Phosphatidylserine: A Superhero for Your Brain
Phosphatidylserine: A Superhero for Your Brain
Written By: Nicole Crane, B.S., NTP
Picture this: You’re trying to get driving directions from someone with poor cell phone reception and every third or fourth word fades out. You may be able to hear enough to understand the basics of what they’re saying, but it is likely that several important pieces of information would be missed. With just one or two missed turns, who knows where you could end up? The accurate exchange of information is essential to the smooth operation of so many things in life, and the same is true for our brain. Uninterrupted communication is the key to brain health and overall mental wellness, including memory, mental energy, focus and even coordination and balance. The brain must also be able to communicate within itself in order to know which bio-chemicals to make. One of the most critical nutrients for healthy brain function is as hard to pronounce as it is essential: phosphatidylserine.
The Anatomy of a Nerve Cell
Try to remember your high school biology class (if you can’t, phosphatidylserine can help!) Each nerve cell has a cell body that is covered with arms called dendrites. The nerve cell also has a tail that contains an axon enclosed in a fatty covering called a myelin sheath. The dendrite receives a nerve impulse full of communication messages from the axon of another nerve cell. This information is then passed down by way of its own axon, and onto the next nerve cell. The quality, speed and uninterrupted flow of this crucial communication that’s being passed from cell to cell greatly depends on the health of the myelin sheath.[i] The myelin sheath is a fatty sleeve surrounding the nerve cell, and it is constantly being broken down and repaired. Think of the myelin sheath like the insulation that surrounds electrical wiring – when the insulation is damaged, the wiring suffers. The same goes for the myelin sheath. When we’re young, it is easily repaired but as we age, it can develop gaps, become thinner, and lose its general function. Nerve signals can be interrupted, distorted, or lost, and the brain simply cannot communicate at the same rate as it did when we were younger. When nerve communication loses its integrity, memories are not properly stored and recalled, the brain has trouble keeping up with energy demands, and we become mentally fatigued much more easily. Healthy nerve communication also effects the signals that tell the brain what neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) it needs to make and when to make them. This impacts the sleep cycle, mood, and mental health, such as how we cope with stress. Nerve signaling also affects the rest of the body, helping the brain coordinate with every part of your body – for example, nerve signals allow the brain to coordinate with the arms, legs, feet, and inner ear to regulate balance and coordination. The good news? The myelin sheath can be repaired with fatty acids like phosphatidylserine (PS).[ii] And that's not all that PS can do for the brain!
Phosphatidylserine for Optimal Brain Function
There are several therapeutic benefits that make PS a powerhouse nutrient for optimal brain function. Students of all ages benefit from phosphatidylserine's ability to support learning, focus and memory.[iii] Communication is key for healthy storage of memories. Without the nerve cell's ability to send its signals to the next nerve, those chemicals that eventually become our stored memories become lost into the electrical ether. What’s more, phosphatidylserine is critical to healthy cell membranes and brain tissue in the area of the brain known as the hippocampus. It is the hippocampus’ job to regulate the process of turning short-term memories into long-term memories.[iv] Short-term memory tends to last a few days, whereas long-term memory lasts for years. When short-term memories do not become stored in the long-term memory areas of the brain, they are lost after just a few days. If these short-term memories are not properly stored, the name of your new colleague, neighbor, or the movie you just saw last week leave your brain wondering whether you want them or not. When you try to recall these recent memories, it can be very frustrating – memories that you’re 100% just happened recently simply cannot be recalled. Furthermore, memory function and learning abilities go hand-in-hand. The more efficiently we’re able to store and recall memories, the easier it is to learn new information and tasks. Learning something new is little more than remembering a series of information, and the quality and speed at which you learn is greatly dependent on how well you store your memories. There are several areas of the brain involved in this process, but the hippocampus is the most crucial and needs to be healthy and functioning well for proper memory and learning skills. There is strong evidence that shows that major trauma to the hippocampus can result in amnesia, and slow damage over time has a strong association with Alzheimer’s disease[v].
Phosphatidylserine supports optimal communication beyond transmitting the nerve signals down the line – it also increases the number of receptor sites on the cell membrane[x], allowing more messages to be received by nerve cells and other cells. Every cell in the body has a cell membrane that is made up of a type of fats called phospholipids. The composition of the cell membrane is one of the most important structures in the entire body, and the majority of the fats in the membrane are composed of phosphatidylserine. The cell membrane is essentialy the “brain” of each individual cell. Cell membrane integrity is crucial for the health of each cell, which in turn impacts the optimal health and functioning of the body as a whole. Phosphatidylserine is also essential for the brain to properly metabolize glucose[xi] (sugar), which is essential for healthy brain energy. Many people who lack PS in their brain are easily mentally fatigued and find trouble concentrating for long periods of time. Energy is critical to the function of all our cells, but the brain has a much higher energy demand that nearly every other cell in the body. A steady supply of glucose is vital for optimal brain energy and function, but too much can be harmful. This powerhouse nutrient also supports the brain cell’s ability to release and bind with neurotransmitters, further aiding in healthy mood, brain communication, and cognitive ability.
