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Anxiety and Depression Are Linked To Chemical Brain Imbalances

Anxiety and Depression Are Linked To Chemical Brain Imbalances

Revisiting old ideas and assumptions, without clinical data, seems to be as good a start as any for puzzled scientists when it comes to the subject of depression, anxiety, and seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Categorizing these medical conditions into addictions or disorders has also not helped in discovery and treatment. This is not to say that behavioral counseling and certain selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors known as SSRI, better known as anti-depressant drugs, do not help a percentage of the population. However, these methods are purely based on trial and error.

Over the past 15 years, there have been advances made by researchers in making more than just an effort in understanding the complexity of the brain and pinpointing areas of chemical balances.

Melanocortin

In the 1950s, it was discovered that the Nucleus Accumbens (NAc) was associated with the ability to feel pleasure. Robert C. Malenka, M.D., Ph.D., Pritzker Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine, decided to take a closer look at this pleasure circuit since it seemed to be lacking in many diagnosed with depression. What he and his colleagues discovered was that it was not as much the specific region of the brain as much as the circuit activity that crossed through many complex regions.

Dr. Malenka has become a leading expert on the tiny gaps, called synapses, that occur during the transmission of nerve cell activity signals. The challenge is great, since there are trillions of synapses in the human brain. Recently, melanocortin circuit’s contribution to anhedonia-like behavior was found, and Dr. Malenka has high hopes in identifying a potentially new pathway of intervention in depression.[1] Melanocortin is a hormone that affects appetite in humans and further, turns off the brain’s ability to experience pleasure when an animal is stressed.

Monoamine Oxidase

Monoamine oxidase loss is the basis of another study investigated by Dr. Jeffrey Meyer,[2] Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Neurochemistry of Major Depression at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, Ontario. Monoamine oxidase (MAO-A) is an enzyme that breaks down chemicals like serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine.

Dr. Meyer discovered that there was a huge increase in MAO-A in patients with major depression diagnosis.[3] Knowing that this was a significant breakthrough in tracking monoamine transporters, his team created a model to follow, like a road map. This will take the guess work out of watching how chemicals, like serotonin and dopamine, increase or decrease at different rates based upon transporter density. Researchers are now moving on to the next step in why MAO-A levels are raised in the brain and how to prevent it.

Acetylcholinesterase

Dr. Marina Picciotto, Ph.D., Professor of Neurobiology and Pharmacology at Yale University, and a team of researchers, have proven a biological cause for depression and anxiety, one which was previously dismissed in theory. Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that was overshadowed by a signal-carrying chemical, called serotonin, as a leading cause of depression. While serotonin is important in the scheme of transmission, it is not nearly as powerful as acetylcholine.

An enzyme called acetylcholinesterase (AChE) has been found to lower acetylcholine levels.[4] The team discovered while studying mice that were treated with Prozac, that the AChE levels raised considerably, and even higher levels of acetylcholine were noted. This once questionable area of treatment became understandable, and showed why SSRI anti-depressants were valuable in alleviating depression.

The relationship between serotonin and acetylcholine signaling systems has not yet become clear, but by finding the cause of depression, treatments can now be studied from a different point of view.

Genes and Chemicals

It has already been discovered that certain genes make individuals more susceptible to low moods and how their treatment with anti-depressant drugs may differ from the next person. However, by majoring this hurdle, scientists can now focus on how specific regions of the brain changes in individuals.

For example, the hippocampus is smaller in some depressed people. Scientists’ hypothesis lies in the fact that new nerve cells have to be grown in order to combat the deteriorating cells that cause depression.[5] In animals, it was found that the use of anti-depressants spurred the growth and enhanced branching of nerve cells in the hippo-campus.

New neurons, a process called neurogenesis, that are stimulated by drugs specifically designed for strengthening nerve cell connections and improving the exchange of information between nerve circuits, could be the answer in treating depression. Scientists have pinpointed several types of neurotransmitters; these include Acetylcholine, Serotonin, Norepinephrine, Dopamine, Glutamate, and Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). By studying each one of these transmitters and creating new chemicals that enhance their existence, depression, anxiety, and SAD could easily be treated.

Conclusion

It seems that researchers are onto something; something that can aid in treatment soon, others years down the road. While every one of these discoveries, including herbal remedies,[6] seem deserving of further testing, let us not forget that the brain is a very complex machine, and that it may take a collaboration of findings in order to reach an answer for different individuals.

