Essential Nutrients for a Healthy Brain

Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC | Written by Deane Alban

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Without sufficient brain nutrients, your cognitive and mental health will be compromised. Unfortunately, certain nutritional deficiencies are common.

Your brain is a hungry organ that needs a disproportionate share of nutrients.

When your brain doesn’t get the nutrients it needs, it’s hard to feel happy, mentally sharp, and productive.

Additionally, you put yourself at greater risk for mood disorders, brain aging, and degenerative brain diseases.

The Importance of Macronutrients for Your Brain

Macronutrients are nutrients consumed in relatively large amounts.

There are three primary macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein, and fat.

But not all sources of each of these are ideal for your brain.

Complex (Not Refined) Carbohydrates for Brain Energy

Brain cells can’t store energy and require a steady stream of it, usually in the form of glucose.

These cells can live only a few minutes without it!

Complex carbohydrates, the kind found in unprocessed plant foods, give your brain the sustained energy it needs. (1)

They increase your blood’s ability to transport oxygen to your brain cells and keep your blood sugar level stable.

Starchy vegetables like potatoes, yams, carrots, beets, and winter squash are excellent at delivering a steady supply of glucose to your brain.

Strategically eating complex carbohydrates on their own (without protein) is a little-known trick for maintaining the level of the mood-boosting neurotransmitter serotonin.

Conversely, the regular consumption of white sugar and other refined carbohydrates leads to chronically high blood sugar levels. (2)

These unhealthy carbs can shrink your brain and cause memory loss. (3)

There’s strong evidence that spikes in blood sugar contribute to Alzheimer’s disease, now considered by some to be a form of diabetes that selectively targets the brain. (4)

Proteins for Neurotransmitter Synthesis

The body breaks down proteins into building blocks called amino acids.

Amino acids are a major component in the hundreds of brain chemicals known as neurotransmitters.

Neurotransmitters enable brain cells to communicate with each other.

Examples of common neurotransmitters include dopamine, serotonin, GABA, norepinephrine, and endorphins.

Read more —
Learn more about eating a brain-healthy diet in our article on brain foods.

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

They regulate mood, cravings, addictions, sleep, and more.

It’s estimated that 86% of us have subpar neurotransmitter levels but getting adequate protein can help. (5)

Animals raised without the use of antibiotics, steroids, and hormones yield grass-fed meat, free-range poultry, wild fish, organic eggs, and dairy that are excellent protein sources.

You can get adequate protein on a vegetarian diet, but you have to do more planning.

Note that not everyone does well on dairy products.

The people that do are mostly of northern European ancestry. (6)

However, vegetarians, especially vegans, have reason to be worried about a micronutrient deficiency which we’ll talk about shortly.

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The Right Fats for Brain Health

There is no area of nutrition that’s more misunderstood than dietary fats.

We’ve been brainwashed into believing that just about all fat is bad for us when, in fact, fats are essential for your health and your brain.

We’ve been told that when we do eat fat, it should come from polyunsaturated vegetable oils.

But this advice couldn’t be worse for your brain!

People who consume a diet low in fats, and especially low in cholesterol, are at risk for depression and suicide. (7)

The risk of dementia is reduced by 70% in those with high levels of cholesterol. (8)

So-called “healthy” vegetable oils like canola, safflower, and soy are processed with heat and chemical solvents that affect molecular stability creating unhealthy trans fats. (9)

Trans fats cause inflammation and increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, and cancer. (1011, 12, 13)

They can increase your risk of depression by up to 50%. (14)

Your brain is largely made of fat, 60% by dry weight.

Give it the healthy fats it needs, the kind found in avocados, olives, nuts, seeds, coconut oil, grass-fed butter, and fatty fish like salmon, tuna, and mackerel.

Healthy fats won’t make you fat, but they can help make you smarter and happier.

Brain Micronutrients Most Likely Missing From Your Diet

Micronutrients are nutrients that the body needs in very small amounts.

These include vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytonutrients.

Your brain needs all essential micronutrients in order to be its best.

Here’s a look at those that are often missing, even in healthy diets, that can profoundly impact your brain.

B Vitamins — The Happy Vitamins

B vitamins have been called the “happy vitamins” or “anti-stress vitamins” because they can improve your mood and increase your tolerance to stress.

Of all of the 8 B vitamins, vitamin B12 is one to be most concerned with for two reasons

First, vitamin B12 is of the most common vitamin deficiencies.

