The Keys to Brain Health: 10 Supplements and Habits That Supercharge Your Brain
BY RAY KURZWEIL AND TERRY GROSSMAN, M.D.
intensive research into the brain over the last few decades has revealed many powerful supplements and habits that can noticeably increase brain health at any age.
It is important to realize that growing older (and wiser!) is not the same thing as aging. Everyone grows older all the time, but we aren’t necessarily aging as we do so since, by definition, the aging process is one of deterioration in both physical health and brain health.
The Art of Staying Young: Are You Aging or Youthening?
You grew older today, but did you age as well? If you drank a few cups of green tea, had five servings of fruits and vegetables, exercised for at least 30 minutes at your target heart rate, took nutritional supplements optimized for your age and health situation, spent quality time with close friends and loved ones, consumed a glass of red wine, had a romantic (and sensual!) time with your spouse or significant other, and got eight hours of quality sleep, then you probably aged very little if at all.
Multiple processes cause us to age. Some are simple, such as the depletion of a vital substance called phosphatidylcholine in our cell membranes (which you can reverse by supplementing with that substance, as we discuss in the section on brain health supplements below). Some are complex, such as keeping your most important organ—your brain—healthy. We’ll discuss optimal brain health along with sleep since sleep is so vital to healthy brain function.
We Think, Therefore We Are: The Importance of Optimal Brain Function
Your brain makes up only 2% of your weight yet receives 20% of the blood coming from your heart and uses 20% of your body’s oxygen and glucose. It also represents 50% of your genetic complexity. In other words, half of your genes describe the design of your brain, with the other half describing the organization of the other 98% of your body. Moreover, your brain is the master puppeteer: It controls every beat of your heart, every blink of your eyes, the release of your hormones, not to mention all of your willful activities. It has long been regarded as the seat of consciousness, the true you. So it makes sense to consider what you can do to support and improve your brain function, keeping it healthy—and happy, too! As it turns out, there is a lot you can do to cultivate a healthy brain. The ideas here can dramatically slow down brain aging and help you avoid the often catastrophic downsides of brain dysfunction.
100 Billion Neurons and 1 Trillion Cells
We now know the human brain is composed of about 100 billion neurons plus a trillion glial support cells. It was originally thought that the glial cells just provided physical support for the neurons, but recent studies have demonstrated that they play a role in influencing the synapses, which are the connections between neurons. We have about 100 trillion such connections, and that is indeed where most of the action takes place. So there is a lot of complexity that goes into brain health.
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And there is a lot that does go wrong. Evolution focused on our formative years and enough of our early adulthood to allow us to raise our children so that they became self-sufficient. As a result, keeping our brains healthy much past our twenties was not a trait selected by natural selection when our brains evolved. Our brain health is subject to either sudden or gradual decline with age, to self-destructive addictive behaviors, to depression and anxiety disorders, and to many other limitations, not to mention potentially catastrophic lapses of judgment—which can still happen even in healthy brains!
You Create Your Brain: The Self-Repairing Mind
Perhaps the most important insight relevant to brain health that has come from recent advances in information technology is the plasticity of the brain. Since the mid-19th century, it was thought that brain regions were hardwired for specific tasks and that neurons could not be replaced. In 1857, French neurosurgeon Paul Broca related specific cognitive deficits to particular regions of the brain affected by injury or surgery. For more than a century, it was believed that unlike other areas of the body that are capable of repairing themselves, the brain could not replace its neurons and connections that had been lost or damaged and that we are continually and irretrievably losing brain matter.
From recent brain imaging research, we now know the brain possesses plasticity, meaning it is perhaps the most dynamic and self-organizing organ of the body. Although there is some degree of specialization in the skills of different regions of the brain, stroke victims are often able to transfer skills from a damaged region to one that is undamaged and restore a healthy brain. Moreover, we can see in recent brain scans how we actually grow new brain connections and even create new neurons from stem cells as a result of our thoughts, which also contribute to brain health.
