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A Handle on your Health: Misleading 'Brain-Boosting' Supplements

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

I see these advertisements all over the place for a pill that makes you smarter.  They like to make comparisons to the pill from the movie “Limitless” with Bradley Cooper, which was a cool movie. “Take this pill with our special neuro-activating ingredient and your thinking and memory will be better in no time” they claim.  It’s an intoxicating thought to be able to just take a daily vitamin and become smarter without all the nuisance of studying. Does it work, though?

Most of these companies are promoting their supplements by making generalized claims loosely based on results either from lab rats or from a particular cross section of the population. So the answer to the question is yes, they might kind of sort of work on some people at certain times in their life. The consumer needs to know, though, that just because research shows a drug may have some benefit in one particular type of patient it does not mean it can be used for all people with the same expected results.

So what kind of person seems to benefit the most from these “brain pills”? Alzheimer's and dementia patients. There is a great deal of research into Alzheimer’s and dementia. From this research there have been bona fide drugs developed. Drugs like Namenda and Aricept have proven results in helping slow the progression of the disease, but even these drugs don’t make the dementia patient smarter they just slow the progression of this awful disease to its inevitable end.  

These “brain-boosting” supplements that you see advertised on TV and on the internet are not pharmaceutical drugs that have gone through years of testing. They are supplements, which mean there is virtually no oversight of them except to make sure they are safe for consumption. This means they can advertise that they “help” or “aid” or “enhance” aspects of your health and it’s all legal. They don’t have to have any proof that their supplement actually works. Usually there is just enough science behind their claim that they feel they can push their product on the public.  

Ginko biloba is one of the most used supplements to aid memory and concentration.  It comes from China and has been used for hundreds of years. Studies have shown mixed results. Some studies show it improves memory and cognition in healthy people while others failed to do so. The patient population that clearly shows a benefit in memory and cognition is Alzheimer’s. But it definitely isn’t turning people into geniuses. If there is an effect for normal healthy people it is modest at best.

Nerium EHT is another supplement that claims to help your brain. A little different than Ginko biloba, this one claims to reduce the aging in your brain and thus improve your memory and thinking by acting as an antioxidant for the brain. It is made up of a bunch of different vitamins, minerals and plant extracts. The makers of this supplement are more known for their skin products.

Probably the most advertised product these days is the one made from jellyfish, Prevagen. Prevagen’s active ingredient is a protein from jellyfish, apoaequorin, which when combined with calcium is thought to aid the brain with memory, cognition and sleep. Once again, the best results were found in patients with dementia but even then there are no scientific studies to prove it and there are no good studies in normal healthy people. The FTC (Federal Trade Commission) has charged the makers of false and misleading advertising.

So what’s the harm in taking a supplement to help you think more clearly or have a better memory? Well there are two problems as I see it. The first problem is that these supplements are drugs that have real effects on our bodies. They have side effects that can be detrimental to our health but there’s no FDA oversight so it’s hard to know confidently what those affects are ahead of taking the drug. The second problem is that these “brain boosters” aren’t cheap. People are spending their hard-earned money on drugs with a hope and prayer that they work. If you’re rich, wasting a little money on stupid gimmicks like these is no big deal, but for people on fixed incomes the cost of these supplements is concerning.

How can you actually work on your brain health? A healthy lifestyle comes first.  Exercise and healthy eating is your bedrock of health. Next is reading and stimulating your brain. People who use their brain are less likely to develop dementia. This means you should be reading, working puzzles or doing brain games.   Researchers are coming out with all kinds of brain games you can play on your smartphone or computer and they really work. 

As I mentioned before, there are specific drugs for Alzheimer’s patients that help slow memory deterioration. If you have ADHD there are medications that will help with that, too. There is not unfortunately a supplement or pill that will make you smarter or have a better memory. Sorry, folks. If you’re having difficulty concentrating or with your memory please see your doctor. 

Feel better everyone,

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Dr. John Turner is a family medicine and emergency medicine doctor with 25 years of experience. He is also the owner of My Primary Care Clinic and My Emergency Room 24/7 here in Hays County. Dr. Turner may be reached at 512-667-6087.