Brain Vitamins: Essential for a Healthy Brain

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

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Brain vitamins are those crucial to brain health — reducing toxins and stress, delaying mental decline — but it’s easy to be deficient. Learn what to do.

It’s hard to get all the vitamins your brain needs from food alone these days.

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

There’s a lot of science that says that taking the right vitamin supplements can improve how well your brain works.

The vitamins in supplements, and in an improved diet, can also help protect it from mental decline in the future.

While all vitamins are required for good brain health and function, there are a few that stand out from the rest.

A deficiency of a few of these vitamins are currently at epidemic levels.

Vitamin C: For Improved Mood and Neuroprotection

Vitamin C is the single most popular vitamin supplement

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 and minimize the discomforts of the common cold. 

Vitamin C is a natural antihistamine used by millions to reduce allergy symptoms.

Research suggests that it can help prevent both heart disease and cancer.

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

But its benefits as an 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:

1. Neurotransmitter Production

Your brain has approximately 86 billion neurons which communicate with each other via brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. 

Vitamin C is essential in the production of several of the most important neurotransmitters that impact just about every aspect of your life.

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They affect your ability to focus, concentrate, and remember.

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

2. 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. 

People with depression tend to have low vitamin C levels.

Vitamin C is a cofactor needed to synthesize serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, three neurotransmitters essential for a positive mood. 

3. Defense Against Neurodegenerative Diseases

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.

Vitamin C is one of the most potent antioxidant vitamins.

And just as dipping an apple in lemon juice (with lots of vitamin C) stops discoloration, so does vitamin C protect your brain against free radical damage.

Since neurodegenerative diseases typically involve high levels of oxidative stress, vitamin C shows promise for treating ischemic stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and Huntington’s disease. 

" A groundbreaking University of Oxford study found that taking B6, B12, and folic acid together reduced brain atrophy, improved brain function, and dramatically reduced brain shrinkage in the area of the brain most affected in Alzheimer’s disease.

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

Together, these vitamins have a synergistic effect.

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

A meta analysis of studies found that a diet rich in vitamins C and E is linked to a significantly reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease

4. Heavy Metal Detoxification

The brain accumulates toxic heavy metals.

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

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

It easily leeches from aluminum cookware and is also found in antiperspirants and antacids.

Exposure to lead comes from drinking water, air pollution, imported foods and spices, and lead paint in older homes.

Vitamin C acts as a powerful detoxifier that readily crosses the blood-brain barrier to remove toxic metals from the brain. 

5. Protection Against Excess Glutamate

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

In excess, it becomes an excitotoxin — a substance that literally excites brain cells to death.

Too much glutamate contributes to numerous neurological disorders including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, ALS, and multiple sclerosis. 

Vitamin C protects neuroreceptors that control the release of glutamate. 

6. Improved Circulation

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

Increased blood flow delivers more oxygen and nutrients to the brain, keeping it properly nourished.

Best Food Sources of Vitamin C

When most people think of vitamin C, they think of oranges and orange juice.

But there are many other excellent sources of vitamin C

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Fruits with the highest amounts of vitamin C include:

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

Vegetables with the highest amount of vitamin C include:

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

Vitamin C Supplements

The 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, too low for good health

Since the RDA is the amount required just to prevent disease (like scurvy), but not the amount needed for optimal health, many experts recommend taking significantly more.

When deciding whether you should supplement, consider these factors:

  • Vitamin C is fragile and destroyed by heat. How much raw produce (with its fragile vitamin C) do you eat every day? 

Unless you eat the recommended 9 servings of fruit and vegetables per day, you could almost certainly benefit from supplemental vitamin C. 

There are many forms of supplemental vitamin C, but ascorbic acid seems to be the most potent form.

A reasonable therapeutic daily dose is 1,000 mg.

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Vitamin C’s tolerable upper intake level (UL) is 2 grams per day. 

Taking more than the UL may cause digestive upset.

Vitamin D: For Brain Health Through All Stages of Life

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

But it’s not as simple with vitamin D.

Technically, vitamin D is not even 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 an estimated billion people worldwide not getting enough. 

We’ll explain why shortly.

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

Vitamin D for Brain Health for a Lifetime

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

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

Children must continue to get enough vitamin D for normal brain development.

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

Inadequate levels contribute to seasonal affective disorder (SAD), the depression many people feel in winter. 

And, later in life, vitamin D can ward off cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s. 

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 or fish oil, with salmon, mackerel, tuna, and sardines trailing far behind.

Some foods, such as fortified milk or mushrooms, contain vitamin D2, but this is a poorly utilized form.

That leaves us with getting vitamin D from the sun or from D3 supplements.

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

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Vitamin D From the Sun? Maybe.

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

But there are some surprising reasons you can longer count on sun exposure to create this essential brain vitamin, even if you spend a lot of time outdoors.

For adequate vitamin D formation, 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.

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

Here are four things that can interfere with vitamin D synthesis:

#1 If you wear sunscreen, don’t expect to synthesize much, if any, vitamin D.

A recent study concluded that 1 billion people worldwide may have insufficient levels of vitamin D due to sunscreen use

#2 If you live in the US, draw an imaginary 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 most of the year, except during the summer.

