If you’re anything like me, you’re likely boggled by the number of supplements lining the shelves in most grocery stores. Considering that by 2013, the supplement industry was already raking in close to $40 billion a year, it’s not surprising that these companies are eager to continue to offer as many products as they can.
Let the buyer beware, however, as health supplements are not tested for efficacy or purity by the FDA or any other regulatory agency. So kudos to you for stopping by to find out what the research says about whether phosphatidylserine might be right for you.
Even being fully aware of the breadth and depth of the supplement onslaught – and being a user of many myself – I was surprised that one popular online supplement company has 52 different phosphatidylserine (PS) supplements, while Amazon has over 400 listings for supplements containing PS! Supplemental PS is available both by itself and combined with other compounds, especially other purported “brain boosters” like DHA.
The names of many of these supplements speak to PS’s supposed benefits to the brain: they tout memory enhancement, increased mental sharpness, better focus, and protected, enhanced, and optimal neural (brain) function. We’ll check into these claims below, as well as lesser-discussed (on supplement labels, at least) but perhaps just as – or more – promising benefits for sports performance and ADHD.
What Is Phosphatidylserine?
PS belongs to a class of molecules called phospholipids. Phospholipids are essential to the integrity of cell membranes and are thus part of every cell in our bodies. Each phospholipid has a water-loving side (hydrophilic, the “phospho” part) and a water-fearing side (hydrophobic, the “lipid” part).
By aligning themselves with the lipid, or fatty, sides altogether, they create the cell membrane and thus keep the “innards” of the cell safe. Think “oil and water don’t mix,” and you can envision how this fatty layer encloses the cell. Handily (and thankfully for our bodies), however, they allow the compounds that need to get in in, and the stuff that needs to get out out.
PS is an especially important part of the cell membranes of our internal organs and is most prevalent in the brain. Researchers speculate that the decline of PS in an ageing brain correlates with symptoms like memory loss, depression, and foggy thinking, which is why supplemental PS garners so much interest as a treatment or preventative for these symptoms (1).
In vitro research on PS has found that it helps dead and dying cells be recognized and removed (2), while other studies on mice have found that PS can also slow the degeneration of brain cells. (3) While humans and mice are distinctly different – to say the least – this is promising.
Is There Any Research?
There are thousands of research articles from more than three decades that talk about phosphatidylserine, though just a fraction of these has looked at its supplemental use, especially in humans. In comparison, there are roughly five times as many articles on omega 3 fatty acids, which are also considered helpful for brain health.
There is plenty of peer-reviewed research available that seems to have been performed with integrity and sound science.
Interestingly, earlier research on supplemental PS to improve human performance used PS derived from bovine (cow) brains. Concern about bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) all but ended use of PS from this source. Thus, since you are unlikely to find bovine PS supplements anymore, nearly all the research discussed here used vegetable sources of PS, typically PS derived from soy. (If you are allergic to soy, feel free to keep reading; PS supplements made from cabbage and sunflower are also available.)
Does Phosphatidylserine Improve Symptoms of Alzheimer’s?
Unfortunately, few clinical trials exist that monitor function of those with Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) while using PS.
However, one randomized controlled trial, the “gold standard” of scientific research, did give 96 subjects with AD either a placebo or 100 mg of PS plus 80 mg phosphatidic acid (PA) three times a day (4).
At the start of the study and after two months, subjects were tested on their ability to perform seven activities of daily living. The subjects taking PS performed similarly before and after supplementation, while the performance of those taking the placebo significantly declined during that time.
Several studies look at the effect of PS on “probable AD” rather than confirmed AD, and others study PS on subjects with earlier stages of dementia or cognitive impairment. One of these used the Alzheimer’s Disease Assesment Scale (ADAS) for cognitive abilities on elderly subjects with mild cognitive impairment and noted significant improvement in scores among subjects using a supplement containing PS (5).
It is too soon to say that PS supplements can delay progression – or even reverse – symptoms of AD. For earlier signs of cognitive impairment, however, there is more evidence, as seen below.
Does It Slow Cognitive Decline?
As we age, so do our brain cells. These ageing cells don’t work as well, or even die off (gasp!), which may cause more frequent episodes of losing our train of thought as well as our car keys.
Some research shows promise that PS might help, including one 3-month study on elderly, non-depressed adults with memory problems. When compared to a placebo, volunteers taking 300 mg PS plus 240 mg PA had improved scores on memory after taking the supplement (4). In another trial with 10 elderly, depressed women, PS did improve memory, though depression also improved, so in this case, causality is difficult: did PS improve memory, or did memory improve when depression lifted (6)?
