Nature's Apothecary: Foods & Supplements for Brain Health
Are you looking to give your brain a boost? Look no further than nature's own apothecary! Our comprehensive guide explores the science behind the top natural remedies for brain health. From omega-3 fatty acids to Gingko Biloba to huperzine-A, learn about the proven benefits and proper dosage of these powerful supplements and foods. Unlock the full potential of your brain with our expert-approved guide.
Disclaimer: This post is for informational purposes only. Please consult your doctor about your health-related concerns and medications before taking any supplements.
An Intro to Boosting Brain Health Naturally
How to Improve Brain Health Infographic
Why Brain Health Matters: The Importance of Nourishing Your Mind
The brain is the most complex organ in the human body. It contains about 100 billion neurons and as many as 1,000 trillion synapses. It’s the command center for your nervous system and controls everything from your memory to movement to mood, sleep, and energy levels (Wang et al., 2020).
Maintaining brain health throughout life is crucial in pursuing health, longevity, and overall well-being. The health of your brain even impacts your hormones and gut health (Gwak & Chang, 2021).
As we age, it's natural for cognitive function to decline. Luckily, there are steps you can take to prevent this decline and support brain health naturally (Marchand & Jensen, 2018; Crawford et al., 2021; Meeusen & Decroix, 2018).
However, keeping your brain healthy goes beyond diet and supplementation. It also involves staying physically active, having a social network, and engaging in some sort of cognitive training (Marchand & Jensen, 2018; Piolatto et al., 2018).
Race, ethnicity, gender, and genetics can also impact brain health. According to estimates, up to 60% of a person’s cognitive ability is genetic—the remaining is modifiable. By working on those 40%, you can start to unlock your brain’s full potential (Klimova et al., 2017).
In this resource-packed guide, we'll explore foods, herbs, supplements, and vitamins that may give your brain a boost and nourish your mind.
Your brain health impacts your memory, mood, and even your gut health. Keeping it in optimal shape is crucial for your wellness and longevity. Genetics, lifestyle, and diet all play in.
I. Foods that Improve Brain Function
Exploring the Connection: How Diet Impacts Brain Health
Eat your veggies! Or better yet, eat the rainbow.
All brain-boosting diets share the common traits of being rich in colorful fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fish or seafood, while also being low in red meat and sweets. The most well-researched among them is the Mediterranean diet (Marchand & Jensen, 2018).
Many studies suggest that eating a healthy diet can help maintain cognitive health and maybe even prevent cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease in the long term (Marchand & Jensen, 2018).
The Mediterranean and MIND diets
The Mediterranean diet has been associated with about 40% lower risk of cognitive impairment (including dementia and Alzheimer’s disease) in some studies. It was also linked with both a 65% lower risk of mild cognitive impairment and improved cognitive performance in one trial (Marchand & Jensen, 2018).
As its name suggests, the MIND diet (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) is based on the Mediterranean and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets. It was optimized to support brain health based on the latest scientific findings in nutrition (Dhana et al., 2021).
The MIND diet emphasizes brain-healthy foods that are believed to lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, all of which we go over below (Morris et al., 2015; Morris et al., 2015).
Overview of the best foods for brain health
The MIND diet lists berries as the number one brain-boosting fruit. Blueberries, strawberries, and blackberries are packed with anthocyanin antioxidants that protect the brain from free radical damage and reduce inflammation (Kelly et al., 2018).
In one study of 16k older people, eating more berries was linked with slower rates of cognitive decline (Devore et al., 2012).
A 2022 scientific review concluded that berries have beneficial effects on brain blood flow, cognitive function, memory, executive functioning, processing speed, and attention (Bonyadi et al., 2022).
2. Grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds
Nuts and seeds have an optimal fatty acid profile. Along with legumes and whole grains, they’re also rich in fiber, vitamin E, B vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants—all of which are essential for brain health. Some great choices are walnuts, almonds, cashews, and chia seeds (Theodore et al., 2021).
Based on a 2021 review, eating nuts on a daily basis may have a protective effect on cognition, especially in people at higher risk of cognitive decline (Theodore et al., 2021).
Fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines are an ideal source of the brain-protective omega-3 fatty acid DHA. Fish is also a good source of vitamins D and E.
In one trial of 197 children, eating oily fish improved cognitive function, attention, and cognitive flexibility, and reduced socioemotional problems (Teisen et al., 2020).
