BBC Earth (Asia) - - Science -

A var­ied diet should pro­vide all the brain-healthy nu­tri­ents you need, but could you ben­e­fit from tak­ing more of them? Here the answers get much less cer­tain.

Omega-3 is the sup­ple­ment best known as a brain booster. It is the type of oil found in fatty fish like her­rings, sar­dines and mack­erel. The lit­er­a­ture on oils and the brain would sink a tanker, but most of it is based on small, com­mer­cially mo­ti­vated or oth­er­wise un­re­li­able stud­ies. When these are re­moved, the ev­i­dence that’s left is un­der­whelm­ing. A 2012 re­view by the Cochrane or­gan­i­sa­tion – widely ac­knowl­edged as the ul­ti­mate au­thor­ity on health – found no ev­i­dence that omega-3 re­duces the risk of cog­ni­tive im­pair­ment, while a 2015 meta-anal­y­sis by Cana­dian sci­en­tists con­cluded bluntly: “Omega-3 fatty acids, B vi­ta­mins, and vi­ta­min E sup­ple­men­ta­tion did not af­fect cog­ni­tion in non-de­mented mid­dle-aged and older adults.”

Sim­i­larly, ev­i­dence for herbal sup­ple­ments gin­seng and gingko biloba fails to stand up to strict scru­tiny, as does that for prac­ti­cally every other ‘brain-booster’. The Natural Medicines Com­pre­hen­sive Data­base, a non-com­mer­cial or­gan­i­sa­tion which con­tin­u­ously col­lects and re­views data, failed to find a sin­gle proven ef­fec­tive sup­ple­ment among more than 50 they as­sessed. They rated a few as “pos­si­bly ef­fec­tive” but most sim­ply had “in­suf­fi­cient ev­i­dence” to call.

Lack of proof of ef­fi­cacy is not, how­ever, proof of lack of ef­fi­cacy. The large-scale, ex­pen­sive re­search needed to show beyond doubt if a thing works or not is usu­ally done only for medic­i­nal drugs, so it’s not sur­pris­ing that there isn’t any to show what works for healthy peo­ple.

Sup­ple­ments are not with­out risk – they can in­ter­fere with medicines and pro­duce nasty side ef­fects, es­pe­cially if too many are taken. How­ever, a sup­ple­ment which gives the rec­om­mended daily dose of re­quired vi­ta­mins and min­er­als may be a good idea if you feel your brain needs a boost, es­pe­cially if you think your diet may be de­fi­cient in any way.

“Ev­i­dence for herbal sup­ple­ments fails to stand up

to scru­tiny”

Found in oily fish, omega-3 is of­ten touted as be­ing ben­e­fi­cial for the brain, but the ev­i­dence for this is sur­pris­ingly weak

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