Nutrition Market

Supplements for Brain Health: Boosting Cognitive Function and Memory

Introduction

As we age, maintaining optimal brain health becomes increasingly important. Many factors, including diet, lifestyle, and genetics, can impact cognitive function and memory. While a balanced diet rich in essential nutrients is crucial for brain health, some people may benefit from supplementation to fill nutritional gaps or address specific deficiencies. Supplements for brain health have gained popularity in recent years, with a growing body of research exploring their potential benefits.

Certain nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, vitamin D, and magnesium, have been shown to play vital roles in brain function. Omega-3s, particularly EPA and DHA found in fatty fish, contribute to brain development, cell regeneration, and cognitive performance. B vitamins, including B6, B9 (folate), and B12, are essential for energy production, neurotransmitter synthesis, and homocysteine regulation. Low levels of these nutrients have been linked to brain fog symptoms, such as memory problems and difficulty concentrating. Vitamin D deficiency has been associated with cognitive decline and depression, while magnesium is crucial for nerve impulse transmission and has been linked to better cognitive test results in older adults.

Emerging research also suggests that certain supplements, such as creatine, caffeine combined with L-theanine, and curcumin, may offer potential benefits for brain health. However, it is important to note that the evidence for many brain health supplements remains limited or mixed. Consulting with a healthcare professional and choosing high-quality products is essential. While supplements can help support brain health, they should not be considered a substitute for a healthy lifestyle. Engaging in regular physical and mental activity, managing stress, getting adequate sleep, and following a balanced diet, such as the MIND diet, which emphasises vegetables, berries, whole grains, and fish, remain the most evidence-based approaches to promoting brain health throughout life.

Essential Nutrients for Brain Function

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are crucial for brain health. DHA is a major structural component of the brain, accounting for about 40% of the polyunsaturated fatty acids in the brain (Weiser et al., 2016). Omega-3s play essential roles in brain development, cell membrane fluidity, neurotransmission, and neuroprotection (Dyall, 2015). They also have anti-inflammatory properties that may help protect against age-related cognitive decline (Külzow et al., 2016).

Numerous studies have investigated the potential cognitive benefits of omega-3 supplementation. A meta-analysis of 15 randomised controlled trials found that omega-3 supplementation, particularly with high doses of EPA and DHA, can improve episodic memory in older adults with mild memory complaints (Yurko-Mauro et al., 2015). Another study in healthy young adults demonstrated that DHA supplementation improved memory and reaction time (Stonehouse et al., 2013).

The best dietary sources of omega-3s are fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, herring, and sardines. The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend consuming around 250-500 mg of combined EPA and DHA per day, which can be achieved by eating 2-3 servings of oily fish per week (National Health and Medical Research Council, 2013). For those who do not regularly consume fish, omega-3 supplements derived from fish oil or algae can be an alternative source.

B Vitamins

B vitamins, including thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6), biotin (B7), folate (B9), and cobalamin (B12), play crucial roles in brain function. They are involved in energy production, DNA synthesis, methylation, and neurotransmitter metabolism (Kennedy, 2016). Deficiencies in B vitamins, particularly B6, B9, and B12, have been linked to cognitive impairment and neuropsychiatric disorders (Lachance & Ramsey, 2015).

Folate and vitamin B12 are essential for the methylation of homocysteine, an amino acid that can be neurotoxic at high levels. Elevated homocysteine has been associated with increased risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease (Smith et al., 2018). A meta-analysis of 11 randomised controlled trials found that B vitamin supplementation (including B6, B9, and B12) significantly reduced homocysteine levels and improved episodic memory and global cognition in older adults with mild cognitive impairment (Ford & Almeida, 2012).

Good dietary sources of B vitamins include whole grains, leafy green vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, poultry, fish, and eggs. The Australian Dietary Guidelines provide recommended daily intakes for each B vitamin (National Health and Medical Research Council, 2013). For individuals with restricted diets or malabsorption issues, B vitamin supplements may be necessary to prevent deficiencies.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that plays important roles in brain development, neuroprotection, and neuromodulation (Anjum et al., 2018). Vitamin D receptors are widely distributed in the brain, including in regions involved in memory and cognitive function (Landel et al., 2016). Low vitamin D levels have been associated with increased risk of cognitive decline, dementia, and depression (Soni et al., 2012).

