Natural Supplements that Enhance Memory
Memory is the means by which we remember old facts and learn new information. When memory is impaired, it can lead to repeated forgetfulness which is the first stage of cognitive decline. Although there are many prescription and over-the-counter memory pills available in pharmacies, a lot of them do not significantly improve memory. Before you go looking for more memory pills, consider natural supplements. They are safe and well-tolerated. This article discusses the most effective natural supplements to look out for if you want to enhance your memory.
by Brad Chase
Memory loss ranges from regular forgetfulness to full-on dementia. It is quickly becoming a costly public health crisis as the number of people affected increases yearly. While memory loss is often linked with aging, it does affect young people too and it is avoidable even in the elderly.
The brain stores information as memories. Most of the processes involved in encoding and storing memories happen while we sleep and these processes require the linkage of new information to old ones.
The processes required for memory formation involve an intricate network of neurons and the synapses that link them together. In addition, the transfer of information between these nerves goes through a set of chemical messengers known as neurotransmitters.
With regards to memory, the most important neurotransmitter is acetylcholine.
Also, the most important memory seats are the amygdala, hippocampus and different sites in the medial temporal lobe.
Memory loss is caused by damage to the neurons and neurotransmitter pathways involved in encoding, storing and retrieving memories. In addition, any factor that reduces the amount or activity of acetylcholine will interfere negatively with memory.
Therefore, the drugs and supplements used to enhance memory work by preventing damage to the memory seats of the brain and also by improving the acetylcholine pathways in the brain.
While conventional prescription drugs may temporarily enhance memory, they come with a number of side effects and their benefits are only short-lived. In contrast, natural supplements do not work instantly; in fact, these supplements are only beneficial with long-term therapy. However, they are safer, effective and well-tolerated.
In recent years, more attention has turned to natural supplements as memory boosters. In this regard, there have been multiple clinical studies to assess the efficacies and safeties of these supplements.
Such clinical investigations are important given the number of over-the-counter memory pills that are formulated from natural supplements.
This article discusses the most effective natural supplements that can enhance memory.
The B vitamins are essential to a number of biochemical and physiological processes in the body. They are needed for every cellular event from metabolism and enzymatic reactions to DNA regulation and immune system modulation.
The more specific benefits of B vitamins for memory include improving oxygen and nutrient transport to brain cells by increasing the production of red blood cells.
Even more important is the effect these vitamins have on homocysteine level in the body.
Homocysteine is a metabolic intermediate in amino acid synthesis. When some of the B vitamins are lacking the synthesis gets stuck at homocysteine. However, homocysteine is a toxic intermediate and it has been shown to damage neurons (and the heart).
Therefore, the B vitamins serve a protective role in the central nervous system by keeping homocysteine levels low in brain cells.
Of the B vitamins, vitamins B6, B9 and B12 are the most important for memory.
Vitamin B9 and B12 deficiencies are strongly associated with cognitive decline and memory loss. In a large-scale study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, each of the 700 volunteers recruited were given either a placebo or a combination of vitamins B9 and B12.
The study result showed that the vitamin combination was effective for improving short-term memory after 24 months.
Both vitamins work by driving the conversion of homocysteine to methionine and preventing the accumulation of the neurotoxic (and cardiotoxic) intermediate.
The antioxidant vitamins include vitamins A (the beta carotene form), C and E.
Like the B vitamins, they protect the neurons in the brain from structural damage. However, they work by a different mechanism.
These vitamins reduce oxidative stress in the central nervous system by mopping up the harmful free radicals and reactive oxygen species that may damage nerves and other brain structures.
Because they protect these nerves, the antioxidant vitamins preserve the chain of communication and extensive neural network that are necessary for the encoding, storage and retrieval of memories.
Besides this antioxidant property, each of these vitamins also improves cognitive functions in other ways. For example, vitamin E improves blood circulation in the brain and, therefore, it can enhance memory by increasing the supply of oxygen and nutrients to the centers of memory in the brain.
Vitamin D is fast becoming the darling vitamin of the decade. New frontiers of research into the uses of the vitamin are revealing wholly new benefits. For example, vitamin D has been proven to possess anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and even immunomodulatory properties.
Likewise, researchers are getting a clearer understanding of its close ties to memory.
First, vitamin D deficiency causes short-term memory loss. Secondly, the discovery that vitamin D receptors are concentrated in the parts of the brain controlling memory is another good indication that the vitamin is important to memory.
True to this theory, a number of studies have established that taking vitamin D supplements can improve concentration, working memory and mental capacity.
In one study conducted by researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Tsinghua University in Beijing, magnesium supplements were used to improve memory and cognitive function in a group of volunteers.
The researchers believed that magnesium can enhance memory because it promotes neurogenesis.
Neurogenesis is the term used to describe the formation of new brain cells. Like all cells in the body, old brain cells die and new ones are produced. Sometimes, free radicals and other causes of neurodegeneration may speed up the death of brain cells.
When more cells die than are produced, cognitive decline and memory loss will set in. However, because magnesium can promote the production of new generations of brain cells, it can enhance memory too.
Selenium is an antioxidant mineral. It is famously known for the protein complexes it forms. These complexes make up a family of selenoproteins which serves as antioxidant enzymes and cofactors.
Therefore, selenium can help mop up reactive oxygen species and other free radicals from the brain. This protective effect can improve memory considerably.
Lastly, the antioxidant effect of selenium improves, and is improved by, the antioxidant effect of vitamin E. Therefore, a combination of the two nutrients can greatly enhance memory.
Calcium has a complex relationship with memory. However, it is clear that calcium deficiency can cause memory loss.
In fact, drugs that block calcium channels on cell membranes can cause memory loss. This is the reason why the antihypertensive drug class known as calcium channel blockers are not recommended for long-term therapy.
