The need to keep the brain sharp—however you want to define that—is no longer an “old person’s problem.”
The need for memory and cognition supplements has gone well beyond “where do I know this person?”
Consumers interested in these products want to “maintain an active lifestyle, and they want to stay confident in their abilities,” said Mark Underwood, president of Quincy Bioscience in Wisconsin. “They’ve got to be competitive in the workplace, or if they’re looking toward retirement they want to be able to enjoy retirement. Staying sharp is a big takeaway.”
“More and more people are overwhelmed with information and heavy cognitive demands on a daily basis,” said Marci van der Meulen, national sales manager, retail division, at Nordic Naturals, in California. “Supplemental nutrition that supports optimal brain health is among the most important a person can have.”
Do a little digging, and you can understand the validity of van der Meulen and Underwood’s assertions. People are living longer. Life expectancy in the United States reached an all-time high of 78.8 years in 2012, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That increased life span, complemented by increased health costs and reduced support from pensions, leads to a “brewing retirement crisis” in the less-than-cheery words of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.
Staying active in the workforce—and, let’s be honest, everyday life—requires some technological proficiency. What programs matter? That may evolve by the time you finish reading this sentence. A study from Capital One Financial Corp. and Burning Glass Technologies found that digital and computer skills have become essential for nearly 80 percent of middle-skill jobs such as office assistants and sales reps.
“Thirty years ago,” Underwood said, “you could have a strong back or a strong mind. In today’s information age, you’ve got to have a strong mind. You’ve got to be sharp in everything you do. Every career has got an intellectual or informational aspect of it. People have to stay competitive.”
Neil E. Levin, CCNN, DANLA, nutrition education manager for Illinois-based Now Foods has observed a “rapid escalation of cognitive function products for the growing number of people approaching retirement age.” The reason for the interest is more personal: avoiding “the slow mental and physical decline of their elders.”
And customers want to do that without “adding one more drug,” said Lynn Bednar, owner of retail store Walsh Natural Health in Evanston, IL.
“Consumers are looking for something that will [maintain their mental acuity/faculties] while ideally giving a noticeable and relatively quick memory/brain boost and hopefully provide some protection as well to the more serious neurodegenerative disorders,” said certified nutritionist Dr. Mark Kaylor, PhD, founder of the Radiant Health Project and a consultant for New Jersey-based Mushroom Wisdom.
In short, Dr. Kaylor said they want “short-term benefits along with long-term protection and prevention.”
Levin credits the memory and cognition market’s robust health to more than a new generation wishing to avoid the fate of their parents. Supplement manufacturers, he said, have benefitted from “the recent availability of clinically validated ingredients that support this goal.”
How so? “While much research has been done on disease prevention and treatment, these new ingredients also have relevant studies on healthy populations that allow us to make legal structure-function statements that indicate key uses of these materials in dietary supplements,” Levin said. “The ability to penetrate the blood-brain barrier and then to influence and even improve still-healthy people’s mental functions in standardized tests make these new products powerful tools for adults of all ages to manage their brain function and mental acuity.”
Consumers can stay alert regardless of task. “Of course, it’s equally important to remember the little things, like where we left our keys,” said van der Meulen.
Not Just a Senior Moment
The research also addresses brain health in different ways, which means customers and manufacturers can enjoy the benefits of a large market.
Sometimes the parties are one in the same. Underwood is proud of Quincy Bioscience’s brain support supplement Prevagen—which features apoaequorin, a protein originally obtained from a specific species of jellyfish called Aequorea Victoria—but admits to using other brain-friendly supplements.
“It offers more hope for someone to try this if they haven’t had success with something else or add this to their regimen to get increased performance,” Underwood said. “Fish oil and Prevagen do not do the same thing, but they’re also not intended to compete with one another. I take both every single day. One does one thing, which is clearly understood, and one does something else. There’s a complement of things to get a well-rounded supplementation for what the brain needs.”
“New brain- and cognition-preserving mechanisms have been identified,” said Jolie Root, senior nutritionist and educator at Carlson Laboratories in Illinois. “What started as a Ginkgo biloba story has evolved.”
