There are many supplements that claim to improve brain health. Sometimes research supports these claims, sometimes not. Still, a person who is desperate to feel better may be tempted to add one supplement after anotheruntil the pillbox is full and the wallet is empty.
If youre looking cut down to the most essential supplements, consider the following threeomega 3-DHA, vitamin D, and probiotics. The research supporting these supplements as agents of brain health and mood balance is so compelling that nearly everyone who has a brain injury should consider taking them.
Omega 3 fatty acids
Omega 3 fatty acids, specifically docosohexaenoic acid (DHA), are crucial to brain health and brain injury recovery. People who regularly took omega 3-DHA before a brain injury will have built up resilience to neural damagethey will therefore recover faster. People who take omega 3-DHA after an injury will benefit from increased neural repair, increased neural growth, and decreased inflammationthey too will recover faster.
Omega 3-DHA can also prevent the development of mood disorders such as:
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
And omega 3-DHA may help:
Reduce the desire for alcohol
Improve memory and concentration
Lower the risk of suicide
Our bodies dont produce enough DHA, so we must consume it through either food or supplements. Foods that are abundant in DHA include sardines, flax seeds, walnuts, salmon, and soybeans. Most people dont eat enough DHA-rich foods and will need to take an omega 3 supplement that has a high amount of DHA.
How much should you take?
Its hard to overdose on DHA, so you can safely take a lot. People who have had a brain injury (of any severity) and people who are at a higher risk of brain injury should aim for higher doses. How much is a lot?
Healthy adults should take at least 500 milligrams (mg) of DHA daily (healthy kids 250 mg). So, a person who needs more should aim for at least 800 mg daily. A 2011 animal study measured the benefits of DHA in these 3 dosage groups:
3 mg per kg (~1.5 mg per lb)
12 mg per kg (~5.5 mg per lb)
40 mg per kg (~18 mg per lb)
All 3 amounts of DHA reduced brain injury, but the highest dose had the most significant effect. If you translate the highest dose for a person who weighs 68 kg (150 lbs), that would be almost 3,000 mg of DHA!
Omega 3 supplements contain different amounts of DHA, ranging from around 100-500 mg (look specifically for the amount of DHA, not the overall mg in the capsule). But dont go crazytake an amount that balances cost against benefit. You can also supplement with omega 3-enriched foods (i.e. milk, eggs, yogurt), but the food labels usually dont specify how much DHA there is.
A 2011 study of people with a brain injury showed that 65% of those who experienced fatigue, 54% who had sleep problems, at least 25% who had hormone deficiencies, and 36% who were diagnosed with an anxiety disorder were vitamin D deficient.
A lot of people are vitamin D deficient, primarily because many of us dont spend much time in the sun (sun exposure increases vitamin D). People with a brain injury are even more likely to stay inside as a result of being institutionalized or having social anxiety, physical disabilities, or cognitive impairments.
In addition, a brain injury can disrupt hormonal and neurotransmitter circuits, both of which are associated with levels of vitamin D (which is actually not a vitamin but a hormone). For example, progesterone is a hormone that is critical for brain health and injury recovery. But recent research shows that a vitamin D deficiency significantly reduces the benefit of progesterone.
Vitamin D not only supports recovery after a brain injury, it may also:
Increase bone and muscle strength
Relieve chronic pain
Help weight loss
Strengthen the immune system
Reduce the risk of developing cancer and other diseases
In addition to increased sunlight, certain foods such as salmon, tuna, liver, and eggs can increase levels of vitamin D. Many people dont eat enough of these foods and will need to take a supplement to reverse a vitamin D deficiency.
How much should you take?
First, make an appointment with your doctor to get a blood test that specifically shows how vitamin D deficient you are (if you are at all). Your doctor can then make a recommendation of how much to take and when. Some doctors will prescribe a vitamin D supplement that you can take just once a week. You can also get your own over-the-counter supplement. You may find different types of vitamin D on the shelfthe one that is usually recommended is vitamin D3. The recommended dose has increased over the years with many doctors suggesting between 2,000-4,000 International Units (IU) daily. Higher doses may be recommended for people who are considerably deficient. Research shows that 10,000 IU or more a day is safe for most people. However, there is such a thing as too much. Although an overdose of vitamin D is rare, its best to consult a doctor before taking higher doses.
Probiotics are the good bacteria found in some yogurtsthe ones that doctors recommend eating if youve been taking antibiotics. Probiotics are no longer exclusive to yogurt or health food stores. They have become an increasingly popular supplement available in many drugstores. Probiotics have multiple benefits. For instance, they can:
Replace the good bacteria wiped out by antibiotics
Ease gastrointestinal problems
Maintain colon health
Decrease stomach bloating
Help weight loss
Support the immune system
Reduce anxiety and depression
Anxiety and depression? Its true. Probiotics are natures answer to Prozac. A recent study of the probiotic bacterium Lactobacillus rhamnosus found that it significantly reduced both anxious and depressive behaviors. How can bacteria do this? The gut, also known as the second brain, contains around 90% of our serotonin receptors. Serotoninthe primary chemical of many antidepressants that treat anxiety and depression.
Anxiety and depression are both very common after a brain injury. However, some people are reluctant to take antidepressants for fear of side effects, personality changes, or stigma. Others may find that antidepressants or other anxiety drugs just dont work for them. Still others want to do everything possible to get better. Those who are interested in overall brain health may simply want some mood support. A probiotic supplement addresses all of these concerns.
Some medications have side effects such as gastrointestinal upset or mood changes. This is a big reason a lot of people stop taking their medication. Probiotics can help reverse these unwanted side effects and keep you on your medication.
How much should you take?
Its not really about how much you take, but what strains of bacteria work best for you. There are many different strains of probiotics, for example Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus bulgaricus, or Bifidobacterium infantis. There are several different brands of probiotic supplements, and many contain more than one probiotic. It may take some experimenting to find the one that works best for you. It will take a bit of time for your gut to get used to probiotics (there may be a bit of rumbling for a week or two), so be patient. You may also find that changing brands every few months will keep both brain and gut in good form.
To conclude: there are a lot of different supplements that can help support brain health (i.e. zinc, magnesium, amino acids), but they arent necessary for everyone. While youre researching and experimenting with those, omega 3-DHA, vitamin D, and probiotics are the ones to start taking now.