In an experiment with monkeys at the University of California, brain scans obtained before and after the animals were trained to perform a specific task involving the nimbleness of one finger showed substantial growth in neural connections associated with controlling that finger. An experiment with humans who were taught how to play the violin showed substantial growth of connections associated with the fingers of the left hand responsible for controlling the notes.
In the latest brain image studies, we can see real-time movies of individual interneuronal connections actually creating new synapses (connection points between neurons), so we can see our brain create our thoughts and in turn see our thoughts create our brain.
The true meaning of Descartes’ famous dictum, “I think therefore I am,” has been debated for centuries, but these findings provide a new interpretation: I do indeed create my mind from my own thoughts.
Use It or Lose It
The lesson of these new insights is that our brain is entirely like any of our physical muscles: Use it or lose it. We all know what happens to your muscles if you are bedridden from illness or just living the couch potato life. The same thing happens to your brain health. By failing to engage it in intellectually challenging activities even if you’re supplementing with brain vitamins and nutrients, your otherwise healthy brain will fail to grow new connections, and it will indeed become disorganized and ultimately dysfunctional. The converse is also true for both body and brain. If someone who has not been physically active for a sustained period starts a program of physical therapy and regular exercise, she can regain her muscle mass and tone within a matter of months. The same thing is true to improve brain function.
Many studies demonstrate that people who maintain their intellectual activities throughout life maintain a healthy brain and remain mentally sharp without using brain supplements. A Canadian brain health study called the Victoria Longitudinal Study has shown that older individuals who routinely engage in mentally challenging activities, including everyday activities such as reading, remain mentally alert, as compared with the substantial cognitive decline of those who do not engage in these activities.
Everything is Connected
The concept that certain brain activities occur in the left half of the brain and others on the right is only partially true. As researchers have learned more about how a healthy brain operates, they’ve recently discovered that a type of neuron called the spindle cell crosses from one side of the brain to the other and appears to be heavily involved in higher-level emotions. In recent brain scanning experiments using new types of scanners that can image individual neurons, these cells “light up” (become especially active) when test subjects are shown a picture of a loved one or hear their child crying. The spindle cells are unusual in that they can be very long, spanning the entire length of the brain, and are deeply interconnected with other neurons. In a healthy brain, one spindle cell will typically have hundreds of thousands of connections to other cells. Unlike the highly organized cells of the cerebral cortex, the brain region responsible for rational thought, the spindle cells display unpredictable and fairly exotic structures and connection patterns.
They are connected to almost every other region, so they receive input from everything else going on in our brain. From these studies, it is apparent that the spindle cells are not doing rational problem solving, which is why we don’t have rational control over our emotional responses. Moreover, these studies hint at how important emotional health is to overall brain health.
Although each spindle cell is very complex, we don’t have very many of them. In a healthy brain, only about 80,000 of our 10 billion neurons are spindle cells. Only a few animal species have spindle cells at all. Gorillas have about 16,000, bonobos about 2,100, and chimpanzees about 1,800. Recently we have discovered that whales actually have more than humans. Interestingly, newborn humans don’t have any spindle cells. They begin to appear at about 4 months and develop through 3 years of age, which exactly mirrors the ability of young children to deal with higher-level emotions and moral issues.
About 45,000 of the spindle cells are in the right hemisphere, and 35,000 are in the left. This small imbalance appears to account for the notion that the right brain is the emotional brain and the left brain is the more rational brain. Although the right brain does have more spindle cells, both halves of the brain are engaged in logical and emotional activities. Individuals with a rare brain health disorder who use only half of their brain often appear to behave almost normally, engaging in both logical and emotional activities.
