Is it unavoidable with loss of memory and mental ability if we live long enough? Or can we protect ourselves against mental decline?
If, as a start, we can defend ourselves against degenerative disease, such as cancer and cardiovascular disease, the two biggest killers - if we can retain our physical health and strength - we reach the next step: how to protect ourselves to mental decline? How to eliminate or postpone almost indefinitely degeneration of nerve cells? How to avoid Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and other similar conditions? Are there nutrients or other substances protecting against nervous decline? Or is senility unavoidable if we can preserve our physical health long enough?
In my opinion, it is not unavoidable. We will discuss these questions here. Note, however, that far from all is known about the brain and the central nervous system. Although we know a great deal of how protect it, I'm sure much more facts will be uncovered in the future. Thus, I will not present a foolproof strategy here, only the knowledge we presently possess. It is limited, but in no way insignificant. However, it is important to get rid of the idea that anything is unavoidable. Such thinking fosters a mentality of passive acceptance of decline and nothing is done to eliminate it, reverse it, or at least retard it. And, if we take action, we can do quite a lot to improve our odds to remain strong and active far beyond the present average human life-span – physically as well as mentally.
First we must realise that the nervous system is a part of the physical body. Everything that is good for physical health is good for mental health. Nerve cells also crave good nutrition and plenty of oxygen. That is, good nutrition and suitable physical exercise.
Second; it is a fact that everything that is not used does atrophy. You must use your mental and cognitive powers to be able to keep them, or to strengthen them.
Third, and that is the subject of this article, there are a number of substances which are so-called neuroprotective agents, substances helping to preserve brain function.
Neurodegeneration can be a result of physical or traumatic brain injury, stroke, mitochondrial dysfunction, exposure to certain toxins, drug abuse, certain diseases (e.g. schizophrenia and Parkinson's disease), inflammation, certain medical drugs, and even protein deficiency. If it is also a natural part of ageing can be questioned. In any case, there is good reason to do what is possible in order to stop, retard, or even reverse such seemingly age-related gradual degeneration.
We will look at some substances, which can be defined as neuroprotective agents. While the natural ones in most cases can be taken as supplements, one should be careful with pharmaceutical drugs. Although there are a number of such drugs undoubtedly acting as neuroprotective agents, and some can be used for prevention, many of them also come with considerable risks for undesirable side-effects. That means that they are not suitable for self-treatment. I considered how many of these I should discuss here, and I decided not to include them at all.
The list is not exhaustive and although most vitamins and minerals are not included, there is no reason to believe they are not needed for full-spectrum neuroprotection.
Before we look at the individual substances, I want to mention another often overlooked, but very important factor: sleep. Poor sleep quality makes the brain shrink, especially after the age of 60. No doubt, good and sound sleep has a considerable neuroprotective effect.
Crocin, a carotenoid, is the substance that gives saffron its colour. It is a very strong neuroprotective antioxidant. But if you take saffron as a supplement, don't take too much. 10g is a lethal dose for an adult human.
Also remember that carotenoids are fat soluble, so they should always be taken with some fat in order to ensure good absorption.
Curcumin is the yellow colour of turmeric. It has many neuroprotective properties and has shown to be useful in the treatment and prevention of stroke, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.
Curcumin protects cell membranes against oxidation and helps to maintain good cell function. Unfortunately, its bioavailability is poor when taken orally. Turmeric should be taken with some fat in order to be properly absorbed, and if it is ingested together with black pepper, its power increases up to 2000 times.
1-2 teaspoons of turmeric per day can be taken as a dietary supplement. Combine it with ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper.
This powerful herb is not officially a neuroprotector but traditionally it is used against depression. I suspect, however, that it possesses a certain neuroprotective effect. But this is a strong and complex herb, poisonous in high doses, which interacts (sometimes in a fatal way) with many other substances and many prescribed drugs. Caution is justified.
Brahmi is used in traditional Indian medicine as a nerve tonic and to improve memory. The few scientific studies that has been done, indicate that it is a neuroprotector. It has proved to reverse loss of memory in rodents. The herb has strong antioxidative properties.
It has been proved that caffeine protects against Parkinson's disease. It increases glutathione synthesis, resulting in neuroprotection. Other studies have shown that coffee, especially in midlife, protects against Alzheimer's disease. It is not clear if that is a result of caffeine or some other substance in coffee.
This is a compound found in green tea. Combined with caffeine, it seems to increase the intellectual capacity. In animal tests, it has shown to limit the area of brain damage after stroke.
It might come as a surprise to many, but every effect of smoking is not bad. Nicotine protects neurons from glutamate-induced neurotoxicity and delays onset of Parkinson's disease. That does not justify smoking, however. The bad health effects of smoking by far outweigh the good.
Animal tests have shown that Acetyl-L-carnitine, a natural substance, has several neuroprotective effects. However, they have not been proved for humans.
Acetylcysteine, usually given to reduce mucous and to treat overdose of paracetamol/acetaminophen, can also be taken as a general supplement. It is an antioxidant and it provides mitochondrial enhancement. Neuroprotective effects are likely but still unproved.
Lithium is a component of several medical drugs intended for psychiatric treatments. Studies have shown that it has neuroprotective effects as well.
If you want to take lithium as a supplement, the best is to eat thyme, a rich source of this mineral. Then the risk for overdose is reduced. Too much lithium can disturb thyroid function and cause goitre. But even in the form of thyme, it should not be overdone. Don't take too much.
Vitamin E reduces oxidative stress in the brain and prevents neurodegeneration caused by glutamate or stroke.
Apart from many other benefits, Omega-3 fatty acids offer neuroprotective effects by limiting oxidative stress and keep mitochondria healthy. This has been proved for rodents, but so far not for humans. It is likely, though, that there is a similar effect in humans as well.
This compound is derived from the ginseng (Panax) root. It has proved to be a strong neuroprotector, although the mechanisms behind the effects are not fully understood. It is suitable for prevention and for treatment following a stroke.
It has also been shown to prevent trimethyltin-induced neurotoxicity. Trimethyltin is an industrial chemical and a neurotoxin, which has been extensively studied.
This is a substance best known for being found in red wine and the skin and seeds of grapes. (Always eat and chew the seeds when you eat grapes!) It is a neuroprotector. It is also known for its life-extending ability. It mimics the effects of caloric restriction, a proved but uncomfortable method of life-extension.
Melatonin is a hormone formed in the pineal gland. It regulates sleep and is commonly used against jet lag. Not addictive, natural and harmless, it is the only medicine I would ever consider to give as a “sleeping pill”. However, it also reduces free radicals in the brain. It offers significant neuroprotection, especially following a stroke.
A sometimes undesirable side-effect of melatonin is that it slightly decreases the sex drive. This is unusual for neuroprotectors, which often increase libido and fertility.
Neurodegeneration is associated with a low serum level of uric acid, which impairs antioxidant capacity in the cells. A high level of uric acid is neuroprotective, but can also lead to gout, an inflammatory ailment. Interestingly, it has been shown that people with gout has a reduced risk of developing Parkinson's disease.
One should remember that up to 60% of the antioxidant capacity in human blood is provided by uric acid.
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