These brain supplements help improve memory, mood, clarity and focus and protect against mental decline, depression, anxiety and dementia. Learn how.
There are literally thousands of supplements marketed as “brain supplements.”
And research has shown that taking the right supplements can help your brain now and protect against mental decline in the future.
But which ones haven been proven to work and which are a waste of money?
The top three supplements on our list are fundamental nutritional building blocks — often missing in even a healthy diet — that every brain needs.
Deficiency of any of these can cause both major cognitive problems and significant health issues.
And experts agree that deficiencies of all three are rampant.
After that, the list gets a little more subjective … and a lot more interesting.
After all, there are hundreds of individual nutrients — vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids, and phytonutrients — to choose from.
After spending hundreds of hours of research and years of personal experience in the natural health industry, we’ve come up with this list of the best brain supplements.
Docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, is an omega-3 essential fatty acid that is the major building block of the brain.
It is crucial to brain function and the nervous system.
Deficiency has been linked to many brain problems and psychiatric disorders.
The Harvard School of Public Health states that 99% of the population is omega-3 deficient and that there is an unrecognized deficiency of epidemic proportions. (1)
It’s widely agreed that taking an essential fatty acid supplement, specifically DHA, is one of the best things you can do for your brain.
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Memory loss, depression, mood swings, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and attention deficit disorder have all been found to improve with DHA supplementation.
It’s almost impossible to get enough DHA through diet alone (it’s found mainly in wild salmon and some seed oils), so you should definitely consider taking a supplement.
If I was going to a desert island and could only take one supplement with me, this would be it!
A Tufts University study found that elderly people with higher levels of DHA are 47% less likely to develop dementia and 39% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s as people with low levels of DHA. (2)
Having adequate levels has been found to be protective against certain kinds of cancers, diabetes, and heart disease.
It is essential to maintaining bone density and thus preventing osteoporosis and life-threatening hip fractures.
If you think you get enough of this vitamin, don’t be so certain!
It is estimated that anywhere from 40% to 90% of US adults are vitamin D-deficient and that over 1 billion people are deficient worldwide. (4)
Even though it’s known as one of the essential brain vitamins, Vitamin D actually isn’t a vitamin at all — it’s a hormone.
Sun exposure is the best source, but few people who live in North America can realistically get the sun they need year round. Most people need to supplement.
If your memory isn’t what it used to be or you’re in a constant state of brain fog, you may have a vitamin B12 deficiency.
This is the most common vitamin deficiency in the US, particularly among seniors who often have poor absorption.
People who eat little or no meat are particularly at risk, since animal foods are the only dependable sources of B12. (5)
If you suspect you are deficient, have your level checked.
If it’s low, vitamin B12 supplements can bring your levels back to normal quickly.
You want to get this under control now. There is a strong correlation between dementia and Alzheimer’s and vitamin B12 deficiency.
An Oxford University study found that three B vitamins — folic acid, B6 and B12 — when taken together prevent mental decline, dementia, and may even be an effective treatment for Alzheimer’s by reducing levels of homocysteine. (6)
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Proper balance between the various B vitamins is important so we recommended you take a B complex supplement for the long term instead of taking B vitamins separately.
Your brain uses a disproportionate amount of oxygen — about 20% of the body’s total. This makes it highly susceptible to free radical damage.
This makes antioxidants critical brain boosters.
They protect brain cells by neutralizing free radical damage and preventing premature brain cell aging.
Antioxidants are almost exclusively found in plant foods with various berries being at the top of the list.
Resveratrol is one well-known antioxidant found most popularly in red wine.
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Unless you’re eating the recommended 9 servings of fruit and vegetables daily, you almost certainly aren’t getting enough antioxidants to support brain health. (7)
There are two excellent reasons to take an antioxidant supplement instead of relying on diet alone.
First, the best antioxidant sources aren’t foods that most people eat on a daily basis.
Next, supplements contain highly concentrated extracts to give you more antioxidant power than you could possibly get from diet alone.