Exercising Your Mind For a Healthier Brain
The concept that the right brain is responsible for creativity and emotion and the left brain is the center for rational and logical thought is more metaphor than reality. Nonetheless, in terms of exercising your brain, it is important to engage both your logical and your emotional faculties for a healthy brain. To the extent that your job or educational activities do not engage your logical brain, find activities that require problem solving in order to improve brain function and brain health. There are myriad examples, ranging from board games such as chess to solving crossword or Sudoku puzzles. Keeping track of your finances or planning a trip will engage your logical mind. Reading and writing certainly engage both aspects of your brain. Express your creative and artistic urges by studying a musical instrument. Learn to create art using any modality, including computer graphics. Take up a hobby. Take an adult education course. Travel to new places. Engage in conversations with interesting and thoughtful people. Most important, emphasize interpersonal relationships for a healthy brain. Strong connections to others deeply engage both types of mental activities and satisfy a basic human need.
So, here’s a useful suggestion on what you can think about to keep your brain healthy: Contemplate how to keep your brain—and body—healthy. You can start improving brain function by adapting the suggestions here into your personal plan! The suggestions include both lifestyle adjustments and brain supplements, nutrients and vitamins you can incorporate into your diet.
Healthy Lifestyle, Healthy Brain
As we’ve discussed, in many ways you are what you think. But the old dictum that you are what you eat is also true. In addition to keeping your brain challenged, our dietary recommendations constitute your first line of defense for maintaining a healthy brain and if you’re not meeting those there’s some additional brain supplements you may want to incorporate. Your brain is 60% fat, so consuming healthy fats is especially important for brain health. Both EPA and DHA, the principal components of the omega-3 fats found in fish, are important constituents in brain tissue.
Inflammation (overactivation of the immune system) is a major accelerator of brain aging, so our dietary recommendations aimed at reducing inflammation (such as avoiding high-glycemic-index carbohydrates including sugary foods and starches) are also important for brain health.
Nutrients, Herbs and Supplements
The following brain nutrients have been shown in double-blind, placebo-controlled studies to have significant benefits for brain health, as cited in leading medical journals such as Nutrition:
A natural brain supplement derived from the periwinkle plant, increases blood flow to the brain as well as increases the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the brain’s energy source. It has been shown to enhance memory for people with normal memory as well as those with memory impairment.
Conscious Lifestyle Recommends:
Pure Encapsulations High-Potency Vinpocetine
Pure Encapsulations offers an ultra-high quality Vinpocetine supplement for improved brain health and cognition. Free from all GMO’s, preservatives, allergens, binders and fillers, this is 100% vegan and pure product.
Is a natural constituent of the cell membrane but is found in especially high concentrations in the brain. Supplementing with phosphatidylserine as a brain health nutrient slows down memory loss and has been shown to reverse memory loss in some patients with age-related memory decline. It also lowers levels of cortisol, a principal hormone of aging that weakens healthy brain function.
Conscious Lifestyle Recommends:
Jarrow Forumlas High-Potency Phosphatidylserine (PS 100) Capsules
Jarrow offers a soy-free, easy to swallow phosphatidylserine supplement extracted from non-GMO sunflower seeds. At 100mg per serving, this is a high-potency, highly cost-effective natural supplement.
Is a natural substance that strengthens the mitochondria, the energy sources inside the cell. As a brain nutrient, it also protects the brain from aging by slowing down inflammation of brain tissues and is used in this fashion to improve brain function.
Conscious Lifestyle Recommends:
Thorne Research Acetyl-L-Carnitine Capsules
Thorne Research offers a doctor-formulated, science-backed, ultra-high quality formulation of Acetyl-L-Carnitine for maximim brain boosting and protective effects. Free of all preservatives, allergens and binders. Non-GMO.
4. Ginkgo biloba
Has been a staple of Chinese medicine for thousands of years. As a brain health supplement, it increases blood flow to the brain, and numerous studies show that it reduces short-term memory loss in the elderly. Ginkgo biloba is a prescription drug in Europe, where it is prescribed more than any other pharmaceutical substance for memory loss.
Conscious Lifestyle Recommends:
Oregon’s Wild Harvest Organic Gingko Biloba Capsules
Oregon’s Wild Harvest offers an ultra-high quality, high-potency organic Gingko Biloba supplement for increasing blood flow to the brain and stimulating cognitive function. Free of all binders, fillers, allergens and preservatives. 100% pure.
