Focus on Health: Ingredients to Improve Your Brain Function

Jan. 27, 2011
A growing body of evidence suggests some ingredients can improve cognitive function.

Can certain ingredients increase mental energy and even improve brain function? While there are no FDA-authorized health claims on the subject, there is a growing body of research – and marketing – making that connection.

The Life Sciences Research Organization Inc. (LSRO), Bethesda, Md., published a review article in the December 2010 issue of Nutrition Reviews titled "Do Specific Constituents and Supplements Affect Mental Energy?"

The short answer, at least from that organization, is: caffeine definitely has an impact, gingko biloba appears to affect mood and attention, and omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids may reduce the risk of cognitive decline.

The review article focused on four dietary constituents or supplements – ginkgo biloba, ginseng, glucose and omega-3s – and scanned recent peer-reviewed scientific literature on dietary constituents and mental energy.

"The marketplace abounds with claims that various foods, beverages and dietary supplements increase mental energy," the organization said in an announcement.

"LSRO has undertaken a review of the scientific evidence for more than 35 food ingredients, dietary supplements, dietary constituents and dietary factors and any measure of mental energy that could support these claims."

The report noted that, for most ingredients and dietary factors, fewer than five scientific studies address mental energy.

One of the first steps is to define "mental energy." "Until recently, mental energy has been only loosely defined and methods to assess it were not clearly described."

LSRO defined it as "consisting of mood (transient feelings about the presence of fatigue or energy), motivation (determination and enthusiasm), and cognition (sustained attention and vigilance)."

Mood, and particularly stress reduction, is a target of green tea extracts, particularly L-theanine. "That amino acid increases alpha waves in the brain, bringing relaxation to the mind, but not in a drowsy way. The relaxation actually helps you focus, improves concentration," says Cecilia McCollum, executive vice president at Blue California, Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.

Blue California recently had its generally recognized as safe (GRAS) affirmation accepted by FDA for the company's L-TeaActive product, which is naturally extracted from green tea.

"There are a lot of studies connecting green tea with stress reduction and increased alertness. The connection is not just about the caffeine," she says. "L-theanine is a very interesting and natural ingredient. It has a synergistic effect when consumed with caffeine."

Gingko biloba is extensively prescribed in Europe for memory and concentration problems, confusion, depression, anxiety, dizziness, headaches, even tinnitus (ringing in the ears). Some clinical studies have shown promising results for patients with Alzheimer's disease, although a 2008 study by the National Institutes of Health's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine found it "ineffective in reducing the development of dementia and Alzheimer's disease in older people." Similarly, the National Institute on Aging conducted a trial in 2002 on 200 healthy adults over age 60 and reported that taking gingko for six weeks did not improve memory.

The active components of ginkgo include flavonoids, terpenoids and terpene lactones. Two of its flavonoids, ginkgolide and bilobalide, are exclusive to ginkgo. Animal studies suggest ginkgo may dilate blood vessels and reduce blood viscosity to increase blood supply. It also may modify neurotransmitter systems and diminish free radical damage. In this way, some believe ginkgo could protect neuronal and myocardial cells from ischemia.

That concept of improving blood flow to the brain is a key belief at Cyvex Nutrition, Irvine, Calif. "Short-term memory and cognitive health are highly dependent on the sufficient flow of blood to the brain," Cyvex officials say. "Cyvex' ingredient BioVinca contains important components that may stimulate blood flow, thereby improving short-term memory and cognitive functioning."

In addition to BioVinca vinpocetine, Cyvex markets Cognisetin fisetin, a flavonoid that's believed to stimulate signaling pathways to the brain and nervous system, enhancing long-term memory.

Coincidentally, Cyvex in December was acquired by Omega Protein Corp., Houston, which also has an interest in brain health via its OmegaPure omega-3 oil.

On its web site, Omega Protein cites a large body of research on the subject. "The essential fatty acids (EFAs), particularly the n-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPs), are important for brain development during both the fetal and postnatal period. They are also increasingly seen to be of value in limiting the cognitive decline during aging," states a research paper from Ricardo Uauy and AlanDangour of the Nutrition and Public Health Intervention Research Unit of the London (England) School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

"Docosahexaenomic acid (DHA)-supplemented infants [are] showing significantly greater mental and psychomotor development scores (breast-fed children do even better). Dietary DHA is needed for the optimum functional maturation of the retina and visual cortex, with visual acuity and mental development seemingly improved by extra DHA. Aging is also associated with decreased brain levels of DHA: fish consumption is associated with decreased risk of dementia and Alzheimer's disease, and the reported daily use of fish-oil supplements has been linked to improved cognitive function scores, but confirmation of these effects is needed.

Chromium picolinate has been marketed as a key ingredient in weight loss and sports nutrition products, but Nutrition 21 Inc., Purchase, N.Y., last summer announced the publication of a human clinical study showing that its Chromax chromium picolinate improved memory function in elderly adults with early memory decline. The double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical study was conducted by researchers at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. "Improved cognitive-cerebral function in older adults with chromium supplementation" was published in the journal Nutritional Neuroscience (June 2010). Other research connects cognitive brain function and Alzheimer's disease with glucose metabolism, and Chromax chromium picolinate apparently improves glucose metabolism.

Labeling for brain claims is tricky. There is no FDA-accepted health claim on the subject, and any claims of clinical trial proof will be highly scrutinized. Just ask Kellogg Co. The cereal company settled charges by the Federal Trade Commission in 2009 that its advertising claims that Frosted Mini-Wheats were "clinically shown to improve kids' attentiveness by nearly 20%" were false and violated federal law.

The proposed settlement bars deceptive or misleading cognitive health claims for Kellogg's breakfast foods and snack foods and bars the company from misrepresenting any tests or studies.

According to the FTC's complaint, Kellogg claimed in a national advertising campaign – including television, print, and Internet advertising, as well as product packaging – that a breakfast of Frosted Mini-Wheats cereal was clinically shown to improve children's attentiveness by nearly 20 percent. But, the FTC said, only about half the children who ate Frosted Mini-Wheats for breakfast showed any improvement in attentiveness, and only about one in nine improved by 20 percent or more.

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