Brain Fatigue: Fundamental Solutions

Tuesday, September 02, 2014
By: Linda J Dobberstein, DC, DACBN, DCBCN

Since reading last week’s article, Brain Fatigue 101, you may have come to the realization that you or your loved ones have a concern with brain fatigue. Perhaps there is even a diagnosis that presents with the symptom of brain fatigue. Concerns of poor oxygenation, blood sugar management, overstimulation, or several other factors were discussed that cause or contribute to brain fatigue and consequential neurological deterioration. This article focuses on the primary fundamental nutritional principles and solutions to help improve brain energy and turn down that insidious neurological breakdown process that no one needs in their life.


The most fundamental principle to master with brain fatigue is oxygenation. It surpasses any other factor that contributes to brain fatigue. Diminished oxygenation leads to immediate cellular dysfunction or worse. Poor oxygenation, even if it is a minor problem, affects the function of the brain. It can happen for many reasons. This may include problems with anemia, blood sugar, blood pressure, heart or lung problems, sleep apnea, or deconditioning, etc. If you are experiencing symptoms of poor oxygenation, it is vital to determine the cause. Do not write off the fatigue, pallor or duskiness of the skin, poor stamina, and shortness of breath as a symptom of aging, stress, or being out of shape. It is a clue that something fundamental is dysfunctional or broken.

Anemia is one cause of poor oxygenation that needs to be discussed. Without the ability of your red blood cells to carry oxygen to all tissues, cellular respiration and aerobic metabolism is compromised. If you have been diagnosed with anemia, make sure that the type of anemia has been identified and get to the bottom of why it is occurring. The anemia is a symptom of something going wrong. It is the gold standard of medical care to determine the source of the anemia. If your physician is unwilling to identify the type of anemia and why it is occurring, find another provider. 

Nutritional causes of anemia may include lack of iron, zinc, copper, vitamin C, E, B2, B6, B12, folic acid, magnesium, glycine, and lysine, etc. There are other non-nutritional deficiency causes of anemia. Again, it is vital to determine what type of anemia is present with appropriate lab work and a skilled health care professional. When taking an iron supplement, it is prudent to have lab work done periodically to check that your iron levels are in range. Many times basic nutritional support such as a high quality coenzyme B complex, magnesium, and some zinc can go a long way to improving brain oxygenation and minor anemia problems. For those needing iron because of iron deficiency anemia, make sure to use the iron bisglycinate form for superior absorption without the constipating troubles of low quality iron supplements. 

Cellular Respiration

There are several rudimentary ways to protect or improve oxygenation and energy production beyond correcting anemia or the disorders listed above. A fundamental process that affects brain aerobic activity or oxygenation and energy production is called cellular respiration. Cellular respiration is the act of taking nutrients (fats, carbs, proteins) combined with oxygen to make ATP or energy. Healthy cell membranes and mitochondria are at the core of this process. Without adequate oxygen, the process of cellular respiration goes from aerobic to anaerobic metabolism which leads to a marked reduction in ATP production and significant increases in metabolic waste products. A breakdown in any of the steps or structures involved with cellular respiration contributes to the development of fatigue and dysfunction, especially brain fatigue and eventually neurodegeneration.

This faulty cellular respiration and mitochondrial dysfunction spans across a wide spectrum of function to dysfunction. The level of dysfunction ranges from the normal “aging process” to many disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, ALS/Lou Gehrig’s disease, stroke, fatigue disorders, chronic pain disorders, cardiomyopathies, migraines, seizures, depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, OCD, autism and traumatic brain injury/concussions.

There are several powerful nutrients that support healthy cellular respiration and mitochondria function. Vitamin E is one of the several influential nutrients involved with protecting mitochondria and cellular respiration. This is even in the context of disease states such as Alzheimer’s disease. Research published this month in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease shows that the vitamin E forms tocotrienols and tocopherols derived from rice bran extract improved cellular respiratory rates and increased ATP production in mitochondria in cell models that were in early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. The tocopherols and tocotrienols protected the mitochondria from dysfunction and consequential build up of beta amyloid plaques. Researchers concluded in this study that rice bran extract that contains tocopherols and tocotrienols “represents a promising nutraceutical for the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease.”

The omega 3 fish oil, DHA is another essential, remarkable nutrient that is vital for cellular respiration and mitochondria function. It must be gotten from the diet or taken as a supplement. Lack of DHA in the brain has been shown to worsen the cellular respiration in mitochondria. Research published just weeks ago demonstrated that lack of DHA caused lower ATP production and reduced cellular respiration of brain mitochondria. This brain fatigue-neurodegenerative process was considerably evident in the animal models that were older compared to younger models. However, DHA is not just for supporting the health of older brains; lack of DHA has clear repercussions on cellular respiration and mitochondrial function from the beginning of life to senescence.

Additional powerful nutrients for healthy cellular respiration, mitochondrial function and brain energy include the essential minerals (magnesium, zinc, copper), all B vitamins, vitamin E and K, glutathione, and cofactors such as coenzyme Q10 and lipoic acid. In addition, the nutrients acetyl-L-carnitine, glycerophosphocholine (GPC), and phosphatidylserine also provide powerful support for the preserving mitochondrial function. These nutrients are considered essential for “brain vitality and a productive lifespan.”