5. EPA and DHA (Fish Oil)
Are the principal components of omega-3 fats and are both found in high concentrations in brain tissue. Both of these brain supplements and nutrients help keep brain cell membranes flexible. As mentioned, the brain is 60% fat; when EPA and DHA levels are inadequate, the brain will substitute less desirable fats, such as omega-6 fats and even the dangerous trans fatty acids. When this happens, cell membranes lose their flexibility, and the transmission of signals between neurons becomes impaired. Many studies have shown improved mood and relief from symptoms such as depression and anxiety from supplementation with EPA/DHA.
Conscious Lifestyle Recommends:
Polar Power Wild Cold-Pressed Alaskan Salmon Oil Capsules
Hands down the worlds freshest, purest, most potent, best-tasting fish oil and source of Omega 3 (EPA & DHA) fatty acids. Cold-pressed from fresh, wild Alaskan Salmon and free of all heavy metals, preservatives and adulterants. Exceptionally rich in naturally occurring Vitamin D3.
6. Phosphatidylcholine (PC)
Is a key constituent of the cell membrane of all of our cells, including healthy brain cells. Studies have shown that supplementing with PC can help improve brain function, memory and learning in humans without mental impairment.
Conscious Lifestyle Recommends:
Thorne Research Phosphatidylcholine Capsules
Thorne Research offers a doctor-formulated, science-backed, ultra-high quality formulation of Phosphatidylcholine for maximim brain and memory boosting effects. Free of all preservatives, allergens and binders. Non-GMO.
7. S-adenosyl-methionine (SAMe)
Is a natural derivative of an amino acid normally produced by the body, and it plays a role in methylation. Levels of SAMe in the body often become depleted by middle age, so taking SAMe as a brain health supplement along with other vitamins and nutrients can be beneficial to maintaining a happy healthy brain.
Multiple clinical trials have shown that SAMe provides substantial benefit for patients with depression. This effect occurs relatively quickly, unlike the requirement to build up levels in the bloodstream that accompanies some prescription drugs for depression. It is, therefore, an effective, natural, and quick-acting treatment for mild depression. In addition to it’s role as a brain supplement, human trials have also shown benefits for strengthening the liver and for relief from osteoarthritis.
Conscious Lifestyle Recommends:
Doctor’s Best SAM-e
Doctor’s best offers a high-potency, double strength 400mg SAM-e supplement. Doctor’s Best uses only the highest quality, pharmaceutical grade Italian SAMe available on the market. This ensures that you receive the most potent SAMe product with the highest percentage of the active form.
Brain Health Supplement Recommended Dosages
10 milligrams twice a day
100 milligrams twice a day for 1 month, decreasing to 100 milligrams daily thereafter
500 to 1,000 milligrams twice a day
80 to 120 milligrams twice a day
1,000 to 3,000 milligrams EPA daily // 700 to 2,000 milligrams DHA daily
900 milligrams two to four times a day
200 to 400 milligrams twice a day
The Importance of Sleep
Shakespeare’s lines illuminated sleep and dreams as among life’s precious pleasures. We all value a good night’s rest, and yet research shows that one person in three is chronically sleep deprived. People often try to solve the problem by consuming a lot of caffeine in the morning, but this habit has cultivated a population of nervous—and still tired—individuals. And though you might be convinced that caffeine actually does improve brain function, good sleep is the real key to a healthy brain and can be just as helpful, if not more, as brain supplements and nutrients.
Sleep has also been shown to have many other important functions for health. The brain consumes 20% of the body’s supply of glucose, and sleep improves glucose uptake into the brain. A baby’s brain can use as much as 50% of the total glucose supply, which may help explain why babies need so much sleep. Leptin is a hormone that decreases appetite, and leptin levels rise during sleep. Many people today don’t get enough sleep, which may help explain the dramatic rise in the number of people with weight problems. Sleep improves brain function, memory and the ability to learn and retain new material. Lack of sleep adversely affects mood and decreases energy and overall brain health. We feel that getting adequate sleep is just as important to a healthy brain as diet and exercise in everyone’s wellness program.
