Have you ever been in a social situation where you just couldn’t recall someone’s name? Forgotten where you placed your keys or glasses? Or, maybe even lapsed into moments of brain fog, unable to focus or concentrate despite your best efforts?
If any of these rings a bell, join the crowd. It’s the rare individual who has never experienced memory lapses. Although these episodes can be embarrassing and disconcerting, occasional forgetfulness or inability to focus is rarely a sign of a serious problem. Nevertheless, it’s something we would all rather avoid.
The good news is that you can improve your concentration and memory and help stave off more serious problems with natural therapies that support brain health. The foundation of a brain-boosting program is similar to what I recommend for heart health: a nutritious diet, exercise, and stress management.
For extra oomph, I suggest adding vitamins, minerals, botanicals, and other nutrients that have been shown to enhance brain function. Here is an overview of my top-recommended supplements for brain health.
To Support Cognitive Health, Memory & Focus
Turmeric, or curcumin (its active ingredient), is one of nature’s most powerful antioxidants and anti-inflammatories. In addition to reducing joint discomfort and supporting cardiovascular health, turmeric also benefits the brain. Placebo-controlled clinical trials reveal improvements in memory, attention, and mood with supplemental turmeric. Plus, PET scans show positive effects in areas of the brain associated with memory and learning.
Whether you’re taking turmeric for brain health or to reduce inflammation, be aware that this natural compound is poorly absorbed. Select a supplement with enhanced bioavailability, preferably one that has been shown to cross the blood-brain barrier and is specifically formulated to support cognitive health. Take as directed.
L-carnitine is also required for cellular energy production, and a supplemental form with noticeable effects on the brain is acetyl-L-carnitine (ALC). Studies have shown that ALC improves cognitive function in older people with mild memory loss, plus it reduces symptoms of depression and increases both physical and mental energy.
Early research suggests ALC may also help slow progression and improve symptoms in patients with Alzheimer's. The suggested daily dose of ALC for general brain support is 250-500 mg.
Ginseng is a botanical remedy with a long history of use by traditional healers to promote balance, calmness, and overall well-being. Numerous studies demonstrate the benefits of both Asian/Korean and American ginseng for brain health. In addition to modulating the stress response and boosting mood, American ginseng has also been shown to enhance attention and memory—and positive effects are reported in as little as one to three hours.
There are thousands of ginseng products on the market, so look for an extract—preferably of American ginseng—with a standardized percentage of ginsenosides (the active ingredient). Take as directed.
In addition to enhancing vascular health and optimal blood flow, vitamin K also supports brain health. It is required for the activation of proteins involved in the development and maintenance of brain cells, and research suggests that deficiencies are associated with cognitive decline in older adults.
The best dietary sources of vitamin K2 are hard cheeses, like gouda and parmesan. To make sure you’re getting enough to protect your brain and vascular system, supplements are your best option.
The best absorbed and most active type of supplemental vitamin K is the MK-7 form of vitamin K2. A good dose is 180 mcg per day. If you are taking Coumadin or a similar blood thinner, talk to your doctor before starting on vitamin K.
Phosphatidylserine & Phosphatidylcholine
Phospholipids are essential structural elements of cell membranes that are also involved in cell-to-cell communication and other functions. One of the most abundant in the brain is phosphatidylserine, which helps regulate levels of cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone. Once cortisol levels start to even out, you experience more mental clarity and a greater sense of well-being.
Another important phospholipid for brain health is phosphatidylcholine because your body can use it to make acetylcholine—a neurotransmitter critical for learning and memory. Supplemental phosphatidylcholine helps restore levels of acetylcholine, which decline with memory loss and drop perilously low in patients with Alzheimer's. Recommended daily doses are 200–400 mg for phosphatidylserine and 150–300 mg for phosphatidylcholine.
Nutrients for Overall Brain Health Support
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
The protective effects of omega-3s on brain health are old news, but that doesn’t diminish their importance. Your brain is rich in fats, and among the most abundant are omega-3s, specifically DHA. In addition to its role in the growth and development of the infant's brain, DHA is required for optimal brain health throughout life.
The average American diet is shockingly low in omega-3 essential fatty acids, which is why I recommend eating salmon, sardines, and other oily fish two or three times a week and taking 1,000–3,000 mg of supplemental omega-3s every day. Good sources include fish and calamari (squid) oil.
Lithium is a trace mineral present in varying concentrations in our soils and water. Studies the world over have demonstrated that areas with the highest natural lithium levels have lower rates of dementia, depression, suicide, and aggressive behavior.
Very small doses of supplemental lithium—hundreds of times lower than the dose used in psychiatric drugs—have been shown to stimulate growth factors that protect and repair neurons and support overall brain health. A daily dose of just 2–10 mg of lithium orotate or citrate, which is available without a prescription, is similar to what you would get in an area with naturally high levels of this neuroprotective mineral.
The benefits of B vitamins for brain health have been extensively studied, and the three standouts are folate, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12. The importance of folate for brain health is evident even prior to birth, as deficiencies in pregnant women increase the risk of neural tube defects in their offspring.
Low levels of vitamin B12 are closely linked with cognitive decline and mood disorders, especially in older people who are at greater risk of B12 deficiency. And along with B12 and folate, vitamin B6 benefits your brain by lowering homocysteine, a toxic byproduct of protein metabolism that is associated with increases in cognitive decline and dementia as well as stroke and heart disease.
To lower homocysteine and support overall brain health, suggested daily doses are B12 200-600 mcg, B6 20-40 mg, and folate (ideally MTHF, the most active form) 400-800 mcg.
A Daily Multivitamin Is a Must
Last but not least, don’t overlook the importance of a daily multivitamin. The full gamut of vitamins and minerals in your multi is essential for optimal brain health. Unfortunately, many presumably healthy people are lacking in one or more of these basic nutrients.
This was illustrated in a study by researchers who divided healthy adults into three groups, each assigned to take fairly modest daily doses of either vitamin D, vitamin C, or a multivitamin. Study participants were also required to keep food diaries. After eight weeks, participants in all groups did better on some tests of cognitive function, but those taking the multivitamin had the most significant improvements.
The researchers also reported that the food diaries revealed that dietary deficiencies in several nutrients, especially minerals and fat-soluble vitamins, were common, leading them to conclude, “This evidence suggests that sub-optimal micronutrient intake may have a negative effect on cognition across the lifespan.”
Look for a multi that contains more than the meager RDAs of most vitamins and minerals. This will usually require taking more than one capsule per day.