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Using Plasmalogens to Combat Neurodegenerative Disorders

Have you heard of plasmalogens? Recent research has catapulted them into the limelight as the new natural ally against Neurodegenerative Disorders.

This post delves into how current research is illuminating what could be a key tool in helping you maintain optimal brain health throughout your later years. 

If you haven’t already, be sure to check out my previous blog posts on Understanding Neurodegenerative Disorders and The Functional Medicine approach to managing them.

What Are Plasmalogens?

Plasmalogens belong to a family of compounds known as phospholipids, which are lipids or fats that are essential structural components of the membranes of our cells.

Think of them as bricks that help build the walls of our cell houses. Plasmalogens are important because they make sure the walls around our cell houses are strong and healthy.

How Can They Help Brain Health?

Though they are not a cure-all, there’s promising evidence that plasmalogens may have a positive impact on improving the quality of life of those with neurodegenerative conditions.

This is because they offer several defence mechanisms that could be crucial in battling neurodegenerative disorders, including:

  • Membrane integrity - For cells to function correctly, they need to be robust, yet permeable, allowing proteins to pass in and out while maintaining the cell’s integrity. The unique shape of plasmalogens aids in this process.

  • Antioxidant properties - Plasmalogens can act as antioxidants. Cells are susceptible to damage from oxidation and antioxidants combat this by neutralising stray oxygen species. While this process is important throughout the body, it is particularly so in the brain, where oxidative stress can cause long-term damage, including damage to DNA, proteins, and lipids, leading to cellular dysfunction and contributing to various diseases.

  • Signalling - The brain works by constantly passing information along complex pathways that interlink its roughly 90 billion neurons. Plasmalogens are implicated in many of these pathways, including those related to inflammation and apoptosis (programmed cell death), which are crucial in many physiological and pathological processes.

  • Myelination - Plasmalogens are involved in the development and maintenance of myelin, the protective covering of nerve fibres, playing a role in nerve protection. The loss of myelin sheaths has been linked to numerous neurodegenerative disorders, including : Alzheimer's disease, polyglutamine diseases, hereditary spastic paraplegia, Charcot–Marie–Tooth disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and Parkinson's disease. [1]

  • Anti-inflammatory properties - Recent studies have indicated that plasmalogens have an anti-inflammatory effect in the brain. Inflammation is thought to be a contributor to brain deterioration, as well as numerous other chronic health conditions throughout the body, and so it makes sense to pay attention to any substances that naturally reverse it.

Boosting Your Plasmalogen Levels: Diet vs. Supplements

One of the issues that often complicates supplements intended for the brain is the “blood-brain barrier”. This is a highly selective, semipermeable border that separates the circulating blood from the brain, protecting the brain from potentially harmful substances in the blood while allowing essential nutrients and gases to pass through.

Though dietary sources such as beef, pork, chicken and seafood (especially cold-water fish, such as herring and mackerel), provide some plasmalogens, the bioavailability of these dietary forms is limited.

A Little More on Bioavailability…

The term “bioavailability” is used to describe how much of a nutrient can get to where it needs to be and be properly absorbed and utilised. There is some evidence that plasmalogens, being fat soluble, can cross this barrier and so may be sufficiently bioavailable via dietary supplementation. 

Currently, there is insufficient evidence to recommend a food-based protocol for maintaining plasmalogens, however following a balanced diet that incorporates plenty of fish and a little meat can have multiple health benefits. Take a look at my post on the Mediterranean Diet to learn more.

So Should You Supplement Plasmalogens?

In terms of supplements, various options are available, many of which are derived from seafood or synthesised in a laboratory. These can be administered in various forms, such as capsules, tablets, or liquid formulations, designed to be absorbed and incorporated into cell membranes. There is some evidence that these can have a beneficial effect on symptoms of neurodegenerative disorders.

For instance, one study found that a majority of its 22 cognitively impaired participants experienced improved cognition and mobility [2], while a 2023 review of the available literature found that plasmalogen supplementation may have a positive effect on restricting cognitive impairment through ageing. [3]

Ultimately, further research is required to determine the efficient dosage. While some Nutritional Therapists may choose to include it in their client protocols, I will be taking a patient-centred approach and base my decision on each individual I consult.

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