When choosing a memory supplement, consider only those that contain proven ingredients. Review our list of 20 substances shown to actually improve memory.
More people than ever before are struggling with memory problems.
Students are under constant pressure to increase mental performance.
Employees in high pressure jobs are fueling their brains with caffeine and smart drugs to stay competitive.
Our population is growing older — 10,000 65-year-olds in the US enroll in Medicare every day. (1)
And brains of all ages are overloaded with an endless stream of information that must be remembered.
And as a result, memory supplements have become a huge business.
But there are so many memory supplements to choose from — all claiming to be the best.
How to pick ones that work as claimed?
Before you can choose an effective memory supplement, you need to know which ingredients in that supplement have scientific evidence to show that they can improve memory.
Proven Memory Supplement Ingredients
Some memory supplements will contain a single ingredient while others will contain a mix of ingredients often labeled as a “proprietary blend.”
There are many substances that improve concentration, increase productivity, smooth out your mood, or are good for your general brain health, but will do nothing to improve your memory.
Not everything marketed as a brain supplement or nootropic will specifically address memory problems.
Here are some of the best ingredients to look for in a supplement when memory improvement is your main goal.
Acetyl-l-carnitine (ALC or ALCAR) is an amino acid well documented for its ability to improve alertness, focus, mental clarity, and mood. (2)
ALC works in part by creating acetylcholine, a major neurotransmitter responsible for learning, memory, regulating sleep cycle, and other brain functions. (3)
ALCAR works as a potent antioxidant, stopping free radical damage in brain cells. (4)
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It has fast-acting antidepressant properties too, often working faster than prescription antidepressants. (5)
When you shop, don’t confuse acetyl-l-carnitine with the less expensive version, l-carnitine.
ALC is the more bioavailable form that easily crosses the blood brain barrier — something plain l-carnitine cannot do. (6)
2. Alpha GPC
Choline is a precursor of acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter responsible for learning and memory.
Alpha GPC (alpha-glycerophosphocholine) is a bioavailable form of choline that quickly and efficiently enters the brain.
Alpha GPC helps form healthy cell membranes and increases the levels of several other neurotransmitters — dopamine, serotonin, and GABA. (9)
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In Europe, alpha GPC is prescribed as a medication to treat Alzheimer’s. (10)
When taken as a supplement, it can improve memory and attention span and ward off age-related mental decline. (11)
A typical dose of alpha GPC is 300 to 600 mg. (12)
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3. Bacopa Monnieri
Bacopa monnieri is a highly esteemed Ayurvedic herb with a history of use that goes back over 3,000 years.
Legend has it that it was used by ancient scholars to memorize lengthy hymns and scriptures.
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It’s considered an adaptogen — a plant that increases resilience to mental and physical stress. (15)
It balances the stress hormones and the neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin, and GABA.
Bacopa is often included in natural nootropic formulas and is good for age-related mental decline. (16)
A typical dose of bacopa is 50 to 100 mg taken three times per day, ideally with meals. (17)
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Citicoline is a naturally occurring compound your body synthesizes from the choline found in eggs and meat.
It’s also an underappreciated brain supplement.
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It’s one of the few supplements that’s powerful enough to treat serious neurological disorders such as age-related memory loss, stroke, brain injury, dementia, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s. (20, 21)
Citicoline works by increasing brain energy, protecting the brain from damage, and increasing acetylcholine. (22)
When looking for citicoline supplements, you may come across some that contain Cognizin.
Cognizin is a brand name of a patented highly bioavailable form of citicoline that has been clinically tested in humans. (23)
A daily dose of 1,000 to 2,000 mg is recommended for cognitive enhancement. (24)
Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a spice that’s also a traditional Ayurvedic natural remedy.
Turmeric has gotten a lot of attention recently since people who consume it as part of their traditional cuisine have the lowest rate of Alzheimer’s in the world. (25)
Curcumin, turmeric’s main active ingredient, can improve memory and concentration by increasing blood flow, neurotransmitter formation, and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that stimulates new brain cell production. (26, 27)
One study found curcumin improved memory and attention in healthy seniors. (28)
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Remarkably, these benefits were experienced within an hour after taking a single dose!
When choosing a curcumin supplement, look for one that’s taken steps to increase bioavailability.
Most commonly, this means one that includes the black pepper extract piperine.
Otherwise most of the curcumin will pass through your intestines unabsorbed. (29)
The recommended curcumin dosage is 400 to 600 mg three times per day. (30)
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Ginseng (Panax ginseng) is one of the most popular and widely researched herbs on the planet.
In traditional Chinese medicine it is considered the “elixir of life” that brings strength, wisdom, and longevity to those who take it. (31)
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For memory improvement, look for a ginseng supplement that contains Cereboost.
This patent-pending American ginseng extract has clinical studies to back up its claims that it improves memory, mental clarity and sharpness.
