Vitamins for Memory: Basic Nutrients Often Overlooked

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Last updated July 17, 2023.
Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC. Written by Deane Alban.

Basic vitamins, in the right amount, are key to a good memory, but many of us are deficient. Learn how to use foods and supplements to boost your memory.

If your memory isn’t as sharp as you’d like, your brain may not be getting enough of the basic nutrients it needs to function the way it should.

Being deficient in critical vitamins can affect not only your ability to remember, but also to focus, learn, and think clearly.

The brain needs all essential vitamins to work properly, but some are more important for memory than others.

Let’s take a look at vitamins A to K to see how important each of them is for memory.

We’ll also discuss the ways these vitamins affect your ability to deal with chronic stress, your overall mental wellness, and even how happy you feel.

Lastly, we’ll talk about the best food sources for these vitamins and how supplementation can help fill any gaps in your brain’s nutritional needs.

B Complex Vitamins: For Stress and Memory Loss Protection

The “B” in vitamin B complex doesn’t stand for “brain,” but perhaps it should.

The B vitamins can help prevent memory loss, fend off brain aging, alleviate depression, and even help you live longer

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

An important role of B vitamins is the production of neurotransmitters that are vital for a healthy state of mind:

  • If you have subpar levels of serotonin, you may suffer from anxiety, insomnia, low self-esteem, negative thoughts, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or SAD (seasonal affective disorder).
  • 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 through the day.

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Three specific B vitamins taken together are important for improving memory over the long term.

A landmark University of Oxford 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 by Alzheimer’s disease. 

These results are so promising that some experts are hopeful that the B vitamins may ultimately be used as a safe and inexpensive Alzheimer’s treatment.

Vitamin B12 Deficiency Is a Common (Yet Serious) Concern

If your memory is poor or you’re in a constant state of brain fog, you may have a vitamin B12 deficiency.

B12 is one of the most common vitamin deficiencies; an estimated 40% of adults are deficient

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.

A chronically low B12 level can lead to a wide spectrum of neurological disorders, including: 

  • cognitive decline
  • dementia
  • Alzheimer’s
  • Parkinson’s

It can ultimately cause brain atrophy and shrinkage, and that’s as harmful as it sounds. 

Two particularly high-risk groups are seniors, who often have poor B12 absorption, and vegetarians since B12 is found almost exclusively in animal products.

If you are a vegan, be aware that more than 90% of vegans are B12-deficient.

If you suspect that you are deficient, have your B12 level checked.

When supplementing, it’s generally recommended that you take all the B vitamins together in a balanced B complex formula.

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This is how these vitamins occur in nature and work synergistically in food

However, if your B12 level is low, it’s recommended you take a B12 supplement to bring your levels back to normal quickly.

Best Food Sources of B Vitamins

Sources: Green leafy vegetables, legumes, fruit, eggs, fish, poultry, bananas, carrots, spinach, peas, and potatoes. 

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

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

Vitamin C: A Natural Antidepressant and Brain Protector

Vitamin C, the most popular vitamin supplement, is often taken to prevent or minimize the discomforts of the common cold and allergies.

But its effects on the brain are less well known and few people consider it to be a brain or memory supplement.

By increasing the feel-good neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, vitamin C acts as a natural antidepressant

This vitamin protects against age-related brain degeneration, including dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and stroke. 

The brain is particularly susceptible to free radical damage, also known as oxidative stress, because of its high oxygen usage.

Vitamin C is one of the most potent antioxidant vitamins, neutralizing this damage.

" Vitamin E plus C makes a winning combination for combating memory loss.

Vitamin C also acts as a powerful detoxifier that readily crosses the blood-brain barrier to remove neurotoxic metals like mercury and aluminum from the brain.

NUTRITION FOR THE MIND/BODY CONNECTION

It’s almost impossible to live a lifestyle that provides all the nutrients needed for good brain health and performance. The reason? All of us confront multiple nutrient thieves — stress, poor diet, insomnia, pharmaceuticals, pollution, and more — that steal nutrients that the brain needs to thrive.

Taking quality nutritional supplements:
  • Provides the building blocks to create new brain cells and brain chemicals
  • Helps increase resilience to stress to avoid mental burnout
  • Supplies the brain with the fuel it needs for mental energy

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Smokers need more vitamin C due to oxidative stress. 

Unless you eat the recommended 9 servings of fruits and vegetables daily, you would almost certainly benefit from a vitamin C supplement. 

Best Food Sources of Vitamin C

Sources: Cantaloupe, all citrus fruits, berries of all kinds, pineapple, peppers of all kinds, tomatoes, white and sweet potatoes, cruciferous vegetables, green leafy vegetables, and winter squash.

Vitamin D: For a Lifetime of Brain Health

Most vitamins come from the food we eat, but vitamin D is the exception.

While a few foods do contain small amounts of vitamin D, the vast majority of our vitamin D comes from exposure to sunlight.

Vitamin D has profound effects on the brain during all stages of life, from prenatal development through the senior years. 

Getting adequate vitamin D throughout adult life can help prevent cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s

Vitamin D can lift mood, improve memory, and increase problem-solving abilities.

