‘If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t.’ – Emerson M Pugh. This article attempts to explain how this complex and precious organ works and suggests how we can keep it working optimally.
The human brain is one of the largest organs in the body, weighing about 1.4 kg. It contains 100 billion or more neurons and at least 10 times that number of glial cells. The glial cells make up the mass of the brain tissue, which consists of protein and fatty tissue with the cell membranes consisting of essential fatty acids.
The brain is so active that it requires a constant and substantial amount of oxygen, and under normal circumstances it receives about 15% of the blood pumped through the body by the heart. It quickly malfunctions if insufficient oxygen is available. It also requires large amounts of glucose and utilises about 75% of the body’s intake of sugar. This may account for sugar addiction and why we crave sweet goodies when we need to perk up. In the absence of sugar the brain can also use ketones as a source of energy. Ketones are found in fats such as coconut oil which is why people on a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet don’t have a problem with energy. Recent research has shown that adding extra coconut oil to a conventional Mediterranean diet will boost ketones and improve brain function. Alzheimer’s disease can be partly reversed by the consumption of coconut oil.
The brain is surrounded by three tough protective connective tissue membranes filled with cerebrospinal fuid, which help absorb shocks to the head, and is protected to some extent against toxic substances by a blood-brain barrier that restricts their passage from the blood into the brain.
For all its solid appearance, the brain is a hive of activity with information being processed in a most remarkable way. Each of the billions of neurons in the brain can form hundreds of synapses, producing a web-like connecting network along which messages flow throughout the brain and down the spinal cord. The neurons in the brain and nervous tissue connect via these synapses. At each synapse there is a small gap, across which chemicals called neurotransmitters carry the message. These chemicals may cause excitation or inhibition. The synapse is important because it allows an enormous amount of creativity and change to happen. Imagine the electrical activity sweeping through the brain from millions of neurons fi ring simultaneously, and what it would be like if each and every message was carried along without any possibility of stopping the process! At the synapse change can occur and new information can be acquired.
I have described all the above firstly because it is so fascinating but also to highlight the fact that the brain is a complex and active organ and as such requires a range of nutrients to keep it healthy. In most cases brain cells die off over a person’s lifetime, so that by the time one reaches 70 years of age the brain will have shrunk by 10%. It is also vulnerable to a variety of agents that can cause disruption of its functions and even serious diseases.
AGENTS OF BRAIN DYSFUNCTION
The possible health risks of electromagnetic radiation exposure from cell phones, computers and other electronic devices are beginning to surface in the scientific press.
Aluminium and other metals
There is increasing evidence that some metals, particularly aluminium and mercury, have a deleterious effect on brain tissue and may account for the increasing incidence of brain degeneration.
In an article published in the Archives of Neurology, researchers noted a 200% increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease in patients with elevated homocysteine levels. Homocysteine seems to contribute to the blockage of small blood vessels in the brain, causing a vascular dementia.1 Homocysteine levels may increase if there is deficiency of folic acid or vitamin B12.
Consuming healthy nutrients, exercise, good food choices and stimulating the brain can all play a part in reversing some of the process of brain ageing. Besides a good supply of vitamins and antioxidants, the brain also requires an adequate amount of friendly fats in the form of omega-3 fatty acids, flaxseed and phospholipids (choline, DMAE, lecithin, phosphatidylserine).
All the above are key precursors for acetylcholine, a key chemical neurotransmitter in the brain and also important for the maintenance of receptor sites for neurotransmitters. Eggs and fish are major sources of choline, followed by liver, soy beans, peanuts and other nuts. Lecithin is a good source of phosphatidylcholine, which is able to cross the blood-brain barrier more easily than choline.
Essential fatty acids
A large proportion of the brain consists of fats in the form of phospholipids. Bound into these lipids is a high percentage of omega-3 fatty acids. The recommended dose is 500 to 1 000 mg of EPA and DHA per day.
In a landmark study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, subjects with Parkinson’s disease were given vitamin E, a drug for Alzheimer’s disease, both or a placebo for two years of the study. Those taking vitamin E appeared to do better than those on the prescription medication.2 Clearly more studies need to be done.
This is one of the most popular herbal remedies in Germany and France. In a placebo- controlled double-blind study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, 200 patients with Alzheimer’s disease were evaluated over a one-year period. Over the year the control group that did not receive gingko showed a progressive decline in mental function, while the group receiving Gingko actually improved.3
Ginkgo improves the blood supply to the brain and also has antioxidant properties, reducing damage to the brain from free radicals.
Bacopa monnieri, also known as Brahmi, is an ancient Ayurvedic herbal medicine known to improve memory, learning and concentration; it also enhances cognitive function in the elderly as well as relieving stress and anxiety.
