What’s the best defense for your brain: supplements or food?

Enlightened Eater Facebook fan Alison Smiley: I’m in a Facebook support group for people with dementia-related diseases and their loved ones.  A piece from you debunking some of the junk science and separating it from the good science with regard to food & dementia would be great.

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Alison, with our aging population, the brain-nutrition connection is now becoming even more of a hotbed of research than before.  You’re not alone in trying to sort through the fact  from fiction. People are not only seeking treatments for their loved ones suffering from age-related dementia and Alzheimer’s disease but also prevention strategies for themselves.

While many nutritional supplements aimed at defending against cognitive decline in healthy people like gingko biloba or popular superfruit extracts may be brisk sellers, the benefits may only be reaped by those who pocket the proceeds. Much of the science behind these elixirs is lacking.

In fact, the latest research on gingko biloba gives the supplement  a thumbs down on the prevention of Alzheimer’s. The research looked at the long-term use of a ginkgo biloba extract using a randomized placebo-controlled trial. This type of study, often considered to be the gold standard of research,  means that the subjects were randomly placed in either the group receiving the supplement or in one where a placebo was given.

The research involved more than 2800 participants, over the age of 70, with complaints of  memory problems.  One group was given a standardized dose of 120 milligrams of ginkgo biloba while the other, a placebo.  Over the five-year follow up,  61 participants in the ginkgo group were diagnosed with probable Alzheimer’s disease compared with 73 participants in the placebo group – not a significant difference.

There were also no differences between the two groups when it came to other adverse effects. Both groups had similar death rates and stroke incidence.

It’s interesting to note that the research was funded by the makers of a ginkgo biloba supplement.

Vitamin E supplements have also been popular as a weapon against the development of Alzheimer’s but research is pointing towards food sources rather than supplements. When you pop a vitamin E supplement, you’re likely taking in the compound alpha tocopherol which is just one of the eight forms of the vitamin. That’s often the case even if you’re taking a natural, versus synthetic, form of vitamin E.

Tocotrienols are also part of the vitamin E family and together with a mix of tocopherols, may offer a more potent arsenal in fighting off cognitive decline.

The scientific evidence is pointing to what’s on your plate rather than in a supplement bottle as a better defense against cognitive decline.

Next up: Enlightened eating for brain health
Do you have a relative with diminished cognitive function? Are you concerned about maintaining your brain health? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Categories: Your Questions Answered

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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9 Comments on “What’s the best defense for your brain: supplements or food?”

  1. January 1, 2013 at 11:30 pm #

    Well, there are too many researchers who really try to solve out the problem on how Alzheimer and Dementia’s patient can get through of it. But, I do see right now is all we can do right now is to slow the process of forgetting memories.

  2. January 4, 2013 at 1:11 am #

    “The scientific evidence is pointing to what’s on your plate rather than in a supplement bottle as a better defense against cognitive decline” I couldn’t agree on any further. Nothing can replace proper nutrition, good exercise and enough rest. Brain supplements as they are, are only supplementary in essence and may or may not work for everyone else.

    • January 7, 2013 at 9:03 pm #

      Thanks for your comments! I heartily agree. Unfortunately some sellers of supplements would like people to believe that supplements are the answer rather than an addition, as you say, to healthy eating.

  3. May 1, 2013 at 8:29 pm #

    Very nice article. I certainly love this website.
    Keep writing!

    • May 2, 2013 at 3:57 am #

      Thank you for your feedback! It is very much appreciated!

  4. Gary Sebastiano
    June 4, 2013 at 8:03 pm #

    I think two 1200 mg of fish oil capsules, morning and evening may help. I have my share of aches and pains and small signs of memory loss, but still get along ok. I been taking it for roughly 15-20 years.

    • June 7, 2013 at 11:59 am #

      Thanks for your comments, Gary! That’s a lot of fish oil- if I’m reading right. What about eating omega-3 rich fish? I hope you’re also eating a variety of antioxidant-rich options too as research shows maintaining cognitive function is about decreasing both oxidation and inflammation.

      • Gary Sebastiano
        June 7, 2013 at 3:13 pm #

        1 in the morning and 1 in the evening, 2 a day. sorry

      • June 7, 2013 at 4:07 pm #

        Thanks for the clarification, Gary! That’s a very different dosage!

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