Cognitive health—the ability to think clearly, express thoughts and feelings, and make the decisions necessary to succeed in life—is a concern for everyone, especially as people age and begin to notice minor slips in their ability to remember names or rapidly solve mental challenges such as word or number puzzles. Many people have seen their parents or grandparents decline mentally as they age, which fuels the desire to do anything possible to help circumvent what might seem like an inevitability. Fortunately, the natural products industry has addressed this desire with an overwhelming array of ingredients and products. Ironically, this makes selecting a safe, beneficial product somewhat of a mental challenge of its own.
Traditional brain support ingredients: A few ingredients, mostly botanicals, have a long history of use for their benefits in supporting brain and mental health. Ingredients such as Ginkgo biloba, Rhodiola rosea and Bacopa monnieri have been used for thousands of years in a variety of applications, many related to brain health, memory and mood. As more ingredients began to enter the market, the clinical research on these traditional ingredients has increased as well, even into more specialized areas such as sports performance.1 Clinical research has particularly expanded for Bacopa, supporting its benefits in multiple areas of cognitive health, including memory, speed of attention2 and brain inflammation.3
Some of the best-known botanical cognitive support ingredients are isolated actives from common plants. These would include caffeine (from coffee or tea), L-theanine (a component in green tea) and phosphatidylserine (PS, from soy or cabbage). Combinations of botanical brain support ingredients and the research supporting these combinations, have also expanded, resulting in unique formulations created for either a specific application or for a broader, general benefit. These products often contain adaptogenic botanicals, such as ashwagandha or ginseng, which may support additional cognitive areas, such as anxiety.4,5
Multi-benefit ingredients: Many of the best ingredients for cognitive health offer a wide range of benefits to the body. Probably the most noteworthy of these are the omega-3 fatty acids. The studies linking marine omega-3 fatty acids to cognitive function have been somewhat inconsistent. However, there is no doubt that omega-3s—particularly docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)—play a physiological role in maintaining healthy cognitive functioning, especially in pregnancy and early childhood due to the critical role DHA plays in fetal brain development.6 In healthy adults, the benefits of DHA to cognitive health get more complex, which could possibly explain inconsistencies in the current studies.7 Accumulating research seems to indicate the effects of DHA may depend on gender and the genetic factors involved in endogenous synthesis of DHA.6
Within the supplement segment, sources for DHA are typically found in conjunction with eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) in the form of fish oil. Algal sources for DHA alone have become more common to meet the needs of those desiring a nonmarine source or a source for isolated DHA. However, other options may provide a more optimal choice. Ahiflower is a plant-based multi-omega ingredient derived from the plant Buglossoides arvensis. This unique sustainable plant-based omega provides the two essential fatty acids (EFAs), linoleic acid (LA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), as well as several intermediaries crucial for omega fatty acid metabolism.
This boost to the body’s own omega fatty acid metabolic pathways results in circulating levels of beneficial fatty acid anti-inflammatory metabolites—such as gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), stearidonic acid (SDA) and eicocosatetraenoic acid (ETA)—that are not available through marine-sourced EPA and DHA or plant-based ALA supplementation alone, potentially resulting in better utilization in the body and benefits in multiple areas, including brain health.8 A recent study on fluid intelligence indicated that even though EPA and DHA have physiological effects that can improve brain health, many of the precursor polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs)—including ALA, SDA, ETA and DPA—may also support neuronal health through unique neuroprotective benefits.9
Other multi-benefit ingredients include those particularly high in antioxidant and/or anti-inflammatory attributes, such as Curcuma longa (curcumin), Boswellia serrata, astaxanthin or ingredients containing high levels of anthocyanins, such as blueberries. Natural astaxanthin from the microalgal species Haematococcus pluvialis is particularly beneficial in two important ways. First, it is considered a “super antioxidant,” having the ability to significantly reduce free radicals and oxidative stress, without having the capability of becoming a pro-oxidant, even at very high levels.10 Second, astaxanthin can cross the blood-brain barrier, making it particularly beneficial in protecting the brain from oxidative damage.11
Synthetics and semi-synthetics: Some ingredients available for cognitive support formulations are synthetically produced, though often derived from natural sources. For example, vinpocetine (from Vinca minor) and hyperzine (from Huperzia serrata) are semi-synthetics derived from plants.
What’s in a name: As the market for cognitive support products continues to expand, so do the challenges. These ingredients and products are often called “nootropics” or “smart drugs,” terminology that once was limited to drugs, but now has expanded into the supplement market, where the lines between what is natural and what is pharmaceutical can sometimes get blurred. In addition, the risk of adulteration with prescription drugs is a growing problem in this category.
Multiple factors collaborate to support optimal functioning of the human brain. Exercise (both mental and physical), lifestyle, a diverse nutrient-dense diet and the correct supplementation can all work together to help keep people feeling razor-sharp even as the years go marching on.
Nena Dockery is a scientific and regulatory affairs manager at Stratum Nutrition. She began her career as a medical researcher at Kansas University Medical Center, but later pursued her master’s degree in human nutrition. With over 20 years’ experience in the nutritional supplement industry, Dockery is knowledgeable in virtually all areas of dietary supplements, from physiological effects to the governing regulations.
1 Kennedy DO. “Phytochemicals for improving aspects of cognitive function and psychological state potentially relevant to sports performance.” Sports Med. 2019;49(Suppl 1):39-58.
2 Kongkeaw C et al. “Meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials on cognitive effects of Bacopa monnieri extract.” J Ethnopharmacol. 2014;151(1):528-535.
3 Nemetchek MD et al. “The Ayurvedic plant Bacopa monnieri inhibits inflammatory pathways in the brain.” J Ethnopharmacol. 2017;197:92-100.
4 Sarris J et al. “Plant-based medicines for anxiety disorders, Part 1: a review of preclinical studies.” CNS Drugs. 2013;27(3):207-219.
5 Sarris J et al. “Plant-based medicines for anxiety disorders, part 2: a review of clinical studies with supporting preclinical evidence.” CNS Drugs. 2013;27(4):301-319.
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8 Metherel AH et al. “DHA cycling halves the DHA supplementation needed to maintain blood and tissue concentrations via higher synthesis from ALA in Long-Evans rats.” J Nutr. 2019;149(4):586-595.
9 Zamroziewicz MK et al. “Determinants of fluid intelligence in healthy aging: omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid status and frontoparietal cortex structure.” Nutr Neurosci. 2018;21(8):570-579.
10 Fakhri S et al. “The neuroprotective effects of astaxanthin: therapeutic targets and clinical perspective.” Molecules. 2019;24(14):2640.
11 Galasso C et al. “On the neuroprotective role of astaxanthin: new perspectives?” Mar Drugs. 2018;16(8):247.