Cognitive and memory concerns are a common issue in America (1). More than half of folks over 85 have some sort of cognitive concerns (2).
The real concern is that, to date, western medicine has found nothing to slow and stop the decline of normal mental clarity and memory. Researchers are realizing that certain cognitive issues may progress slowly over many years with numerous factors contributing to its development.
Some researchers are looking at botanical and natural supplements to support healthy cognitive function with age because they work on supporting numerous functions of the body at once rather than targeting only one biological pathway.
Keep reading to learn more about the botanicals used to support optimal brain health.
Cognitive and memory issues may be due to the wear and tear of normal nerve cell function in the neurons affecting thinking, recall and language skills, as well as the neurons that govern behavioral changes (3).
Neurons, which produce the brain chemical acetylcholine, can break connections with other nerve cells, impairing normal function. For example, common age-related nerve cell impairment in the hippocampus will cause occasional short-term memory issues, while nerve cell impairment in the cortex may cause occasional language skills and judgment decline (3).
Most Common Cognitive and Memory Theory
Advanced Glycation End Products (AGE’s) are the crosslinking, or sticking together, of proteins, beta cells and sugar (excess glucose) in the brain that are linked to nerve cell impairment.
A newly published review article examined the role of AGEs and oxidative stress in cognitive and memory concerns. Scientists found that advanced glycation end products were present in higher amounts in the biopsied brains of patients with cognitive and memory concerns. They also presented evidence that AGEs may form in the brain early in life (4).
A particularly dangerous form of AGE’s that have toxic effects against neurons has been found to accumulate in the region of the brain associated with memory and emotion. Furthermore, AGEs may promote the accumulation and cross-linking of sugars, plaque and proteins, which may be linked to nerve cell wear and tear as a result of the normal aging process (5).
Glycation is triggered by excess glucose circulating in the blood. While the brain is fueled by glucose, too much glucose can damage the brain. To protect the brain from excess glucose, an enzyme called the insulin degrading enzyme pulls the excess glucose away from the brain. The problem is that this same enzyme pulls normal levels of beta-amyloid plaque away from the brain as well. If the glucose is high, this enzyme is employed for sugar removal and is thus unavailable to remove the plaque that may build up in the nerve cells.
The problem is that it doesn’t take a lot of sugar to overwhelm the insulin degrading enzyme. Swedish researchers in 2006 found that even blood sugar levels on the high end of the normal range can overwhelm the insulin degrading enzyme. This can increase the risk of memory concerns later in life by 70% (6).
Botanicals Found to Support Healthy Cognitive Function and Memory
Omega 3 Fatty Acids – Fish oils with high concentrations of EPA and DHA support normal activity in brain nerve cells, and also make up and protect the nerve cells cell membrane.
Studies have found that people with the lowest levels of omega-3′s have a greater risk for cognitive concerns, and folks with high intake of omega-3’s have a lower risk for such concerns (7).
Omega-3’s have shown benefits in the very early stages of just moderate cognitive issues. Thus, it is best to take omega 3′s at the very first sign of forgetfulness or earlier (7).
Vitamin D – vitamin D3 at optimal levels in the blood is considered a neuro-hormone that has many documented benefits for the brain. In one study, people with the lowest levels of vitamin D had a 25% increased risk of mild cognitive and recall issues (8). Vitamin D has numerous benefits for brain health and cognitive function such as:
Protecting brain cells by supporting nitric oxide synthesis (8)
Stimulating the natural clearance of beta-amyloid cells (8)
Supporting healthy cognitive function (8)
Regulating brain cell calcium channels (8)
Regulating nerves cell growth factors (8)
Ashwagandha – This is perhaps one of the most well-known adaptogens in herbal medicine. An adaptogen is an herb that supports the body’s ability to cope with the ravages of stress. Ashwaganda has been shown to support healthy brain cell activity in the presence of oxidizing plaque cells in one study (9).
Ashwaganda was also found to support healthy acetylcholine levels, which are the nerve cells major brain chemical, by inhibiting a degrading enzyme called acetylcholinesterase (10).
Vitamin B-12 – According to Tufts University (11), B-12 deficiency affects at least 40% of the population, which is linked to high levels of homocysteine. Studies have shown that B vitamins can lower homocysteine levels and the buildup of beta-amyloid plaque. Cognitive and memory issues may be related to high levels of homocysteine (12).
A deficiency of B-12 has also been linked to the shrinking of the brain as a result of normal aging. Loss of brain size as a normal part of aging may be associated with occasional cognitive and mental concerns (13). Studies show that B-12 supplementation may return the brain to normal size and may support normal cognitive function (13).
Turmeric – The extract of turmeric, called curcumin has been shown to support healthy brain cell and mitochondrial function during toxicity exposure and advanced glycation end products (8).
Turmeric extracts may slow the process of beta-amyloid cells assembling into plaque, as well as destabilize plaque once it has formed (8). Also, as glucose levels rise in the blood, excess insulin production in the brain may be linked to memory and cognitive issues. Turmeric has been shown to support the healthy activity of insulin on the receptors in the brain, helping to maintain normal blood sugar levels in the brain (8). High levels of insulin in the blood have been shown to increase the risk of occasional cognitive concerns by 70% for folks over the age of 75 (6).
Clearly, support for healthy cognitive function starts early before the symptoms of memory lapse begin. Consider the strategies discussed in this article as tools to maintain brain health and nerve cell function.