Mental Health Benefits
New research even suggests that during extended periods of high stress, the hippocampus can shrink in size due to the high levels of stress hormones in the brain.[vi] Many of you may be able to relate to this – high stress levels can have a major impact on your memory. Damage to the hippocampus leads to the disconnection of nerve pathways, and new brain cells fail to form. Stress also effects sleep, when the brain and the body take time to heal and regenerate. When the hippocampus is damaged, we also suffer damage to the natural mechanisms that inhibit stress responses, and the body has trouble responding appropriately to future stressors.[vii] Fortunately, phosphatidylserine seems to act as a potent protector of this stress-induced damage, sparing the brain from shrinkage and boosting memory function.[viii]
This marvelous nutrient also has a great impact on our mood, also by regulating the way the brain can communicate within itself. Our brain is controlled by bio-chemicals known as neurotransmitters – think of these as the different letters of the alphabet. The more letters in a language’s alphabet, the more complex the language. Serotonin, dopamine, melatonin, adrenaline and norepinephrine are a few of the most well-known neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters can be excitatory or inhibitory, and their healthy balance can have great effects over your emotional state and reactions. As the name mentions, excitatory brain chemicals stimulate and “excite” the brain. On the other hand, inhibitory chemicals have a calming effect on the brain. There are many factors that affect brain chemistry, like stress, sugar, the type of fats in your diet, overall nutrition, drugs (both prescription and recreational), and genetics. The various parts of the brain must be able to communicate effectively with each other in order to know which neurotransmitters to make and when to make them. Healthy production of the right neurotransmitters at the right time can have a major impact on our emotional state, our sleep-wake cycle, appetite and satiety, and much more. The brain receives sensory information from our eyes when the sun comes up, for example, so it stops the production of the sleep chemical melatonin and releases the neurotransmitters that wake us up in the morning. When the nerve cells that take in sensory information cannot send the right signals to the rest of the brain, the correct bio-chemicals may not be released. As a result, we may have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up. This is especially true with all the “artificial daylight” that saturates our homes, and an excellent reason to sleep in a dark and quiet room! The brain also monitors the levels of excitatory and inhibitory brain chemicals, and decides if what is being released is appropriate for the situation and environment. When proper communication is not taking place, we can end up feeling low and depressed with too many inhibitory neurotransmitters, or feel anxious and edgy with too many excitatory brain chemicals. Chemical balance and brain communication are among the most important functions for sleep, mood and emotional well-being.
Phosphatidylserine also increases production and utilization of the brain chemical dopamine. Dopamine is a crucial neurotransmitter that supports a positive mood and aids in focus and attention. Diseases that interrupt the synthesis of dopamine in the brain are associated with neurological or mental disorders like Parkinson's disease and schizophrenia[xii]. Low levels of dopamine in the brain have also been linked to Attention Deficit Disorder,[xiii] Restless Leg Syndrome, and may be connected to a predisposition to drug addiction as well. Dopamine is associated with the pleasure and reward centers of the brain, and many addictive foods and substances stimulate the release of dopamine. Supplementing with phosphatidylserine can increase and/or restore dopamine to a healthy level, and a healthy dopamine supply can make it easier to overcome addictive behavior. Research also shows that PS restores the brain's production and secretion of acetyl choline, an essential neurotransmitter used throughout the body. Acetyl choline is essential and irreplaceable in the process of memory storage. Interruption of acetyl choline production in the brain is strongly associated with depression in the short-term[xiv], as well as the memory deficit aspect of Alzheimer’s disease when levels remain low over long periods of time.[xv] This vital brain chemical is also associated with REM sleep, and deficient levels have been linked to poor sleep quality. Acetyl choline is also involved in healthy sensory perception like taste, smell and vision. Low levels have been linked to poor senses, as well as the brain's ability to detect and perceive sensory information. Acetyl choline is also involved in critical decision making, especially in stressful or life-threatening situations. Perception and communication are arguably the two most crucial and active factors for healthy brain function. Every moment, the brain must decide what is most important from the litany of sensory information it receives throughout the day. Proper perception is what allows us to swerve out of the way of an oncoming car, but not to remember every other car we pass. The brain must have the ability to perceive what sensory information is actually important and what is meaningless.