(I live in southern Arizona, land of perpetual sunshine, and I spend time outside every day. When I had my vitamin D blood level checked, I was shocked to learn I was deficient!)

vitamin d and latitude map
Sunlight is too weak above the 37th parallel to generate sufficient vitamin D production in the body. (Map courtesy of Harvard Medical School)

#3 According to Cancer Council Australia, 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.

You can find your current and predicted UV index at Weather.com, TheWeatherNetwork.com, or Accuweather.com when you check your local weather conditions.

In the US, you can also find UV index forecasts at EPA.gov.

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

If you have dark skin, you do not have this advantage and you’ll need more sun exposure to keep your levels up.

For these reasons, you can see that the “20 minutes twice a week” rule of thumb rarely applies.

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.

Research conducted by Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research found that the advertised content and the actual content of vitamin D supplements differed widely.

Brands in the study contained anywhere from 9% to 146% of what was listed on the label

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 purchase a vitamin D test online from an online lab like Personalabs.

B Complex: The Anti-Stress, Anti-Alzheimer’s Vitamins

The vitamin B complex is a group of 8 vitamins: thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6), biotin, folic acid, and cobalamin (B12).

B vitamins have been dubbed the “happy vitamins” and the “anti-stress vitamins.”

They can improve energy levels and increase tolerance to stress.

The “B” in B complex doesn’t stand for brain, but perhaps it should — B vitamins can banish depression, improve memory, ward off brain aging, and even protect against dementia

B Vitamins for Neurotransmitter Formation

An important role of B vitamins for brain health is the production of the brain chemicals including serotonin, dopamine, GABA, norepinephrine, and melatonin. 

Imbalances of these major brain chemicals can significantly impact your mental health.

A serotonin deficiency can contribute to anxiety, insomnia, low self-esteem, negative thoughts, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and seasonal affective disorder.

Without adequate GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), you can be easily stressed, overstimulated, and overwhelmed.

Dopamine helps you focus and concentrate.

Signs of a low dopamine level 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.

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

The 3 B Vitamins That Help Prevent Mental Decline

All the B complex vitamins are essential for overall health.

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

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

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

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. 

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 that the placebo group (top row) shows significantly more brain atrophy than the group that took B vitamins (bottom row).

brain scans comparing atrophy of those who took b vitamins vs a placebo
Taking B vitamins helps prevent brain atrophy. (Image courtesy of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences)

It was discovered that high levels of homocysteine doubled the risk for developing Alzheimer’s back in 2002. Yet, little has been done with this information since.

A Very Common Deficiency: Vitamin B12

If your memory is poor or you’re in a constant state of brain fog, you should rule out 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.

Vegans are at especially high risk.

Animal foods are the only dependable sources of vitamin B12, so nearly half of vegetarians and over 90% of vegans are B12-deficient

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

It can lead to a wide spectrum of mental disorders including memory loss, dementia, depression, and even measurable brain atrophy (which is as detrimental as it sounds). 

If you suspect you are deficient, I urge you get your B12 level checked.

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

Best Food Sources of B Vitamins

Let’s look at food sources for the three main B vitamins essential to brain health — B6, B12, and folate.

Note: The terms folate and folic acid are often used interchangeably. Folate naturally occurs in foods, while folic acid is the synthetic form used in supplements.

Folate

Folate can be found in green leafy vegetables, legumes, and citrus fruit. 

Some people actually absorb this vitamin better as a supplement than from food.

Vitamin B6

The best food sources of vitamin B6 are avocado, banana, legumes, poultry, beef, pork, nuts, and whole grains. 

Vitamin B12

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

It’s often claimed that green algae like spirulina, fermented soy products, and brewer’s yeast contain vitamin B12. 

But in reality, these plant foods contain B12 analogs which are similar to, but not the same as, vitamin B12.

By binding with B12 receptors, these pseudovitamins block the intake of true B12.

The only consequential vegetable source of true vitamin B12 is the sea vegetable nori (Porphyra umbilicalis). 

Vitamin B Supplements

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.

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. 

The same principle applies for B vitamin supplements.

The exception is for B12 deficiency.

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

You’ll find B12 supplements available in several forms — cyanocobalamin, methylcobalamin, adenosylcobalamin, and hydroxocobalamin.

There seems to be little difference in absorption or bioavailability for most people. 

Why You Should Start With a Multivitamin

If you aren’t sure where to begin with vitamin supplementation, taking a high-quality multivitamin is a good place to start.

Numerous studies have shown that taking a multivitamin alone can improve brain function, cognition, and memory

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. 

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 regimen.

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

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

Brain Vitamins: Take the Next Step

Modern life typically increases the need for vitamins, putting brain health at risk.

The brain needs all vitamins, but there are a few that are vital for proper mental health and brain function.

Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables will increase your intake of vitamin C and the B complex vitamins, except for vitamin B12 which is found only in animal food products.

If you live in North America or Europe, it’s doubtful that you get adequate sun exposure to form the vitamin D you need.

Unless you live in a particularly warm, sunny climate, it’s prudent to get your vitamin D level tested.

And there is good value in taking a high-quality multivitamin supplement to guard against vitamin deficiencies. 

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