Brain health affects many facets of our lives, including cognitive function (thinking skills), sensory and motor function (sensations and movement), and emotional and social functioning. Memory and brain function are one of the major focus points in health research; there are many things about the brain we haven’t yet discovered, and its secrets could be the answer to curing Alzheimer's disease and other brain disorders. A 2019 report has projected that people will spend more than $5 billion a year globally on memory supplements. But can dietary supplements promote brain health, enhanced memory, and mental alertness? And what are the best supplements to boost brain function? Please read on to find out.
What are the best vitamins for memory and brain health?
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are healthy fats that are vital for many body systems, including the cardiovascular system and central nervous system. They are important for healthy brain development in babies. A recent study found that the two main omega-3 fatty acids - DHA and EPA, given together at prescription strength, can improve cognitive functions in older adults with coronary artery disease. Lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids have been linked to accelerated brain aging. Examples of natural sources of omega-3 fatty acids include shellfish, fatty fish, flaxseed, soybeans, and walnuts. The American Heart Association recommends eating 2 servings of fish per week, especially fish with high levels of omega-3 fatty acids like salmon, tuna, and mackerel. If your typical dietary intake does not consist of the recommended serving of fish or you don’t like to eat fish, walnuts, soy-based foods, flaxseeds, and chia are good alternatives. Besides food intake, you can take omega-3 fatty acids in the form of memory supplements to support cognitive function and healthy brain aging.
You may have heard about the benefits of vitamins B6, B9, and B12, including their role in improving cognitive function and preventing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease; however, no concrete scientific evidence supports this claim.
Most people get enough B vitamins from their diet to maintain brain health. However, many older adults are deficient in vitamin B12. Therefore, a B vitamin supplement may help to improve overall health, which, in turn, may boost brain power and protect brain cells. However, you should discuss brain-boosting supplements, specifically the B vitamin complex, with your doctor before taking them.
Vitamin E is an antioxidant that protects cells from damage. Vitamin E’s anti-inflammatory properties are essential in maintaining healthy brain cell membranes. There is some evidence that eating a diet rich in vitamin E may reduce the risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease; keep in mind that there is no evidence that vitamin E supplements would have the same potential benefits.
Vitamin E supplement is believed to slow cognitive decline in people who already have dementia. Foods rich in vitamin E include nuts, seeds, vegetable oils, and dark green leafy vegetables. A daily vitamin E supplement may help to maintain cognitive ability. However, too much vitamin E can be harmful. Check with your doctor before taking vitamin E supplements for neurological function.
Vitamin A, Vitamin C, and Vitamin D
Many brain supplements contain vitamin A, vitamin C, and vitamin D. These vitamins are important for overall health. However, their specific role in cognitive function, mental clarity, and mental health is unproven. That said, vitamins are necessary for maintaining overall health. Optimal health helps balance brain chemicals, keep brain cells healthy, and maintain cerebral blood flow. A daily supplement, whether it is specific for brain health or a daily multivitamin, is necessary if you don’t consume a balanced, healthful diet regularly. Therefore, taking a brain supplement containing vitamins A, C, and D is worth discussing with your physician. In particular, many people are deficient in vitamin D. This vitamin has been linked to cognitive function, dementia, depression, and other brain health problems.
This is an antioxidant found in turmeric (a common ingredient in Indian curry powder). A study of a bioavailable form of curcumin has shown its role in enhancing memory in people with mild memory complaints. However, these are small studies. More evidence from more extensive studies with more subjects is needed to see if curcumin in diet or dietary supplements can improve brain health.
There is some evidence that CDP-choline is a powerful brain booster and can benefit memory in older adults with memory problems. However, it is unclear if CDP-choline has any benefit in improving memory in healthy older adults.
Green tea contains caffeine, which boosts mental energy and mental performance. The other component of green tea is L-theanine, a natural amino acid that promotes the activity of GABA - a brain chemical that induces relaxation. Caffeine boosts mental alertness, while L-theanine helps you to relax. Drinking green tea might be a good idea since it contains both L-theanine and caffeine, along with other antioxidants. However, before taking a brain supplement containing L-theanine, you should talk to your doctor.
Ginkgo biloba is a herb that’s commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine. It is a popular supplement to boost memory and improve cognitive health. But studies have not proven that this dietary supplement can improve cognitive performance. Ginkgo biloba has also not been found to slow memory loss in people with dementia. Moreover, nootropic supplements like Ginkgo can interact with other prescription medications. If you want to take Ginkgo for improved memory, discuss it with your doctor first.
This is another popular herb that is commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine. Some studies have indicated that ginseng dietary supplement could improve memory recall and boost thinking skills. However, the scientific research to support this claim is not strong. If you want to take memory pills containing ginseng to slow down age-related decline in cognitive functions, talk to your doctor about the pros and cons.
What is the most important supplement for the brain?
There is no single supplement that is the most important for brain health. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not evaluate dietary supplements for their safety and effectiveness as they do with prescription medications; however, the agency does play a role in regulating these products once they enter the market.
As a result, even if you take high-quality brain supplements, there’s no guarantee they will do everything they claim to do, such as improve memory recall and cognitive performance.
It’s also worth noting that some brain supplements might contain ingredients that can be harmful, especially if you already have kidney or liver problems. Moreover, nootropic supplements or “cognitive enhancers” can interact with other medicines and make them less effective or increase the risk of side effects.
Do brain supplements work?
Even the best memory supplements are not backed by large clinical trials and strong scientific evidence to support their safety and efficacy. Much more research is needed before doctors can make recommendations for memory supplements.
With that said, many ingredients in brain health supplements have been linked to good brain health. As long as you understand that brain supplements are not a magic cure, they can be beneficial. Always talk to your healthcare provider before starting any supplement for enhanced cognitive performance.
How to maintain healthy brain function?
Most people don’t need memory supplements to maintain healthy brain function. A healthy lifestyle can do more for your brain health than dietary supplements. Some of the ways to keep your brain healthy include:
- Eat a healthy diet rich in nuts, seeds, healthy oils, fatty cold-water fish, fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole grains. This is sometimes called the MIND diet and is a combination of the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet.
- Stay physically active. This is vital for energy metabolism. It can also control depressive symptoms, boost mood, and help with emotional balance.
- Limit alcohol. This will reduce your risk of brain fog and cognitive decline.
- Get enough sleep. Sleep is important to make new brain cells.
- Maintain social connections. This is known to boost brain energy and promote a sense of well-being.
- Challenge your mind and be a lifelong learner. This can help with cognitive ability well into your old age.
- Treat health problems like diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. This will lower your risk of many illnesses, including dementia.