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

But it’s nearly impossible to get all the vitamin D we need from either food or the sun.

The usual rule of thumb for adequate vitamin D formation is “20 minutes of sun, twice a week” on a large surface area of the body, such as arms or legs.

But, in reality, following this rule rarely is adequate.

The use of sunscreen, the time of year, latitude, natural skin color, and current UV index affect how efficiently skin manufactures vitamin D.

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 one billion people worldwide not getting enough. 

The bottom line is that most people in North America and Europe need to take supplemental vitamin D.

When choosing a brand, be sure to buy from a reputable company.

A study of 55 brands of vitamin D supplements found that the contents diverged wildly, containing anywhere between 9% and 146% of what was listed on the label. 

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The only way to know if you need vitamin D (or how much) is to have a blood test to check your 25-hydroxy vitamin D level.

You can see your doctor or purchase an online vitamin D test from an online lab.

Best Food Sources of Vitamin D

Sources: Cod liver oil, salmon, mackerel, tuna, sardines, mushrooms, and fortified milk.

(Note that fortified foods contain vitamin D2, a poorly utilized form of vitamin D.)

Vitamin E: Good for the Brain, Good for the Heart

Vitamin E is the collective name for a group of 8 naturally occurring fat-soluble vitamins.

Vitamin E supplements are usually taken for heart health.

Given the rule of thumb 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. 

The main brain benefit of vitamin E is helping prevent mental decline as we age, particularly when it’s paired with vitamin C.

Vitamin E plus C makes for a winning combination to combat memory loss.

The vitamin E+C duo is correlated with: 

  • maintaining a good memory
  • slowing memory loss
  • significantly lowering the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease

Vitamin E can minimize the damage caused by a stroke

By redirecting blood supply, it can prevent brain cells from dying after the event. 

The best vitamin E supplements contain the “d” form, such as d-alpha tocopherol, rather than the “dl” forms which are synthetic.

Best Food Sources of Vitamin E

Sources: Seeds, nuts, avocados, olive oil, shrimp, green leafy vegetables, and broccoli.

Vitamin K: An Overlooked Memory Vitamin

You don’t hear much about vitamin K in mainstream media, making vitamin K the “neglected vitamin.”

But that doesn’t mean that it’s not important.

Vitamin K plays an essential role in blood clotting. 

It puts calcium where it belongs — in your bones — and keeps it from depositing in your arteries.

Vitamin K’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties help keep the brain healthy and sharp as we age.

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It can improve the ability to remember words, a big problem for many of us as we get older.

It’s thought that vitamin K may play a role in preventing Alzheimer’s disease since Alzheimer’s patients are often deficient

In general, vitamin K deficiency is not a problem in healthy adults.

However, people who take warfarin or anti-cholesterol medications are at risk. 

And since some vitamin K is created in the intestines, people who have taken a lot of antibiotics are also at risk. 

Note: If you take a blood-thinning medication, talk to your doctor before taking a vitamin K supplement as it may interfere with your medication.

Best Food Sources of Vitamin K

Sources: Green leafy vegetables, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, parsley, celery, asparagus, and fermented foods.

Vitamin A: One Supplement You Should Skip

There are two main forms of vitamin A found in food, retinol and carotenes

One of the most important functions of vitamin A involves vision.

In some developing countries, vitamin A-related blindness is a major problem. 

However, since vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin that accumulates in the body, you can definitely get too much of it.

Vitamin A overload can cause a long list of side effects, including increased pressure in the brain, depression, headache, and vomiting; in extreme cases, it can even be fatal.

An excess of vitamin A reduces the creation of neurons, which can lead to depression. 

This is why the acne medication Accutane increases the risk of depression among its users. 

A safe dose of vitamin A is generally considered to be 10,000 IU per day or less.

So, don’t toss out your multivitamin if it contains this amount or less. 

But there is no need to take a separate vitamin A supplement unless you’ve been diagnosed with a deficiency.

Eating foods high in beta-carotene will not cause vitamin A toxicity. 

Beta-carotene is turned into vitamin A in the body on an as-needed basis, so it’s safe to consume.

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Best Food Sources of Vitamin A / Beta-Carotene

Sources: Sweet potatoes, carrots, green leafy vegetables, winter squash, and cantaloupe.

Multivitamins: A Shortcut for Memory Preservation

You don’t have to take multiple pills of individual vitamins to keep your brain working well.

The Harvard School of Public Health advises all adults to take a multivitamin supplement as insurance to fill any nutritional gaps. 

And so do we.

Taking a high-quality multivitamin supplement should meet most of your brain’s vitamin needs.

Numerous studies confirm that taking a multivitamin alone can protect your brain from cognitive decline and improve your memory and other brain functions

Buying Vitamins You Can Trust

Since high quality in a supplement is so important, let’s talk about how to choose a vitamin brand that’s effective.

Taking any supplement is a matter of trust.

You must trust that it contains what it says on the label — no more and no less.

But as you read with the vitamin D study above, that’s not always the case.

You must also trust that the ingredients are in a form usable by the body and in a dosage that will actually deliver the 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 from your local big box store or Amazon.

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