If you’re looking for supplements to support cognitive function and mental clarity, you have some great choices. The benefits of huperzine A, phosphatidylserine, acetyl-L-carnitine, low-dose lithium, and of course omega-3s and curcumin/turmeric for brain health are well established, and I heartily endorse them.
What I want to focus on, however, are nutrients that are not necessarily singled out as brain boosters. Yet, these vitamins and minerals—which many people fail to get in adequate amounts—are essential for proper functioning of the brain and nervous system.
Why Your Brain Needs Antioxidants
Your brain has exceptionally high energy requirements and therefore generates a lot of ATP, which is your body’s fuel source. But here’s the problem. Harmful free radicals are a byproduct of ATP production, so you need a hefty supply of antioxidants to protect neurons and other brain cells against oxidative damage.
Vitamin E’s brain benefits stem from its prowess as a fat (lipid)-soluble antioxidant. Your brain contains a lot of lipids—after adipose tissue (fat), it is the fattiest organ in the body. By scavenging lipid free radicals, vitamin E shields cell membranes and other lipid-rich tissues against oxidative damage. Vitamin E deficiencies have been linked with numerous neurological disorders.
Suggested daily dose: 200–400 IU of a combination of natural vitamin E plus mixed tocopherols
Vitamin C is highly concentrated in neurons and other brain cells, where it functions as a major water-soluble antioxidant. However, the importance of vitamin C in brain health isn’t limited to guarding against oxidative stress. It is also involved in tissue repair and the production of norepinephrine, an important neurotransmitter.
Suggested daily dose: 1,000 mg
3 Minerals Your Brain Requires
Adequate amounts of all the essential minerals are needed for optimal brain function and overall health, but three stand out.
Calcium is known for supporting bone health, but you may not be aware of the importance of calcium in brain function. This mineral plays a critical role in the conduction of nerve impulses along neural networks. Without calcium, nerve transmission would not be possible.
Suggested daily dose: 1,000–1,500 mg
Magnesium, which is involved in hundreds of metabolic reactions, is also required for proper nervous system functioning. One example why magnesium is good for brain health is that it protects against “excitotoxicity,” which occurs when excessive amounts of glutamate and other neurotransmitters overwhelm and damage neurons. Low magnesium levels have been linked with several neurological disorders, including Alzheimer's, stroke, and migraines.
Suggested daily dose: 400–500 mg
Zinc concentrations are relatively high in the brain. This underscores the significance of zinc in brain function, which includes facilitating neurogenesis (the production of new neurons) and communication between brain cells. Zinc deficiencies impair brain growth and development during early childhood, and adequate levels are important throughout life.
Suggested daily dose: 30 mg
B-Vitamins & Brain Function
B-complex vitamins are necessary cofactors for neurotransmitter synthesis, energy production, and DNA repair, to mention just a few of their many functions in the brain. It’s always a good idea to supplement with the whole family of B-vitamins, but be sure to include these:
Vitamin B12 and brain health go hand in hand, and deficiencies have been linked with memory problems, depression, and increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Studies show that supplemental vitamin B12 can help slow cognitive decline in individuals with low B12 status. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for older people to have suboptimal levels, as absorption of B12 in food becomes less efficient with age. A vegan diet and use of acid-reducing drugs like proton pump inhibitors also increase the odds of B12 deficiency.
Suggested daily dose: 150 mcg. If you have symptoms of B12 deficiency, 500–1,000 mcg, preferably of the methylcobalamin form, is recommended.
Folic acid: The importance of folic acid for brain health begins in the womb, as it is necessary for spinal cord and brain development. Deficiencies during early pregnancy increase the risk of neural tube birth defects, which is why supplements are recommended for all women of childbearing age. Folic acid is also needed for the synthesis of key neurotransmitters and, as discussed below, keeping homocysteine levels in check.
Suggested daily dose: 400–800 mcg
Thiamine (B1) functions in the brain include roles in nerve conduction, the generation of ATP (energy), and the production of neurotransmitters. Beriberi, a disorder caused by severe thiamine deficiency, can cause neuropathy and cognitive impairment. Milder deficiencies also adversely affect brain function.
Suggested daily dose: 50 mg
Choline is an essential compound that is often lumped in with B-vitamins. Choline benefits the brain in two primary ways. It is a component of cell membranes and a precursor to acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter involved in attention, memory, and learning. Low levels of choline are linked with cognitive decline, and choline is seriously depleted in patients with dementia.
Suggested daily dose: 250–1,000 mg. Citicholine (Cognizin) is a well-absorbed form with proven brain benefits.
Homing in on Homocysteine
Another important reason your body needs B-vitamins—including folic acid, B12 and B6—is to keep your homocysteine levels in check.
Elevated homocysteine is associated with an increased risk of cognitive decline and dementia, as well as stroke and heart disease. Studies suggest that supplementing with these B-vitamins—either individually or together—slows age-related cognitive decline and brain shrinkage, especially when homocysteine levels are high to begin with. I recommend having your homocysteine level tested, and if it is elevated, bump up your B-vitamin supplement regimen.
Suggested daily doses for lowering homocysteine: vitamin B12 up to 2,000 mcg, vitamin B6 125 mg, folic acid up to 6,000 mcg of regular folic acid or 200–400 mcg of 5-methyltetrahydrofolic acid.
Don’t Forget Vitamin D
Vitamin D research has revealed a multitude of benefits in recent years, including brain health. This vitamin, which is sometimes referred to as a neurohormone, is required in the development and survival of neurons. A faster rate of age-related cognitive decline and an increased likelihood of developing dementia are among the adverse effects of vitamin D deficiency on brain function.
Low vitamin D status is very common in all age groups but is especially prominent as we get older—even if you get adequate sun exposure.
Suggested daily dose: enough to maintain a blood level in the 50–80 ng/mL range. This requires on average 2,000–10,000 IU per day.
Inadequate Intake of These Vital Brain Nutrients Is Very Common
The reason I’m focusing on these vitamins and minerals is because far too many people do not get enough of them. A large government-funded survey revealed that the following percentages of Americans fall short of the recommended daily intake for these essential nutrients:
- Vitamin E 88.5%
- Vitamin C 38.9%
- Calcium 44.1%
- Magnesium 52.2%
- Choline 91.7%
- Vitamin D 94.3%
Therefore, while I highly recommend brain supplements that specifically target memory and cognitive function, don’t overlook the need to get adequate levels of these core vitamins and minerals. They are a foundation of good health.