The right amounts of certain vitamins are key to a good memory, but many of us are deficient. Learn which foods and supplements can boost your memory.
If your memory is troubling you, it’s possible your brain simply isn’t getting enough of the basic nutrients it needs to function the way it should.
Being low in critical vitamins can affect not only your ability to remember, but also to focus, learn, and think clearly in general.
Your brain needs all kinds of vitamins to operate properly, but some are more important for your memory than others.
Let’s take a look at vitamins A to K to see how important each of them are for memory improvement.
We’ll also cover the surprising ways these vitamins affect your ability to deal with chronic stress, overall mental well-being, and even how happy you feel.
And lastly, we’ll reveal the best food sources of these vitamins to help you fill any nutritional gaps.
How B Complex Vitamins Help Avoid Memory Loss
The “B” in B complex doesn’t stand for brain, but perhaps it should.
B vitamins have been called the “happy vitamins” or “anti-stress vitamins” since they can improve your mood and increase your tolerance to stress.
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An important role of B vitamins for brain health is in the production of the neurotransmitters which are vital for a good state of mind.
If you have a serotonin deficiency, you may suffer from anxiety, insomnia, low self-esteem, negative thoughts, OCD, and SAD (seasonal affective disorder).
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Without adequate GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), you may find yourself easily stressed, overstimulated and overwhelmed.
Dopamine helps you get focused.
A sign that you need more dopamine is relying on pick-me-ups like caffeine, sugar, and chocolate to get you through the day.
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Taking B complex vitamins can improve your neurotransmitter balance and your mental well-being.
Three of the B’s may be the best vitamins to improve memory for the long haul.
A major Oxford University study found that taking vitamins 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. (4)
These results are so promising that some experts are hopeful that the B vitamins may ultimately be used as an inexpensive Alzheimer’s treatment.
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Vitamin B12 Deficiency Is Common
If your memory is poor or you’re in a constant state of brain fog, you may have a vitamin B12 deficiency.
This is one of the most common vitamin deficiencies in the US with an estimated 40% of adults being deficient. (5)
Vitamin B12 deficiency is a serious matter and should not be taken lightly.
This may be the most important of the B vitamins for memory and overall brain function.
Deficiency can lead to a wide spectrum of neurological disorders including cognitive decline, dementia, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. (6)
It can ultimately cause brain atrophy and shrinkage, and that’s as harmful as it sounds. (7)
Two particularly high risk groups are seniors, who often have poor absorption, and vegetarians, since B12 is found only in animal products. (8)
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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.
Not all B12 supplements are created equal.
Find a supplement with the best-absorbed forms of vitamin B12, methylcobalamin or adenosylcobalamin.
It’s generally recommended you take all the B vitamins together in a balanced B complex formula.
This is the way they occur together in nature and work synergistically in food. (11)
How Vitamin B12 Benefits the Brain
Best Food Sources of B Vitamins
Green leafy vegetables, legumes, fruit, eggs, fish, poultry, bananas, carrots, spinach, peas, and potatoes.
B12 can be found in all animal products — meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and dairy.
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Vitamin C — A Natural Antidepressant
But its effects on the brain are less well known and few people take it as a memory vitamin.
By increasing the neurotransmitter serotonin, the “happy molecule,” vitamin C acts as a natural antidepressant. (14)
According to Jean Carper in Your Miracle Brain, Vitamin C supplements can improve IQ, memory and other mental functions.
This vitamin protects against age-related brain degeneration, including dementia and Alzheimer’s disease and stroke. (15)
The brain is particularly susceptible to free radical damage because of its high oxygen usage.
Vitamin C is one of the most potent antioxidant vitamins, neutralizing this damage.
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Its antioxidant power is further enhanced when taken along with vitamin E. (16)
Smokers need more vitamin C as do people under stress. (19)
Your body uses vitamin C to suppress formation of the stress hormone cortisol.
Unless you are eating the recommended 9 servings of fruit and vegetables per day, it’s a supplement that you almost certainly would benefit from. (20)
Best Food Sources of Vitamin C
Cantaloupe, all citrus fruits, berries of all kinds, pineapple, peppers of all kinds, tomatoes, white and sweet potatoes, cruciferous vegetables, green leafy vegetables, winter squash.
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Vitamin D — The Sunshine Vitamin
Unlike other vitamins, we rarely get vitamin D from the food we eat.
Instead it’s created when our skin is exposed to sunlight.
Vitamin D has profound effects on the brain during all stages of life from prenatal development through our senior years. (21)
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. (24)
But it’s nearly impossible to get all you need from food … or from the sun.
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 that rule rarely holds true.
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Your use of sunscreen, the season, your latitude, natural skin color, and current UV index affect how efficiently your skin manufactures vitamin D.
Here in the US, if you live north of San Francisco, St. Louis, or Richmond, the sun’s rays are too weak to trigger vitamin D production most of the year.
Vitamin D deficiency has reached epidemic proportions with up to 77% of Americans not getting enough. (25)
The bottom line is that most people in North America and Europe need to take supplemental vitamin D.