Cell Membrane Fitness

Besides cellular respiration and healthy mitochondrial function, cell membrane integrity and fitness plays a powerful role in brain energy and vitality. Damaged cell membranes have immediate and severe consequences. It manifests as loss of the sodium ion pump, damaging the exchange of electrolytes, and then leads to swelling of the cell. Calcium floods the cell and injures the mitochondria and ends up starving the cell of energy/ATP. The end result is the energy supply is compromised, or cell death occurs. This change may occur at the outer cell membrane but also with membranes surrounding the mitochondria or other organelles inside the cell.

Think of the cell membrane like a rubber band. It needs to be flexible and intact to allow selective permeability and protect the contents inside. Lack of cell membrane fitness or fluidity is like having a hardened rubber band that has dried out from heat, time, and overuse. The stressed rubber band is stiff, has some cracks in it and eventually it gives way and breaks. When working efficiently, the rubber band-like cell membranes protect the internal workings of the cell, allowing nourishment in and waste products to come out. When the cell membranes become stiff or breakdown, then dysfunction occurs with poor ATP production and dysfunctional cellular respiration. Transport of nutrients to and from the mitochondria and Kreb’s cycle becomes dysfunctional. Higher levels of oxidative stress or inflammation occur and neurotransmitters can’t get to where they need to go. A build up of toxins can damage the delicate inner workings of the cell. Blood sugar and insulin transport is challenged, etc. This causes the cell to become over-stimulated, exhausted, or even lead to cell death. This challenged process and cell membrane damage is thought to be related to many diseases not only neurodegenerative diseases, but also stroke, metabolic disorders, cancer, inflammatory disease, heart disease, diabetes, and others.

DHA, AA, PS, GPC: Alphabet Soup for Cell Membrane and Brain Health

Some of the first symptoms of cell membrane breakdown are a loss of vitality or fatigue amongst many other symptoms. This means poor cell membrane fitness is a significant contributor to brain fatigue and neurodegeneration. It is consequently associated with compromised cellular aerobic function. DHA is essential in protecting these precious tissues. Research clearly shows DHA as a neuroprotectant molecule for cell membranes and more. DHA is fundamental. It helps improve cellular respiration and ATP production, but it also protects the cell membranes from insult. The primary conclusion - without adequate DHA, brain fatigue from dysfunctional cellular respiration, damaged cell membranes and mitochondrial fatigue occurs.

There is another compound that is essential for cell membrane health. This is arachidonic acid (AA). It needs to function together with DHA in a balance within cell membranes. It has a yin-yang relationship with DHA, i.e. it must be kept in a healthy balance. Without adequate arachidonic acid, nerve cell membrane integrity and function and brain perfusion are compromised. This has an effect on people of all ages, not just the elderly or those concerned with neurodegeneration. Deficiencies of arachidonic acid are associated with ADD/ADHD, schizophrenia, and neurodegeneration. However, too much arachidonic acid is also pro-inflammatory. Many individuals consume far too much arachidonic acid in their diet. It has to be in balance with DHA. AA is found highest in meats, egg yolks, and omega 6 vegetable oils. If your diet is high in plant based oils and red meats and low in omega 3 rich foods, it is likely your body needs far more DHA than AA. Lab tests are available to measure the balance between omega 3 and omega 6 oils. It is highly worthwhile to know where you stand on this for health and vitality.

In addition to DHA and arachidonic acid being balanced and present in the cell membranes, another key player is phosphatidylserine. Phosphatidylserine (PS) is a vital type of phospholipid, or fat, that is integral to cell membrane function. It has a number of benefits. Research shows that lack of these vital phosholipids leads to neurological breakdown and significantly lends to neurodegeneration and the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Nature published a study earlier this year that determined predictability of neurodegeneration associated with phospholipids. It demonstrated that impairment of several phosholipids could predict with 90% accuracy of the development of mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s disease onset within a 2 – 3 year time span. Combining PS with DHA and GPC (glycerophosphocholine) not only help make and protect cell membrane function, but provides essential mitochondrial support and regeneration. These are powerful substances and essential for anyone wishing to protect, preserve and rebuild cell membranes and mitochondria.

It is important to also understand that it is not just lack of special fatty acids, vitamins or antioxidants in the diet that contribute to cell membrane breakdown and poor cellular fitness. Cigarette smoke profoundly interferes with cell lipids. Smoking, even short-term, was shown to cause measurable lipid peroxidation or damage. The consequences of this exposure caused potent negative changes to the cell membrane lipids and changed nerve tissue composition, cell signaling, cell growth, intracellular functions, damaged neuroprotection and created neurological and atherosclerotic inflammation. Other toxins like mercury and other heavy metals, high carbohydrate intake, uncontrolled blood sugar, high levels of inflammation and oxidative stress, traumatic brain injury, chronic infections, food intolerances and environmental chemicals, also contribute to cell membrane breakdown with resultant dysfunction.

While the topic of brain fatigue is profoundly complicated and involves an amazingly complex molecular web, there are core principles to master. Basic concerns with anemia and other physical concerns causing poor tissue oxygenation must be corrected. Even more indispensable to brain energy is ensuring healthy cellular respiration, mitochondrial function, and cell membrane fluidity. Nutritional support with several nutrients, including DHA, vitamin E, phosphatidylserine/PS, glycerophosphocholine/GPC, and acetyl-L-carnitine provide core, fundamental nutrients that protect our invaluable brain and cell membranes. Without these nutrients, life at any age becomes compromised. Brain health clearly relies on essential nutrients from birth to death. Don’t wait and rely on the Standard American Diet to ensure brain vitality. Your brain’s lifelong health and vitality depends on you making good choices.

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