Staying Sharp with Food Science

30 September 2021 | Opinion | By Dr Manbeena Chawla

‘A strong mind in a strong body’ is an adage that has been wilfully neglected in the past few decades, especially, when it comes to ‘safe and natural’ food crops and toxic chemical-free food products. When the safety, purity and nutritional value of the foods we consume is either suspect or unavailable, there is little chance of remaining healthy past the age of 25. Unhealthy lifestyle, pollution and demanding work hours add to mental and physical fatigue that festers over a period of time, leading to various ailments associated with being on the ‘fast lane’. Consequently, neurological diseases are adding to the bulk of pre-existing healthcare burden, globally. image credit- shutterstock image credit- shutterstock

In recent years, several studies on functional foods, nutraceuticals, and dietary supplements have been initiated to obtain foods with the right ingredients that have fewer side effects and increased therapeutic activity to fight neurological disorders, in particular. However, an important aspect of food-based medicine is its safety. There is still a dire need to explore the right dosage of food ingredients for their safety before they are released into the market for consumption. We take a look at the different attempts being made by the industry and academia players for prioritising brain health and neurological disorders.

Neurological disorders, both fatal and non-fatal, are among the leading contributors to the burden of non-communicable and communicable diseases in India. In the past three decades, most studies in India have shown a high disease burden for neurological diseases including Alzheimer’s diseases, stroke, epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, and dementia, mostly reported for the urban Indian population. On the other hand, neuro-infectious diseases such as meningitis, encephalitis, progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy, HIV-associated neurodegeneration, etc. are also increasing heavily in number.

Disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) are an important metric for assessing the burden of neurological disorders, and they continue to increase year after year. According to a study published in the Lancet in 2021, the contribution of non-communicable neurological disorders was 4 per cent in 1990, doubling to 8·2 per cent in 2019, while injury-related neurological disorders contributed 0·2 per cent in 1990 and 0·6 per cent in 2019.

Evidence states that brain functioning tends to deteriorate with ageing due to neurodegenerative processes, hence leading to the identification of cellular and molecular targets that ultimately leverage better functioning of the brain. About 3.1 per cent of the population in Western countries aged between 70 and 79 years are considered prone to neurodegenerative diseases while the incidence of disease in individuals of similar age groups in India is 0.7 per cent. The difference is mainly due to varying lifestyles and food habits depending upon the consumption of different ingredients. 

Since ages, Indians have relied on spices and natural products for curing different ailments. The advancement in science and technology has led to the investigation and utilisation of several phytochemicals with therapeutic properties from both plant and non-plant sources, leading to a renaissance in the research of nutrition and human health, thereby creating opportunities for the advancement of novel dietary substances.

As a result, scientists across the academic and industry sector are exploring the use of different food ingredients in the form of nutraceuticals, dietary supplements, functional foods, etc. to combat the growing burden of neurological diseases in India.

Sharing his perspective, Dr Tapan Behl, Associate Professor, Department of Pharmacology, Chitkara University, Chandigarh says, “Nutraceuticals offer an all-in-one effective alternative in the management of neurological disorders due to their affordable prices, availability and decreased side effects. For example, Withanine, which is the chief steroidal alkaloid obtained from ashwagandha has been used for its memory-boosting and neurocognitive-enhancing properties for more than 2500 years. Likewise, flavonoids and their metabolic products possess neurological-modulating actions and have been studied to interact with the neuronal-glial signaling pathway, which is mainly involved in the survival and functioning of neurons.”


Industry making curative attempts

The use of natural ingredients accounted for the largest share of the global brain health supplement market in 2020. For example, omega-3, green tea, turmeric/curcumin, ginseng root and bacopa are the popular types of memory enhancement supplements available in the global market.

A leading ingredient player of the Indian and global market, Kochi-based Arjuna Natural has recently revealed the neuroprotective effect of its bioavailable turmeric extract, referred to as BCM-95 formulation, for mitigating the toxic effects of aluminum build-up in the brain. The brain health can be compromised by exposure to neurotoxins, with aluminum believed to be of particular concern. Major sources of aluminum exposure are cookware, cosmetics, and pharmaceutical products. The company has also studied the impact of the turmeric extract in lessening the damage from Alzheimer’s disease on organs other than the brain.


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