Vitamin supplements for brain health — here’s what you need to know
By Dr. Julie Schwartzbard, MD
Your brain is always hungry and you need to feed it well, especially as the years go by.
In a perfect world, the food you eat would give your brain what it needs to keep running the entire show. But even under ideal conditions, your brain chews through a lot of energy every day just to keep you alive —up to 25% of your total calories go to feeding your brain.
But calories aren’t the whole story. You want to be able to think and focus and remember too, in addition to merely surviving. Well then, you have to keep the high quality nutrition pouring in day after day. You know about eating a Mediterranean diet (veggies, fish, legumes and whole grains) and you do your level best to drink water (half your body weight in ounces every day). That’s all good.
But no matter what you’re eating, you could be doing better to empower your brain. And it’s a lot simpler than you might imagine.
Why your diet doesn’t feed your brain
There are specific micronutrients that your brain needs to think, focus and remember well. But there’s a problem: it’s not that easy to get them from the food you eat. And there are a few reasons for this.
Let’s take a look at vitamin D — often considered a superstar nutrient that benefits your brain, but also your bones, heart, immune function and more. Your body needs sun exposure every day to make any vitamin D at all. You can also get some vitamin D from foods like egg yolks, sardines, beef liver and shitake mushrooms.
But can you get enough vitamin D every day to maintain the level you need circulating in your blood? Probably not: up to 75% of Americans appear to be vitamin D deficient. Low vitamin D is common in patients with dementia and memory loss, as well as those suffering with multiple sclerosis. You want a steady, consistent level of vitamin D every day, rather than have it jumping up and down according to the food you eat or don’t eat. Be honest: just how much beef liver are you prepared to eat every day?
And then there are the B vitamins. Good, regular levels of B vitamins (B6, B9, B12 and others) are 100% essential for even the most basic brain health. You can get some B vitamins in everyday foods like chicken, eggs, dairy and leafy greens.
I see plenty of patients every day whose B vitamin levels are freakishly low. What’s more, it gets harder and harder to absorb B12 as we age. And a huge chunk of the population — as much as 50% — with a certain genetic makeup can’t absorb most kinds of B9 (folate) well — or at all.
Essential fatty acids found in fish oil have some good brain support research behind them. Maybe you want to see if fish oil will improve your brain function. But what if you don’t like fish? Even if you choke down a few spoonfuls of salmon once a week, it will never be enough to provide the therapeutic levels that the studies are based on.
Why I recommend supplements for good brain function
Nutrient deficiencies happen to the best of us, even while we’re eating great diets. This is why I recommend brain supplements to my patients, and I think you should consider them too. You don’t need to take mega-doses of anything (you’ll just pee out the extra) but you do need to look for specific ingredients and forms. Otherwise, your body might not be able to use the nutrients.
Look for a supplement with vitamin B complex, with the maximum safe amount of B12 — to help preserve brain volume since the brain tends to shrink as you get older. And ensure you get enough of absorbable folate (not folic acid). And go for at least 2000 IU of vitamin D.
I like the way the science looks on a few other ingredients too, like an absorbable version of curcumin (anti-inflammatory), quercetin (antioxidant) and even green tea. And I am very excited about flavonoids — the chemicals that give many fruits and vegetables their vivid colors. These everyday nutrients have giant potential to help, and safeguard, your brain.
The polyphenolic compounds in flavonoids have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, and research shows they can enhance cognition and help protect neurons. Flavonoids are easy enough to find in foods — even the cocoa in chocolate contains them! But to get enough flavonoids every day to make a difference in brain function — well, that’s going to be a little harder.
Maybe the jury is still out on some of these ingredients, but a lot of the anecdotal evidence looks good enough for everyone to give them a try. As you get older, brain-function problems become more significant, and will make your life harder and less enjoyable. That’s no way to enjoy your third act in life!
Get yourself a basic brain health supplement and take it regularly. (They can’t help if you just take them now and then.) Give it at least 6 months before you decide whether they’re helping you. Nourishing your brain with supplements takes just seconds a day, and the basic nutrients aren’t expensive.
I think you’ll notice some improvements in how you think and remember. And if you complement your supplementation with a few commonsense lifestyle steps, you may see an even bigger difference.
- Valentina Socci, Daniela Tempesta, Giovambattista Desideri, Luigi De Gennaro, and Michele Ferrara. Enhancing Human Cognition with Cocoa Flavonoids. Front Nutr. 2017; 4: 19. Published online 2017 May 16. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5432604/. Accessed 1.08.18.
- Vauzour, D. Polyphenols and brain health. OCL 2017, 24(2), A202. https://www.ocl-journal.org/articles/ocl/pdf/2017/02/ocl170010.pdf. Accessed 1.08.18.