Brain power in a pill?

Nutrition team

You can’t watch TV these days without being bombarded with adverts for anti-aging creams, life assurance and pension schemes. It’s enough to frighten even the most youthful 18 year old into parting with their hard earned pennies to ensure that they grow old gracefully!

But the search for the best anti-wrinkle creams and ‘get-rich-quick’ retirement plans is being overtaken by a whole new concept in aging. Forget young-looking skin, and focus on a young-thinking mind. The “smart food revolution” has arrived, a new science-based trend towards using what we eat to fight disease, slow down aging and, most importantly, keep our minds sharp.

Enter the super pills. Available in health food stores and on various websites, they claim to boost brain power by improving memory, motor skills and mental acuity. All the ingredients you need to maximise your brain, conveniently packaged into one little pill.

But the bold brain claims of the companies promoting these products are not necessarily backed up by scientific research. In the battle for an ageless brain, you are not going to find a magic bullet in a box of “brain” supplements. Instead scientists will urge you to return to nature where there is a huge array of nutritious whole foods, bursting with brain-promoting powers.

The Science
Most of you will have heard of the ingredients of the most popular supplements: quercetin, alpha-lipoic acid and co-enzyme Q10, amongst others. These are antioxidants which work by mopping up cell-damaging free radicals in the body. Also possessed with powerful anti-inflammatory effects, antioxidants are important for keeping brain cells healthy and youthful. Although the benefits of antioxidants in food are well known, their efficacy in supplement form is dubious. Supplements lack synergy. That is, nutrients need to work together with other molecules to achieve their beneficial effects.

Even “brain formulas” that claim their many ingredients work synergistically can’t compete with the wealth of antioxidants in whole foods. Blueberries for example, contain powerful plant pigments called anthocyanins. Anthocyanins have 2,400 times the antioxidant power of vitamin E (considered a powerful antioxidant itself). “There are approximately 40 anthocyanins and maybe 300 other unidentified compounds in blueberries and they’re all working together” says Dr James Joseph of the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Centre in Boston. “A supplement can’t even hope to compete.”

There are no well-established guidelines for how much of any supplement you should take. “The problem,” says Dr Joseph, “is that you don’t know how much you need. If you take six of those pills a day, is that equivalent to a bowl of blueberries? One good thing about whole foods is you can’t really OD on them.” In high doses, some antioxidants can actually be harmful, turning, in fact, into pro-oxidants. Without knowledge of proper dosing, you can’t know if popping those supplement pills is helping or hurting.

Good Habits
Loading up on supplements can lure you into the trap of thinking you’re eating well. But you may not be getting the right balance of nutrients you need from food and supplements can become relied upon as quick fixes for dietary concerns. “A lot of people who take these different kinds of pills think, ‘Well, if I do that then I can eat a lousy diet,’” says Dr Joseph. “But eating whole foods gets you into the mindset and lifestyle of eating healthy.”

In the UK, the Food Standards Authority doesn’t regulate the supplement industry. Supplement manufacturers do not need to disclose the details of their preparations, nor demonstrate the effectiveness, or even safety, of their product. They may tout compounds that have positive effects in a test tube, but no proven effects in the body.

One-month supplies of the most common “brain-booster” formulas cost at least £50 per month. We think that’s just too much to pay for potentially empty promises and doubtful outcomes when a carton of blueberries will only cost you £1.99!

So instead of heading for the nearest health food store, head for the supermarket and stock up on whole foods! Here are some other tips for you to obtain more brainpower from your food:

Drink more green tea, at least 4 cups per day for protective compounds that may ward off Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. If you’re concerned about caffeine, decaffeinated green tea is also available. Also good for those chilly winter days, and a chocolate fix, is hot cocoa – packed full of antioxidants. Dark chocolate, but not milk chocolate, provides similar benefits.

Drink plenty of fruit juices like orange juice, grape juice and a new one - pomegranate juice. This is packed to bursting with antioxidants, it’s becoming more popular by the day and more readily available too.

Try to increase your fish intake to at least 1 serving weekly, for brain building omega-3 fatty acids. You can get fish oils in a capsule but you will be missing out on the protein, iron and B vitamins that fish also provides.

Add berries into your diet such as strawberries, raspberries and blueberries. These little nutrition powerhouses contain potent combinations of antioxidants that can improve both memory and motor coordination. Blueberries have even been shown to increase production of new brain cells. Try to eat at least 5 - 7 servings of fruit and vegetables per day. It’s not as hard as it sounds! Just one smoothie can contain 3 fruits - a great way to pack in the fruit portions.

Don’t forget, with the right foods, you can boost your brain power without having to sink supplements!

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