Several studies have investigated the potential cognitive benefits of vitamin D supplementation. A randomised controlled trial in healthy adults found that vitamin D supplementation (4000 IU/day) for 18 weeks improved visual memory and information processing speed compared to placebo (Pettersen, 2017). Another study in older adults with mild cognitive impairment showed that vitamin D supplementation (2000 IU/day) for 12 months attenuated cognitive decline and improved mental shifting and processing speed (Jia et al., 2019).

The main source of vitamin D is sunlight exposure, as UV-B radiation triggers vitamin D synthesis in the skin. Dietary sources include fatty fish, egg yolks, and fortified foods. The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend adequate sun exposure as the best source of vitamin D, with supplementation considered for individuals at risk of deficiency (National Health and Medical Research Council, 2013). The recommended daily intake of vitamin D for adults is 600-800 IU (15-20 μg), depending on age (National Health and Medical Research Council, 2013).

Magnesium

Magnesium is an essential mineral involved in numerous physiological processes, including energy production, neurotransmitter synthesis, and calcium signaling (Kirkland et al., 2018). Magnesium plays crucial roles in brain function, synaptic plasticity, and neuroprotection (Vink, 2016). Low magnesium levels have been linked to various neurological and psychiatric disorders, including migraine, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease (Kirkland et al., 2018).

Several studies have investigated the relationship between magnesium status and cognitive function. A cross-sectional study in older adults found that higher serum magnesium levels were associated with better performance on cognitive tests, including executive function and memory (Cherbuin et al., 2014). A randomised controlled trial in older adults with mild to moderate dementia showed that magnesium supplementation (900 mg/day) for 24 weeks improved cognitive function and reduced depression symptoms compared to placebo (Li et al., 2016).

Good dietary sources of magnesium include leafy green vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and legumes. The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend a daily magnesium intake of 400-420 mg for adult men and 310-320 mg for adult women (National Health and Medical Research Council, 2013). Magnesium supplements are available in various forms, such as magnesium citrate, magnesium oxide, and magnesium glycinate. However, it is important to consult a healthcare professional before starting magnesium supplementation, as excessive intake can cause adverse effects.

Emerging Research on Brain Health Supplements

Creatine

Creatine is a naturally occurring compound that plays a crucial role in energy production in the brain and muscles. It is synthesised endogenously in the liver, kidneys, and pancreas, and can also be obtained from dietary sources such as meat, fish, and eggs (Kreider et al., 2017). Creatine supplementation has been extensively studied for its ergogenic effects in sports performance, but recent research has also explored its potential cognitive benefits.

A systematic review and meta-analysis of six randomised controlled trials found that creatine supplementation had a significant positive effect on short-term memory and intelligence/reasoning in healthy adults (Avgerinos et al., 2018). Another study in older adults with mild cognitive impairment showed that creatine supplementation (20 g/day for 7 days followed by 5 g/day for 23 weeks) improved cognitive function, particularly in the domains of memory and processing speed (Roschel et al., 2021).

The potential neuroprotective effects of creatine have also been investigated. Animal studies have shown that creatine supplementation can reduce oxidative stress, improve mitochondrial function, and protect against neurotoxicity in models of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease (Beal, 2011). However, more human studies are needed to confirm these findings and determine the optimal dosage and duration of creatine supplementation for brain health.

Caffeine and L-Theanine

Caffeine is a widely consumed stimulant that acts as an adenosine receptor antagonist in the brain, promoting alertness and cognitive performance (McLellan et al., 2016). L-theanine is an amino acid found primarily in green tea that has been shown to have calming and neuroprotective effects (Williams et al., 2019). The combination of caffeine and L-theanine has been studied for its potential cognitive benefits.

A randomised controlled trial in healthy adults found that a single dose of caffeine (150 mg) and L-theanine (250 mg) improved attention, working memory, and alertness compared to placebo (Kahathuduwa et al., 2017). Another study in older adults with mild cognitive impairment showed that daily consumption of a green tea extract containing caffeine (160 mg) and L-theanine (380 mg) for 16 weeks improved memory and selective attention compared to placebo (Park et al., 2019).

