Prevent Age-Related Brain Shrinkage with Micronutrients and DHA

May 31, 2017 by Joel Fuhrman, MD

The human brain is nearly 60 percent fat. Omega-3 fatty acids are among the most crucial molecules that determine your brain's integrity.1 In addition, vitamins are essential for thousands of chemical reactions in the body, and certain vitamins and phytochemicals have been singled out for their critically important functions in the brain. These include B vitamins and vitamins C, D, and E.

B Vitamins are crucial for memory and neurotransmitter production

  • Vitamin B1 is essential for the brain to utilize glucose for energy.
  • Folate is important for memory as well as being critical for early brain development.
  • Vitamin B12 is important for memory and production of neurotransmitters. Deficiency in B12 can cause nerve injury leading to impaired sensation and even blindness.2 Higher B12 blood levels are associated with slowed cognitive decline.3
  • Vitamin B6 is also involved in neurotransmitter production, and deficiency is associated with seizures, chronic pain, and depression.4

Antioxidant Vitamins C and E protect the brain

  • The brain is highly susceptible to oxidative stress, which is essentially an imbalance between the production of free radicals and the ability of the body to counteract or detoxify their harmful effects through neutralization by antioxidants. It is one of the main mechanisms of brain aging and a contributing factor to neurodegenerative conditions.5,6
  • Nerve endings have the highest concentrations of vitamin C found in the human body. Vitamin C is thought to function largely as an antioxidant in the brain and nervous system. Blood levels of vitamin C have been positively associated with IQ.2
  • Vitamin E is a component of brain cell membranes, and along with vitamin A and carotenoids, protects vulnerable unsaturated fatty acids (like omega-3s) from oxidative damage. Low vitamin E status is associated with greater risk of Alzheimer's disease.2
  • Vitamin C and E intake were associated with higher cognitive scores in the elderly, and the association was stronger with food sources compared to supplement sources.7
  • In addition to vitamin intake, polyphenols and other antioxidants present in plant foods are thought to contribute to protecting the brain from oxidative damage.2

Note: antioxidants are most effective when consumed from our food rather than supplements. A diet with adequate Vitamin C from fruit and vegetables and multiple forms of Vitamin E fragments from seeds and nuts offers the most protection.

Low levels of Vitamin D are linked to cognitive impairment

  • Vitamin D is involved in regulating glucose and calcium transport to and within the brain, and may also protect cognition by reducing inflammation and increasing availability of certain neurotransmitters.2
  • Vitamin D is also involved in memory formation.8 Several studies have associated vitamin D deficiency with increased risk of cognitive impairment or dementia in older adults.9,10
  • Vitamins and DHA reduce brain shrinkage in the older population

Compared to older individuals with normal cognition, those with dementia have significantly smaller brain volumes as measured by MRI.11 A recent study analyzed blood fats and micronutrients with regard to MRI measures of brain volume and cognitive function tests in older adults. The researchers found three patterns of nutrient status that correlated to brain volume and cognitive function:

  1. Higher dietary intake of vitamins B, C, D, and E — associated with greater cognitive function scores and brain volume. This pattern primarily reflected fruit, vegetable, nut and seed intake.
  2. Higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids (DHA) — associated with greater cognitive function scores and brain volume. This pattern primarily reflected fish intake.
  3. High levels of trans fats — associated with lower cognitive function scores and brain volume.12

Keep Your Brain Healthy with a Nutritarian Diet

Fruits and Vegetables can decrease your risk of dementia

It is known that a Western diet is associated with dementia — the risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease are almost identical to those for cardiovascular disease.13 In contrast, higher vegetable and fruit intake is associated with decreased risk of cognitive decline and dementia.14,15

The American diet is insufficient in providing these brain-healthy nutrients, but a Nutritarian diet provides both the amount and variety of vitamins and other phytochemicals that support optimal brain function. It is especially important to eat healthfully, supplement with vitamin D, and get adequate DHA as we age, especially after age 50.

