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Our brains are the workhorses of our bodies. From infancy to old age, our brains work nonstop to keep us moving, breathing, sleeping, balanced, seeing, hearing, learning, remembering, thinking, problem solving, and the list goes on. One of the largest and most complex organs in the body, the brain is made up of around 200 billion brain cells (neurons) that communicate via trillions of connections called synapses.1 Keeping those cells healthy is what keeps our brains healthy and functioning as they should. And one of the components that maintains the health and structure of our brain cells is a special type of fat called phosphatidylserine (fos-fa-tidyl-serine), or PS for short.
PS belongs to a class of fats called phospholipids; these are important because they act as building blocks of brain cell membranes. PS is a key component for giving cells their shape, strength, and fluidity, influencing the overall health of the cell. PS is especially concentrated in the brain, where it maintains the structural integrity and plasticity of neurons, enhances communication between neurons, and ensures that cells are healthy and functioning optimally.2 3
PS benefits a young healthy brain as well as an aging brain, with research showing promising results in everything from slowing age-related cognitive decline to alleviating depression and stress to improving symptoms of attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD).
This is what the research has found.
Do you find yourself walking into a room only to forget what you were looking for? Or maybe you feel the frustration of forgetting someone’s name? These are signs of age-related memory loss, and while some forgetfulness and slower recall is normal, it can still be distressing. PS can help with that. One trial treated 149 patients over the age of 50 with age-associated memory impairment with 300 mg of PS daily for 12 weeks. At the end of the trial, the supplemented group had improvements in learning and memory/recall, and those who performed at the lowest level when the study began saw the most improvement. The researchers calculated that this subgroup’s memory improved by 12 “functional” years.4 Other research has found similar results in improvements in memory recall, mental flexibility, and executive functions (planning, organizing, attention, and emotional regulation).5
Studies have shown that supplemental PS crosses the blood-brain barrier and can slow the deterioration of brain cells. It supports the formation of short- and long-term memory, the ability to create new memories, and the ability to learn and recall information. It supports focus, attention, and concentration, the ability to reason and problem solve, and also supports locomotor functions, particularly rapid reflexes.6
Have you ever felt so stressed out that you couldn’t organize your thoughts, remember simple things, make rational decisions, or lashed out in anger? This is your brain on stress. Forgetfulness, anxiety, irritability, anger, and depression are all very real side effects of stress, and they all come from physiological changes in your brain. Chronic stress kills brain cells, shrinks the brain, accelerates aging in the brain, alters memory function, and can trigger changes in the brain’s hardwiring, making it more sensitive to future stress.7 8 9 10 Enter PS. In addition to helping neuronal cell membranes remain healthy enough to withstand the damaging effects of stress and helping to repair damaged membranes, PS modulates the HPA axis (the body’s stress response system), blunting the body’s hormonal stress response. This may be especially helpful for those under chronic stress whose HPA axis is constantly turned on. Clinical research has found that PS supplements reduce the cortisol response to both mental and physical stress and can improve mood.11 12 13 14 15
In addition to protecting the brain from the negative effects of stress, PS can also help with depression. In one study, researchers investigated the effects of a PS supplement that also contained small amounts of the omega-3 fats EPA and DHA on late life depression, which is often associated with a poor response to conventional antidepressants. The study included 18 elderly subjects with major depression who were not responding to antidepressants. They took a supplement containing 100 mg of PS, 119 mg of DHA, and 70 mg of EPA three times a day for 12 weeks. At the end of the study, those who responded to the supplementation saw a significant decrease in depressive symptoms, cortisol levels decreased to normal levels, and circadian rhythm (sleep-wake cycle) was normalized. Other research has found similar results with 300 mg of PS daily.16
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is one of the most common mental disorders affecting children (it also affects many adults) and is characterized by the inability to pay attention and hold focus, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. Common ADHD medication side effects can include anxiety, mood swings, loss of appetite, insomnia, and increased blood pressure and heart rate, leaving many parents looking for a natural alternative. PS can help. A study that included 36 children between the ages of four and 14 who had not previously taken any medication for ADHD received either 200 mg of PS daily or a placebo for two months. Supplementation with PS significantly improved ADHD symptoms, short-term auditory memory, and inattention and impulsivity. The placebo group showed no improvement.17
The omega-3 fat DHA is well known to have brain benefits and is used to treat some of the same disorders as PS (ADHD, depression/anxiety, and cognitive impairment) and some research suggests that PS works best when there are also optimal levels of DHA in the brain. In fact, the body preferentially uses DHA-containing phospholipids to make PS, and PS levels can be altered depending on DHA levels in the brain.18 You can obtain optimal DHA levels with a quality fish oil supplement.