Your brain is essential for every aspect of health. Cognition, emotional well-being, memory, and mood are all vital aspects of brain health, but since the central nervous system regulates the whole body, it’s linked to all elements of wellness. Aging comes with natural challenges, like oxidative stress, but you can support brain health and mental sharpness with diet and lifestyle. Supplements can also provide support. In this article, we’ll explore the science behind popular brain health supplements and other ways to support a healthy mind.
The brain is a small but dynamic organ that is made of more than 100 billion neurons. It takes up only 2% of the total body weight, but uses 20% of the body’s oxygen and 15% of the heart’s energy expenditure. The brain can start being impacted by natural aging processes as early as your 30s. A healthy lifestyle, with balanced nutrition, is essential to continue fueling this vital organ through the many decades of life.
There is no single diet that applies to every person. Genetics and many other factors can influence the specific nuances of macronutrient and micronutrient requirements. However, some elements are fairly universal. Diets that contain plenty of fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats have consistently been linked with better cognition and healthy aging. These same food plans, like the Mediterranean diet, have also been linked to neurological well-being.
Another extremely basic way to support the brain is healthy hydration. Water allows nutrients to cross the blood brain barrier and also facilitates the removal of toxins from the brain and central nervous system. Water is necessary for all cells in the body, but the brain’s concentrated network of neurons and high volume of energy use make staying hydrated essential for a healthy brain.
The MIND Diet is an approach to food that pairs the research-backed benefits of the Mediterranean diet with those of the DASH diet. DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. The combined approach focuses on consuming lower-carb vegetables and fruits, nuts, whole grains, beans, and healthy fats like olive oil, seafood, and poultry.
There are many nutrients known to support brain health and nervous system wellness. It’s best to obtain nutrients from foods, but supplements can be an effective way to support adequate intake or to bridge gaps from restricted diets. Additionally, some supplements may not be available in food-only sources, yet show promise for healthy brain support.
Omega-3 fats are important for healthy cellular communication and nerve health in the body. They also support heart health, which directly impacts the brain’s available oxygen energy supply. While you can get omega-3 fats from coldwater fish like salmon, many Americans do not consume enough omega-3s from food. Fish oil supplements can provide the same EPA and DHA fatty acids that omega-3 foods do, with around 1 gram per day being the recommended amount for brain health support.
Omega-3s have been linked with healthy cognition and brain wellness in many studies. The brain is nearly 60% fat, and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) is the primary type of omega-3 fatty acid that is found there. It’s needed for neurological signaling, protecting neurons, membrane integrity, healthy oxidative responses, and even neuroplasticity. EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), the other type of omega-3, may support healthy brain aging, although it has not been definitely shown to enhance or protect cognition. EPA can also support general healthy free radical defense responses throughout the body.
Creatine is a substance that supports energy metabolism in the body. While many athletes use it to support muscular energy, it has also been found to help with brain function and memory, too. While more research is needed to understand how it affects neurological function long-term, people who follow plant-based diets or who may get inadequate protein intake may benefit from creatine. Check with your medical provider before starting creatine to find a serving size that’s applicable to your health goals. Most creatine research has focused on athletic performance, so optimal intakes for brain and cognitive health are still being studied.
Most people are familiar with caffeine as a brain stimulant. But it’s not only about keeping you awake. Caffeine has been shown to support general brain function, memory processing, and reaction times. It doesn’t take much either. Just 32 mg of caffeine, which is less than typically found in a single cup of coffee, can be enough to support visual and auditory processing responses. Moderate caffeine intake of up to 400 mg per day has not been linked with negative effects in the general population, although pregnant people and those who are reproductive aged are advised to keep caffeine to less than 300 mg per day. Caffeine is also found in non-herbal teas and dark chocolate. While there are caffeine supplements available, with many beverages available that provide caffeine, it’s not usually recommended to take it in supplement form. Excessive caffeine intake has been associated with problems falling asleep, restlessness, and gastrointestinal upset.