The potential mechanisms underlying the cognitive effects of caffeine and L-theanine include modulation of neurotransmitter systems (e.g., dopamine, serotonin, and GABA), increased cerebral blood flow, and enhanced neural activity in brain regions involved in attention and memory (Camfield et al., 2014). However, more research is needed to determine the optimal ratio and dosage of caffeine and L-theanine for cognitive performance and to assess the long-term effects of supplementation.

Curcumin

Curcumin is a polyphenolic compound found in the spice turmeric (Curcuma longa) that has been used in traditional medicine for centuries. Curcumin has potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that may confer neuroprotective effects (Mishra & Palanivelu, 2008). Recent research has investigated the potential cognitive benefits of curcumin supplementation.

A randomised controlled trial in healthy older adults found that curcumin supplementation (400 mg/day) for 4 weeks improved working memory and attention compared to placebo (Cox et al., 2015). Another study in middle-aged and older adults with mild memory complaints showed that curcumin supplementation (90 mg twice daily) for 18 months improved memory and attention, and reduced amyloid and tau accumulation in brain regions involved in Alzheimer’s disease pathology (Small et al., 2018).

The potential mechanisms underlying the cognitive effects of curcumin include its ability to cross the blood-brain barrier, reduce oxidative stress and inflammation, enhance neurogenesis and synaptic plasticity, and modulate neurotransmitter systems (e.g., serotonin and dopamine) (Sarker & Franks, 2018). However, curcumin has poor bioavailability, and more research is needed to develop optimised formulations and determine the most effective dosage and duration of supplementation for brain health.

Limitations and Controversies

Ginkgo Biloba

Ginkgo biloba is a popular herbal supplement derived from the leaves of the Ginkgo biloba tree. It has been used in traditional medicine for centuries and has been marketed as a cognitive enhancer and memory aid. However, the evidence for its efficacy in improving cognitive function is mixed and controversial.

A large, randomised controlled trial called the Ginkgo Evaluation of Memory (GEM) study investigated the effects of Ginkgo biloba supplementation (120 mg twice daily) on the prevention of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in older adults (DeKosky et al., 2008). The study, which included 3,069 participants aged 75 years or older with normal cognition or mild cognitive impairment, found no significant difference between the Ginkgo biloba and placebo groups in the incidence of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease over a median follow-up period of 6.1 years.

Other studies have also yielded inconsistent results regarding the cognitive effects of Ginkgo biloba. A meta-analysis of 28 randomised controlled trials found that Ginkgo biloba supplementation had small but significant positive effects on cognitive function in healthy adults and those with mild cognitive impairment or dementia (Tan et al., 2015). However, the authors noted that the quality of the included studies was generally low, and the clinical significance of the observed effects was uncertain.

The potential mechanisms of action of Ginkgo biloba include its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, as well as its ability to improve cerebral blood flow and neurotransmitter function (Mohanta et al., 2014). However, the inconsistent findings across studies may be due to variations in the quality and composition of Ginkgo biloba extracts, as well as differences in study populations and methodologies.

Mixed Evidence for Many Brain Health Supplements

Despite the growing popularity of brain health supplements, the evidence for their efficacy remains mixed and limited for many products. Some supplements, such as omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, vitamin D, and magnesium, have shown promise in certain studies, but the overall body of evidence is often inconsistent or insufficient to draw definitive conclusions.

For example, while some studies have suggested that omega-3 supplementation may improve memory and cognitive function in older adults with mild cognitive impairment (Yurko-Mauro et al., 2015), other studies have found no significant benefits in healthy older adults (Sydenham et al., 2012). Similarly, while B vitamin supplementation has been shown to reduce homocysteine levels and improve cognitive function in some studies (Ford & Almeida, 2012), other studies have found no significant effects on cognitive decline or dementia risk (Clarke et al., 2014).

The inconsistent findings across studies may be due to various factors, such as differences in study populations, supplement formulations and dosages, duration of supplementation, and cognitive outcome measures. Additionally, many brain health supplements are not regulated as drugs by regulatory agencies such as the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) in Australia, which means that their safety, efficacy, and quality may not be rigorously evaluated before marketing.