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When choosing a brand, be sure to buy from a reputable company you can trust.
A study on 55 brands of vitamin D supplements found that the contents diverged wildly, containing 9-146% of what was listed on the label! (26)
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.
Best Food Sources of Vitamin D
Cod liver oil, salmon, mackerel, tuna, sardines, mushrooms, fortified milk.
(Note that fortified foods contain vitamin D2, which is a poorly utilized form.)
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Vitamin E — Good for the Brain, Good for the Heart
Vitamin E is a group of 8 naturally occurring forms of the vitamin.
The most common form found in many supplements is d-alpha tocopherol.
Vitamin E supplements are usually taken for heart health.
Since a good rule of thumb is that “what’s good for the heart is good for the brain,” you’d be right to assume that vitamin E is also good for your brain. (27)
The main brain benefit of this vitamin is preventing mental decline as we age, particularly when paired with vitamin C.
Vitamin C plus E is a promising combination of vitamins for memory loss.
When taken together, they’ve been linked to keeping a good memory, slowing memory loss, and even lowering the risk of getting Alzheimer’s and dementia by roughly 60%. (28)
Vitamin E can minimize the damage caused by a stroke. (29)
By redirecting blood supply it can prevent brain cells from dying after the event. (30)
The best vitamin E supplements contain the “d” form such as d-alpha tocopherol, not the “dl” forms which are synthetic.
Best Food Sources of Vitamin E
Seeds, nuts, avocados, olive oil, shrimp, green leafy vegetables, broccoli.
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Vitamin K — A Neglected Vitamin for a Good Memory
You don’t hear much about vitamin K from the mainstream media, making it the “neglected vitamin.”
But that doesn’t mean it’s not important.
Vitamin K plays essential roles in blood clotting. (31)
It puts calcium where it belongs — in your bones — and keeps it from depositing in your arteries.
It can improve your ability to remember words which is a big problem for many of us as we get older. (34)
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It’s thought that vitamin K plays a role in preventing Alzheimer’s since patients are often deficient. (35)
In general, deficiency is not a problem in healthy adults.
At-risk groups are people taking warfarin and anti-cholesterol medications.
And since some vitamin K is created in our intestines, people who have taken a lot of antibiotics are also at risk. (36)
NOTE: If you take a blood thinning medication, you should not take a vitamin K supplement as it could interfere with your medication.
Best Food Sources of Vitamin K
Green leafy vegetables, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, parsley, celery, asparagus, fermented foods like sauerkraut.
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Vitamin A: One Supplement You Should Skip
There are two main forms of vitamin A found in food, retinol and carotenes.
Beta-carotene is one well known carotene. (37)
One of the most important functions of vitamin A is vision.
In many developing countries vitamin A blindness is a major problem.
But in industrialized countries this is rarely the case.
This is a fat-soluble vitamin that accumulates in your body and you can definitely get too much of it from supplements.
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Too much vitamin A also reduces the number of new neurons being created which can lead to depression. (40)
According to Mayo Clinic, too much vitamin A can cause increased pressure on the brain, psychiatric disorders, depression, suicidal thoughts, coma, and even death. (41)
A safe dose of vitamin A is generally considered to be 10,000 units per day.
So you don’t need to toss our your multivitamin if it contains this amount or less. (42)
But there is no need to take a separate vitamin A supplement unless you’ve specifically been diagnosed with a deficiency.
Eating foods high in beta carotene will not cause vitamin A toxicity. (43)
Beta carotene is turned into vitamin A in the body on an as-needed basis and is completely safe.
Best Food Sources of Vitamin A / Beta Carotene
Sweet potatoes, carrots, green leafy vegetables, winter squash, cantaloupe.
What About Multivitamin Supplements?
You don’t have to take 5 separate vitamins to keep your brain operating smoothly.
The Harvard School of Public Health advises all adults to take a multivitamin supplement as insurance to fill any nutritional gaps. (44)
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And so do we.
Taking a high-quality multivitamin supplement should meet most of your brain’s vitamin needs.
Buying Vitamins You Can Trust
Before you go, I want to talk to you about vitamin supplement brands.
Taking any supplement is a matter of trust.
You trust that it contains what it says on the label — no more and no less.
But as you saw with vitamin D that’s definitely not always the case.
You also trust that the ingredients are in a usable form and in a dosage that will actually deliver desired benefits.
But how do you know that all of that is in your supplement for sure?
The truth is you don’t.
That’s why you need to buy your vitamins from a company you can trust.
This rarely means picking up some inexpensive product at your local big box store.
Learn what to look for in a supplement. Read our article How to Choose Nutritional Supplements That Work.
Vitamins for Memory: The Next Step
To increase your intake of the essential vitamins for memory, you should first add more brain foods to your diet.
Then, if you feel that your diet or lifestyle requires vitamin supplementation, get started.
Take a high-quality multivitamin, preferably one produced by a company with some expertise in brain health.
Consider other vitamins for certain situations — smokers need more vitamin C, vegetarians need more B12, and people in northern latitudes need more vitamin D.