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Not too long ago, I received a call from the ambulance transporting my husband to the hospital after being hit by a car while riding his bike. As you can imagine, my stress level immediately shot through the roof and continued for the next several weeks while we dealt with the repercussions of the accident. Several months later he’s fine, and thanks to a little help from a hard to pronounce, but highly effective, supplement called phosphatidylserine (PS), my brain had the support it needed to handle this incredibly stressful event.
Whenever the brain perceives stress, our bodies kick in with a stress response. Our built-in stress response is incredibly efficient in times of acute physical stress, like running for your life, but not so great at handling the chronic sorts of emotional stress that modern humans encounter, like traffic, bills, deadlines, caring for a sick family member, etc. Even alcohol, a poor diet, chemical exposure, and just worrying elicit a stress response in the body. Like it or not, the vast majority of us are under tremendous stress on a fairly regular basis. As our bodies respond to these stressors a series of changes occur, all in preparation for survival, but these changes backfire on us in times of chronic stress, and ultimately, they wreak havoc on our health. And, as it turns out, the brain is particularly susceptible to this sort of chronic stress.
Stress affects the brain in a number of ways. When the stress is mild and short-term it may actually improve brain function, but chronic or major stress dramatically shifts the balance from beneficial to detrimental. Of particular concern are the regions of the brain involved in memory formation and retrieval, the hippocampus, and the cortex, which plays a key role in memory, attention, language, and consciousness. The cells that make up these regions are among the biggest and busiest cells in the brain and they require tremendous amounts of energy and oxygen to function optimally. Stress reduces circulation to the brain, resulting in oxygen and nutrient deprivation, which damages these cells. Longterm stress actually leads to shrinkage of these regions and can cause a sort of “remodeling,” which can create behavioral and physiological changes.2
The brain is also susceptible to damage from cortisol, a steroid hormone that is released in response to chronic stress. Cortisol inhibits the delivery of glucose (a major source of energy) to the brain, particularly to the hippocampus. Cortisol also damages the hippocampus, which damages the feedback loop in the brain that should suppress the release of more cortisol. This leads to a vicious cycle of more cortisol being produced, creating even more damage. And the damage doesn’t stop there. Between the oxygen, nutrient, and energy deprivation and the high cortisol levels, nerve pathways are disconnected, the formation of new brain cells is inhibited, and sleep, the time when our brains regenerate themselves, is altered.3 All in all, these damages set the brain up for memory and cognition problems now, and in the future. In fact, chronic stress is even associated with the development of Alzheimer’s disease.4
For most people, stress is an unavoidable part of life, but there is hope for our stressed-out brains in the form of the supplement phosphatidylserine (PS). As a member of the phospholipid family, PS is a building block of all life, making it integral to humans, animals, plants, and even simple life forms.v Although it is found in every cell of the body, it is especially abundant in the brain. PS is a critical ingredient in cell membranes, which are responsible for giving cells shape and stability and maybe more importantly, for controlling the movement of particles in and out of the cell, which determines the overall health of the cell. In other words, healthy cell membranes make healthy cells and a healthy brain. But PS protects the brain from stress in a number of other ways. For example, it is critical to energy production in brain cells, and to a brain starved by stress, this is important. It is also known to revitalize the brain, in part because it helps to restore function to the pathway responsible for initiating the stress response called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, or HPAA for short.6Proper function of the HPAA is closely related to our ability to cope with stress. PS also helps to restore the body’s 24-hour circadian rhythms, which supports better sleep and regeneration.7
American children are under stress from more fronts than ever—pressure from parents, teachers, friends, and social media are sending children into a mental tailspin. Kids are over-scheduled and overstimulated, and as a result they are over-medicated. We are seeing increasing numbers of children diagnosed with an array of mental and “behavioral” issues, with ADHD being at the top of the list. According to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 11 percent of children 4-17 years old (6.4 million) have been diagnosed with ADHD, and that number continues to grow at a rate of approximately five percent each year. ADHD interferes with learning and social relationships, and is a huge economic burden. Many children are on stimulant and antidepressant prescriptions to control their symptoms, but these drugs can come with serious side effects, including suppressed appetite, sleep disruption, and increased heart rate and blood pressure. Just as phosphatidylserine (PS) supports healthy brain function in adults, so it can in children and teens as well. A double-blind placebocontrolled study published in 2014 found that 200 mg of PS daily significantly reduced ADHD symptoms after only two months in children aged 4- 14. There were specific improvements in classroom behavior, social skills, and auditory memory, the ability to process and recall orally presented information. The authors noted that dietary deficiency of essential fatty acids and phospholipids during childhood may increase the risk of developing ADHD-type symptoms.1 Previous research has found that PS taken with the omega-3s EPA and DHA also reduces ADHD symptoms, particularly hyperactive-impulsive behavior and mood.1
PS plays one more critical role in the battle against stress: it helps to prevent it in the first place. Supplementing with PS can actually have a positive effect on our emotional response to stress.8 And several studies have linked it to reduced cortisol levels overall.9 The combined actions of PS on the brain make it one of our best allies for protecting our brains from the constant bombardment of stress. Supplementation is the best means for achieving the profound benefits of PS, which has an incredible safety track record. Parris Kidd, PhD, renowned PS expert, suggests loading the body with 200-300mg of PS a day for a month or two to fully saturate the membranes, and then dropping down to a lower dose of 100-200mg daily for maintenance.11 It also appears that PS works most effectively when there are optimal levels of the omega-3 fat DHA in the brain. This can be obtained from a quality fish oil supplement.