Featured photo credit: Gratisography via pexels.com

Reference

[1] Brain and Behavior Research Foundation: Moving Beyond ‘Chemical Imbalance’ Theory of Depression
[2] Centre for Addiction and Mental Health: Dr. Jeffrey Meyer
[3] Psych Central: Depression’s Chemical Imbalance Explained
[4] Brain and Behavior Research Foundation: Potential Root Cause of Depression Discovered by NARSAD Grantee
[5] Harvard Health Publications: What Causes Depression?
[6] TN Nursery: Herb Plants

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Last Updated on June 5, 2020

How Do Memory Vitamins Work? (And the Best Brain Supplements)

How Do Memory Vitamins Work? (And the Best Brain Supplements)

There are a whole bunch of alleged memory vitamins and supplements to help you concentrate and boost your brain function. Unfortunately, there’s also a lot of misinformation, dodgy studies, and things we just don’t know when it comes to which vitamins actually help with memory and concentration.

This article will dig into the current research to pick four of the best vitamins and supplements to boost your memory and overall brain function.

Vitamins Vs Supplements

First, let’s talk about the difference between a vitamin and a supplement. Vitamins are simply organic compounds that are necessary in small quantities to sustain life[1]. We’re talking the vitamin A, B, and Cs here. Vitamins are in the unprocessed, healthy foods you eat every day and are also available as daily supplements in pill form or as chewy, edible cartoon characters.

Supplements are just extra pills, liquids, or cartoon characters that you consume in addition to the actual food you eat. Supplements can include but are not limited to vitamins, minerals, amino acids, herbs, hormone building blocks, and other compounds that are synthesized or extracted from natural sources.

What Research Says About Vitamins and Supplements

Now, we need to talk about the current state of the research on memory vitamins and brain supplements.

The only real consensus seems to be that much more research needs to be done to truly answer which vitamins and supplements are best for your memory.

Supplements are big business. In 2015, Americans spent 643 million dollars on supplements, and a quarter of Americans over 50 take them regularly[2]. That’s a lot of money spent on an extremely unregulated and under-researched industry.

Here’s what we do know:

The brain needs vitamins and minerals to function properly. We also have some studies on rats and in small samples of humans that show preliminary glimmers of hope[3] that certain memory vitamins and brain supplements may also have positive effects on our brains.

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How Do Memory Vitamins and Supplements Work?

Vitamins and supplements work in many different ways to improve memory and brain function. So, let’s break down how some of the major vitamins and supplements work.

Nootropics

Any vitamin or supplement that aids memory falls into a category called nootropics. Nooptropic is now a term that refers to any natural or synthetic substance that has a positive impact on memory.[4]

Each type of nootropic works differently in the body to affect memory.

Antioxidants

Some nootropics are antioxidants. Vitamins such as vitamin E fall into this category.

Antioxidants help memory by protecting cells from free radicals. When free radicals build up in the body (a natural by-product of metabolism, aging, and exposure to environmental toxins), they cause cellular damage, so antioxidants help memory by preventing and reversing some of this damage.

Regeneration

Some nootropics help memory by going a step further than antioxidants. Some, like Lion’s Mane mushrooms, may help stimulate new cell growth. This regeneration would help memory by stimulating new neural growth.

Memory relies on strong neural pathways, so nootropics that stimulate cell growth might be especially effective supplements.

Stimulants

In order to remember, we have to be awake and alert. The first part of memory is perception, so nootropics such as caffeine help us wake up enough to perceive in the first place. These sensory perceptions can then be turned into memories.

Adaptogens

Adaptogens are believed to regulate your adrenal glands, which helps your body deal with stress. More research is needed, but some think that adaptogens help control hormone levels, which helps your immune system, energy levels, and brain functioning[5].

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Inflammation Reduction

Another way some nootropics help memory is by reducing inflammation in the brain. Memory relies on strong neural connections, and inflammation hurts these connections. So, nootropics that relieve this inflammation may be helpful for people to improve their cognitive functioning and memory.

Improving Sleep

Research is starting to show that sleep may also be critical for memory. Studies show that memory may require an active forgetting process during REM sleep[6].

