Brain Vitamins: Essential Vitamins for a Healthy Brain

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These brain vitamins are key in helping improve your memory, focus and mood while guarding against mental and physical diseases. See if you’re deficient.

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It’s nearly impossible to get brain-healthy nutrition from diet alone these days.

Stress, sugar, caffeine, tobacco, alcohol, medications, and poor digestion are just some of the issues that increase your need for vitamins. 

There’s an abundance of evidence that taking the right vitamins can improve how well your brain works now … and protect it from mental decline in the future.

These brain vitamins can even make you happier and help you live longer. 

While all vitamins are required for optimal health and brain function, there are a few that stand out above the rest as being essential for a healthy brain.

And two of these have deficiency levels that have reached epidemic proportions! 

And they may just be the ones you are short on in your diet.

Vitamin C — The Most Popular Vitamin

Vitamin C is the most popular single vitamin supplement. (1)

And for good reason.

It’s safe, inexpensive, and there are few things this powerhouse vitamin can’t do! 

It’s widely taken to prevent, or at least minimize, the discomforts of the common cold. (2)

It’s a natural antihistamine used by millions to reduce allergy symptoms.

Studies suggest it can help prevent both heart disease and cancer. (3)

And, of course, it’s the cure for scurvy, a former scourge among sailors and pirates.

But its benefits as a most important vitamin for the brain are less well known.

Here are some of the many reasons vitamin C rates among the best vitamins for the brain.

Neurotransmitter Production

Your brain has approximately 100 billion neurons which communicate with each other via brain chemicals called neurotransmitters.

Vitamin C is essential in their production.

Neurotransmitters impact your ability to focus, concentrate, and remember.

They also control your mood, cravings, addictions, sleep, and more.

Improved Mood

Vitamin C can make you happy!

In a recent study, subjects randomly given vitamin C reported feeling happier, often within as little as one week. (4)

Since vitamin C specifically increases the neurotransmitter serotonin, the “happy molecule,” it may act as nature’s own natural antidepressant.

Increased Intelligence 

boy with an idea“It’s smart to take vitamin C, and it may make you even smarter,” states bestselling author Jean Carper in Your Miracle Brain.

Vitamin C supplements can improve IQ, memory and other mental functions.

Students with the highest blood levels of vitamin C did better on memory tests, but higher amounts of vitamin C can boost brain function at all ages.

Reduced Risk of Brain Degeneration

Vitamin C protects against age-related brain degeneration, including dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and strokes.

To take full advantage of Vitamin C’s benefits, 2,000 mg is the recommended daily dosage. (5)

Defense Against Free Radical Damage

The brain is particularly susceptible to free radical damage because of its high oxygen usage.

You can see free radical damage at work when you cut open an apple and watch it turn brown.effects of antioxidant on apple

Vitamin C is one of the most potent antioxidant vitamins.

And just as dipping an apple in lemon juice stops it from discoloration, vitamin C protects your brain against free radical damage.

Vitamin C’s antioxidant power can be enhanced further when taken along with vitamin E.

Together, these vitamins have a special synergistic effect.

A large study confirmed the power of this pairing for preventing memory loss and lowering the risk of developing Alzheimer’s and dementia by 60%. (6)

Improved Circulation

By helping to build collagen that keeps arteries flexible, vitamin C improves blood flow to your brain.

This increases oxygen and nutrients to your brain, keeping it properly nourished.

Heavy Metal Detoxification

Your brain accumulates toxic heavy metals.

Mercury gets into our systems from seafood and from amalgam (“silver”) dental fillings.

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Aluminum has long been suspected of contributing to Alzheimer’s.

It easily leeches from aluminum cookware. 

It’s also found in most name brand deodorants and antacids.

Vitamin C acts as a powerful detoxifier that readily crosses the blood-brain barrier to remove these metals from the brain. (7, 8)

Protection from Excess Glutamate

Glutamate is a naturally occurring brain chemical, but too much of it is definitely not a good thing.

Too much glutamate contributes to brain health issues ranging from epilepsy to depression. (9)

In excess, it becomes a excitotoxin — meaning it literally excites brain cells to death.

Vitamin C protects neuroreceptors that act as a brake, controlling the release of glutamate.

Best Food Sources of Vitamin C

orangesWhen most people think of vitamin C they think of oranges or orange juice.

But there are many other excellent sources of vitamin C. (10)

Fruits with the highest amounts of vitamin C include:

  • cantaloupe
  • citrus fruits (such as oranges, grapefruits, lemons, and limes)
  • kiwi fruit
  • mango
  • papaya
  • pineapple
  • strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, cranberries
  • watermelon

Vegetables with the highest amount of vitamin C include:

  • cruciferous vegetables (such as broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower)
  • bell peppers (all colors)
  • green leafy vegetables
  • sweet and white potatoes
  • tomatoes
  • winter squash

When You Should Supplement

The USDA recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for vitamin C is 75 mg per day for women and 90 mg for men.