Anthocyanins, the antioxidants found in berries, have been found to be particularly protective for the brain. (8)
Vinpocetine, derived from the periwinkle plant, improves memory, reaction time, and overall mental well-being. (9)
It works by increasing blood flow to the brain, enhancing the brain’s use of oxygen, and protecting the brain from free radical damage.
It is these qualities that make vinpocetine promising as a treatment for Alzheimer’s. (10)
Vinpocetine has only recently become available in the US. It is very popular in Europe and Japan where it’s available only by prescription.
Doctors in Europe believe it is far more effective than ginkgo biloba, which is widely promoted as one of the best brain supplements.
L-alpha-glycerylphosphorylcholine, commonly called alpha GPC, is a more bioavailable form of choline, a B complex-related nutrient vital to brain development and necessary for healthy brain cell membranes.
One big benefit of alpha GPC over choline is that it more easily crosses the blood-brain barrier.
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Alpha GPC shows promise as a potential Alzheimer’s treatment and is used to enhance memory and cognition.
It helps form acetylcholine, the primary neurotransmitter involved with memory and learning. (11)
Bacopa monnieri is a traditional Ayurvedic herbal brain supplement that has been used for thousands of years to enhance memory, learning, and concentration.
Bacopa is a well-recognized adaptogen — a substance that reduces the negative effects of stress. (12)
It works in part by balancing the neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin, and GABA while reducing levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
There haven’t been a lot of studies done on this herb, so many of the purported benefits are more a matter of herbalist tradition than modern science.
Scientists have isolated a compound in Chinese club moss that helps with dementia, depression, memory loss, and anxiety.
This alkaloid, huperzine A, works by blocking a brain enzyme that breaks down the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. (14) Acetylcholine is important for learning, memory and other brain functions.
It contains an active ingredient very similar to the popular Alzheimer’s drug, Aricept.
ALC is an amino acid that acts as another powerful antioxidant.
Research has found that it can improve mental clarity, focus, mood, and memory and has a strong anti-aging effect on the brain. (15)
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It also has been shown to boost the brain’s processing speed.
This brain health supplement has been shown to help prevent Alzheimer’s disease by protecting brain cells from toxins and oxygen deprivation.
Ginkgo is one of the most widely used herbal remedies in the world.
It is used for a variety of brain-related problems — poor concentration, forgetfulness, headaches, fatigue, mental confusion, depression, and anxiety. Many multi-ingredient supplements for brain health contain ginkgo biloba.
The reason I saved this supplement for last is because there is now some controversy about its effectiveness.
This popular supplement was proven to not help with memory, language, attention, visuo-spatial judgment or executive function in a large, six-year study. (16)
What About Nootropics and “Smart Drugs”?
If you do much research into brain and memory supplements, you’ll eventually come across the terms nootropic and neutraceutical.
These words sound impressive, but what do they really mean?
Nootropic is a word originally coined to refer to memory enhancing drugs, but the term is now commonly used in the description of brain tonics to give the impression of enhanced benefits.
Nutraceutical is a term used to imply that a supplement has medical benefits.
There is no regulation of the use of these terms, so when you see them realize it is a marketing ploy that has no real meaning.
Manufacturers who promote their products as such are hoping you don’t know this!
You can expect to pay more for a nootropic than for a comparable supplement with the same ingredients.
“Smart drugs” are brain boosters that supposedly are available only by prescription.
But the truly motivated can find ways around this — usually by buying online. They are popular among college students and “brain hackers.”
Read our discussion about the pros and cons of brain enhancing drugs.
Finding the Right Brain Supplement
Now that you’ve learned about the best brain supplement ingredients, you probably want to get started.
But buyer beware! We’ve found that the many supplement manufacturers spend a lot more money on marketing than they do on research.
We were surprised to learn how few of these companies have any expertise in brain health.
The specific brands we mention are companies that meet our standards for a good supplement.