The most commonly known supplements are Omega-3s, Vitamin E, Gingko and Turmeric.
Omega-3s: The MIND diet, a nutrition plan developed for the prevention of dementia, was developed over a more than 20-year study of thousands of individuals. The MIND diet does recommend a weekly serving of Omega-3 rich foods such as salmon. In particular, the Omega-3 fatty acid DHA is believed to be most associated with brain health. However, it is not known if ingesting Omega-3 supplements is as beneficial as ingesting Omega-3s directly from food.
Vitamin E: Although vitamins, particularly Vitamin E, are an important part of a brain healthy diet, these same benefits are not linked to taking vitamin supplements. Research has found an advantage to eating leafy green vegetables and ingesting other Vitamin E rich foods. One reason may be that Vitamin E supplements contain alpha tocopherol, but not gamma tocopherol. In studies, foods with the highest amount of gamma-tocopherol were linked to the lowest brain pathologies. This is the primary reason the MIND diet recommends at least six servings of leafy green vegetables each week.
Gingko biloba: There is not enough evidence available to suggest gingko biloba is effective in reducing or preventing dementia. Some studies have found little to no improvement from ingesting Gingko biloba. A 2016 study summarized the findings of 21 different Ginkgo biloba studies involving 2,608 people. This found potentially positive benefits to brain health in people with Alzheimer’s disease or mild cognitive impairment (MCI). However, this is considered a relatively small sample size and the different studies examined had inconsistent findings. More research is needed to determine the effectiveness, side effects, and safety of gingko supplements.
Curcumin (Turmeric): There is not enough data available to support the use of curcumin for treating or preventing dementia. There was one study in 2016 of 96 people that found curcumin had a limited influence on cognitive decline. The researchers concluded additional, longer studies involving much larger populations are needed to determine curcumin’s possible effectiveness.
Probiotics: There is recent research into the area of bacteria in the digestive system and how this bacteria can affect the health of the entire body, including the brain. However, probiotic supplements generally offer one or two strains of bacteria, which is typically considered not enough types of bacteria to increase the diversity of bacteria in the gut.
The Importance of Gut Health
Here’s what we do know about gut health: The gut (our digestive tract) is a fairly new area of medical research. There are at least 1,000 species of bacteria in an individual digestion system. Researchers are examining the role these bacterial cells play in keeping the body healthy.
A 2016 study at University of Wisconsin-Madison looked at the relationship the gut can play with brain health. The study analyzed stool samples of 25 people with Alzheimer’s disease and samples from 25 people without Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers were able to determine the people with Alzheimer’s disease had fewer types of bacteria - what’s called bacterial diversity - than the control group. A similar lack of bacterial diversity has been found in samples from people with obesity, diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease. It’s believed this range of bacteria diversity may play a role in body and brain health. Researchers believe the strength of that relationship is still vastly unknown, but that a healthy diet can be beneficial to both promoting higher levels of bacteria in the gut and to promoting body and brain health.
Dietary Supplements and Over-the-Counter Medications
When considering taking an over-the-counter medication or alternative therapy, consider these factors: the FDA does not regulate the marketing of dietary supplements; these therapies do not have to meet the standards that prescription medications must meet for FDA approval; and there are not regulations overseeing the purity of dietary supplements. Dietary supplements and over-the-counter medications can also have potential side effects or interactions with prescription medications. It’s important to talk to a doctor before taking supplements or other over-the-counter medications.