The primary organ of the central nervous system, the brain is like a powerful, on-board computer. Organised into different areas, interconnected by a network of some 100 billion neurons, it controls almost all the body’s functions (1). Without it, we would not be able to sense anything, move, think, memorise, speak or even breathe!
To perform its many tasks, the brain requires an increased and constant supply of energy. Its primary source of fuel is glucose, a simple sugar produced as a result of carbohydrate metabolism: indeed 20% of our total carbohydrate consumption is reserved for the brain (2)! Extremely oxygen-hungry, it – along with the myocardium - is the organ least able to withstand anoxia (lack of oxygen) (3).
Many nutrients act simultaneously to help preserve the integrity of our grey matter. Fats for example, (particularly polyunsaturated fatty acids) provide structure to neuronal membranes (4). Proteins are broken down into amino acids which are directly involved in synthesising neurotransmitters – the famous chemical mediators that regulate transmission of nerve signals between neurons (5).
Vitamins and minerals also work in tandem to provide neuroprotection at various levels, particularly in terms of cell signalling, transporting oxygen and fighting oxidative stress (6-7).
As we get older, chemical or structural changes occur in the brain to varying degrees depending on the individual. Certain areas of the brain shrink (by 5% per decade from the age of 40 onwards), the number of nerve cells decline, toxic substances accumulate and there’s a change in neurotransmitters (8).These changes are precipitated by a decrease in blood flow (20% on average) which prevents cerebral tissues from being properly oxygenated (9).
These various changes can have a direct impact on brain function, primarily affecting memory, coordination, mental performance or executive functions (reasoning, planning, organisation, judgement …) (10). More specifically, these cognitive problems slow down our ability to carry out daily tasks, make us repeatedly forget things, and impair our capacity for formulating words or generating ideas.
The good news is that it’s possible to prevent and stem this cognitive decline by adopting good lifestyle habits. In addition to eating healthily, regular exercise, challenging the brain every day (with sudoku, crosswords…) and having an active social life are all key to supporting good neuronal health (11-13).
At the same time, those active in the field of cerebral nutrition have been exploring a number of avenues to improve how the brain deals with the ravages of time.
With phytotherapy, we have at our disposal a number of plants that can really help to look after our grey matter. They include:
It may thus be wise to use these plants synergistically in order to gain maximum benefit from their neuroprotective effects (the cutting-edge supplement Neurex contains all these plant extracts, as well as other renowned substances such as turmeric, and vitamins B9 and B12, for a comprehensive action) (22).
Used in Chinese medicine since 200 BC, hedgehog or Lion’s Mane mushroom(Hericium erinaceus) has long white spines, giving it an unusual hairy appearance, hence its ‘Lion’s Mane’ nickname.
Biochemically, it contains beta-glucans, a specific type of polysaccharide involved in lipid metabolism, as well as hericenones, phenol compounds currently being studied by scientists for their interaction with nerve growth factor (NGF) (23).
Though its mechanism of action requires further investigation, supplementation with Hericium erinaceus (for example, the product Lion’s Mane, with 30% beta-glucans) looks set to be a valuable defence aid.
Are you interested more in optimising your cerebral function? While neuroprotection is all about preserving the health of existing nerve cells, there are also specific substances that can increase and strengthen cognitive performance: these are known as nootropics (24). They’re designed to restore your mental clarity and agility, challenge you mentally, increase your efficiency at work …
Along with bacopa and ginkgo, these are compounds which are often to be found in our cupboards: caffeine (the stimulant in coffee) and L-theanine ( (the key amino acid in green tea) both fall into this category (25).
In some specific nootropic supplements they are thus an integral part of the formulation (such as Smart Pills, an ultra-powerful formulation combining bacopa, ginkgo, caffeine, L-theanine and taurine) (26).
Whether for end-of-year exams, professional challenges, or simply to maintain cerebral capacity as you get older, discover the best natural nootropics for stimulating cognitive ability.
Have you heard of the MIND diet? It’s a set of dietary practices designed to promote good brain health. Put it into practice with our recipe suggestions.
Are you keen to think faster, more effectively and for longer? Discover the 7 most effective, natural ‘nootropic’ products for boosting your brain power.
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