L-theanine is an amino acid naturally found in tea. It is a non-proteinogenic amino, meaning that the body can’t use it to build proteins like it can other types of amino acids. While theanine doesn’t count toward the daily protein requirement, it’s an amino acid that can support healthy stress responses as well as calm, focus, resilience, and cognition.
A cup of tea typically has 50 mg of theanine per serving or less. Most dietary supplements have daily serving sizes of between 100-300 mg. While there’s no established upper limit for theanine or specific dosage recommendation, your doctor can provide guidance. Always follow the instructions on the specific product you take unless a healthcare provider says otherwise.
Vitamin D is known for immune support, but it’s also an important nutrient for brain and neurological health. While some studies have failed to clearly identify mechanisms behind the various ways that vitamin D supports the nervous system, research has shown that it can have an important role in cognitive function as part of healthy aging. A year-long, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of 210 adults studied the effects of daily vitamin D supplementation (800 IU) on cognition in older adults. The results showed that compared to placebo, the adults who received vitamin D had better measurements of brain-related health biomarkers as well as numerous tests that assess cognitive, memory, and information processing abilities. The vitamin D group also experienced a significant increase in IQ. Longer trials are needed to confirm the results, as well as to understand how the impacts may be observed in different age groups. Another study of 183 adults using 800 IU of vitamin D showed similar results after 12 months.
The best way to get vitamin D is regular sun time. However, not everyone is able to safely get UVB exposure and many locations do not get direct sunlight year-round. Vitamin D supplementation is a reliable way to support healthy intake. A healthcare provider can suggest an optimal dosage based on blood test results. The tolerable upper intake level is 100 mcg or 4000 IU. Do not exceed this amount without medical supervision, since vitamin D levels can accumulate in the body and disrupt calcium and phosphate levels, among other complications.
Choline is a nutrient that is naturally found in eggs and some other foods. It’s used to help make acetylcholine in the brain, a neurotransmitter that is vital for focus, memory, cognition, and attention. It is also a precursor to phosphatidylcholine, which is necessary for mitochondrial energy production. Choline intake has been associated with memory performance and healthy cognitive aging.
In a study that looked at NHANES data from 2,796 adults 60 years and older, the average daily choline intake from food was 307 mg, which is below the adequate intake threshold. While this study did not find differences between cognitive scores and choline intake from foods or supplements, more research is needed to understand how this nutrient affects brain and cognitive wellness.
B vitamins are necessary for healthy cellular communication, DNA replication, and neurological function in all decades of life. They work synergistically, so while one may have specific impacts, they are all needed to enable the enzymatic and metabolism processes of each other.
Vitamin B12 levels are challenging to maintain during aging processes, and deficiency can lead to nerve damage. Intrinsic factor is needed to use B12 from foods and vitamins, but this decreases naturally with aging. Genetics, stomach acid content, and overall gastrointestinal health also influence absorption. B12 can be stored in the liver, but because of this, signs of deficiency may not appear for years. People who consume enough or excess folate may also inadvertently mask the signs of B12 deficiency.
Vitamin B6, folate, and B12 are also necessary for healthy methylation—a process that is needed for healthy DNA replication and genetic function. When methylation is impaired or nutrients are unavailable, homocysteine (an amino acid) can accumulate. Too much homocysteine has been linked to cognitive challenges and other systemic issues.
A diet that is well-rounded includes most B vitamins. Plant-based diets are naturally low in B12, since B12 comes from animal-origin foods. B vitamins are typically found in multivitamins, but may also be supplemented as B-complex, in specialty formulations, or as individual nutrients.
Ashwagandha is an adaptogenic herb that helps the body respond to stressful situations by enhancing feelings of calm resilience. Brain health is influenced by many things, but carrying a higher burden of stress can affect cognitive processing. A small study of 64 people found that taking ashwagandha for 60 days led to a 44% reduction in perceived stress. The placebo group only had a 5.5% reduction in perceived stress. Ashwagandha also supported somatic, sleep, and mood responses. A review of ashwagandha research supports the benefits of the adaptogen for sleep quality and focus, while noting that larger studies with more methodological rigor are needed.