The most important phase of sleep, called REM (rapid eye movement), makes up about a quarter of our time spent sleeping. (Don’t worry, if you aren’t getting enough REM sleep there are some brain health supplements that can help with that.) This is the phase during which you do the most dreaming and are most likely to remember your dreams. Your eyes move rapidly as if you were engaged in a drama from your waking life, although the body from the neck down is largely paralyzed.
What the Science Says About Sleep
Recent advances in brain scanning technology have begun to reveal why sleep is so important to body and brain health. We can actually see in brain scans of a living healthy brain how our brain reorganizes itself during dreaming and processes the information that streamed into our brains during the day. In the journal Science, scientists reported studies of the brain during dreaming, especially during REM sleep, using a brain scanning technology called positron emission tomography (PET). They found that many regions of the brain are just as active during dreaming as when awake, some actually substantially more so. The brain continues to process visual images, though obviously not from the eyes; and the regions of the brain that process new visual information, including regions of the frontal lobe that combine processed information from the eyes with other sensory information, are quiet. Here’s what’s interesting about how sleep contributes to improving brain function: The regions of the brain involved in creating new memories and making sense of our emotions are even more active than when we are awake. The amygdala, a region responsible for intense emotions such as fear, as well as other regions responsible for consolidating emotional memories, is especially active during REM sleep. Psychiatrist J. Allan Hobson of Harvard Medical School, a researcher on the PET brain imaging study, commented that “the PET results are consistent with Freud’s idea that dreams have meaning.” As you can see, sleep, and maybe even dreaming, are play a big role in ensuring an emotionally healthy brain.
Research at Harvard Medical School has demonstrated that sleep helps us absorb new information and process our experiences in a procedure called memory consolidation. In studies, people who slept adequately after studying a new task scored significantly higher on tests than people who did not sleep well, despite both groups having otherwise healthy brain function. With the most recent brain scanning technology, we can now actually see the brain make new connections as it creates new memories and new insights by processing information gathered through the day. An agreement on the exact role of dreaming will require further progress on reverse-engineering the brain in general, but there is a growing consensus that dreaming is not just a random process of neural firing and that it is vital for our brain health but also our physical health.
Sleep Problems and What it Means
Each of us will experience occasional periods of poor sleep resulting from a wide range of distractions, such as gastrointestinal upset and daytime worries, but the serious health concern is chronic sleep deprivation. Harvard Medical School reports a wide range of negative effects on healthy brain functioning from a consistent failure to get a good night’s sleep. It can cause weight gain by affecting leptin levels that control appetite as well as our ability to process carbohydrates efficiently. Sleep deprivation has been linked to hypertension and increased levels of stress hormones, which heighten the risk of heart disease. It can suppress the immune system, which can increase the risk of cancer and other diseases. Not sleeping can make you accident prone. And not sleeping adequately can wreck your mood and ability to concentrate. If you think this may be you, check with your doctor about taking some of the brain supplements for sleep listed below.
Moreover, good sleep can improve brain health and function. In our own experience, we have found that if we get a good night’s sleep (which is most of the time), we have a positive attitude toward life and have the energy and optimism to deal with the challenges that each day brings. Conversely, if we’ve slept poorly, even small problems can stick and become upsetting.
Our first recommendation with regard to sleep is to recognize its importance and to give it a high priority. Pulling an all-nighter to make a deadline is invariably self-defeating. Following the recommendations that follow will put you in close touch with your body and your needs so you will be able to identify just how much sleep you need to keep your brain healthy and happy. Although sleep requirements do vary from person to person, to ensure healthy brain and cognitive function most people need at least seven to eight hours per night.
How to Get Great Sleep Every Night
Here’s our seven-point program for getting a good night’s sleep every night:
1. Eat right. By following the nutrition recommendations in our book Transcend, as well as getting some of the brain health supplements and vitamins listed above, you’ll feel better overall, your gastrointestinal system will be happier, and you’ll sleep better.