Given the limitations and controversies surrounding many brain health supplements, it is important for individuals to consult with healthcare professionals before starting any supplementation regimen. Healthcare providers can help assess the potential benefits and risks of supplements based on an individual’s specific needs, health status, and medication use. They can also recommend high-quality, evidence-based supplements and monitor for potential adverse effects.

Lifestyle Factors for Brain Health

Balanced Diet

While supplements may play a role in supporting brain health, a balanced diet rich in essential nutrients remains the foundation of cognitive well-being. The Australian Dietary Guidelines emphasise the importance of consuming a variety of nutrient-dense foods from the five food groups: vegetables, fruit, whole grains, lean proteins (e.g., fish, poultry, legumes), and dairy or calcium-fortified alternatives (National Health and Medical Research Council, 2013).

In particular, the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) diet has been associated with slower cognitive decline and reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease (Morris et al., 2015). The MIND diet combines aspects of the Mediterranean and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets and emphasises the consumption of brain-healthy foods such as leafy green vegetables, berries, whole grains, nuts, fish, and olive oil, while limiting the intake of red meat, butter, cheese, and sweets.

A study of 960 older adults found that higher adherence to the MIND diet was associated with a 53% lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease and a slower rate of cognitive decline over an average follow-up period of 4.7 years (Morris et al., 2015). Another study in 16,058 older women showed that long-term adherence to the MIND diet was associated with better verbal memory over a 6-year period (Berendsen et al., 2018).

While supplements can help fill nutritional gaps, they should not be considered a substitute for a healthy diet. Consuming a balanced diet that includes a variety of brain-healthy foods is the most evidence-based approach to supporting cognitive function throughout life.

Physical and Mental Activity

Engaging in regular physical and mental activity is crucial for maintaining brain health and reducing the risk of cognitive decline. Exercise has been shown to improve cerebral blood flow, stimulate the release of neurotrophic factors (e.g., brain-derived neurotrophic factor), and promote neuroplasticity and neurogenesis (Erickson et al., 2019). Mental stimulation, such as learning new skills or engaging in cognitively challenging activities, can also help maintain cognitive function and build cognitive reserve (Stern & Munn, 2010).

A meta-analysis of 36 randomised controlled trials found that aerobic exercise interventions significantly improved attention, processing speed, executive function, and memory in healthy older adults (Northey et al., 2018). Another study in older adults with mild cognitive impairment showed that a 24-week multicomponent exercise program (aerobic, resistance, and balance training) improved global cognitive function and reduced the risk of progression to dementia (Suzuki et al., 2013).

Engaging in mentally stimulating activities, such as reading, puzzles, and social interactions, has also been associated with better cognitive function and reduced risk of cognitive decline. A study of 2,802 older adults found that engaging in cognitively stimulating activities (e.g., reading, writing, crossword puzzles) was associated with a 32% lower risk of cognitive decline over a 4-year period (Wilson et al., 2013). Another study in 469 older adults showed that participating in a 10-14 week program of mental training (memory, reasoning, or processing speed exercises) improved cognitive function and maintained the benefits for up to 10 years (Rebok et al., 2014).

Incorporating both physical and mental activity into daily life can help support brain health and reduce the risk of cognitive decline. While supplements may provide some benefits, they should be considered a complementary strategy to a

Conclusion

In conclusion, while certain supplements such as omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, vitamin D, and magnesium have shown promise in supporting brain health based on various studies, it is crucial to recognise that the evidence for many brain health supplements remains mixed and limited. More research is needed to draw definitive conclusions about their efficacy and to determine the optimal dosages and durations of supplementation for cognitive benefits.

It is important to emphasise that supplements should not be considered a substitute for a healthy lifestyle. Engaging in regular physical and mental activity, consuming a balanced diet rich in brain-healthy nutrients (such as the MIND diet), managing stress, and getting adequate sleep remain the most evidence-based approaches to promoting brain health throughout life. These lifestyle factors have been consistently associated with better cognitive function, slower cognitive decline, and reduced risk of neurodegenerative diseases in numerous studies.