Root detailed these mechanisms—and their nutritional options:
• Stabilizing brain volume (omega-3 and blueberries, pterostilbene);
• Preserving cognitive flexibility (omega-3);
• Slowing aging of the tissues in the brain (omega-3, pterostilbene and other polyphenols, curcumin, green tea, phosphatidyl serine, resveratrol);
• Supporting mood (omega-3 and vitamin D for serotonin synthesis and function, omega-3, pterostilbene, and vitamin D for inflammation and oxidative stress);
• Improving cell signaling thus memory, learning, executive function, and focus (omega-3 DHA and phosphatidyl serine);
• Supporting plasticity or the growth of new neural connections at every age (DHA).
Clearly, these options are not just for the older population. Millennials, Levin noted, are immersed in technology, so maintaining focus is a constant issue. Supplements in the cognitive health subcategory, van der Meulen said, will continue to bloom thanks to “today’s fast-paced world and the ever-present need for everyone to be as mentally sharp as possible.”
Concerned by the recent tales of athletes struggling with brain injuries, more and more parents are considering natural options to help their sports-loving children recover, Bednar added. “It’s very broad,” the retailer said of brain function, noting that depression falls under that category.
And that’s not all. “Your brain controls how you sleep at night,” Underwood said. “Your brain controls your immune system. Your brain controls how you feel about yourself—your moods, your emotions. Your brain controls your personality.”
What’s the manufacturers’ response? The answer is: variety, variety, and more variety. Separate products with vetted ingredients. Combination formulas. You name it.
Carlson has gotten behind pterostilbene, the aforementioned antioxidant that Root extolled earlier. “Vascular aging is accelerated by oxidative stress and poor glucose control, two factors that are supported by supplemental pterostilbene,” she said. “Studies hint that pterostilbene lowers blood sugar and raises insulin even better than some leading pharmaceuticals.”
Now Foods has an exhaustive array of brain-centric supplements. At least three support mood. Two of them concentrate on dopamine, the neurotransmitter that “helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers and also helps regulate movement and emotional response,” Levin said.
L-tyrosine and L-phenylalanine, precursors to norepinephrine and dopamine, are in Now’s True Focus. The company’s Dopa Mucuna is a velvet bean extract that provides the body with 15 percent L-Dopa, the dopamine precursor. According to laboratory studies, Magetin, the company’s patented form of magnesium, may facilitate a relaxed mood.
The research behind Pycnogenol, the French maritime pine bark extract distributed by Horphag Research (Geneva, Switzerland), is proof that the target audience for cognitive and memory supplements is anyone.
“Memory and cognition are important for all of us, at all ages,” said Sébastien Bornet, vice president, global sales and marketing at Horphag Research. “We view this category [cognitive function] as part of a truly holistic approach of anti-aging, health, and well-being.”
Among 15 years of relevant studies, Pycnogenol has been shown to improve overall cognitive function in the workplace (Journal of Neurosurgical Sciences, 2015), as well as improve memory and test scores in healthy college students (Panminerva Medica, 2007).
Add omega-3 DHA and vitamin D3 to the lifelong brain health plan. Studies have shown the “synergistic influence” of the two nutrients “in promoting balanced cognitive functions throughout life,” said Scott Minton, PhD, Nordic Naturals’ scientific advisor.
Nordic Naturals’ products include Omega-3 Phospholipids, Ultimate Omega D3, and Baby’s Vitamin D3.
“For example,” Minton continued, “recent studies show that vitamin D3 may support the growth spurt in the brain (increased size, number of cells) during the third trimester of pregnancy, and strongly influences a range of cognitive activities after birth by modulating the amount and activity of neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin—at the genetic level.”
Meanwhile, Minton said, “DHA helps regulate the release of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, and helps facilitate their normal, balanced activity by increasing the fluidity (flexibility) of nerve cell membranes.”
Mushroom Wisdom Successfully
isolated amyloban from the well-researched Lion’s Mane—a favorite of retailer Bednar. The company sells it as Amyloban 3399. Amyloban intrigues Dr. Kaylor: aside from its brain benefits, he said it has shown “improvements in a range of other imbalances, including sleep disorders (i.e. sleep apnea) as well as improvements in mood and overall quality of life.”
Multi-tasking is not unique to Amyloban 3399. Pycnogenol’s effectiveness extends to heart, joint, and skin health. Aside from improving memory in a 90-day study, Prevagen also helped subjects get more shut-eye. In the 90-day study of people who reported sleeping seven hours per night or less, participants increased their amount of sleep by an average of 37 minutes per night after taking Prevagen. Magnesium has been deemed essential for heart health and other categories.
