Natural Ways to Improve Brain Function at Any Age
You Only Get One Brain
The scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz heroically traveled great distances, at great risk (Good Lord, flying monkeys!) to acquire a brain. But most of us take our brain for granted. We feel our heart thump, and our muscles pump, and we see the results of our kidney and intestinal function when we visit the bathroom. But do we feel our brain think?
Our brains are the seat of our consciousness, the home of all our memories and experiences. Everything we have ever learned is stored in the brain. Our emotion, our pain, our pleasure, all result from the function of our brains. It certainly makes sense to take extra care of this delicate system, because, unlike the scarecrow, we cannot travel to the Wizard to ask for a new one.
How The Brain Changes as We Age
It is a little unsettling to learn that our brain shrinks as we age. Most researchers agree that this is a normal process, as it happens in both healthy and unhealthy people. After the age of 40, we lose about 5% of our brain volume each decade.
While changes happen throughout the brain, the areas most consistently affected are the reductions in grey matter and the prefrontal cortex.
Our grey matter is involved in tasks like controlling our muscles, receiving information from our senses, speech and language, and decision making. Our prefrontal cortex deals primarily with higher-level brain processes like behavior, personality, navigating our social interactions, and also decision making.
The good news is that even though we should minimize this process whenever possible, losing a small amount of brain volume does not result in dramatic changes.
With Age Comes Wisdom
While there are challenges, there is good news, too. As we age, our brain function improves in certain areas. Older brains are better able to anticipate problems and results. We have better empathy as we age, which is important for social functioning, but also important for a number of other endeavors as we learn with time to put ourselves in another’s shoes.
Our thinking changes. We are better at synthesis—the ability to see connections between unrelated ideas and events. A great Albert Einstein quote is that we can't solve problems through the same kind of thinking as when we created them.
Keeping Your Brain Healthy
Neurotransmitters and Nutrients
Another change that occurs is a decrease in the amount of key neurotransmitters – our brain’s chemical messengers. Dopamine levels start to decrease in early adulthood and proceed at a rate of about 10% decline per decade.
Nutrients that play a very important role in keeping our neurotransmitters where they should be are choline (eggs and peanuts are especially rich in choline) and the B vitamin family. However, not all forms of B vitamins behave the same way in our bodies. The inactive forms need to be transformed in the liver to the active form before we can derive any benefit at all.
Upwards of 30% of the population is inefficient at transforming one or more of the B vitamin family. Therefore, the better way to supplement is to look for active (or bioactive) B vitamins. These have already been transformed, sometimes called “methylated,” and provide more powerful and consistent benefits.
Some examples of active B vitamins are methylcobalamin (B12), pyridoxal-5-phosphate (B6), and folate instead of folic acid.
Nourishment for Neurons
A very important protein, called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) also drops as we age. BDNF helps facilitate a process called neurogenesis, which is the production of new neurons.
Reductions in BDNF are often seen in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s disease. Fortunately, there are compounds within the turmeric plant that can help attenuate the losses of BDNF. Turmeric contains about 2-5% of a key compound called curcumin, which has been shown in human clinical studies to increase levels of BDNF.
Another compound found within turmeric essential oil, called ar-turmerone, has been shown in scientific research to increase the amount of neural stem cells, which can generate new neurons. Look for a curcumin enhanced with turmeric essential oil to receive the benefits of both of these scientifically validated compounds.
Supplements for Circulation
Blood vessels that feed our brain also experience changes beginning as early as our twenties. Cerebral blood flow (CBF) may be partly influenced by our blood vessel’s ability to dilate becoming compromised with age.
Grape seed extract is known to be a vasodilator. It helps the blood vessels relax, which improves blood flow. Compounds from grape seed extract called oligomeric proanthocyanidins (OPC) have also been shown to help lower brain oxidative stress, which helps keep the brain cells younger and healthier.
Grape extract contains a wide size spectrum of oligomeric proanthocyanidins (OPCs), including tannins. It’s best to select a grape seed extract that features small OPCs, tannin free, so they are absorbed and utilized in the body.
Enzymes for Energy
Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) is another crucial nutrient for the brain. Unfortunately, it also decreases throughout the human lifespan. Though it is commonly thought of as a heart protective compound, CoQ10 is also critical for the neurological system.
CoQ10 is a key cofactor in mitochondrial function, which helps ensure proper energy production throughout our body, including the brain. Mitochondrial dysfunction has been indicated in several neurological diseases including amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). CoQ10 acts as an antioxidant and can help protect the brain from toxin-induced lesions.
The Brain: Use It or Lose It
While these nutrients and others can improve brain function throughout our lives, it is also important to remember that supplements alone are not enough. What we eat and how we move our bodies profoundly affects brain health. Sugar and refined carbohydrates accelerate brain aging and can damage neurons over time.
Also, the overused maxim: “use it or lose it” remains true. Our brains crave novelty to grow and flourish. Trying new hobbies, learning languages, travel, conversation, games, and reading also help to keep also improve brain function—naturally.
“Aromatic-Turmerone Induces Neural Stem Cell Proliferation in vitro and in vivo” by J. Hucklenbroich et al., Stem Cell Res Ther. 2014
“Effect of Curcumin on Brain-Derive Neurotrophic Factor Levels and Oxidative Damage in Obesity and Diabetes” by E. Franco-Robles et al., Appl Physiol Nutr Metab, 2/14
“Effect of Curcumin on Serum Brain-Derive Neurotrophic Factor Levels in Women with Premenstrual Syndrome . . .” by H. Fanaei et al., Neuropeptides, 4/16
“Grape Seed Proanthocyanidin Lowers Brain Oxidative Stress in Adult and Middle-aged Rats” by S. Asha Devi et al., Exp Gerontol, 11/11
“An Investigation of Cerebral Oxygen Utilization, Blood Flow and Cognition in Healthy Aging” by S.J. Catchlove et al, PLOS ONE, 2018
“Normal Age-Related Brain Morphometric Changes . . . “ by H. Lemaitre et al., Neurobiology of Aging, 3/12
“Vasodilating Procyanidins Derived from Grape Seeds” by D.F. Fitzpatrick et al., Ann N Y Acad Sci, 5/02