Keep in mind that fish is not an ideal source of DHA, since mercury is toxic to the brain and reduces the body's antioxidant status.16-18 An algae-based DHA supplement is a healthful, environmentally friendly source of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids. Eating plenty of unrefined plant foods and supplementing appropriately will allow us to maintain valuable vitamins, omega-3s, and other phytochemicals in brain tissue to keep our minds sharp as we age.

  1. Higdon J, Drake VJ. Essential Fatty Acids. In: An Evidence-based Approach to Phytochemicals and Other Dietary Factors. 2 ed. New York: Thieme; 2013:183-208.

  2. Bourre JM: Effects of nutrients (in food) on the structure and function of the nervous system: update on dietary requirements for brain. Part 1: micronutrients. J Nutr Health Aging 2006;10:377-385.

  3. Tangney CC, Tang Y, Evans DA, et al: Biochemical indicators of vitamin B12 and folate insufficiency and cognitive decline. Neurology 2009;72:361-367.

  4. Malouf R, Grimley Evans J: The effect of vitamin B6 on cognition. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2003:CD004393.

  5. Aliev G, Smith MA, Seyidov D, et al: The role of oxidative stress in the pathophysiology of cerebrovascular lesions in Alzheimer's disease. Brain Pathol 2002;12:21-35.

  6. Barja G: Free radicals and aging. Trends Neurosci 2004;27:595-600.

  7. Wengreen HJ, Munger RG, Corcoran CD, et al: Antioxidant intake and cognitive function of elderly men and women: the Cache County Study. J Nutr Health Aging 2007;11:230-237.

  8. McCann JC, Ames BN: Is there convincing biological or behavioral evidence linking vitamin D deficiency to brain dysfunction? The FASEB Journal 2007;22:982-1001.

  9. Grant WB: Does vitamin D reduce the risk of dementia? Journal of Alzheimer's disease : JAD 2009;17:151-159.

  10. Llewellyn DJ, Lang IA, Langa KM, et al: Vitamin D and Cognitive Impairment in the Elderly U.S. Population. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci 2010.

  11. He J, Iosif AM, Lee DY, et al: Brain structure and cerebrovascular risk in cognitively impaired patients: Shanghai Community Brain Health Initiative-pilot phase. Arch Neurol 2010;67:1231-1237.

  12. Bowman GL, Silbert LC, Howieson D, et al: Nutrient biomarker patterns, cognitive function, and MRI measures of brain aging. Neurology 2011.

  13. Fillit H, Nash DT, Rundek T, et al: Cardiovascular risk factors and dementia. Am J Geriatr Pharmacother 2008;6:100-118.

  14. Morris MC, Evans DA, Tangney CC, et al: Associations of vegetable and fruit consumption with age-related cognitive change. Neurology 2006;67:1370-1376.

  15. Hughes TF, Andel R, Small BJ, et al: Midlife fruit and vegetable consumption and risk of dementia in later life in Swedish twins. Am J Geriatr Psychiatry 2010;18:413-420.

  16. Oken E, Radesky JS, Wright RO, et al: Maternal fish intake during pregnancy, blood mercury levels, and child cognition at age 3 years in a US cohort. Am J Epidemiol 2008;167:1171-1181.

  17. Aschner M, Aschner JL: Mercury neurotoxicity: mechanisms of blood-brain barrier transport. Neurosci Biobehav Rev 1990;14:169-176.

  18. Aschner M, Walker SJ: The neuropathogenesis of mercury toxicity. Mol Psychiatry 2002;7 Suppl 2:S40-41.

Joel Fuhrman, M.D. is a board-certified family physician, seven-time New York Times bestselling author and internationally recognized expert on nutrition and natural healing, who specializes in preventing and reversing disease through nutritional methods. Dr. Fuhrman coined the term “Nutritarian” to describe his longevity-promoting, nutrient dense, plant-rich eating style.
For over 25 years, Dr. Fuhrman has shown that it is possible to achieve sustainable weight loss and reverse heart disease, diabetes and many other illnesses using smart nutrition. In his medical practice, and through his books and PBS television specials, he continues to bring this life-saving message to hundreds of thousands of people around the world.