In the US, an estimated 40% of adults are B12-deficient. (15)

And secondly, vitamin B12 deficiency is extremely serious.

It can lead to a wide spectrum of mental disorders including brain fog, memory loss, dementia, depression, and even Alzheimer’s. (16)

Two particularly high-risk groups are seniors, who often have poor absorption of B12, and vegetarians, as B12 is found only in animal products. (17)

Another at-risk group is people who take medications that interfere with vitamin B12 absorption.

The worst offenders are acid-reducing drugs and drugs for treating type-2 diabetes. (18)

If you suspect you may be deficient, we urge you to have your B12 level tested.

If you are low, supplementation can bring your levels back to normal quickly.

Vitamin D — The Sunshine Vitamin

Vitamin D deficiency has also reached epidemic proportions.

It’s reported that 75% of Americans have substandard levels. (19)

Getting adequate vitamin D can improve your memory and mood and help prevent cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s. (20, 21)

Inadequate levels contribute to the winter blues many people feel in the darker, shorter days of winter. (22)

It’s nearly impossible to get all you need from food or from the sun.

Only a handful of foods contain any vitamin D.

And for much of the year, the sun isn’t strong enough in most of North America and Europe to allow your body to manufacture enough vitamin D.

The bottom line is that almost everyone could benefit from taking supplemental vitamin D.

As with vitamin B12, you can have your blood level checked to know for sure.

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Magnesium — The Original Chill Pill

Magnesium is so important that it’s referred to as the “master mineral.”

Your body uses it hundreds of different metabolic functions. (23)

Magnesium deficiency is a widespread issue, with only 25% of Americans getting the recommended daily amount. (24)

If you get your magnesium levels into a healthy range, you can expect to experience: (25)

  • better mood
  • better focus and concentration
  • better sleep
  • fewer cravings
  • greater resilience to stress
  • more energy

Magnesium is so good at helping you sleep and relax, it’s been called “the original chill pill.” (26)

When looking for a magnesium supplement, quality matters.

Cheap magnesium oxide is only 4% absorbed. (27)

And magnesium sulfate, the form found in Epsom salts, can cause stomach upset when taken internally.

Better forms of magnesium include magnesium citrate, magnesium glycinate, and especially magnesium l-threonate which is unique in its ability to enter the brain.

Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids

It’s widely agreed that taking an omega-3 supplement is one of the best things you can do for your brain.

Deficiency is widespread and much of the world’s populations has insufficient levels of omega-3s. (28)

There are two main omega-3 fatty acids — EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).

DHA is by far the most important as it is a major building block of the brain that is crucial to brain and nervous system function.

DHA accounts for 97% of the omega-3 fats found in the brain. (29)

Memory loss, depression, mood swings, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and attention deficit disorder have all been found to improve with DHA supplementation. (30)

Seniors with higher levels of DHA are nearly half as likely to develop dementia or Alzheimer’s as those with low levels of DHA. (31)

The best food sources are wild-caught fatty fish, not something most of us eat regularly.

You can find out if you are getting adequate omega-3 fats with this omega-3 quiz created by AlwaysOmega3s, a not-for-profit organization.

If you aren’t, you should definitely consider taking a supplement.

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Antioxidant Nutrients Protect Against Brain Aging

Free radicals are unattached oxygen molecules that damage cells and hasten their demise. (32)

Every cell in your body is affected by free radical or oxidative damage, but brain cells are particularly vulnerable.

Antioxidants are naturally occurring compounds that protect you from the harmful effects of free radicals.

You can see oxidative damage in action by cutting open an apple.

In a short time, you’ll notice that it turns brown.

Oxygen in the air is causing oxidative damage you can see.

photo showing effects of antioxidants on a cut apple
Antioxidants keep a cut apple from turning brown.

You may have learned the trick of rubbing cut fruit with a little lemon juice to keep it from turning brown (see the apple picture).

While lemon juice won’t keep an apple fresh forever, it definitely slows down the spoiling process.

Similarly, when you consume a continuous supply of antioxidants, you slow down the cellular aging process.

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Top Antioxidant Foods

Finding an antioxidant foods list that’s based on science isn’t easy.

The often-used ORAC score is now considered oversimplistic and outdated.

So I was happy to find this top 100 antioxidant foods list published by The European Journal of Clinical Nutrition (EJCN).

By far, the top antioxidant foods are berries of all kinds, such as blackberries, blueberries, elderberries, strawberries, raspberries, and bilberries.

