The scope of evidence on the neuroprotective impact of natural products has been greatly extended in recent years. However, a key question that remains to be answered is whether natural products act directly on targets located in the central nervous system (CNS), or whether they act indirectly through other mechanisms in the periphery. While molecules utilized for brain diseases are typically bestowed with a capacity to cross the blood–brain barrier, it has been recently uncovered that peripheral metabolism impacts brain functions, including cognition. The gut–microbiota–brain axis is receiving increasing attention as another indirect pathway for orally administered compounds to act on the CNS. In this review, we will briefly explore these possibilities focusing on two classes of natural products: omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (n-3 PUFAs) from marine sources and polyphenols from plants. The former will be used as an example of a natural product with relatively high brain bioavailability but with tightly regulated transport and metabolism, and the latter as an example of natural compounds with low brain bioavailability, yet with a growing amount of preclinical and clinical evidence of efficacy. In conclusion, it is proposed that bioavailability data should be sought early in the development of natural products to help identifying relevant mechanisms and potential impact on prevalent CNS disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease.
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