In another study, eating fish once a week was linked to a 60% lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease in older people. Meanwhile, omega-3s enhanced cognition in mild Alzheimer’s (Morris et al., 2003).
4. Leafy greens
Leafy greens—such as spinach, kale, and broccoli—are rich in brain-boosting antioxidants, minerals, and vitamins (C, E, K, and folate) (Morris et al., 2006).
In over 13k women, higher green leafy vegetable intake was linked with slower cognitive decline. Leafy greens also protected against the early onset of Alzheimer’s disease in elderly people (Kang et al, 2005; Morris et al., 2018).
5. Olive oil
It’s an essential ingredient in both the Mediterranean and the MIND diets. It’s no secret that the longest-lived people in the so-called Blue Zones of the Mediterranean consume copious amounts of olive oil (Buettner & Skemp, 2016).
Extra-virgin olive oil is anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and brain-protective (Khalatbary et al., 2013).
In one Spanish study of 285 older people, a Mediterranean diet rich in extra-virgin olive oil led to better cognitive function and less cognitive decline (Martínez-Lapiscina et al., 2013).
Preliminary research suggests that olive oil phenols may be protective against stroke, spinal cord injury, Alzheimer's disease, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, and other neurological conditions. Clinical studies are needed to explore this further (Khalatbary et al., 2013).
6. Dark chocolate
The cocoa in dark chocolate boasts flavonoids, antioxidants that support cognitive function and protect the brain from free radical damage.
Dark chocolate is also a good source of magnesium, which is essential for brain health. In one study of 98 healthy young adults, eating a small dark chocolate bar improved verbal memory (Lamport et al., 2020).
7. Shiitake mushrooms
Aside from boosting immunity, shiitake mushrooms may have the potential to improve cognition.
They are rich in B vitamins and anti-inflammatory compounds. However, the existing data is limited to animal studies. In rats, shiitake mushrooms prevented cognitive impairments caused by a high-fat diet. Shiitake may act on the brain-gut axis, but human research is needed (Pan et al., 2021).
8. Fermented foods
Fermented foods, such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi, are rich in probiotics—beneficial bacteria that support gut health.
Research reveals that certain probiotics may improve cognitive function by preventing brain atrophy and producing neurotransmitters. Probiotics that support brain health have been termed “psychobiotics.” Some psychobiotics may be able to boost BDNF, a compound that helps “rebuild” and regenerate the brain (Kim et al., 2021; Asaoka et al., 2022; Sharma et al., 2021).
Maintaining the health of your gut microbiome is important for your brain health. A diet rich in fermented, probiotic-rich foods and prebiotic fiber can support the gut-brain axis, soothe your gut, and sharpen your mind (Mayer et al., 2022).
Eating a healthy diet can help maintain cognitive health and maybe even prevent cognitive difficulties in the long term. The Mediterranean and MIND diets are rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fish or seafood and low in red meat and sweets—common traits in diets that support brain health.
How to incorporate these foods into your diet
Incorporating these brain-boosting foods into your diet is not about eating large quantities of them, but rather about including them as part of a balanced diet. The focus should be on creating healthy habits in the long run while preparing nutrient-dense, delicious meals.
Tips for shopping and cooking brain-boosting meals
Look to buy local and organic and gradually introduce more of these foods into your meals. Add some of the spices we list in part II for more brain-boosting power!
II. Supplements for Brain Health
Unlocking the Potential: The Role of Supplements in Supporting Brain Health
Many “brain-boosting” supplements have recently spurred the market. They get a lot of hype without much research to back them up. Only a handful of supplements have been shown to support cognitive function (Block et al., 2021).
None of these supplements should be used in place of medication.
Overview of the best supplements for brain health
1. Omega-3 fatty acids
In one review, 10 out of 14 studies supported the benefits of omega-3s for cognitive function, especially in older adults. Studies used EPA, DHA, or a combination of both (Del Moral & Fortique, 2019).
Low DHA has been linked with aging-related cognitive decline. DHA helps prevent macular degeneration and Alzheimer's while enhancing memory and brain resilience (Cardosa et al., 2016).
Huperzine A is an active compound from Chinese moss. It’s often marketed as a nootropic.
In an analysis of 20 clinical trials including over 1.8k Alzheimer's patients, huperzine A seemed to improve memory, cognitive function, and behavior. More research is needed before it can be recommended (Yang et al., 2013; Ghassab-Abdollahi et al., 2021).