But these numbers are widely considered extremely low for good health. (11)

Since the RDA is the amount required to prevent diseases like scurvy, but not the amount needed for optimal health, many experts recommend taking more.

When deciding whether you should supplement, consider these factors:

Vitamin C is fragile and is destroyed by heat. 

How much raw produce do you eat every day?

Do you smoke? Smokers need more vitamin C. (12)

Stress increases your need for vitamin C.

Your body uses it to suppress formation of the stress hormone cortisol.

It’s been found that taking large doses of vitamin C can reduce your stress response considerably.

Unless you are eating the recommended 9 servings and fruit and vegetables per day, it’s a supplement that you almost certainly would benefit from. (13)

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There is much debate over the best type of vitamin C to take as a supplement.

Ascorbic acid seems to be the most potent form.

A reasonable therapeutic daily dose is 1000 mg.

Taking more than 2000 mg causes digestive upset in some. (14)

Vitamin D — the Sunshine Vitamin

Getting adequate vitamin C is pretty straightforward — eat fruits and veggies and/or take a supplement.

But there is nothing simple when it comes to vitamin D! 

First, vitamin D is technically not a vitamin, it’s a pre-hormone.

And unlike other vitamins, we rarely get it from the food we eat.

Instead it’s created when our skin is exposed to sunlight.

Vitamin D has been found to be protective against cancer, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and osteoporosis.

In spite of its importance, vitamin D deficiency has reached epidemic proportions with up to 75% of Americans not getting enough. (15)

We’ll explain why this is, shortly.

But first, let’s take a look at why vitamin D is one of our top brain vitamins.

Vitamin D for Brain Health for a Lifetime

Vitamin D has profound effects on the brain during all stages of life. (16)

Moms-to-be need to get enough vitamin D while pregnant for their baby’s brain to develop properly.

child wearing sunglassesChildren must continue to get enough vitamin D for normal brain development.

Continuing to get adequate vitamin D throughout adult life can ward off cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s. (17, 18)

Vitamin D can lift your mood, improve memory, and increase problem-solving ability.

Inadequate levels contribute to the depression many people feel in the winter. (19

Vitamin D From Food? Forget About It!

The usual source for vitamins is food, but in the case of vitamin D it’s almost impossible to get all you need from food.

There are few foods that contain vitamin D3, the best utilized form.

The best food source by far is cod liver oil (yuck!) with salmon, mackerel, tuna, and sardines trailing far behind.

Some foods contain vitamin D2, such as fortified milk or mushrooms, but this form is not well utilized.

That leaves us with getting it from the sun, or from supplements.

Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each.

Vitamin D From the Sun? Maybe …

If we spent most of our time outdoors like our ancestors did, getting adequate vitamin D would not be an issue.

woman wearing hat and sunscreenBut there are some surprising reasons we no longer get the sun exposure needed to create this essential brain vitamin — even if we spend a lot of time outdoors.

The usual rule of thumb is “20 minutes of sun twice a week” on a large surface area of your body, such as arms or legs, for adequate vitamin D formation.

But just being in the sun is no guarantee you’re actually manufacturing vitamin D.

Here are four things that can interfere with the process:

#1 If you wear sunscreen, you won’t manufacture much, if any, vitamin D.

#2 If you live in the US, draw a line from San Francisco to Richmond.

If you live north of this line, the sun’s rays are too weak to trigger vitamin D production except during the summer.

(For the record, I live south of Phoenix and spend time outside every day. And I was still found to be vitamin D deficient!) 

vitamin d and latitude map

Graphic courtesy of Harvard Medical School

#3 It’s only when the UV index is greater than 3 that the needed UVB wavelengths are present in sufficient amounts to produce vitamin D.

In the US, you can get your current and forecasted local UV index at EPA.gov.

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#4 Light-skinned people from very northern areas evolved to utilize sunshine more efficiently.

If you have dark skin, you’ll need more sun exposure to keep your levels up.

So remember that if you expect to get your vitamin D from the sun, the “20 minutes twice a week” rule of thumb rarely holds true.

Vitamin D Supplements — A Necessity for Most

The bottom line is that most people in North America and Europe need to take supplemental vitamin D.

When choosing one, however, be sure to buy from a reputable company you can trust.

A study on 55 brands of vitamin D supplements found contents diverged wildly from what was stated on the label.

Brands in the study contained between 9% and 146% of what was listed on the label! (20)

The only way to know for sure if you need vitamin D (or how much you need) is to have a blood test to check your 25-hydroxy level.

You can see your doctor or you can purchase a vitamin D test online from a lab like True Health Labs.

These Brain Vitamins Are “Complex” — The B Vitamins

The last brain vitamin I’m going to talk about is not one vitamin.

It’s a group of vitamins known as the B complex vitamins.

B vitamins have been called the “happy vitamins” or “anti-stress vitamins.”

They can improve energy levels and increase your tolerance to stress.

The “B” in B complex doesn’t stand for brain, but perhaps it should!