These positive effects are often experienced within just a few hours of taking one dose.
Take 400 mg daily for the maximum memory boost. (34)
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7. Huperzine A
Huperzine A raises acetylcholine levels by blocking an enzyme that breaks down acetylcholine. (37)
In China, it’s an approved drug for treating Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia. (38)
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It works very similarly to the popular Alzheimer’s drug Aricept.
Here in the US, huperzine A is included in many brain supplements to improve memory, focus, and concentration.
The general recommended dosage is 50 to 200 mcg twice a day. (41)
8. Magnesium L-Threonate
Magnesium usually takes a back seat to calcium and may just be the most underappreciated dietary mineral.
It’s needed for over 300 metabolic functions and has profound effects on brain and mental health.
Magnesium deficiency can cause depression since it’s essential in forming the mood-elevating brain chemical serotonin. (42)
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Studies have found links between low magnesium and anxiety, ADHD, aggression, bipolar disorder, panic attacks, and schizophrenia. (43)
If you feel “tired but wired” and have trouble sleeping, especially because of racing mind or leg cramps, magnesium can be the answer.
There are many forms of magnesium supplements available.
Inexpensive magnesium will do little for your brain but will have you running to the bathroom.
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Magnesium l-threonate is a relatively new form of magnesium supplement with the unique ability to permeate brain cell membranes making it a good choice for improving memory, attention, depression, and anxiety. (44, 45)
Look for a supplement that contains Magtein, a patented brand of magnesium l-threonate that’s a proven cognitive enhancer.
According to the Magtein website, a suggested dose is 1,000 mg twice a day. (46)
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SUBJECT: Sharper thinking, better mood
Movies like Limitless and Lucy have fueled an interest in the power of nootropics. Nootropics are substances that claim to make you smarter, highly focused, and more productive.
But many of the products containing these substances are neither helpful nor harmless.
We've looked closely at the market and found a supplement that combines many of the most effective, safe and natural brain enhancers we know.
These enhancers work with your brain's own neurotransmitters to really improve your mental energy, clarity, focus and mood. Read more about it below.
Deane & Dr. Pat
9. Mucuna Pruriens
Mucuna pruriens is a tropical legume that enhances memory, mood, and overall brain health. (47)
Unlike most memory supplements which increase acetylcholine levels, Mucuna pruriens works by increasing levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine.
Dopamine is the “motivation molecule” and is in charge of the pleasure-reward system. (48)
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If you are unfocused, unmotivated, lethargic, and even depressed. you may be low in dopamine.
If you have memory loss and little zest for life, Mucuna pruriens is a supplement to consider.
Unfortunately, there is no concensus on how much to take.
Until there is, I’d recommend you buy a reputable brand and follow the recommended serving instructions on the label.
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10. Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids
Omega-3 essential fatty acids are one of the most important nutrients for the health and function of your brain.
The brain benefits of omega-3 fats are derived mostly from docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a primary structural component of the brain. (49)
DHA deficiency measurably shrinks your brain and causes cognitive impairments. (50)
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You can take DHA as a single ingredient supplement or you can get your DHA from fish oil or krill oil supplements.
A good rule of thumb is to look for a fish oil supplement that contains 200 to 500 mg of DHA and 700 to 1,000 mg of EPA. (55)
For more in-depth information on dosages for specific conditions, check out Mayo Clinic’s omega-3 dosage information.
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Phosphatidylserine (PS) is a phospholipid found in particularly high concentrations in brain cell membranes.
It helps these membranes act as your brain’s “gatekeepers” by regulating nutrients in and waste out of your brain.
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It boosts memory and learning and can help with ADHD and attention. (60)
Phosphatidylserine is protective against age-related mental decline and shows promise for treating Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. (61)
The general recommended dose of phosphatidylserine is 100 mg three times a day. (64)
12. Rhodiola Rosea
Rhodiola rosea is an adaptogenic herb that might just be the answer to whatever ails you.
This traditional Chinese and Scandinavian herb is used to increase physical stamina, tolerance to stress, mental vitality, and longevity.
It works by decreasing cortisol while increasing levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine. (65)
This is an excellent herbal remedy to try if you believe your memory loss is due to too much stress, or is accompanied by anxiety, depression, brain fog, or seasonal affective disorder (SAD). (66, 67)
Note when shopping: This herb goes by many other names including Arctic root, golden root, and roseroot (since it smells a little like a rose).
A typical dose is 200 to 600 mg per day. (68)
Vinpocetine is a compound derived from the periwinkle plant (Vinca minor) that improves memory and overall mental well-being. (69)
It works by increasing blood flow to the brain, enhancing the brain’s use of oxygen, and protecting the brain from free radical damage.
Vinpocetine has only recently become available in the US.
It is very popular in Europe and Japan where it’s available by prescription only.
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Doctors in Europe believe it is far more effective than Ginkgo biloba, which is widely promoted as one of the best brain supplements.