Acetyl-L-carnitine is a form of L-carnitine, an amino acid naturally produced by the brain and liver.
In several trials, acetyl-L-carnitine improved cognitive function and memory in elderly people with age-related cognitive decline (Cucinotta et al., 1988; Salvioli & Neri, 1994; Passeri et al., 1990).
Some studies suggested that it might slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease progression. It’s more likely to be beneficial in early-onset Alzheimer's in people under 66 years of age, but more trials should examine its effectiveness (Thal et al., 1996; Sano et al., 1992; Spagnoli et al., 1991; Brooks et al., 1998; Pettegrew et al., 1995; Rai et al., 1990; Montgomery et al., 2003; Hudson et al., 2003).
Citicoline is a natural brain compound.
In clinical trials, citicoline improved memory scores short-term in elderly patients with age-related cognitive decline (Spiers et al., 1996; Fioravanti et al., 2005; Alvarez et al., 1997; Nakazaki et al,, 2021).
L-theanine has the potential for improving mental performance, especially in people under stress. It may be more powerful when combined with caffeine (Fox et al., 2012; Hidese et al., 2019).
You can get l-theanine by having a cup of antioxidant-rich green tea!
Phosphatidylserine is a natural component of your cell membranes.
Bovine cortex-derived phosphatidylserine seems to improve attention and memory in patients with age-related cognitive decline. Plant-derived phosphatidylserine may have a similar effect (Cenacchi et al., 1993; Crook et al., 1991; Villardita et al., 1987; Palmieri et al., 1987; Schreiber et al., 2000).
Caffeine is the world’s most famous and widely used stimulant. Caffeine increases mental alertness when you’re exhausted and sleep-deprived. But this often comes at the cost of irritability, heart palpitations, and gut issues (Nehlig, 2010; Capelletti et al., 2015).
For this reason, we don’t recommend caffeine pills. If you’re not sensitive to coffee, it’s better to have an occasional cup when you need to get through the day.
8. Bacopa Monnieri
Bacopa or Brahmi is an Ayurvedic herb used to support mood, memory, and mental alertness.
There’s some evidence that it may help protect the brain and improve cognition and memory recall. However, the results of studies have been inconsistent (Pase et al., 2012; Sukumaran et al., 2019).
9. Ginkgo Biloba
Gingko is a Traditional Chinese Medicine herb and among the most popular supplements for brain health.
In a review of 14 clinical trials, ginkgo supplementation was linked with improved memory, cognition, and quality of life in patients with Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. Gingko also seems to combat oxidative stress and inflammation and improve brain blood flow, attention, and mood (Barbalho et al., 2022; Diamond & Bailey, ,2013).
Turmeric is a yellow spice that contains curcumin, one of the best-researched natural compounds.
Studies show that curcumin has brain-protective and cognitive-enhancing properties that may help delay or prevent neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's (Goozee et al., 2016).
Curcumin has poor bioavailability that can be enhanced by 2000% by piperine from black pepper (Hewlings & Kalman, 2017).
So, next time you’re cooking with turmeric, don’t forget to add some black pepper in!
11. Lion’s mane
Lion’s mane is a medicinal mushroom that shows potential for improving cognitive function based on preliminary human data, but more clinical trials are needed (Saitsu et al., 2019).
Certain supplements like huperzine-A, omega-3s, turmeric, and citicoline may support brain health and cognitive function when taken at the recommended dosage. More clinical research is needed before they can be recommended to people with cognitive decline.
Dosage and safety information for each supplement
- Omega-3s: 2.5 g/day long term
- Acetyl-L-Carnitine: 1.5-3 g/day for 3-12 months
- Huperzine A: 200-800 mcg/day up to 6 months
- Citicoline: 500-1000 mg twice daily for up to 12 months
- L-theanine: 200-400 mg/day for 4-8 weeks
- Phosphatyldilserine: 100 mg three times daily for up to 6 months
- Bacopa: 300-600 mg/day for 12 weeks
- Ginkgo: 60-240 mg/day for up to 6 months
- Turmeric extract: 1.5 g/day for up to 3 months
All the listed supplements are safe when used at the recommended doses and durations. Track your response as individual reactions are always possible.
How to choose the right supplement for you
Not all supplements are created equal. Go for high-quality products and trusted brands.
When choosing a supplement for brain health, think about your specific needs and goals.