The B vitamins can ward off brain aging, banish depression, and  can even help you live longer! (21, 22, 23)

B Vitamins for Brain Chemicals

An important role of B vitamins for brain heath is in the production of the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, and GABA.

Imbalances of these important brain chemicals can wreak havoc with your state of mind.

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If you’re deficient in serotonin, you may suffer from anxiety, insomnia, low self-esteem, negative thoughts, OCD, and SAD (seasonal affective disorder).

Without adequate GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), you may find yourself easily stressed, overstimulated and overwhelmed.

Dopamine helps you get focused.

Signs that you need more dopamine are low energy and motivation.

You may rely on pick-me-ups like caffeine, sugar, chocolate, or other stimulants to get you through the day.

Taking B vitamins can improve your neurotransmitter balance and your mental well-being.

The 3 B Vitamins That Prevent Mental Decline

All the B complex vitamins are vital for your overall health.

But three of them — B6, B12, and folic acid (B9) — are especially critical for brain health.

Studies have shown that these vitamins work together to prevent mental decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease.

A recent Oxford University study found that taking B6, B12, and folic acid together reduced brain atrophy, improved brain function, and dramatically reduced brain shrinkage in the part of the brain most affected in Alzheimer’s. (24

These vitamins work by reducing levels of homocysteine, a toxic amino acid that’s a natural byproduct of digestion.

High levels of this amino acid double your risk for developing Alzheimer’s. (25)

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Below are brain scans from the control group (marked “placebo”) and the group that took B vitamins.

The areas of brain atrophy are in yellow.

You can see the placebo group shows much more brain atrophy than the group that took B vitamins.

 

It was discovered that high levels of homocysteine doubled the risk for developing Alzheimer’s back in 2002.

Yet frustratingly little has been done with this information since. That’s why it’s up to each of us to take care of our own brains.

A Very Common Vitamin Deficiency — B12

If your memory is poor or you’re in a constant state of brain fog, you may have a vitamin B12 deficiency.

This is a very prevalent vitamin deficiency in the US.

Two high risk groups are seniors, who often have poor absorption, and vegetarians.

vegetables and the brainVegans beware!

Animal foods are the only dependable sources of vitamin B12 and over 90% of vegans are B12 deficient. (26, 27)

Vitamin B12 deficiency is a serious matter and should not be taken lightly.

It can lead to a wide spectrum of mental disorders including dementia, depression, and even schizophrenia. (28)

It can ultimately cause brain atrophy and shrinkage, and that’s as detrimental as it sounds. (29

If you suspect you are deficient, have your B12 level checked.

If it’s low, vitamin B12 supplements can bring your levels back to normal quickly.

The Best Food Sources of B Vitamins

Folic acid can be found in green leafy vegetables, legumes, fruit, eggs, and organ meats.

Interestingly, some people absorb this better as a supplement than from food.

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The best food sources of vitamin B6 are fish, poultry, bananas, carrots, spinach, peas, and potatoes.

Vitamin B12 can be found in all animal products — meat, fish, eggs, and dairy.

Some fermented soy products like miso and tempeh are purported to possibly contain B12.

But these are no longer considered reliable sources of B12 due to processing methods. (30

When You Should Supplement

The B complex vitamins are known as the anti-stress vitamins.

If you are under a lot of stress, taking B complex vitamins can replenish what stress has depleted.

If you are a senior or a vegetarian, or you have any doubt that you might have a vitamin B12 deficiency, a B12 supplement can readily address the problem. 

As with any supplement, not all B12 supplements are created equal.

Find a supplement with the best quality forms of vitamin B12 — methylcobalamin or adenosylcobalamin.

Low quality supplements often contain cyanocobalamin.

This form of B12 is not well absorbed and actually produces a small amount of cyanide in the body.

It’s generally recommended that you take all the B vitamins together in a balanced B complex formula.

The B complex occurs together in nature and works synergistically in food. (31)

The same principle applies for taking them in supplemental form.

Your Next Step

If you aren’t sure where to begin with your brain vitamin regimen, taking a high-quality multivitamin would be an excellent place to start.

Studies have shown that taking a multivitamin alone can improve brain function. (32)

The Harvard School of Public Health advises all adults to take a multivitamin supplement as insurance to fill any nutritional gaps and avoid many chronic diseases, including Alzheimer’s. (33

Taking a good multi may be all the extra brain vitamins you need. 

If you feel like you have a particular need for vitamins C, D or B complex, you may decide to add these single supplements to your supplement regime. 

Few nutritional supplement companies make vitamins that meet the high standards we look for in a supplement.

That is why we recommend you do your homework and only buy supplements that contain ingredients in the preferred form and manufactured by a reputable company.

Don’t just pick up something willy-nilly next time you’re at a drugstore or health food store. 

If you aren’t sure what to look for when choosing brain supplements, the information in our article How to Choose a Good Supplement will be very helpful.

Follow the advice there and you’ll never waste your money on worthless supplements again.

A final tip: You’ll do your brain a favor and get more nutritional bang for your food shopping buck if you become more of a locavore.

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