Have you noticed your memory is not quite as reliable as it once was? You’re not alone, and you’re not imagining things. Most adults lose 1 to 2 percent of their memory capacity every year.
This phenomenon, known as age-associated memory impairment (AAMI), has no connection to a specific disease or condition and should not be confused with Alzheimer’s disease. It affects nearly 6% of the total population and 18.5% of people over age 50. With advancing years, this number climbs higher; about 40% of those between ages 60 and 78 show signs of AAMI.
While memory loss may be more common in older people, age is only one of many causal factors. The picture gets more complicated when we consider that nearly everything – including genes, environment, diet, lifestyle, health status and even the medications we take – affects how well our brain works from infancy to old age. We can’t change our genetic inheritance, nor can we completely eliminate exposure to environmental toxins, but we can do something about many of the other factors that influence brain function.
Getting enough sleep tops the list of things we can do to support brain cell repair. Keeping stress manageable within limits is also essential for mental clarity and healthy function.
Healthy eating is another critical ingredient for maintaining healthy brain cells and brain function. Research has shown that we may be able to improve energy efficiency, reduce free radical damage and prevent cellular degeneration by making dietary changes and taking nutritional supplements, especially antioxidants.
Bad habits wreak havoc on brain health. Too much alcohol, smoking cigarettes or marijuana, and hard drugs are toxic to brain cells. These effects increase over time. As we get older, our bodies are less able to detoxify alcohol and other substances, and our brain cells have less capacity to repair damage and bounce back to normal.
The good news is that herbs, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and nootropics (substances that support brain cell functioning) have the potential to prevent, delay and, in many cases, reverse damage to neurons.
The Rhodiola Revolution
Richard P. Brown, MD and Patricia L. Gerbarg, MD
Rodale Press, 2004
Nutritional supplements help us maintain our energy, and reduce our chances of getting sick. Most of us don’t get everything we need from the foods we eat. Taking supplements can help ensure our bodies get a full complement of essential nutrients.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are included in the group of polyunsaturated fatty acids that are necessary to maintain fluidity of cell membranes, enzyme activity and production of the molecules involved in modulating inflammation. Omega-3s are also important in antioxidant defense against neuronal damage from free radicals, preserving brain, nerve and eye functions, as well as lowering risk of high cholesterol, cardiovascular disease and cancer. Good sources of Omega-3s include salmon and trout, walnuts, and dark, green vegetables.
B Vitamins, Folate and Homocysteine
B vitamins are necessary for maintenance of cell membranes and production of antioxidants in our bodies. Deficiencies have been associated with abnormalities of mood, memory and cognitive function. Homocysteine and high folate concentrations are also associated with better cognitive performance.
SAMe is crucial for maintaining energy metabolism, as well as integrity and fluidity of nerve membranes, synthesis of neurotransmitters. It contributes to more than 100 biochemical reactions in every cell of the body. SAMe plays a supportive role in maintaining cellular energy, protecting against free radical damage, repair of damaged cells, production of essential neurotransmitters, proteins and antioxidants. It has been shown to be a highly effective treatment for depression, arthritis and liver disease.
Picamilon contains the inhibitory neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and vitamin B3. It increases cerebral blood flow by decreasing cerebral blood vessel tone. Picamilon can be beneficial in particular with decreased alertness, anxiety and depression.
Acetyl-l-carnitine (Alcar) increases energy production in the mitochondria of our cells. In those with traumatic brain injury (TBI) and cardiovascular disease, it is found to often improve energy and cognitive function within two weeks. It has been shown to improve reaction time, memory and cognitive performance.
Adaptogens are plants containing bioactive compounds that act as metabolic regulators. An adaptogen increases resistance against multiple stressors (biological, chemical, physical), normalizes physiology and does not disturb normal body functions more than necessary to improve stress resistance. Combining adaptogens can create a synergistic effect on stress response and significantly improve intellectual and physical performance and endurance under stress.
Rhodiola rosea, an adaptogenic herb, is one of the best CAM treatments for both mental and physical fatigue. Rhodiola enhances energy metabolism and increases the capacity of the mitochondria to produce energy-rich compounds in the brain, as well as in the muscles, liver and blood. Rhodiola was found to protect every organism tested - from snails to humans - against physical and mental stresses, fatigue, heat, cold, toxins and radiation.
Ginseng (Panax, Korean)
Another adaptogen, ginseng root, has been used as traditional medicine in China, Korea and Japan for thousands of years. It is now used worldwide. Studies have shown ginseng’s beneficial effects on cardiovascular diseases, cancer, immune deficiency and liver toxicity. It also has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and immune-stimulatory properties.
Herbs can enhance cognition and memory through a variety of mechanisms, including maintaining fluidity of cell membranes and antioxidant defenses.
The mechanisms underlying gingko’s benefits include increasing blood supply by dilating blood vessels, modifying neurotransmitter systems and reducing free radicals. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) uses gingko biloba to treat cerebral vascular diseases and Alzheimer’s.
Nootropics are agents with cognitive enhancing and neuroprotective benefits. It is believed that this occurs through free radical scavenging, increasing antioxidants, improving membrane fluidity and neurotransmitter levels and improving function of mitochondria, the energy-producing part of the cells. Data suggests that nootropics work better when combined with vitamins and minerals.
Centrophenoxine (Meclofenoxate, Lucidril) and BCE-001
Centrophenoxine has therapeutic effects in cerebral atrophy, dementia and traumatic brain injury (TBI). It has been shown to deliver significant improvements in memory, cognitive function and behavior.
BCE-001 is a nootropic drug currently in phase IV testing.
Selegiline (L-Deprenyl, Eldepryl, Emsam, Jumex)
Selegiline has been used as a prescription antidepressant in the United States. Evidence suggests that it improves mitochondrial function in the brain by reducing production of free radicals. Selegiline may help slow neurodegenerative changes of aging, neurological disease and traumatic brain injury.
Traditional neurotherapy (neurofeedback or EEG biofeedback) trains people to become aware of and influence their state of alertness based on EEG-driven feedback. This method of operant conditioning requires following instructions and actively cooperation during many treatments over a period of months.
The low frequency neurotherapy system (LENS) is a short, painless procedure requiring minimal cooperation, and readily tolerated even by young children. LENS has been successful in significantly reducing symptoms of ADHD, PTSD, mental fatigue, chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia and traumatic brain injury (TBI), including those with seizures.
The book How to Use Herbs, Nutrients & Yoga in Mental Health is a comprehensive resource for learning about CAM treatments, their applications and how to find quality products.
How to Use Herbs, Nutrients & Yoga in Mental Health
Richard P. Brown, MD, Patricia L. Gerbarg, MD, Philip R. Muskin, MD
W.W. Norton & Company, 2009
Dr. Richard Brown discusses the value of nutrients, including Rhodiola rosea in maintaining brain health and memory. He also speaks on the research on Rhodiola.
Dr. Gerbarg enumerates factors leading to memory decline and nutrients to combat it.