To get started, what you first need to know is just like any tissue in the human body, the brain and nervous system can repair and heal itself. When you get a cut on your skin or have a concussion or brain injury – the same healing processes are activated. To heal physical- or chemical-induced brain trauma – we need an ample supply of all nutrients including oxygen, magnesium, protein, essential fatty acids (e.g. DHA, EPA, GLA), and a broad spectrum of vitamins and minerals.
Below are the top 7 nutrients that are most commonly deficient and needed in extra amounts for optimal brain health and healing.
In modern industrialized nations, nearly 3 out of 4 people are deficient in magnesium resulting in a myriad of symptoms such as chronic fatigue, depression, anxiety, irritability, cognitive impairment, ADD/ADHD, tics, tremors, chronic pain, headaches, and sleep disturbances. Magnesium serves as an essential co-factor in over 300 enzyme systems in the body and is needed for the functioning of all of your “feel-good” neurotransmitter systems – endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, GABA, and oxytocin – all need sufficient magnesium for their optimal functioning. Magnesium is depleted by a number of factors including chronic stress, traumatic brain injury or other traumas, heavy exercise, refined sugar, caffeine, alcohol, phosphoric acid in sodas, calcium supplementation, and certain medications.1-8
Recommended dose: 200-800 mg/d of a highly-bioavailable form such as magnesium malate, taurate, glycinate, or threonate.
2. Trace Minerals
Neuroprotective trace elements such as zinc, iron, copper, chromium, selenium, lithium, boron, iodine, and molybdenum function as “protective shields” which bolster your body’s antioxidant defenses and shield you from a wide variety of heavy metals and environmental toxins. They’re needed for your body’s production of glutathione (the master antioxidant), and powerful antioxidant enzymes such as superoxide dismutase (SOD), glutathione peroxidase (GPx), and catalase which neutralize free-radicals and other toxins, while simultaneously reducing your oral absorption of heavy metals and promoting their excretion. Trace minerals such as zinc, chromium, selenium, and lithium also serve an important role in mitochondrial energy production, healthy digestion, restful sleep, the production of neural growth factors such as BDNF, and for healing processes in the brain and nervous system.9-19
Recommended dose: 100-400 mcg/d of chromium ; 15-30 mg/d of zinc; 100-400 mcg/d of selenium; 5-20 mg/d of lithium as orotate; 1-3 mg of boron; 75-250 mcg/d of molybdenum; 0.5-2 mg/d of copper; 150-450 mcg/d of iodine as kelp (or iodide). When it comes to benefits you can feel and getting the most out of the supplements you take, the best nutritional supplements provide trace elements in their most bioavailable forms – as stable, organic chelates – such as zinc glycinate, selenium glycinate (or high Se-yeast), and chromium polynicotinate (Cr bound to niacin).
The B-complex work closely with magnesium (and other minerals) in thousands of biochemical reactions in the body. A suboptimal intake can result in fatigue, poor memory, difficulty concentrating, learning problems, ADD/ADHD, depression, anxiety, irritability, muscle weakness, and sleep disturbances. All growth and repair processes in the body require a plentiful supply of nutrients including the full-spectrum of B-vitamins, which includes thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6), folate (B9), cobalamin (B12), biotin, PABA, inositol, and choline. The last three are conditional nutrients, which are produced in the body and found readily in a variety of food sources. Folic acid, methyl-folate, and folinic acid are the forms of vitamin B9 most commonly available in supplements; since everyone is different, I recommend starting at a low dose (100-400 mcg) and seeing how your body responds to that particular form. Many people do better with one form versus another. Vitamins B1 – B12 are necessary for energy production, neurotransmitter biosynthesis, and the production of neuroprotective growth factors such as BDNF, which promote cellular health and the growth of new neurons20-23.
Recommended dose: this varies from person to person, especially with respect to higher doses of certain B-vitamins (e.g. niacin, pyridoxine) and the active, methylated forms of folate. Everyone is different, and I recommend starting with a low-dose and working your way up. If the serving size is 2 tablets, try half a serving for a week, and see how your body responds to the lower dose, and increase as desired. Remember, B-vitamins are “sparks”, balancers, and activators within our cells, and can give you energy, boost your mood, and reduce stress, if you’re running low.
4. Vitamin A
Vitamin A is an important antioxidant and mitochondrial nutrient essential for healthy energy production, brain function, immunity, and maintaining optimal cellular health. A deficiency can result in fatigue, poor stamina, a weakened immune system, frequent infections, impaired healing, and night blindness. The animal forms (retinol; retinyl acetate and palmitate) and the plant forms (carotenoids) of vitamin A serve important functions in the body including red blood cell production, the formation of growth factors important in healing and repair processes, the health of all mucous membranes, preventing infections, and healthy mitochondrial function. Depleted stores of vitamin A can occur due to chronic stress, infections, and environmental or food chemicals such as mold toxins which increase your requirement for this important nutrient. Vitamin A promotes neurogenesis (i.e. the formation of new brain cells) and neuroplasticity in the brain, which is the brain’s ability to grow and form new neural connections in response to changes in the environment.24-27
Recommended dose: 2,500-5,000 iu per day of preformed vitamin A (retinol) from cod liver oil or retinyl palmitate (animal forms) is more active than the equivalent amount of the plant-form, precursor of vitamin A, ß-carotene, which is converted to vitamin A, as needed by the body.