For example, if you're looking to improve memory and cognitive function, citicoline or acetyl-L-carnitine may be a good choice. If you're looking to reduce inflammation in the brain, turmeric and ginkgo may be better options. And if you’re aiming at a supplement that’s also beneficial for heart health, you can’t go wrong with omega-3s.
You may choose to supplement with one active ingredient or take a combination product. Combos may help achieve a synergistic effect.
On the flip side, some combos contain dozens of ingredients. Be sure to consult your doctor first to avoid drug interactions and side effects. Be especially cautious with supplements that contain caffeine.
III. Best Vitamins for Brain Health
Vitally Important: Understanding the Role of Vitamins in Maintaining Brain Health
Your brain needs vitamins in optimal amounts to function properly. Vitamins help the brain produce neurotransmitters and protect it from free radical damage and excessive inflammation (McCleary et al., 2018).
Overview of the best vitamins for brain health
1. Vitamin D
Studies indicate that low vitamin D levels may increase the risk of cognitive decline (Soni et al., 2012)
In one trial of 183 older people with mild cognitive problems, vitamin D (800 IU/day) over 12 months improved cognitive function by combating oxidative stress in the brain (Yang et al., 2020).
2. B vitamins
Vitamins B12, B6, and B9 (folate) are essential for brain health.
According to a 2022 review of 95 studies with 46k participants, B vitamins help slow cognitive decline when taken for at least 12 months (Wang et al., 2022).
People with lower folate levels (but not B12 or B6 deficiency) were at an increased risk of cognitive problems in this study. This means that upping your dietary folate levels is a sure way to support your brain health (Wang et al., 2022).
3. Retinol (Vitamin A)
Retinol, the active form of vitamin A, helps protects the brain from oxidative stress and inflammation. It also maintains brain plasticity in regions involved in memory, which is key to good cognitive function (Wołoszynowska-Fraser et al., 2020).
Studies uncovered a link between vitamin A deficiency and cognitive decline and Alzheimer's disease (Wołoszynowska-Fraser et al., 2020; Palazuelos González et al., 2022).
4. Vitamin K2
Vitamin K2 helps brain cells grow, divide, and maintain a strong protective myelin sheath. It also helps produce sphingolipids, highly concentrated fats in the brain that help boost cognition (Maresz, 2021).
Studies reveal that people with cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease have lower vitamin K2 levels. However, more research is needed to test whether vitamin K2 supplements are beneficial (Maresz, 2021).
How to get enough of these vitamins through food and supplements
The healthiest and most evidence-based way to get these brain-protective vitamins is from food.
Increase your vitamin D levels through sun exposure and eating fatty fish and/or cod liver oil (Benedik, 2022; Cortese et al., 2015).
Most B vitamins are found in whole grains, nuts, legumes, and leafy greens (NHS).
Meanwhile, you can get plenty of retinol and vitamin K2 from animal foods like grass-fed butter, cheese, and chicken and beef liver. These foods also pack vitamin B12 (NIH; Schwalfenberg et al., 2017).
Vitamin D, B vitamins, retinol, and vitamin K2 help keep your mind sharp and brain healthy. The best way to get these vitamins is through a healthy diet that includes foods such as fatty fish, whole grains, leafy greens, and liver.
The first step to improving your brain health is to incorporate nutrient-rich foods like berries, fish, and leafy greens into your diet. Work to create long-term healthy diet choices over short-term dieting.
Vitamins are also essential to keeping your brain healthy. Look to get plenty of B vitamins, vitamins A and D, and vitamin K from food. Consider supplementing only if you can’t get enough of these nutrients from food.
Specific supplements, such as omega-3 fatty acids, ginkgo, and turmeric have also been shown to support cognitive function.
Think about your specific needs and health goals when choosing a supplement. Be sure to choose high-quality products and take them at the recommended dosage.
Lastly, don’t forget to consult your healthcare provider before taking any supplements to avoid disease and drug interactions.
What’s your experience with supplements for brain health? Let us know in the comments section, and share this article if you found it useful!
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Ana Aleksic, MSc Pharm
Ana is an integrative pharmacist and scientist with many years of medical writing, clinical research, and health advising experience. She loves communicating science and empowering people to achieve their optimal health. Ana has edited 800+ and written 150+ posts, some of which reached over 1 million people. Her specialties are natural remedies, women’s health, and mental health. She is also a birth doula and a strong advocate of bridging scientific knowledge with holistic medicine.
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