Cognition: “The mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses.” Truly, nature’s gift that keeps on giving. Until illness or age begin to take it away. Which, thankfully, can be slowed and even prevented.
Cognitive decline isn’t “natural”
We used to think that when it comes to cognition, age eventually takes its toll. It seemed natural.
But the number of years you’ve lived is irrelevant.
What’s relevant is how well you’ve lived them—how well you’ve defended yourself against a lifetime of exposure to toxins, stress, trauma, unhealthy food, and other threats.
Here’s a list of trusted, proven natural brain supplements to keep your wits about you.
A tree that lives for 2,500 years has something special going on. That’s the estimated age of a ginkgo tree in China. And that’s how long Chinese and Indian medicine have used its leaves to improve memory.
We recommend ginkgo for that reason, and also to:
- Protect and improve mental processing speed
- Relieve and reduce symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s
Numerous studies confirm that ginkgo does that and more.
In a six-month study, 31 patients over 50, with mild to moderate memory impairment, received either a ginkgo supplement or a placebo.
Ginkgo had a positive effect on cognitive function—response speed on computerized tests was significantly better than in the placebo group.
Another study concluded that ginkgo appears to stabilize, and often improve, cognitive performance of dementia patients, and to support short-term memory.
There’s a library full of similar data. Give ginkgo a try after consulting with your doctors. Dosage varies depending on what you’re treating.
Bring on the bacopa…the what?
You might know bacopa as waterhyssop. It’s another traditional healer, used centuries ago in India and China—and far more recently in the US and Europe. It’s a multi-talented tamer of cognition problems like Alzheimer’s disease, and a proven memory improver.
As with ginkgo, bacopa’s powers are well documented.
Healthy participants over 55 were given either bacopa or a placebo. Subjective memory assessments were performed at 12 weeks, along with tests for “delayed word recall memory” and “audio-verbal and visual memory.”
Bacopa significantly improved memory acquisition and retention. Added bonus: in the bacopa group, anxiety levels declined and heart rate decreased over time.
In another study, adults 45–65 were given a placebo or a 3-month supply of bacopa. The bacopa group was significantly better at retaining new information.
Rhodiola comes in from the cold
Rhodiola is found in the arctic regions of Europe, Alaska, and Asia. It’s long been used as a medicine throughout Europe. And it’s rumored to have been a staple of the cosmonaut diet since Russia first joined the “space race.”
As an “adaptogen,” it helps the body adapt to and resist physical, chemical, and environmental stress. It’s used to do everything from improve cognitive function to preventing liver damage to improving hearing and more.
A group of 56 young, healthy night-duty physicians was given rhodiola to test for its effect on their overall level of mental fatigue during night duty. The tests involved perceptive and cognitive functions, including:
- Associative thinking
- Short-term memory
- Calculation skills
- Ability to concentrate
- Speed of audio-visual perception
A statistically significant improvement in these tests was observed in the rhodiola group.
In another study, students, during a stressful exam period, were given rhodiola or a placebo for 20 days. Objective and subjective tests measured physical and mental performance before and after the period.
Results? The rhodiola group showed significant improvements in physical fitness, mental fatigue, and neuro-motor tests. Self-assessment of general well-being was also significantly better in the rhodiola group.
Omega-3s—essential fatty acids
Omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFA) are nutrients our bodies can’t make. We can get them only from food or supplements.
They’re not called “essential” for nothing, especially when we’re talking about cognitive decline. Numerous studies have found that:
- Older people with high blood levels of EFAs scored better on mental function tests than people with low levels
- Alzheimer’s patients have subnormal brain concentrations of the EFA known as DHA, which makes up about 40 percent of your brain and is, yes, essential for building cell membranes
- When Alzheimer’s patients were given omega-3 supplements for 6 months, they had improved markers for brain-damaging inflammation and for the disease itself
There’s also the issue of brain shrinkage. As you age, you can lose as much as 15 percent of your brain to any or all of these all too common threats:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Unmanaged stress
- Poor diet
- High blood pressure
- Being obese or even overweight
But, losing even 1 percent is the first stumble down a slippery slope. That’s why it’s vital to fight every good fight against brain shrinkage. That means a healthy diet, exercise, mental stimulation, like games and crosswords, social activity, healthy sleep, and avoiding the predisposing factors above.
These behaviors are every bit as “essential” as EFAs. But let’s face it—the degree to which most people faithfully follow these good practices is pretty variable.
That’s one reason why we recommend omega-3s in supplement form. It’s so easy to make them part of your routine—just 3 swallows of water or juice per day and you’re on the road to better health.
Fish are a good source of omega-3s. But you have to be careful. It’s hard to find wild caught fish from uncontaminated waters these days. For that reason, limit fish consumption to 2–3 servings per week.
To ensure an adequate supply of omega-3s, we recommend EFAs from marine oil, like krill or calamarine squid, that’s sustainable, distilled to remove toxins and heavy metals, and contains my preferred ratio of DHA to EPA (2.5 to 1).
Go with 1,250–1,500 milligrams of EPA and DHA per day, after consulting with your doctors.
Vitamin D3—a fair weather friend that needs help
The “sunshine vitamin” has earned a proud reputation for its ability to keep your bones healthy, regulate your immune system, reduce high blood pressure, and much more.
But there’s still more good news.
Vitamin D deficiency can play a significant role in cognitive decline, generally, and Alzheimer’s, specifically. Over the five years of a recent study, people with low levels of vitamin D lost major thinking skills 2.5 times faster than people with adequate vitamin D levels.
One of the skills lost was episodic memory—our life story, our who, when, where, why, and how. Witnessing this loss in a loved one is a heartbreaker like no other.
Also lost—executive function, the skills that help us manage our days—setting goals and planning how to meet them, for example.
A link between these losses and brain shrinkage isn’t confirmed, but I suspect it will be.
One sure source of vitamin D is sunshine. We absorb the sun’s UVB rays into the skin and use them to convert cholesterol into vitamin D. But keep it safe—no more than 20 minutes a day of direct sun exposure. Then sunscreen, move into shade, or cover up with light, loose-fitting clothes.
But from October to May, the sun’s rays aren’t strong enough in most parts of the country, for us to make vitamin D. Aging also slows our ability to produce the vitamin.
Eating more vitamin D-rich foods helps intake stay adequate—wild-caught salmon, mackerel, tuna, sardines—but 2–3 times a week only. Free-range meats, egg yolks, and canned fish also help.
If you’re not sure about the vitamin D content in your daily diet, a vitamin D3 supplement is a sure-fire solution. Make sure you get your doctor’s signoff and recommended dosage before trying that.
Take good care.
Last Updated: September 4, 2019
Originally Published: May 10, 2017