2. Remember that exercise promotes a healthy brain and a natural cycle of sleep. If you have difficulty sleeping, increase your aerobic exercise, although you shouldn’t exercise right before retiring for the night. Aerobic exercise releases endorphins, which are natural chemicals that reduce stress.
3. Follow our guidelines for reducing stress, as outlined in our book Transcend (Chapter 9).
4. Practice good sleep hygiene before retiring. This means slowing down and engaging in relaxing activities such as reading before going to bed. Working on a stressful project or listening to stimulating music is not the best way to wind down. Having a regular routine at the end of the day is conducive to sleep, which dramatically improves brain function.
5. If you have difficulty sleeping, cut down on caffeine or avoid it altogether. Don’t consume caffeine in the afternoon or evening.
6. Assess whether you suffer from sleep apnea, a common condition in which the mouth opens widely during sleep, causing a temporary blockage of air and a decline in available oxygen. This is a very common reason that people do not sleep well.
7. Consider the following natural brain supplements, which are helpful for ensuring a good night’s sleep (the authors take some of these):
+ L-theanine is a substance found in tea and promotes relaxation.
+ GABA is a brain nutrient/neurotransmitter and a natural, mild tranquilizer. We recommend 500 to 1,000 milligrams before retiring.
+ Melatonin is a natural hormone that controls the body’s sleep clock, which is necessary for a healthy brain. Normally, the body’s level of melatonin dramatically increases when it is time to go to sleep. This in turn triggers a cascade of other hormonal changes to prepare the body for sleep.
Melatonin levels decline with age, which is one reason people have more difficulty falling and staying asleep as they get older. You should take melatonin only when it is time to start your night’s sleep. Do not take it in the middle of the night if you wake up because that will confuse your body’s sleep clock. If you have trouble falling asleep, we recommend the sublingual form, which will go directly into the bloodstream. Standard oral preparations or timed-release preparations are better if you have trouble staying asleep. A wide range of doses, from 0.2 to 10 milligrams, are usually effective. The sublingual form is also available in doses of 2.5 to 3 milligrams. Usually a 1-milligram sublingual dose is sufficient, and many people find that larger doses leave them groggy the next day. Melatonin is also useful for resetting your sleep clock when you change time zones. In this case, take this brain health supplement when it is time to go to sleep in the new time zone.
The Power of Ideas
Here is a suggestion for an idea that you can adopt today that will change your life: You alone are responsible for your brain health—not your doctor, not your relatives, not your friends. You are not only the pilot, you’re the only one on the plane. Once you’re on the road to improving brain function, slowing down aging and dramatically reducing your risk of disease, you’ll find that you will discover new ideas on a regular basis as our knowledge of how to maintain a healthy brain and biology continues to grow exponentially.
We are the only species that uses its brains to extend its horizons. We’ll eventually have powerful new technologies to improve our brains in dramatic ways, but you can apply your own mental powers to start enhancing your life today.
The article on brain health supplements and habits is excerpted from Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever by Terry Grossman, M.D. and Ray Kurzweil.
About The Author
Ray Kurzweil is one of the world’s leading inventors, thinkers, and futurists, with a 30-year track record of accurate predictions. He’s been called “the restless genius” by The Wall Street Journal and “the ultimate thinking machine” by Forbes magazine. Ray has written five national bestselling books, including New York Times bestsellers The Singularity Is Near and How to Create a Mind. He is co-founder and chancellor of Singularity University and a director of engineering at Google, heading up a team developing machine intelligence and natural language understanding. Visit his website: rayandterry.com and kurzweilai.net
Terry Grossman, MD, is one of America’s leading authorities in the field of anti-aging, longevity medicine, and life-extension therapies. He has co-authored two books with Ray Kurzweil, TRANSCEND, Nine Steps to Living Well Forever and the bestseller Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever. Grossman has written numerous articles for health-related magazines and lectures frequently on topics related to anti-aging medicine throughout the United States and internationally to both lay and professional audiences. Visit his website at: rayandterry.com and grossmanwellness.com