Supplements may play a role in supporting brain health, particularly in cases of nutrient deficiencies or inadequate dietary intake. However, it is crucial for individuals to consult with healthcare professionals before starting any supplementation regimen. Healthcare providers can help assess the potential benefits and risks of supplements based on an individual’s specific needs, health status, and medication use, and can recommend high-quality, evidence-based products. They can also monitor for potential adverse effects and interactions with other medications or health conditions.

In summary, while supplements for brain health may offer some benefits, they should be used cautiously and under the guidance of healthcare professionals. Prioritising a healthy lifestyle that includes regular exercise, mental stimulation, a balanced diet, stress management, and adequate sleep remains the most effective and evidence-based approach to supporting cognitive function and reducing the risk of cognitive decline throughout life.

Key Highlights and Actionable Tips

  • Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly DHA, are essential building blocks for the brain, making up 40% of the grey matter. Increasing intake of omega-3s can support brain development, cell regeneration, cognitive function, behaviour, and attentiveness.
  • Key vitamins and minerals that support normal brain function include B vitamins, magnesium, calcium, vitamin C, and zinc. These nutrients help keep brain cells healthy and neural pathways running smoothly.
  • Vegetology offers a range of vegan supplements designed to support brain health, including B12, omega-3, and multivitamin supplements. Their products are carefully sourced, animal-free, gluten-free, non-GMO, and made in the UK with eco-friendly packaging.
  • Incorporating a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and plant-based sources of omega-3s, such as flaxseed and chia seeds, can provide the necessary nutrients to support brain health.
  • Engaging in regular physical exercise, managing stress, and maintaining good sleep hygiene are additional lifestyle factors that contribute to overall brain health and cognitive function.

How can I ensure I’m getting enough omega-3s on a vegan diet?

While fish and seafood are the most well-known sources of omega-3 fatty acids, there are several plant-based options for vegans. These include flaxseed, chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, and algae-based supplements. Incorporating these foods into your diet regularly and considering a high-quality algae-based omega-3 supplement can help ensure you’re meeting your daily requirements.

Are there any specific B vitamins that are particularly important for brain health?

B vitamins play a crucial role in maintaining brain health. Vitamin B12, in particular, is essential for the formation of myelin, which protects nerve fibres and ensures proper neural communication. Vitamin B6 and folate (B9) are also important for the production of neurotransmitters and the regulation of homocysteine levels, which, when elevated, may contribute to cognitive decline.

Can I get all the necessary vitamins and minerals for brain health from my diet alone?

While a well-balanced, nutrient-dense diet is the foundation of good health, certain individuals may benefit from supplementation. This is especially true for vegans, who may be at risk of vitamin B12 deficiency, as this vitamin is primarily found in animal products. Consulting with a healthcare professional or registered dietitian can help you determine if supplementation is necessary based on your individual needs and dietary habits.

How long does it take to notice the effects of brain health supplements?

The time it takes to notice the effects of brain health supplements can vary depending on the individual, the specific supplement, and the dosage. Some people may experience improvements in cognitive function, focus, and mental clarity within a few weeks, while others may take longer to notice the benefits. It’s important to be consistent with supplementation and to allow adequate time for the nutrients to build up in your system.

Are there any potential side effects or interactions I should be aware of when taking brain health supplements?

While most brain health supplements are generally well-tolerated, it’s essential to be aware of potential side effects and interactions. Some supplements, such as vitamin B6, can cause adverse effects when taken in high doses. Additionally, certain supplements may interact with medications or exacerbate pre-existing health conditions. It’s always best to consult with a healthcare professional before starting any new supplement regimen to ensure safety and appropriateness for your individual needs.

References

Ashpari, Z., & Sharon, A. (2024). Vitamins and supplements for memory. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/dementia/vitamins-memory-loss

Kubala, J. (2021, August 26). 6 best evidence-based supplements for brain fog. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/vitamins-for-brain-fog

Northrop, A. (n.d.). Your guide to the best brain supplements. Forbes Health. https://www.forbes.com/health/supplements/best-brain-supplements/

Vegetology. (n.d.). Vegan brain supplements vitamins and tablets. https://www.vegetology.com/en-au/brain-memory

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