Still, there is more support for PS’s benefits to memory: In 2014, Zanotta and colleagues found significant improvement in their subject pool using a supplement containing PS. Their 102 elderly participants had mild cognitive impairment and, after using PS for 60 days, had improved on all tests of cognition they performed, with the greatest improvement seen on memory tests. (5)
A larger, double-blind study gave 78 elderly Japanese subjects with mild cognitive impairment either a 100 mg PS supplement, a 300 mg PS supplement, or a placebo for six months (7). Both groups taking PS had memory improvements, which were tested by their ability to recall words after a delay. Significantly, impaired delayed recall is one of the first signs of dementia, so these researchers suggest that PS could be used to delay the onset of dementia.
PS may have cognitive benefits beyond memory, as well. Researchers tested elderly subjects with memory complaints on several measures of cognitive performance before and after supplementation with PS. After patients had taken PS for 12 weeks, scores on several tests improved significantly, including recognition, recall, executive functions, and mental flexibility. (8)
And lest you think PS only benefits cognition in elderly people, here’s more. Both verbal recall and executive functioning improved when 63 healthy 18-to-35-year-olds took a branded, proprietary-blend supplement including PS, L-tyrosine, and L-theanine, among other ingredients (9). Meanwhile, healthy men aged 18 to 30 years old who were taking PS outperformed those taking a placebo in both speed and accuracy of solving math problems (10).
PS seems to be a promising treatment for those experiencing symptoms of cognitive decline, especially memory issues, and may improve focus and mental performance in those who are not yet experiencing cognitive decline.
Does It Help With Depression?
In the non-depressed elderly patients with memory problems mentioned above, PS plus PA reduced symptoms of seasonal effective disorder, or “winter blues,” indicating that it might hold promise for improved mood (4). In addition, two small (10 subjects) and brief (30 days) clinical studies found improvement in depression in elderly women with the use of 300 mg of PS per day (6, 11).
When seeking to determine whether PS helped with depression, one research group also sought to find out why. Komori and colleagues used a group of elderly subjects with treatment-resistant depression, meaning that prescription antidepressants for at least 6 months had not alleviated their symptoms.
After the subjects had used PS (along with the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA) for 12 weeks, their depressive symptoms had improved significantly. In addition, researchers had determined that the effect correlated with decreased levels of cortisol in the saliva as well as a more regulated release of cortisol. (1)
More research on PS and depression is needed to clarify its effects. The research appears promising, though the largest study used a blend of DHA, EPA, and PS, muddying the waters about the effect of PS on depressive symptoms.
Does It Improve Parkinson’s Disease Symptoms?
Compared to research on PS and measures of cognitive function, there is very little research on PS supplementation to treat Parkinson’s disease symptoms. One study from 1989 suggested some improvement in motivation and anxiety among Parkinson’s patients. However, these patients also suffered from Alzheimer’s-type dementia, so these results may not hold true in those with Parkinson’s but without AD (12).
It is plausible that PS could stall the progression of Parkinson’s symptoms. PS is crucial to brain cells viability, and those with Parkinson’s have known damage to neural cells. Still, little research using human subjects with Parkinson’s exists and thus use of PS for this disease is still speculative.
There is little evidence to support the use of PS supplements in people with Parkinson’s disease.
Does It Treat ADHD Symptoms?
Well, it’s looking good for PS and ADHD, as numerous clinical trials have shown improvement in ADHD symptoms after PS supplementation in children.
Two studies treated all their participants with ADHD. One gave 15 children aged 6 to 12 years old 200 mg PS per day for two months (13), while the other gave 21 children aged 4 to 19 years old 200-300 mg PS daily for up to four months (14). The first reported improvements in inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness, while more than 90% of children in the second study had improved attention and learning.
These results were corroborated by other trials comparing PS supplements to a placebo in blinded studies. Thirty-six children with ADHD aged 4 to 14 years were given either the placebo or 200 mg PS/day for two months (15). Those given PS had a significant improvement in attention, hyperactivity, short-term auditory memory, and impulsivity, while those given the placebo experienced no effect.
Adding to this evidence, a larger and longer study followed 200 children with ADHD for 15 weeks (16). This double-blind study also found a significant improvement in ADHD symptoms, especially restlessness and impulsivity, in the children taking the PS-omega-3 supplement compared to those taking a placebo.
Further, these researchers invited all participants to continue taking the supplement for an additional 15 weeks, and those who switched from the placebo to the supplement had improved symptoms as noted by both parents and teachers. Treatments were well tolerated, and researchers determined that PS-omega-3 supplements are safe for children for at least 30 weeks (17).
If my kid had ADHD, I’d try 100 to 200 mg PS supplements for at least two months to see if I saw any improvement. Clear this with your pediatrician, of course.
Does It Boost Athletic Performance?