It is these qualities that make vinpocetine promising as a treatment for Alzheimer’s. (70)
While studies show that vinpocetine is a promising treatment for mental decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s, as of yet there’s not a lot of evidence that it makes healthy adults smarter.
Most clinical studies on vinpocetine used a dose of 10 mg three times per day. (71)
For maximum absorption, this is one supplement you definitely should take with meals.
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Memory Supplement Ingredients to Be Used with Caution
There are some popular memory supplements that for various reasons should be avoided under some circumstances.
Some haven’t withstood scientific scrutiny, while others are best obtained from foods and not in the form of supplements.
A few should not be taken before consulting with your doctor.
Understand the pros and cons of these supplements before you decide to try them.
Galantamine is derived from the snowdrop flower (Galanthus caucasicus) and works by blocking the breakdown of acetylcholine.
It straddles the line between being a drug and a natural remedy.
In the US, it’s approved for treating Alzheimer’s and is available as both a prescription and over-the-counter remedy. (72)
It’s not recommended for minor memory loss since it can have some serious side effects. (73)
If your memory loss has you concerned, this is one supplement you should not take before talking to your doctor.
Ginkgo biloba is one of the most popular herbal remedies on the planet and is most commonly taken for memory improvement.
More than $250 million is spent each year on Ginkgo biloba supplements, but its usefulness for memory improvement has not stood up to scientific scrutiny. (74)
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Other proven uses for ginkgo are for anxiety and depression.
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16. MCT Oil
MCT (medium chain triglyceride) oil has been enjoying its 15 minutes of fame as an ingredient in “Bulletproof” coffee.
But long before that, it was popularized by Dr. Mary Newport who used it along with coconut oil to treat her husband’s early onset Alzheimer’s.
She published a detailed account of his progress in her book Alzheimer’s Disease: What If There Was a Cure?.
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One exciting study found that adults with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), an intermediate stage before dementia, experienced an immediate and significant improvement in memory after taking a single dose of MCT oil. (82)
But so far there is little scientific evidence that MCT oil increases mental performance in healthy adults. (83)
And there is little point in taking MCT oil until you’ve upgraded your diet to replace unhealthy vegetable oils like canola and soy oils with coconut oil, the main dietary source of medium chain triglycerides.
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Resveratrol is a compound found in red wine, grapes, and several kinds of berries that is sold as a brain supplement to improve memory and provide protection from age-related mental decline.
Almost all of the research (and surrounding hype) about resveratrol comes from animal studies.
The most significant human study is the Chianti Study.
After tracking study participants who lived in the Chianti region of Italy for nine years, researchers found no correlation between resveratrol levels and any health markers. (86)
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Another study found that resveratrol increases blood flow to the brain, but no positive changes in mental performance were detected. (87)
If it’s memory improvement you are after, skip this supplement and instead take a look at the Mediterranean diet and its inclusion of red wine.
Green tea has been revered in Asia for its ability to increase longevity, mental clarity and physical stamina.
One of the most important compounds in green tea is EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate).
EGCG is especially protective against Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. (88)
It promotes new brain cell creation in the parts of the brain affected by these diseases and reduces brain plaques linked to Alzheimer’s. (89)
You can take supplemental EGCG, but it is notoriously unstable and poorly absorbed. (93)
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It’s much better to get your EGCG by drinking green tea.
That way you’ll also reap the benefits from the synergy between EGCG and the other nutrients in green tea, notably the relaxing amino acid l-theanine and caffeine. (94)
Caffeine occurs naturally in coffee and tea, and is added to energy drinks, think drinks, and many brain supplements to boost energy, memory, productivity, and focus. (95)
If you are prone to anxiety, this is one ingredient to skip.
Too much caffeine can cause significant anxiety symptoms, even in people with no history of anxiety disorders.
While pure caffeine pills and powders are available, they are dangerous and definitely not recommended.
Pure caffeine is an extremely powerful psychoactive drug and it’s easy to take too much.
Unfortunately, there have been a few deaths from caffeine powder overdose.
One of the most unexpected memory boosters is nicotine.
While no one would recommend you start smoking, there’s a lot of evidence that isolated nicotine (NOT derived from smoking tobacco) is one of the best cognitive enhancers around.
More than 40 studies support the conclusion that nicotine improves memory, attention, accuracy, response time, and fine motor skills — and it does so surprisingly safely. (96)
This is no secret among college students, biohackers, and desperate seniors who already use various nicotine replacement products to improve mental performance.
But the experts strongly advise against this unless you’re working with a health care professional.
Memory Supplements: The Bottom Line
Memory loss is a growing concern across many demographics.
Not all so-called brain supplements address memory issues.
Memory supplements are available as single ingredient supplements or as a blend of several substances.
If memory improvement is your main objective, don’t take just any brain supplement.
Be sure you are using a supplement that specifically contains ingredients proven to boost memory.