5. Vitamin C
Vitamin C is a vitally important antioxidant nutrient for the brain and nervous system. So much so that the brain has a dedicated transport mechanism for boosting its levels of vitamin C – the sodium-dependent vitamin C transporter-2 (SVCT2). Following the adrenal glands, which need vitamin C for hormone production and antioxidant protection, neurons in the brain and nervous system contain the second highest concentrations of vitamin C in the human body. Neurons are especially sensitive to vitamin C deficiency because they have 10 times higher rates of energy metabolism than surrounding cells. Vitamin C is also essential for the production of L-carnitine, an important molecule in mitochondrial energy production, and serves a vital role in the production of feel-good neurotransmitters such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin.28-30 A double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial with high school students found that students who took 500 mg per day of vitamin C had reduced stress and anxiety compared to those receiving a placebo. Like many of the nutrients discussed above, an adequate intake of vitamin C is necessary for the health and formation of new neurons, while improving mood, stress resilience, and cognitive function. Vitamin C is depleted by all forms of physical, chemical, and emotional stress, exercise, pollution, smoking, heavy metals, and a wide-variety of environmental chemicals.31-34
Recommended dose: the requirement for vitamin C increases with all forms of stress, and when healing from trauma or illness. 1,000 – 3,000 mg of vitamin C per day is a beneficial daily dose for most people in the form of ascorbic acid, ascorbates, or ascorbyl palmitate (a fat-soluble ester of vitamin C).
6. Vitamin E
It has been estimated that greater than 90% of Americans do not consume sufficient vitamin E to meet their body’s needs.35,36 A deficient intake of vitamin E – less than 30 iu per day for adults – can result in neurological abnormalities, ataxia, peripheral neuropathy, muscle weakness, and damage to the retina of the eye. The main function of vitamin E (d-alpha tocopherol) in humans is that of a fat-soluble antioxidant that is essential for normal neurological function. Vitamin C and other antioxidants are capable of regenerating vitamin E back to its active, antioxidant form.36
A 2013 Finnish study found that higher blood levels of vitamin E forms (tocopherols and tocotrienols) correlated with a reduced risk of cognitive impairment in older adults.37 Of the 8 vitamin E isoforms, alpha-tocopherol and gamma-tocopherol are the most abundant in the human diet. There’s a lot of debate as to what isoform of vitamin E, and in what amount is the most beneficial for antioxidant (anti-inflammatory) activity, and for overall health and wellness. This topic was recently tested in a study at the University of Illinois which found that alpha-tocopherol exerted greater anti-inflammatory activity than the gamma form, which flies in direct contrast to previous studies suggesting that gamma-tocopherol may be superior.38,39
This debate will likely continue, but what is clear from the latest research is the following: the biological activity of vitamin E is highly dependent upon regulatory mechanisms that serve to retain alpha-tocopherol and excrete the non-alpha-tocopherol forms.39 So, in other words, the body preferentially holds on to the d-alpha-tocopherol form as if it were gold, whereas other forms which have been shown to have antioxidant activity (and benefit) such as gamma-tocopherol and the tocotrienols are actively metabolized and excreted, or converted into alpha-tocopherol (as is the case with gamma-tocopherol), so as to not accumulate in the body. To say the least, it’s complicated, so until we have it all elucidated, I recommend getting at least the RDA for vitamin E (30 iu/d), but no mega-doses since high doses of alpha-tocopherol may deplete the gamma isoform, which appears to be needed for other biological functions (e.g. epigenetic modulation). Smoking, pollution, exercise, exposure to heavy metals and pesticides, and the consumption of polyunsaturated fats (e.g. sunflower or soybean oil) all increase your requirement for vitamin E.
Recommended dose: 30–100 iu of vitamin E plus mixed tocopherols is a beneficial daily dose for most people in the form of d-alpha tocopherol, or its esters (acetate or succinate forms) coupled with beta, delta, and gamma-tocopherols. In conjunction with the tocopherols, mixed tocotrienols – also part of the vitamin E family of molecules – are also available and have been shown to have unique benefits of their own.
7. Essential Fatty Acids
We need a number of essential fatty acids for optimal health and well-being. The majority of our population does not get enough of omega-3 fatty acids (DHA/EPA), and get too much of the omega-6s found in corn, soy, and seed oils. Both DHA/EPA are important for healthy brain function and have beneficial effects on mood and cognitive performance. These fatty acids are often in short supply in the standard American diet unless you eat a good amount of fatty fish (e.g. salmon, sardines) per week. With respect to their brain-boosting effects, a 2014 study found that fish oils containing a higher EPA to DHA ratio resulted in greater neurocognitive benefits. Participants’ brains worked “less hard” (i.e. functioned more efficiently) in those who took the EPA-rich supplement versus the DHA-rich one.40 EPA is known to have greater anti-inflammatory activity than DHA, which may explain why EPA-rich supplements show greater benefit for the brain.41-42 Another important fatty acid is the omega-6 fatty acid, gamma linolenic acid (GLA), which is found in trace amounts in green leafy vegetables and nuts, and higher amounts in breast milk, borage oil, and evening primrose oil. Like the omega-3 fatty acids, GLA has powerful anti-inflammatory activity, which benefits all body systems, and has been shown to be especially beneficial for the skin, brain, cardiovascular system, and joint health.40-44
Recommended forms and dose: 1,000-3,000 mg/d of omega-3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA) and 70-500 mg of GLA is a beneficial daily dose for most people with higher doses especially beneficial for those with chronic inflammation, joint pain, a skin condition that needs healing, or have experienced a traumatic brain injury (e.g. concussion).
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