In 2007, one group of researchers compiled the available evidence around PS and athletic performance (18) and found compelling findings. Two studies on PS’s effect on running were conflicting. Trained runners taking 300 to 600 mg of PS for 15 days had reduced muscle damage after a 90-minute run. Another study did not find an effect on muscle damage from taking 750 mg for 10 days, suggesting that either the dosage or the trained versus non-trained status of the participants may have affected replication of the results.
In untrained male volunteers taking PS, getting intravenous PS 10 minutes before cycling suppressed their production of cortisol (a stress hormone). Likewise, another clinical trial found that PS supplementation decreased cortisol production by 30% compared to those taking a placebo. This is important because cortisol can break down muscle and inhibit new muscle growth, both of which are obviously counterproductive to exercise goals.
Another trial on volunteers taking 750 mg of PS or a placebo for 10 days noted an ability to exercise longer in those taking PS, but not in the placebo group. Finally, in 11 female weight trainers, those taking 800 mg of PS per day noted significantly less muscle soreness than those taking the placebo and also reported a greater sense of well-being.
More recently, a small, double-blind clinical trial (10 subjects) tested the efficacy of PS before and after several bouts of moderate intensity exercise. Compared to the placebo, the healthy young men taking PS had improved levels of stress-induced cortisol, leading the research team to speculate that PS can prevent exercise-induced physiological deterioration (19).
Another group found additional evidence to support the use of PS to combat stress-induced cortisol. These researchers found decreased cortisol levels in chronically stressed subjects who took 400 mg of PS plus 400 mg of PA per day for six weeks. However, volunteers with lower stress levels at baseline and throughout the study did not have reduced cortisol levels.
In order to further clarify whether PS can improve sports performance, researchers tested cognitive function of men aged 18 to 30 years both before and after acute sessions of resistance training. Those who were taking 400 mg of PS were able to perform a math problem 20% faster than those taking a placebo and had 33% fewer errors, and similar results were found when the same researchers performed a comparable study (10, 20).
Notice, however, that results were not different after exercise. So, while going into a physical activity – or especially a competitive sport – with better focus, you might not be any smarter than your opponent when you hit the finish line. These findings may elucidate why golfers may also benefit from PS. Those taking 200 mg PS for 6 weeks were significantly better at their tee-off shots than those taking a placebo (21), perhaps providing an illustration of how PS improves focus in sports performance.
While many of these studies were small and quite short-term, PS use is safe (see below), so competitive athletes may want to look further into whether PS can improve focus, prevent muscle cell breakdown, or reduce muscle soreness. Larger and longer-term research is needed.
Can You Increase Phosphatidylserine Naturally?
The best food source of PS is cow brains, so you’re lucky if you enjoy this, um, delicacy. In fact, other top sources include other organ meats (kidney, spleen, heart, liver) of various animals, because PS is most dense in the organs of animals as well as humans. Some fish (mackerel, herring, tuna) are also great sources. While meat, poultry, seafood, and fish are generally better sources, vegetarians can get PS from white beans and soy lecithin.
Other ways to up the PS in your diet include through DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) supplementation. DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid also widely available in supplemental form, promotes the creation of PS and the accumulation of PS in brain cells (22). In contrast, alcohol inhibits these beneficial actions of DHA, resulting in less PS in the brain (22).
Is Phosphatidylserine Safe?
None of the research discussed above reported any negative side effects from taking PS. The longest study above had volunteers taking 300 mg of PS for 6 months (7) with no ill effects. The safety of PS use by children has also been confirmed (17).
One study found a side effect most would consider beneficial: PS supplementation significantly lowered both systolic and diastolic blood pressure (8). In addition, more than 99% of subjects in yet another trial rated tolerability of their PS-containing supplement as “excellent or good,” and no adverse effects were noted (5).
Investigating PS has given me a bit of confidence in the future of my own cognitive health. As a Swede (or Swedish-American, if you will), I grew up eating herring (pickled in wine sauce) and still love it. (Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it!) And, while it may have just been for show, I remember the jar of lecithin hanging out in my parent’s hippie-ish pantry of the late ‘70s.
There is a lot of quality research out there on PS. There are holes in the research, but it appears that PS can be helpful for ADHD and several areas of cognitive function, especially memory. PS for enhancing sports performance also looks promising, though most of these studies were quite small (fewer than 25 subjects).
Researchers have determined that PS is efficiently absorbed by healthy adults when taken as a supplement (4), and it has been shown to be safe for at least six months, at a dosage of at least 300 mg/day. So, if you are so inclined, I’d say go ahead and give it a try. Unless your blood pressure is already running abnormally low, the greatest foreseeable damage – based on the above – would be to your budget rather than your body. As always, check with your doctor.
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