Phosphatidylserine for Athletes
Phosphatidylserine is not just for the aging brain or for students looking to boost their memory before an important exam. PS is also an ideal supplement for performance athletes for several reasons. The ability of this nutrient to increase the speed at which the nerve signal is carried can help muscle contractions increase in speed, boosting reflex and muscle responses when every second counts. As previously mentioned, PS also boosts levels of the neurotransmitter acetyl choline, a biochemical used throughout the body. Acetyl choline is also essential for a muscle contraction to occur at all, and has been shown to increase reaction time as well. It is the only neurotransmitter used by the peripheral nervous system, which activates the voluntary control of the movement of the body using skeletal muscles. The body would not be able to move without this vital biochemical. Studies on acetyl choline also show it supports faster muscle recovery, prevents muscle soreness and helps athletes effectively deal with stress, especially during endurance activity and training[xvi]. PS and acetyl choline also support healthy heart muscle contractions and heart rhythm through a different part of the nervous system. These nutrients can prevent your heart rate from soaring too high during intense athletic activity as well. Due to its therapeutic effects in normalizing brain communication and supporting healthy levels of brain chemicals, PS can be quite helpful to children (and adults) with Attention Deficit Disorder and other learning or concentration challenges[xvii]. Because PS helps to reconnect nerve cells, it supports attention and focus and increases overall brain energy. This can be a great benefit to children (and their parents) struggling with mental performance.
When you begin taking phosphatidylserine in supplement form, it is recommended to take a dose above 300-600 mg every day for a few months to restore youthful and healthy levels of this powerhouse nutrient. Once the “loading” phase is complete, a maintenance dose of 100-200mg daily is recommended[xviii]. This dosage is very protective, and it is safe to take for extended periods of time. PS is found naturally in every cell in the body, and side effects are very rare. Some people find that PS is very energizing, and sensitive individuals many find they have trouble falling asleep if it is taken too late in the evening. PS supports REM sleep, so many people find that it actually helps them achieve deep, restful sleep. PS works best when taken in combination with fish oil or krill oil, and taking these together boosts the absorption and increases the benefits of the each supplement. The fatty acids in fish, known as EPA and DHA, share many of the same cognitive benefits as phosphatidylserine and support the health of the brain tissue. If you would like to protect, restore and maintain a youthful brain for the rest of your life (who wouldn't?), PS may be the perfect supplement for you.
I recommend this product when the brain just is not functioning the way it’s supposed to. This can mean anything from poor memory, to people suffering from long-term stress, and kids and their parents who are looking for a natural solution to potentially harmful ADD medications, which usually contain stimulants. Because of the way PS functions in the brain, older people who have had a decline in their memory tend to gain the most long term benefits. Personally, I took this supplement in college, especially around exam times, because it is so powerful in increasing the storage of memories and is a powerful aid for recalling facts in an amazingly accurate way! I was able to perform much better on exams with less time devoted to studying, and a lot less pre-exam stress.
The way the brain works is amazing. But every body system can benefit from a recharge from time to time. For the brain and nerves, that charge is phosphatidylserine.
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[ii]Kidd PM. Phospholipids: Versatile Nutraceuticals for Functional Foods. Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals. 2002
[iii]Kidd P. Phosphatidylserine. New Canaan, CT: Keats Publishing, Inc.; 2009
[iv] Squire, LR; Schacter DL. The Neuropsychology of Memory. Guilford Press. 2002
[v] Hampel H, Bürger K, Teipel SJ, Bokde AL, Zetterberg H, Blennow K. "Core candidate neurochemical and imaging biomarkers of Alzheimer's disease". Alzheimers Dement 4(1): 38–48. 2008
[vi] Helhammer, J et al; Effects of Soy Lecithin Phosphatidic Acid and Phosphatidylserine Complex (PAS) on the Endocrine and Psychological Responses to Mental Stress; Stress, 2004, 7:2,119-126
[vii] Squire, LR; Schacter DL. The Neuropsychology of Memory. Guilford Press. 2002
[viii] McEwen B. Protective and damaging effects of stress mediators: central role of the brain. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2006; 8: 367-381.
[ix] Maguire, EA, et al; Navigation-related structural change in the hippocampi of taxi drivers; Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2000 Apr 11;97(8):4398-403.
[x] Kidd PM. Phospholipids: Versatile Nutraceuticals for Functional Foods.Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals. 2002
[xi]Kidd PM. Phospholipids: Versatile Nutraceuticals for Functional Foods.Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals. 2002
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[xiii]Nestler EJ (December 2012). "Transcriptional mechanisms of drug addiction". Clin. Psychopharmacol. Neurosci. 10 (3): 136–143
[xiv] Francis PT, et al; The cholinergic hypothesis of Alzheimer's disease: a review of progress. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry 1999 Feb; 66(2):137-47
[xv] Platt, Bettina; Riedel, Gernot (2011). "The cholinergic system, EEG and sleep". Behavioural Brain Research 221(2): 499–504
[xvi] Michael A Starks, et al. The effects of phosphatidylserine on endocrine response to moderate intensity exercise Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2008, 5:11 doi:10.1186/1550-2783-5-11
[xvii]Kidd PM. Phospholipids: Versatile Nutraceuticals for Functional Foods.Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals. 2002
[xviii]Kidd PM. Phospholipids: Versatile Nutraceuticals for Functional Foods.Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals. 2002