Phosphatidylserine is an ingredient you may have seen in nootropics and discussed in biohacking communities as a brain-boosting supplement. Promises of improved memory and impeccable cognitive processing are great but we must warn you that supplements—even foods—are not always what they’re cracked up to be in absolute terms. They have to be viewed in light of your personal constitution, dietary habits, vices like tobacco and alcohol, medications taken and other supplements. Even arduous exercise plays a role in the absorption and assimilation of what you swallow. This is why we have dietitians, clinical nutritionists and integrative physicians. Even arsenic is all natural.
What is Phosphatidylserine (PS)?
PS is a phospholipid and a component of the cell membrane. PS is used to address concerns with memory, dementia, age-related mental decline, cognitive defects, ADD/ADHD and depression. Originally, PS was extracted from cow brain tissue, but the scare of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (aka mad cow disease) put an end to that. Current manufacture uses cabbage or soybeans, which have a similar chemistry to the brain tissue PS. The polyunsaturated fats from soy and cabbage are held in higher regard than the saturated fats from animal derivations, but those in soy-based phosphatidylserine have not satisfactorily and reliably proven their value in clinical trials with humans (Jorissen, 2001). Still,for every give there’s a take. When combined with DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid), the product demonstrated efficacy in the improvement of verbal recall and time to copy complex figures (Vakhapova, 2010).
The brain lipids from which PS was first isolated are called cephalins, substances found in nerve tissue and the brain and spinal cord. PS and phosphatidylethanolamine (PE) are the primary cephalin components of the inner cell membrane, supported on the opposite side by phosphatidylcholine (PC). When needed, PS can be made by exchanging the ethanolamine head of PE with L-serine, the ubiquitous non-essential amino acid important to the biosynthesis of purines and pyrimidines that comprise DNA.
What does Phosphatidylserine do in the body?
The most abundant phospholipid in the human brain (Leventis, 2010), PS is vital to the maintenance of the cell’s internal environment, where it also participates in signal transduction, cell-to-cell communication and cell growth regulation. Most PS is supplied by the diet, so the energy needed to tap into PE as a reservoir is conserved. Organ meats are a strong source of dietary PS, but muscle meats, eggs, white beans and soy-based proteins offer a decent supply. PS is important to blood coagulation, where it enhances the activation of prothrombin to thrombin, which is the key molecule in the clotting process. However, higher levels of PS than necessary for cell membrane homeostasis, acting as a procoagulant, may contribute to acute coronary syndrome, causing plaque disruption and thrombosis (Mallat, 1999, 2000) (Tedgui, 2001). Hence, there is one rationale for stopping overzealous supplementation.
Should we supplement Phosphatidylserine?
As strange as it may seem, cell death occurs for our own good. This activity is programmed into every cell of the body, and is called apoptosis. The process can destroy cells that may harm us, such as those mutated by disease, by the environment or by other factors. Tumors form by suppressing apoptosis, making mutated cells immortal and dangerous. On the other hand, apoptosis that gets carried away may contribute to degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s or the massive destruction of lymphocytes in AIDS. Maintaining equilibrium between cell proliferation and cell death in the body is important. With apoptosis, there is cell shrinkage and fragmentation, followed by phagocytosis—engulfment by a scavenger cell. This deliberation allows contents to be recycled. PS plays a major role in apoptosis when its distribution on the cell’s inner leaflet is disrupted by enzymes (Marino, 2013) that move it to the outer layer, thereby signaling the imminent death of the cell and calling for the joint activity of phagocytes to digest the cell (Fadoka, 1998). Following the transfer of PS to the outer membrane, particular receptors on the surface of macrophages and related scavenger cells start the removal of the apoptotic cell.
So what does this mean? It may be possible that supplemental PS might accrue too much of a good thing. This situation makes science wonder if taking PS as an isolated supplement is worth the possibility of hastening cell death after levels of PS have exceeded physiological need (Wu, 2006) (Schlegel, 2001) (Zhou, 2007). Supplements demonstrate remarkable benefits if they are, indeed, in deficit because their assimilation returns body functions to normal, a state which some people have not experienced for a long time. After equilibrium is restored, additional dosing of any supplement may cause unwanted effects. Nausea is one thing, but premature cell death is another.
Taking supplemental phosphatidylcholine (PC), the number one constituent of the cell membrane, is a prudent measure in maintenance of overall health, in proper liver function, in fluidizing the membrane to allow passage of nutrients, in providing a reservoir for choline to eventuate to acetylcholine, in transducing cellular signals and in a host of other endeavors. Taking PC with appropriate PE allows the body to make the PS it needs at the time without excess to cause apoptotic mischief. Remembering that PS on the cell’s surface is a clotting factor, note that overindulgence in a supplement will cause more problems than it will solve. Whether or not it eases the burden of Alzheimer’s and related pathologies really does require more study (Taylor, 2003) (Jorissen, 2001).
Because of its coagulation properties, PS needs oversight in people taking anticoagulant and antiplatelet medications, such as Coumadin and the ever-changing new names popping up in the market. Endogenous (self-made) PS relies on adequate supplies of folic acid, vitamin B12 and essential fatty acids, including the DHA mentioned earlier — it’s almost impossible to overdose on endogenous substances.
Obtrusive proponents of PS as a supplement will have an agenda that includes the full-page newspaper advertisement, complete with testimonials. And, yes, it will work if a person is depleted - until they get too much. What is needed are full-fledged, double-blinded, placebo-controlled, randomized trials in sufficient numbers to make definitive judgments. Ever since the food supply has been unable to offer all the raw materials the body needs for energy, growth and repair, supplementation of vitamins, minerals and fatty acids has been required. But in the case of phospholipids, where one can be the mother of another, exogenous augmentation might be overkill.
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