Dr. John Lewis Ph. D.

30 August 2017

All segments of society are affected by disorders of the brain that result in cognitive dysfunction, i.e., everyone from teens with ADD/ADHD, to athletes who deal with concussion syndrome, to middle age and elderly who have been diagnosed with dementia (Alzheimer’s in the worst case), Parkinson’s disease, or multiple sclerosis.  Approximately 40 million people worldwide suffer from Alzheimer’s disease today, and the Alzheimer’s Association of the United States predicts that number to more than double by 2030.  These neurodegenerative disorders, e.g., Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis, have no efficacious conventional therapy. 

With no conventional medical strategy to keep the brain healthy, nutrition offers the opportunity to prevent cognitive deterioration and keep the brain fit.  Several nutrients have been studied for their effects on the brain.  Selenium is a trace element that has been found to be critically utilized by not just the brain, but the entire central nervous system, for multiple purposes that impact cognitive functioning.  Selenium is important for motor performance, coordination, and memory, and impacts the production of dopamine and acetylcholine, two important neurotransmitters that send signals to cells for many functions.  Selenium is so crucial for our health overall and yet so sensitively utilized by our body that we can quickly go from deficient to normal to toxic.  Additionally, selenium deficiency is related to poor cognitive function and diminished motor function.  Chronic selenium deficiency is thought to be a significant contributing factor to Alzheimer’s dementia, Parkinson’s, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.  Selenium has been shown to counteract oxidative stress related to Alzheimer’s disease in mouse models.  Furthermore, selenium has been shown to have overall antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits in Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, epilepsy, and ischemia.  Thus, adequate supplementation of selenium may have therapeutic value to prevent neurodegenerative disorders.

Zinc, much like selenium, is a trace mineral that is crucial to overall central nervous system functioning, is important for the regulation of neurotransmitters, and a deficiency is may lead to development of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.  Zinc deficiency has been shown to be related to depression, which is one of the most disabling disorders in the world.  Zinc has several fundamental roles in the brain, including those of neuromodulator in the synapses and in how we respond to stressors.  Similar to selenium, an adequate supply of zinc in the brain is crucial for maintaining overall brain health and cognitive functioning.  Supplementing with zinc (25-30 mg/day) has been shown to hasten recovery from stroke and brain injury and also improve memory.

Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids have been shown to be very important for brain health.  Unfortunately, many people are not getting enough of the daily recommendation of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet, which increases the risk of neurodegenerative disorders.  Omega-3 fatty acids improve many symptoms of major depression.  Omega-3 fatty acids also increase memory performance in elderly adults.  In our laboratory, we showed that several nutrients, including antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, improved cognitive functioning in adults with moderate to severe Alzheimer’s dementia.  Finally, omega-3 fatty acids increased brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which is one of the most important proteins in the brain that is involved in overall cognitive functioning, memory, the formation of synapses, and neuronal development.

In conclusion, supplementing the diet with selenium, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids should be considered to not only maintain, but perhaps even improve, the health of your brain, particularly in the case of a neurodegenerative disorder.  Studies have shown that these nutrients are very important for the brain and cognitive functioning.  Using these nutrients as part of your strategy for taking care of yourself makes sense and could be the difference between a healthy, fit brain and something far worse.

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