Calcium is also essential for signaling in the brain and for the release of neurotransmitters in the synapses between nerves.
For all these reasons, calcium supplementation can enhance memory especially in those who suffer from a deficiency of the mineral.
Iron deficiency is another nutritional deficiency known to cause memory loss.
In this case, iron is required because of its role in hemoglobin, the protein responsible for oxygen transport in red blood cells. Since brain cells need oxygen to thrive, iron can prevent cognitive decline by ensuring that brain neurons are not starved of the oxygen needed for their cellular metabolism.
Zinc deficiency also causes memory impairment especially short-term memory loss.
Zinc is important in the brain. In fact, it is stored in vesicles found in the synapses and it is released along with glutamate, a neurotransmitter. Once released in the brain, zinc acts at different voltage-gated ion channels in the brain and it is responsible for opening and closing certain ion gates.
Zinc also contributes to synaptic plasticity, a process in which the synapse changes structurally to allow incoming transmissions to be handed over between nerves.
To demonstrate that zinc’s effect on the synapse affects memory, a group of researchers were able to demonstrate an impairment in spatial memory in mice after the zinc transport system in their brain was blocked.
Different studies have also established that zinc supplementation can improve memory in humans especially when combined with the amino acid, L-histidine.
Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) and American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) are the two most effective species of ginseng used in traditional medicine.
These “true” ginsengs contain a group of phytochemicals known as ginsenosides or panaxosides.
There are two subtypes of ginsenosides and both of them have been proven in different clinical trials to improve memory especially spatial memory. These phytochemicals increase neuronal activities especially in the cortex and hippocampus, two parts of the brain with strong control over memory.
In addition, the ginsenosides also enhance memory by increasing the concentration of acetylcholine in the brain.
Ginkgo contains two sets of important phytochemicals known as bilobalides and ginkgolides. These two classes of compounds have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties which can be useful for protecting brain cells and structures from damage.
However, ginkgo provides more benefits for brain cells. It improves blood flow to the brain and it is known to prevent the accumulation of beta amyloids on brain tissues.
Since the amyloid proteins are implicated in Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative disorders, ginkgo can definitely improve cognitive function and memory.
However, good results can only be obtained from ginkgo after long-term use.
Gotu kola is an adaptogen. This means that it can help the body cope with stress by reduce the levels of stress hormone and calming down the rapidly firing neurons in the brain. However, it has other medicinal benefits.
Gotu kola is also traditionally prescribed as a brain tonic. This is because of its potent nootropic effects.
This herb increases blood circulation in the brain and has been shown, in multiple clinical trials, to be useful for improving memory and cognition especially in the elderly.
Green is a superstore of antioxidants and other useful medicinal phytochemicals. Chief amongst these is epigallocatechin gallate or EGCG.
EGCG can protect brain cells from damage by neutralizing reactive oxygen species and removing harmful free radicals. In addition, recent studies suggest that this antioxidant promotes neurogenesis.
Besides EGCG, other phytochemicals in green tea increase the activities of acetylcholine by blocking acetylcholinestrase, an enzyme that breaks down acetylcholine at the synapses.
Therefore, green tea can enhance memory by multiple mechanisms. Given its numerous medicinal benefits, this is one supplement to permanently adopt.
Bacopa is also known as Brahmi in Ayurveda medicine. It has a potent antioxidant property and, because of this, it is traditionally used to boost memory.
Currently, bacopa is believed to be useful in the management of neurodegenerative disorders. This is because it has been shown to reduce the accumulation of beta amyloid plaques on different parts of the brain.
Bacopa provides a specific antioxidant protection for the hippocampus. Since this is one of the brain parts known to control memory, its use as a memory enhancer is justified.
Huperzia contains the increasingly popular active ingredient known as huperzine A. This phytochemical is currently in clinical trials as drug candidate for treating Alzheimer’s disease.
Huperzine A protects the brain from damage caused by both beta amyloid proteins and glutamate.
It increases the production of nerve growth factor to speed up neurogenesis and it also blocks acetylcholinesterase.
With such multiple mechanisms of action, huperzine A is one of the well-received phytochemicals for treating memory loss and cognitive decline.
Ashwagandha is also known as Indian ginseng and it is traditionally used in Ayurveda medicine to treat cognitive disorders.
Its effects mirror those of huperzia because it also protects against beta amyloid proteins while promoting neurogenesis.
L-carnitine is another commonly used supplement for enhancing memory. It is synthesized from the two amino acids, methionine and lysine.
Carnitine is an antioxidant compound that has also been proven to improve mental focus and memory.
ALCAR or acetylcarnitine is a derivative of this molecule. ALCAR has a better absorption profile than carnitine and it crosses the blood-brain barrier more easily.
It shares the same medicinal properties as carnitine and it also used to improve memory and cognitive function in patients with neurodegenerative disorders.
Choline is the precursor of acetylcholine. Because the body produces only a small amount of this nutrient, it must be obtained from diet or supplements.
Choline deficiency can cause a number of serious medical conditions including certain cancers, growth impairment, hypertension, infertility and memory loss.
Besides choline supplements, other supplemental sources of choline include phosphatidylcholine, alpha glycerophosphocholine, diphosphate choline and DMAE or dimethylethanolamine.
The body turns all sources of choline into acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter required for memory consolidation during the REM stage of sleep.
Omega-3 fatty acids include EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). These healthy fats are found in fatty fish, fish oil and nut oils.
Omega-3 fatty acids can protect the brain from damage caused by inflammation. Furthermore, there is strong evidence that they can lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Although more placebo-controlled studies are needed to confirm that omega-3 fatty acids enhance memory, these fatty acids are widely regarded as brain foods and they are known to provide an endless list of benefits for the body.
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