While we sleep, we are actually clearing out less important memory pathways. This helps strengthen the memories that do matter, so sleep is a critical component in memory. Any nootropic that improves our sleep may also be helping to strengthen our memory and brain functioning.

So, which four memory vitamins and brain supplements top the list?

The Best Brain Supplements

If you’re looking to boost your memory, try any one of these supplements.

1. Vitamin E

If we’re just talking about vitamins, I’d put my money on vitamin E to boost memory.

Vitamin E is an antioxidant, which means it protects cells from free radicals. When there are too many free radicals in the body, they cause cellular damage. So, vitamin E helps slow the aging process (cellular damage), including the onset of Alzheimer’s-related dementia.

Studies have shown that people with adequate levels of vitamin E performed better on cognitive and memory tests and significantly delayed Alzheimer’s-related dementia. To boost vitamin E’s effects even more, some studies have also shown that it performs better with adequate levels of vitamin C[7].

2. Lion’s Mane

Lion’s Mane mushroom has been around in Chinese medicine for thousands of years but may not be on your radar just yet. Some preliminary studies on rats have shown that it may improve memory and protect the brain.

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Lion’s Mane has anti-oxidizing effects in the body, fighting off those free radicals, but it may also stimulate Nerve Growth Factor. As Dr. Mary Sabo L.Ac DACM explains:

“These proteins stimulate the production of new brain cells and support the health of existing ones. They also support myelin and brain plasticity.”[8]

Myelin is the fatty substance around nerve cell axons. Axons are like the wires between cells, so when we’re talking about memory, protecting the axon coverings is like protecting the plastic covering of electrical wires. When the covering is compromised, the wire itself is, too.

Like all the other nootropics, much more research needs to be done on Lion’s Mane, but the early studies seem encouraging. It may help stimulate neural growth, protect brain cells, and remove free radicals, which may help improve your memory.

3. Omega-3 Fatty Acids

A lot of research has been done on fish oil and how it affects overall brain health. Just like vitamin E, we should be getting the fatty acids in fish oil in our actual diet. But if you don’t, a supplement might be just what the doctor ordered (and again, please check with your doctor before taking any supplements).

Fish oil contains omega-3 fatty acids. The 3 in omega-3 refers to the 3 different fatty acids in omega-3: EPA, DPA, and DHA.

There still needs to be more studies to clarify which fatty acids have which effects on the brain, but preliminary studies show that omega-3, especially DHA, is the most important fatty acid for the memory of non-impaired adults[9].

Omega 3s are found in cell membranes, and studies have shown that consuming them may help protect cell health in the brain by helping build cell membranes throughout the body[10].

4. Rhodiola Rosacea

There’s an herb called Rhodiola Rosacea that may also help mental and physical fatigue. Rhodiola Rosacea is an adaptogen, which means it helps regulate the adrenal glands. This helps you deal with stress better.

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According to Dr. Sabo:

“One double-blind, placebo-controlled study on physicians working night shift showed it [Rhodiola Rosacea] was helpful in boosting cognitive cerebral functions when taken daily in supplement form.”

So if you’re looking for a supplement to help with your cognitive endurance, Rhodiola Rosacea may be the thing for you.

The Bottom Line

So, what should you keep in mind when considering memory vitamins and brain supplements?

There is still not enough research to definitively say which memory vitamins are best or which supplements will boost your brain the most. What most doctors agree on is that a healthy diet with natural, unprocessed foods, a physically active lifestyle, a good night’s rest, and strong social relationships are actually the best things we can do for our memories and our brains more generally.

However, if you’re making those positive changes with your diet, exercise, sleep, and relationships, you may also still be considering supplements. Consult your doctor first because memory problems may be a sign of something much more serious. As Dr. Sabo explains:

“Problems with memory and concentration can be symptoms of other conditions such as hypothyroid, anxiety, depression, or insomnia. It can also be an early sign of Alzheimer’s or dementia in the elderly. While some supplements can help with these symptoms, getting the right diagnosis and medical care from an MD and targeted support from a holistic practitioner can be the best path for ongoing care.”

So seek an expert’s opinion and ask informed questions about nootropics, adaptogens, and antioxidants to land on your own decision for which memory vitamins and brain boosters are best for you.

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Featured photo credit: Ben Sweet via unsplash.com

Reference

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