Neurology and Neurosurgery

Brain health supplements: What you need to know

Brain health supplements: What you need to know

By Dr. Paul Wright, Senior Vice President and System Chair of the Nuvance Health Neuroscience Institute


 Research shows that “brain-boosting” supplements may expose individuals to harmful drug interactions or side effects


By Dr. Paul Wright, Senior Vice President and System Chair of the Neuroscience Institute at Nuvance Health


If you are like most people, you want to keep your brain healthy and active as you age. Many people may turn to supplements marketed for brain health. However, research shows that “brain-boosting” supplements may be harmful.


Over-the-counter (OTC) dietary supplements that claim to improve cognitive health may contain unapproved pharmaceutical drugs — and ingredient labels may not list them. This is according to a study published in the peer-reviewed medical journal Neurology® Clinical Practice, an official journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

As a result, people who use “brain-boosting” supplements to improve attention, focus and memory may be unknowingly exposed to combinations or dosages of medications that have never been tested in humans, and may increase the risk of harmful drug interactions or side effects.


Do brain supplements work?

Adults age 50 and older spend more than $93 million a month on supplements marketed for brain health, according to an American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) analysis of spending on just six different types of supplements.


The use of cognitive health supplements is especially common among people with neurological diseases, and particularly among those recovering from a stroke or are living with a condition with no cure — such as Alzheimer’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and multiple sclerosis (MS). Some people may also turn to homeopathic remedies to find a treatment or a cure.


Related article — Dementia risk factors: What you need to know


The truth is there are currently no cognitive health supplements or homeopathic remedies approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA).


Medical experts and consumers cannot know for sure what is actually in these products, and if they are safe and effective because they are not FDA-approved. Supplements may contain toxins and pose health risks related to side effects and drug interactions.


For example, in the 10 supplements that were studied and included in the Neurology® Clinical Practice report, researchers found five drugs that are used in other countries but are unapproved for use in the United States — including omberacetam, aniracetam, vinpocetine, phenibut and picamilon.


The study stated that these drugs could cause side effects such as high or low blood pressure, insomnia, agitation, sedation and dependence (addiction), which could potentially lead to hospitalization.


These side effects may cause some people to feel unwell and believe their neurological condition is causing these symptoms. Feeling worse may lead them to take more supplements, which can aggravate their symptoms further.


In many cases, people feel better after they stop taking supplements and start pursuing lifestyle changes that may help alleviate their original symptoms — such as quitting smoking, getting regular exercise and modifying their diet.


Are you concerned about your brain health? Is a loved one showing signs of dementia? Learn more about Alzheimer’s disease and dementia care at Nuvance Health and find a neurologist here.


Talk with your doctor before taking brain health supplements

Although there are no FDA-approved medications to improve memory or reverse the symptoms of dementia, there are medications to slow dementia and Alzheimer’s disease progression. Today, there are also more FDA-approved medication options for the treatment of MS, and as a result, we are seeing fewer people with MS taking supplements.


It is important to speak with a doctor if you or a loved one is currently taking or considering taking a brain health supplement. Supplements may cause interactions with prescribed medications or may contain unpredictable combinations or doses of unapproved drugs.


Also, speak with a doctor to help resolve concerns you may have about how your brain is functioning, or if you are concerned that a loved one may be showing signs of dementia. They may recommend tests to determine an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan, which may include lifestyle changes, such as getting the right amount of nutrients from your diet. Supplements such as vitamin D or calcium may be necessary if your doctor identifies a deficiency — but you should only take them if your doctor recommends them.


If you still decide to take a supplement, tell your doctor so they can update your medical record and make sure there are no interactions with other medications you are taking. Also, make sure the company that makes the supplement is reputable.


Finally, it is important for people to know that many doctors are not against supplements or homeopathic remedies. I am happy to recommend these options for my patients if something is proven to work with no adverse reactions. That is why we encourage people to speak with their doctor about all their health concerns; we can develop an appropriate care plan together that may include a variety of personalized options.


The bottom lineResearch shows that cognitive health supplements may contain unpredictable combinations and doses of unapproved drugs, which could pose health risks to those who take them. Talk with your doctor before using supplements or homeopathic remedies.


Memory problems can occur for many reasons, including medication side effects and vascular diseases that limit blood flow to the brain. Early detection is key to starting treatment or quality of life interventions as soon as possible. Nuvance Health provides memory disorder care you can trust, including a family-centered approach to Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. Find a neurologist today.


Dr. Paul Wright is a board-certified neurologist with over 20 years of experience. He has extensive research experience including studying the effectiveness of novel therapies such as electroceuticals to treat neurological diseases. Book an appointment online with Dr. Wright.


Dr. Paul Wright, Senior Vice President and System Chair, Neuroscience Institute at Nuvance Health
Dr. Paul Wright, Senior Vice President and System Chair of the Neuroscience Institute at Nuvance Health