Research has shown that Bacopa monnieri may enhance memory, speed of recall and improve overall learning in children aged 10 to 19.4
Studies suggest that Bacopa monnieri significantly improves memory in older people5 and research is ongoing to determine its potential as a treatment for managing memory neurological disorders including Alzheimer’s disease.6
This is another very powerful antioxidant, which passes through the blood-brain barrier and protects neurons from oxidative damage. Lipoic acid also ‘chelates’ heavy metals and facilitates their excretion from the body.
Our understanding of the role of vitamin D in the body has expanded enormously within the past few years, so much so that vitamin D has become recognised as a necessary supplement for many conditions. This is especially important for people who do not have much exposure to sunlight, such as individuals who work indoors all day, people in old-age homes, children and adults who cover their bodies with sunscreen, and people confined to bed for long periods. Vitamin D deficiency can cause mood disorders and cognitive impairment in the elderly. Vitamin D receptors are located throughout the brain, so it is not surprising that a good dose of sunshine or vitamin D contributes to brain health.
This is another important antioxidant, but it is also intimately involved in the function of mitochondria and the production of adenosine triphosphate so necessary for the energy to drive metabolism. The statins used to lower cholesterol not only block cholesterol production but also co-enzyme Q10 production and catecholamines. The latter are important for memory, which is why memory loss can be a side-effect of taking statins. Co-enzyme Q10 itself probably plays an important role in slowing degenerative conditions of the brain.
Acetyl-L-carnitine is able to cross the blood-brain barrier more effectively than carnitine, appears to prevent deterioration of the brain during stress, and helps the ageing brain function better. It works together with co-enzyme Q10 to provide the brain with energy and increases the level of acetylcholine, an important messenger molecule. Acetyl-L-choline protects against the loss of receptors on the brain cells and is therefore very important in the brain’s communication system. The recommended dose is 250 to 1 000 mg per day.
A member of the phospholipid family, an essential component of the brain, phosphatidylserine is also known as the memory molecule. A group of elderly persons with age-associated memory impairment were found to have good improvement in memory after 12 weeks of taking the supplement.7 Like acetyl-L-carnitine it supports cellular communication and can therefore improve not only memory but learning and concentration.
This vitamin helps to decrease the brain-damaging amino acid homocysteine and supports the health of myelin, the protective insulating coat around the nerves.
It is possible to slow down and even reverse the mental deterioration that occurs with ageing. While supplements are important, don’t forget about checking out lifestyle factors that do not support good brain health. Eating fish three times a week or adding omega-3 fatty acids to your diet will be valuable. Lecithin (a heaped dessertspoonful every day) is a cheap way of obtaining the important nutrient phosphatidylserine. Acetyl-L-carnitine, Ginkgo biloba and Bacopa monnieri would be my other choices to improve memory and brain health. Also don’t forget generous portions of coconut oil – two tablespoons a day should be sufficient as a maintenance dose.
Lastly, avoid exposure to toxic chemicals, not only at work but in the home. Drugs are chemicals, so make sure you ask your doctor whether they are strictly necessary for your health. Always discuss the benefits versus the risks involved.
- Clarke R, et al. Folate, vitamin B12 and serum total homocysteine levels in confirmed Alzheimer’s disease. Arch Neurol. 1998; 55: 1449-1455.
- Sano M, et al. A controlled trial of selegiline, alphatocopherol, or both as treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. The Alzheimer’s disease cooperative study. N Engl J Med. 1997; 336: 1216-1222.
- Le Bars P, et al. A placebo controlled double blind randomized trial of an extract of gingko biloba for dementia. JAMA 1997; 278: 1327-1332.
- Dubey GP, Pathak SR, Gupta BS. Combined effect of Brahmi (Bacopa monniera) and Shankhpushpi (Convolvulus pluricaulis ) on cognitive functions. Pharmacopsychoecologia. 1994;7(3):249-51.
- Morgan A, Stevens J. Does Bacopa monnieri improve memory performance in older persons? Results of a randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind trial. J Altern Complement Med. 2010 Jul;16(7):753-9.
- Peth-Nui T., Wattanathorn J, et al. Effects of 12-week Bacopa monnieri consumption on attention, cognitive processing, working memory, and functions of both cholinergic and monoaminergic systems in healthy elderly volunteers. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Volume 2012 (2012). Available from: https://www.hindawi.com/journals/ecam/2012/606424/
- Crook T, et al. Effects of phosphatidylserine in age-associated memory impairment. Neurology. 1991; 41: 644-649.