Other fruits on this list include cherries, plums, apples, bananas, and grapes.

Top vegetable sources of antioxidants are artichokes, olives, spinach, onions, broccoli, asparagus, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, pumpkin, and potatoes.

Some of the world’s favorite foods and beverages also made the list — chocolate, coffee, tea, red wine, and beer.

There are hundreds and perhaps even thousands of nutrients found in these foods that are responsible for their antioxidant properties. (33)

Some of the most familiar ones include vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, selenium, manganese, glutathione, coenzyme Q10, lipoic acid, flavonoids, and polyphenols.

Two Forgotten But Critical Brain Nutrients

You might think that ingesting adequate amounts of oxygen and water would be automatic.

But most people use oxygen inefficiently and drink too little water.

And this can have surprising repercussions for your brain.

Your Brain Needs Oxygen

Oxygen is one nutrient your brain can’t live without for more than a few minutes.

While clearly you are getting enough oxygen to survive, you may not be getting enough for your brain to thrive.

How to Get the Most From Every Breath

Practice Good Posture

Standing up straight can increase lung capacity by 5%.

Practice Breathing From Your Diaphragm

Most people breathe shallowly instead of deeply.

If You Smoke, Stop

Smokers have less oxygen flow to their brains.

Exercise!

Exercise is one of the most important things you can do for your brain.

It doesn’t need to be strenuous.

Walking is particularly beneficial for the brain as are exercises with a strong mind-body connection like yoga and tai chi. (34, 35, 36)

Eat a Brain-Healthy Diet

This means a diet that includes plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables.

This increases your blood’s ability to transport oxygen to your brain cells.

Take Brain-Boosting Vitamins or Brain Supplements

Focus on ones that work by enhancing oxygen uptake by the brain.

Ingredients that do this include bacopa, vinpocetine, huperzine A, acetyl-l-carnitine, and vitamins E and C.

Your Brain Needs Water

Your brain is 73% water. (37)

It takes only 2% dehydration to negatively affect your attention, memory, and other cognitive skills. (38)

Ninety minutes of sweating can temorarily shrink the brain as much as one year of aging! (39)

The effects of dehydration on the brain can be so noticeable that they mimic the symptoms of dementia. (4041)

Some researchers believe that Alzheimer’s may be the result of long-term dehydration of the brain.

Getting adequate water isn’t a given.

In fact, 75% of the US population is chronically dehydrated. (42)

We’re often told to drink 8 glasses of water per day, but that is overly simplistic.

A better rule of thumb is to divide your weight in pounds by two and aim for that many ounces of water.

equations to use to calculate how much water you should drink
Use this hydration calculator to determine the amount of water you need to drink to stay hydrated. (Image courtesy of University of Missouri)

Knowing how much water you need is especially important if you engage in sports or exercise outdoors.

Camelbak.com has an online hydration calculator that will help you determine how much water you need while exercising.

It takes into account variables such as your age, weight, and gender along with the type of activity, intensity, duration, temperature, and even cloud cover.

Steps to Take to Meet Your Brain’s Nutrient Requirements

To make sure you are meeting all of your brain’s nutritional needs, here are the steps to take:

  • Take a high-quality multivitamin supplement to get all the vitamins and minerals your brain needs. Numerous studies have shown that taking a multivitamin alone can improve memory and overall brain function. (4344, 45, 46)
  • Unless you eat cold-water, fatty fish three times a week, take an omega-3 or DHA supplement.
  • Minimize processed foods. Eat a “real food” diet with an emphasis on vegetables, fruit, protein, and foods that contain healthy fats.
  • Sit up straight and breathe from your belly to get more oxygen to your brain.
  • Exercise every day to oxygenate your brain. Walking and mind-body exercises like yoga and tai chi are particularly beneficial.
  • Don’t underestimate your need for water. Drink enough to avoid brain dehydration.

Brain Nutrients: Take the Next Step

Your brain uses a lot of energy and needs a disproportionate amount of nutrients to keep working its best.

It will appreciate more of the healthy, and fewer of the unhealthy, forms of macronutrients — fats, carbohydrates, and protein.

Surprisingly, nutritional deficiencies are not a thing of the past.

Make sure you are getting adequate amounts of the micronutrients many people are deficient in — vitamins C, B12, and D, magnesium, and omega-3 essential fatty acids.

And lastly, don’t ignore your brain’s need for optimal levels of water and oxygen.

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