While many nutrients show promise for brain health, some aren’t backed by enough evidence or simply need to be studied more.
Lion’s Mane Mushrooms: These adaptogenic mushrooms have become popular dietary supplements. Research indicates that they have bioactive compounds that could lead to support for mood, tension, cognition, and perception of well-being, but human clinical trials that could confirm these findings are lacking.
Theobromine: This natural stimulant is found in cocoa and chocolate. Animal and in vitro studies show that it has some promise for cognitive wellness and may improve brain blood flow, but more research needs to be done before we know how it directly affects human cognition.
Phosphatidylserine (PS): Phosphatidylserine is a phospholipid compound that may enhance brain health function and cell membrane integrity. Supplementation is thought to be beneficial for healthy memory, information processing, focus, and learning, but more research is needed.
Magnesium: Magnesium is a mineral that is needed for many enzymatic reactions in the body, as well as musculoskeletal health. It also helps protect cells in the nervous system, and studies have noted an association between magnesium and cognition, although the studies aren’t able to determine whether there’s a cause or a correlation for a different reason. Still, magnesium is needed in adequate amounts for other health reasons. A diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds can provide plenty of magnesium. Magnesium is also available as a dietary supplement and in many multivitamins.
Resveratrol: Resveratrol is an antioxidant that is found in red wine, grapes, and blueberries. Some research has suggested that resveratrol supplements can support healthy brain function, especially memory and cognition. But more robust studies are needed to understand the specific effects of long-term supplementation.
The most important way to know that information is legitimate, and to avoid misleading claims, is to speak with your healthcare provider. Another thing to keep in mind is that if something sounds too good to be true, or is promoted as a “miracle” or “magic” cure, that might mean there are exaggerated claims being made.
There’s new research happening all the time. Some newer studies confirm older research, while others contradict what scientists once thought to be true. Because cognition and brain health are a popular area of study, it’s always possible that new data has become available on supplements or nutrients for neurological wellness. But it’s highly unlikely that a new substance will emerge to be a brain-boosting supercharger without being widely discussed in the medical community. Check with your doctor, ask a pharmacist, or consult a reputable online drug and supplement information site, like MedlinePlus, which is maintained by the National Institutes of Health.
When you choose a supplement for a specific purpose, like to support your brain health, it’s important to carefully assess the specific product that you get. Read the supplement facts label and be sure that you are clear on how many capsules, tablets, or other servings equal one “dose.” Some supplements use one capsule as a serving, while others could need 3 or more to equal the amount of nutrients on the label. You want to be sure that when you take a supplement for a specific reason that you know exactly how much of each nutrient or ingredient you are getting.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate the testing process for supplements in the same way that it does for pharmaceutical drugs. Supplement manufacturers have to adhere to strict quality rules and are responsible for substantiating the evidence for their product’s claims. However, they do not have to conduct clinical trials or undergo the same kind of testing that drug manufacturers do.
To ensure that you’re getting a high-quality product, choose supplements that are produced by manufacturers who utilize third-party testing or outside quality certifications. This allows you to trust that you know that what the label says is what you’re actually getting from each serving.
Regular medical check-ups are important for overall health. If you want to support brain health, focusing on a healthy lifestyle, diet, and overall wellness routine is important. See a medical provider if you have questions about how to enhance your brain health support.
Never start taking supplements without first consulting your healthcare provider. They can interact with medications, supplements, or over-the-counter medicines, and some supplements are not safe for people with certain conditions. Your healthcare provider can help you create a wellness plan that is tailored to your needs.
Many supplements can support brain health and cognition, but they don’t replace the need for a healthy diet and wellness plan. If you want to take a supplement to support brain health, check with your doctor and do your research on the specific product and brand quality.