In 2015, the global market for brain-health supplements was estimated to have a value of $2.3 billion, and the market was predicted to grow to $11.6 billion by 2024. That’s a huge amount of money being spent on supplements that claim to boost brain health and function. Unfortunately, supplements are subject to very little oversight to ensure they can efficiently do the things they claim to do or to guarantee that they’re safe.

Brain-Health Supplements Make Bold Claims

The nutrition-store shelves are full of dietary supplements that make extreme claims about their ability to improve brain health and function, most of them not backed up by real, rigorous science.

For example:

  • Ginkgo biloba – Often said to improve attention, memory, and other brain function, research about this supplement to substantiate these claims has been inconclusive.
  • Huperzine-A – A chemical derived from moss may aid memory in Alzheimer’s patients, but little research has been conducted to see if it does so in healthy people.
  • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) – A fatty acid found in fish oil, this supplement is important for basic brain health, and some marketing claims that it boosts learning power, too.
  • Acetyl-L-carnitine – This supplement may also improve memory function in Alzheimer’s patients, but no data shows it improves memory in healthy brains.
  • DMAE (2-dimethylaminoethanol) – This supplement is said to increase neurotransmitter acetylcholine levels in the brain. There’s a lack of data that proves that it aids brain function, however.

How Supplements are Regulated

In 1994, the U.S. Congress enacted the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), which offered a new definition of dietary supplements and differentiated them from drugs. The DSHEA essentially classifies dietary supplements as foods rather than drugs and exempts them from most of the development and approval process to which drugs are subject.

The DSHEA does provide some restrictions for supplements, including:

  • Dietary supplements must contain one or more ingredients that are considered dietary, such as vitamins, minerals, herbs, or amino acids.
  • Supplements can’t contain any ingredients having“a significant or unreasonable risk of illness or injury” when used as directed. However, it’s left to the manufacturer to determine the risk or lack thereof.
  • Supplements must be accurately and completely labeled in terms of their ingredients, and they must be identified as dietary supplements.
  • The supplement’s label must contain a disclaimer that says the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not evaluated its effectiveness claims.

How Supplements Are Not Regulated

Because the FDA requires that supplements be based on dietary ingredients, they are often are built on substances that have not been proven to have any medical effect. Critics sometimes point out that supplements contain largely inert ingredients that are “as close to air and water as possible.”

The DSHEA, however, removes the regulatory requirements meant to ensure that drugs are effective and safe, leaving supplements significantly unregulated.

  • Supplement manufacturers are not required to conduct clinical trials designed to test and prove the effectiveness of supplements, nor are they required to do testing to prove that the supplement is safe.
  • The FDA can remove a supplement from the market only after the agency has proven that it poses a significant health risk to users.

How Prescription Drugs are Regulated

In contrast to supplements, prescription drugs are subject to a lengthy approval process before being prescribed and sold to the public. The process typically takes about 10 years from its initial stages to the introduction of the drug on the market.

  • The process’s initial phase involves identifying a potential new drug and determining its correct dosage, ideal administration, and potential effects.
  • Preclinical studies (often conducted in vitro or on non-human subjects) are conducted to determine if the drug is safe.
  • Clinical trials are conducted in several phases to study how the drug works in human recipients.
  • After a drug is proven safe and effective, the FDA reviews the research to judge whether the drug can be introduced to the market.
  • After the drug is approved and introduced to the market, the FDA conducts post-market reviews to ensure that the drug is safe after it’s in widespread use.

5 Things You Need to Know About the Drug Approval Process from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration

In short, by the time a new drug makes it to market, it’s been the subject of years of research to find out as much as possible about its effects. The same can’t be said for supplements.

What You Can Do to Protect Yourself

Given that the regulatory environment doesn’t do much to protect you from the dubious claims and potentially harmful effects of supplements, you’re on your own when it comes to evaluating them. It’s up to you to be a smart consumer and take your health into your own hands.

As you’re deciding whether or not a brain-health supplement is a good idea for you, keep these important tips in mind:

  • Don’t self-diagnose. If you feel as if something’s wrong, consult a medical professional rather than looking for a diagnosis and a remedy by yourself.
  • Take the advice of your medical professional. Enlist your doctor’s help in determining how much stock to put in the claims made by a supplement manufacturer.
  • Don’t reject conventional treatments or nutrition in favor of supplements. 
  • Be wary of trendy remedies. The press surrounding hyped remedies is often based on limited studies or questionable interpretations of data. If a remedy is truly effective, it will endure longer than the latest fad.
  • Understand that “natural” doesn’t equal “safe.” Supplements derived from natural sources are not necessarily harmless.
  • Think critically. Manufacturers often make claims that sound too good to be true, and they often are just that. Learn to recognize the common misleading approaches in marketing, and don’t fall for them.

The most important thing to remember is that no one is working to keep supplement marketers honest. Their claims may sound scientific, but there’s no guarantee that they actually are. In fact, the claims may be based entirely on bogus science (what some critics not-so-affectionately abbreviate as “BS”), and the law is on the marketers’ side. With that in mind, you should approach the nutrition-store shelves with a healthy dose of skepticism.

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