Mark Hyman, MD, in his book The UltraMind Solution: Fix Your Broken Brain by Healing Your Body First, may have said it best. He wrote that if people “eat wild, fresh, organic, local, non-genetically modified food grown in virgin mineral- and nutrient-rich soils that has not been transported across vast distances and stored for months before being eaten … and work and live outside, breathe only fresh unpolluted air, drink only pure, clean water, sleep nine hours a night, move their bodies every day, and are free from chronic stressors and exposure to environmental toxins,” then it is possible that they might not need supplements.
It’s safe to say that the above scenario is unrealistic in today’s world, and that almost all of us could benefit from supplements. And research continues to demonstrate that certain nutrients benefit the brain in profound ways.
3 Best Brain Supplements
In our practice, we recommend the following three supplements to almost all of our patients because they are critical to optimal brain function.
According to recent studies, more than 50 percent of Americans do not eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day—the minimum required to get the nutrition you need. We recommend taking a high-quality multivitamin/mineral complex every day to fill in the gaps.
One 2010 double-blind, placebo-controlled study from Northumbria University in England tested the effects of multivitamins on 215 men ages 30–55. The men were assessed on mental performance and asked to rate themselves on general mental health, stress, and mood. At the debut of the trial, there were no significant differences between the multivitamin group and the placebo group. When the participants were retested a little over one month later, the multivitamin group reported improved moods and showed better mental performance. Not only that, the multivitamin group reported less mental fatigue after completing mental tasks.
2. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
We both take omega-3 fatty acids every day. Research has found that omega-3 fatty acids are essential for optimal brain and body health. According to researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health, having low levels of omega-3 fatty acids is one of the leading preventable causes of death and has been associated with heart disease, strokes, depression, suicidal behavior, ADD, dementia, and obesity. There is also scientific evidence that low levels of omega-3 fatty acids play a role in substance abuse.
Omega-3 fatty acids may benefit cognitive performance and behavior at every age. A study from Swedish researchers that surveyed nearly 5,000 15-year-old boys found that those who ate fish more than once a week scored higher on standard intelligence tests than teens who ate no fish. In another study, scientists at the University of Pittsburgh reported that middle-aged people with higher DHA levels performed better on a variety of tests, including nonverbal reasoning, mental flexibility, working memory, and vocabulary.
Researchers from the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, studied the blood fatty acid content in the early and later stages of dementia and noted low levels when compared to healthy people.
Additional benefits of omega-3 fatty acids include increased attention in people with ADD, reduced stress, and a lower risk for psychosis.
The two most studied omega-3 fatty acids are EPA and DHA. DHA makes up a large portion of the gray matter of the brain. The fat in your brain forms cell membranes and plays a vital role in how our cells function. Neurons are also rich in omega-3 fatty acids. EPA improves blood flow, which boosts overall brain function. Unless you are focusing on eating fish or taking fish oil supplements, however, most people have low omega-3 levels. Have your levels tested by your health practitioner. Our recommendation for most adults is to take 1 to 2 grams per day of high-quality fish oil with a balance of EPA and DHA.
Middle-aged people with higher DHA levels performed better on a variety of tests, including nonverbal reasoning and working memory.
3. Vitamin D
Vitamin D, also known as the “sunshine vitamin,” is best known for building bones and boosting the immune system. But it is also an essential vitamin for brain health, mood, and memory. Unfortunately, vitamin D deficiencies are becoming more and more common, in part because we are spending more time indoors and using more sunscreen.
Vitamin D is so important to brain function that its receptors can be found throughout the brain. Vitamin D plays a critical role in many of the most basic cognitive functions, including learning and making memories.
In the past few years, a number of studies have linked a shortage of vitamin D with cognitive impairment in older men and women, and some studies have suggested that having optimal levels of the sunshine vitamin may play a role in protecting cognitive function. One such study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found that vitamin D3, the active form of vitamin D, may stimulate the immune system to rid the brain of beta amyloid, an abnormal protein that is believed to be a major cause of Alzheimer’s disease. Vitamin D activates receptors on neurons in regions important in the regulation of behavior, and it protects the brain by acting in an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory capacity.
The current recommended dose for vitamin D is 400 IU daily, but most experts agree that this is well below the physiological needs of most individuals and instead suggest 2,000 IU of vitamin D daily. We think it is very important to test your individual needs, especially if you are overweight or obese because your body may not absorb vitamin D as efficiently as it should.
More Brain Supplements
Beyond the foundational nutrients mentioned in this article, a handful of natural brain boosters—called nootropics—are making waves in the supplement world and are being used by young and old alike. Here are a few standouts:
Neumentix. The key ingredient in this proprietary phenolic complex is rosmarinic acid, a compound derived from spearmint. Some research shows that the complex can help boost working memory, the kind critical to juggling multiple tasks at once (aka multitasking). Bonus—Neumentix did not disrupt sleep among study subjects; in fact, those taking the complex reported that it helped them sleep better.
Lion’s Mane (amyloban) mushroom is another much-lauded supplement for cognitive health. At least a dozen studies have been published on the neuroregenerative (nerve regeneration) properties of the fungus. In one study, researchers at the Hokuto Corporation and the Isogo Central and Neurosurgical Hospital gave lion’s mane to 30 Japanese patients with mild cognitive impairment; the patients experienced significant benefits for as long as they consumed the mushrooms.
Acetyl-l-carnitine: This amino acid is thought to cross the blood-brain barrier and enter the brain, and the acetyl group helps form acetylcholine, an important neurotransmitter. Studies have consistently shown that acetyl-L-carnitine helps treat mild cognitive impairment, and may even be beneficial for people with early-onset Alzheimer’s. The amino acid has also been shown to improve blood flow, protect against toxins, and helps transport fatty acids between cells, including brain cells.
Phosphatidylserine (PS), a nutrient concentrated in the brain, is clinically shown to improve mental focus and memory for words, faces, names, and numbers. Research also shows it improves cognitive function in people over 50. PS is a natural building block for cell membranes. In the brain, cell membranes transport nutrients into the nerve cells and form synapses.
American Health More Than a Multiple with Brain Essentials
is a comprehensive whole-food multi-vitamin/mineral fortified with brain-supportive herbs and nutrients.
Garden of Life Oceans 3 Better Brain
features high-potency EPA and DHA omega-3s along with vitamins including vitamin D and memory-enhancers such as phosphatidylserine.
Bricker Labs Memory Matters
contains Neumentix (derived from spearmint), a phenolic complex that has shown promise at improving working memory and cognitive performance.
Mushroom Wisdom Amyloban 3399
contains concentrated active compounds from lion’s mane mushroom, including amyloban, an extract shown to support healthy brain function.
Keyview Labs Procera AVH
is a blend of three nutrients designed to improve memory, focus, and brain health: acetyl-L-carnitine, vinpocetine (a plant extract), and huperzine (helps boost acetylcholine).