In herbal formulations, nootropics (ginkgo, bacopa, lavender, etc.) “promote cerebral circulation, act as cerebral anti-inflammatories, have neuroprotective activity, and often relieve anxiety,” said David Winston, president and founder of Herbalist & Alchemist in New Jersey. However, nootropics are typically combined with adaptogens and nervines.
Herbalist & Alchemist offers several products geared toward brain function—including David Winston’s Clarity Compound and David Winston’s Focus Formula—featuring nootropics. Adaptogens or nervines appears in all.
“Adaptogens are herbs which enhance both HPA (hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal) axis and SAS (sympatho-adrenal system) function, which help improve endocrine, immune, cognitive, and nervous system activity,” Winston said. “They also help us to adapt to a wide variety of psychological, environmental and physiological stressors. Nervines are herbs which are gently calming, helping to promote emotional balance and to relieve anxiety and irritability.”
Consumers surely adore having so many options that provide a range of benefits. How do retailers decide what to stock? And after doing that, how do they get the right supplement in their customers’ hands?
To answer the first question, Bednar played quizmaster. Is this product from a company I trust? Where is the company getting its raw materials? Does the product use the study levels of the nutrients? Do the nutrient combinations make sense? Can I see what each ingredient is doing in the product?
Companies looking to build a relationship with a retailer must share this information—and make it easy to understand. “If I can’t give a short bit [to customers] about why this product is beneficial, then I’m not going to sell it,” she said.
Horphag’s Bornet also advised retailers to look for “branded, safe, and evidence-based ingredients.”
Levin at NOW Foods said the same rule applies in dealing with any dietary supplement company: “Seek out companies with robust testing programs and a track record of GMP (good manufacturing practice) compliance as a benchmark of high quality and dedication to safety and efficacy.”
What retailers recommend and customers take can be two separate things. In her store, Bednar’s customers favor old standbys like magnesium and B12. “It’s the Midwest,” she reasons. “People are more conservative.”
Transitioning to more exotic options requires trust. “Once someone is comfortable we’ve made a good recommendation, and it’s made a difference,” she said, “they can go deeper.”
Getting there requires patience. “We use education,” Bednar said. “We’re not pushy. We give them information [such as research and booklets]. Sometimes they want to think about it.” She noted that men typically jump on a recommendation while women ponder their options.
Research about these products is certainly growing, but with all the science and functions involved in brain health and its accompanying supplements, retailers must be careful to avoid making unapproved health claims.
“The federal regulations govern structure-function statements for all dietary supplements,” Levin said. “Thus, we are not be allowed to make medical claims, including those that improve any structure or function of the body. We can discuss how these supplements support already healthy and normal structures and functions such as Supports Memory, Learning and Alertness; Crosses the Blood/Brain Barrier; Promotes Brain Health; and Cognitive Support.”
Of course, if a retailer is stumped, he or she can turn to the company providing the product.
“By opening direct lines of communication, companies can help ensure that research findings and product benefits are properly messaged and develop relationships through interaction,” Bornet said. “Here again, the information provided must be based on facts, not repurposed information.”
That information will become increasingly crucial. Underwood believes brain health is “the greatest health need of the 21st century,” and not just in the United States—China and Japan are growing “disproportionately old.”
“Take obesity,” he said. “Ultimately, you can diet. With the brain, when you lose a certain amount of brain cells you’re not really going to get them back. Technically, your brain can regrow them, but it just doesn’t happen very fast. You need to be ahead of the curve with brain health.”
A silver lining exists in the grey matter. “Maintaining independence longer has profound impact on both health care costs and quality of life,” Levin said, but that means a bigger imperative to research. The resulting strategies can help “adults of all ages to function at their mental peak for longer than ever before.” And we’ll be able to find our car keys, no sweat. VR
For More Information:
Carlson Laboratories, (800) 323-4141
Herbalist & Alchemist, (908) 689-9020
Horphag Research (U.S. branch), (201) 459-0300
Mushroom Wisdom, (800) 747-7418
Nordic Naturals, (800) 662-2544
NOW Foods, (888) 669-3663
Quincy Bioscience, (855) 331-7721