has its own blend of vitamins, plant extracts, and amino acids. As Oz Garcia, nutritionist to Gwyneth Paltrow and Heidi Klum, says of his supplement, Brain Enhancement, “The formulation was developed with micronutrients that help supply blood flow to the brain and support the functioning of neurotransmitters.” Neurotransmitters relay information throughout the brain and body and are responsible for concentration and memory.
Another common ingredient is an amino acid called DMAE, which aims to improve mood and increase production of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that benefits overall brain function. Choline, which forms acetylcholine, is also key element in Garcia’s blend—and of interest in medical circles. Christina Williams, MD, a behavioral neuroscientist at Duke University, found that choline supplementation during pregnancy has long-lasting effects on the memory of offspring.
Another goal of these brain formulas is to replenish vitamin levels that decline as we age—especially B and D. They also strive to combat stress with coenzyme Q-10, which helps prevent inflammation. Many of the supplements contain some sort of stimulant, as well—usually caffeine, green tea or guarana—and Chinese herbs, such as ginkgo biloba. Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s safe. Gingko, for example, isn’t for everyone, says New York nutritionist Pati Smith. “If you’re taking a blood thinner or aspirin, steer clear of gingko or any other nutrients that increase blood flow. You don’t want to risk a bleed in the brain.”
Most medical professionals advise caution in general. Gad Marshall, MD, assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, warns that dietary supplements don’t require FDA approval. "There are a lot of things out there for which we have no data on whether they are safe or do anything to help," says Marshall." Plus, these brain pills can get pricey: anywhere from $20 to $60 per bottle for a 30- or 60-day supply.
If you pass on the pills, there’s always the option of getting your nutrients the old fashioned way: eating them. Marshall says there’s no better diet for the brain than the Mediterranean one. Fish, beans, soy, olive oil, and eggs are full of phospholipids, critical to brain cell function. Nuts and seeds are also high in Vitamin E, which has been shown to help with memory. Salmon and other deep-water fish give you Omega 3’s, reputed to boost brain health. The anthocyanins (pigments) responsible for the deep color in blueberries are associated with improving memory, says Rebecca Katz, author of The Longevity Kitchen.
And if you want to make sure your brain keeps firing on all cylinders into old age, a little booze might help. A new study, published in the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dimentias, found that moderate alcohol consumption after age sixty may actually improve memory by promoting new nerve cells and encouraging the release of chemicals related to cognitive functions. Now that’s something to remember.