Last Updated: July 23, 2019
The health of the human brain is impacted by diet, but do products like herbs and other natural supplements affect its health?
The Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation (ADDF) explains to us the impact that natural supplements have on the brain, and if any have been shown to be effective in fighting the effects of Alzheimer’s disease.
Learn more, by looking at five popular myths about using natural supplements in the fight against Alzheimer’s:
The bad news, says former ADDF Assistant Director, Penny Dacks, is that “most supplements have very little evidence to support their use, particularly evidence gathered from humans” (as opposed to testing on lab rats). Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), for instance, is a naturally occurring antioxidant found in the body and CoQ10 levels decrease with age. It’s become a popular supplement to treat Alzheimer’s. Unfortunately, there is “relatively strong evidence suggesting it will not protect the brain.”
There is, however, some evidence to support the use of CoQ10 for high blood pressure and heart failure.
It may seem that if the supplement at hand is natural, then there’s no risk in using it, but the truth is that we need to makes ourselves aware of potential side effects before administering or taking any natural supplement.
For instance, Dacks notes that “One natural product called Axona has clinical research to suggest that it can help some people, but it definitely does not help everyone and it can cause some severe gastrointestinal side effects. Axona is somewhat related to coconut oil and contains medium-chain triglycerides.”
This myth is perpetuated by the fact that so many people are suffering from Alzheimer’s and so many caregivers are hungry for anything that can help. Dacks says, “The best natural supplements are affordable and backed by strong evidence to suggest that it may protect the brain.” She adds, “Unfortunately, those are few and far between.”
Dacks pointed us to a great resource, however, called Cognitive Vitality, which looks at a number of individual natural supplements and takes objective stock of the science behind them.
You may hear that natural supplements have no benefits from sources who believe that supplements are “baloney.” But, when we asked Dacks if there’s a supplement that the ADDF is keeping a particularly close eye on, she replied, “Souvenaid is a promising cocktail of nutritional supplements with some clinical evidence to suggest that it can benefit Alzheimer’s patients. Doctors can prescribe it as a medical food in some countries (Australia and countries in Europe, I believe) but it is not yet available in the United States.”
A recent randomized, controlled study of the effects of Souvenaid in patients with mild Alzheimer’s showed “increased memory performance” after periods of both 12 and 24 weeks.
Increasing or maintaining brain volume is understood to play a key role in preventing or treating dementia. Writes Dacks, “Several studies report that people with higher levels of the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) tend to have larger brain volumes.” But, she cautions, “that doesn’t mean that the EPA and DHA cause higher brain volume — we need a clinical trial to prove that — but it does point in the right direction. To my knowledge, no clinical trials have tested whether EPA or DHA raise brain volume.”
But, that’s not to say that EPA and DHA’s effects on the brain haven’t been tested at all. “Several trials have tested whether EPA or DHA can improve cognitive abilities. In general, they haven’t seen a benefit to Alzheimer’s patients or healthy elderly people but some benefits have been reported in people with mild cognitive impairment.” There are a lot of unanswered questions. For example, “Would protection from Alzheimer’s require decades of relatively high EPA and DHA levels, as opposed to the exposure seen in a six-month clinical trial? We just don’t know… Eating fatty fish like salmon once or twice a week may be sufficient. Emerging evidence also suggests that while DHA can protect the brain of some people, it will not protect the brain of people who carry the Apolipoprotein e4 genetic risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.”
Do you, a parent or senior loved one use any natural supplements to treat Alzheimer’s? Share your experiences with supplements with us in the comments below.
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