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It’s 3 pm, you’ve been sitting at your desk for 7 hours and you cannot seem to focus on your assignment at hand.
You ask yourself, why!?
Or maybe, you’ve been up all night, your kids are running circles around you, and you cannot focus on simple tasks, such as loading the dishwasher and preparing lunch. You wonder if there is something you can do to help get you through the day.
Every day we go through similar situations without having the focus, memory, or clarity to deal with our daily activities. Our bodies are running on an empty tank, but how?
You’ve just eaten a meal and still have no energy? How can you feel this way if you are fueling your body?
Guess what. You’re asking yourself the wrong questions. Instead, focus on the fuel your body needs and, you’ll come to find out that our bodies are efficient machines!
When you provide the right nutrients, the body will function just as it should, especially our brain. Often, life overloads our brain, along with persistent stress, and improper nutrients. However, there are nutrients that you can eat every day which can help to manage your stress, improve your focus and clarity and thus increase your quality of life.
Importance & Functions of the Brain
The brain is one of the most complex organs in the body.
It is responsible for:
- your cognition (reading, writing, learning, thinking),
- your movement (walking, coordination),
- your senses (hearing, vision),
- and controlling fundamental bodily functions (breathing, heartbeat, blood pressure, etc.) (1).
Signs of brain fog, memory loss, and fatigue are all symptoms of overload. Long-term poor brain health can lead to many concerns, including cognitive impairment and dementia.
Cognitive decline can be seen by changes over time in the brain.
These changes include:
- tissue damage,
- increased risk of genetic conditions,
- reduction in energy production,
- and inflammation (2).
There may be many reasons as to why you are suffering from lack of brain power. But, regardless of the “why,” your brain health is important and the steps you take to maintain a healthy brain may help lead you to living a longer and fuller life.
5 Natural Supplements for Brain Health
As a registered dietitian, our first recommendation is to take a closer look at your diet and pinpoint areas of improvements. However, there are times where a supplement must be considered. If there is a lack of a nutrient over an extended period of time, a deficiency can occur.
The most common reasons for a deficiency include having any food allergies or intolerances, following a diet that depletes you of a certain nutrient, or having a condition that results in malabsorption.
Deficiencies, or lack of nutrients, may be the reason you are experiencing brain fog and have stumbled upon this article. Here are a few nutritional supplements that you may consider taking to help maintain your brain health.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
The body can synthesize certain fatty acids, however, it cannot synthesize polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids due to the lack of certain enzymes in the body that produce alpha-linoeic acid (ALA) (3).
When the body is unable to synthesize a certain nutrient, it becomes categorized as “essential.” Therefore, it is recommended to incorporate dietary sources rich in omega-3 fatty acids, as well as considering supplementation.
ALA is the precursor for eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). DHA is responsible for optimum neural and visual functions. DHA and EPA also help in the process of lowering triglyceride levels and play a key role in inflammatory processes (3).
Meaning, these nutrients may help to reduce overall inflammation in the body, especially in individuals who suffer from inflammatory diseases.
How Does Omega-3 Help the Brain?
Studies show an inverse relationship between the consumption of omega-3 fatty acids and frequency of depression. The same is true for Alzheimer’s disease. Consumption of omega-3 fatty acids may be linked to reducing the risk of this disease and is suggested to slow down symptom progression of those with Alzheimer’s (3).
A 2016 study evaluated the effects of omega-3 fatty acid on learning memory and formation. For 26 weeks, 44 individuals aged 50-75 years either consumed 2200 milligrams per day of omega-3 fatty acids or consumed a placebo.
Researchers found that the recall of object locations was significantly better after supplementation compared with those who took the placebo (4). Therefore, their memory had improved after supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids.
Sources, Deficiencies, & Side Effects
Dietary sources of EPA and DHA include mackerel, sardine, tuna, and algae. ALA is found in dark green leafy vegetables, flax seed oils, chia seed oil, eggs, meats, walnuts, and hazelnuts.
If you do not consume these foods regularly, you may be missing out on adequate omega-3 fatty acid intake. A deficiency is rare, but may cause rough, scaly skin and a red, itchy rash (5).
The recommended daily allowance (RDA) of omega-3 fatty acid has not been established. However, most studies supplement omega-3 fatty acids between 500 milligrams to three grams per day.
Side effects of too much omega-3 fatty acids should also be noted. Omega-3 fatty acids, in excess, may cause bleeding problems, affect immune function, and/or cause GI distress.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends no more than three grams per day of EPA and DHA combined, including up to two grams per day of dietary supplements (5). Individuals taking Warfarin should discuss omega-3 fatty acid supplementation with their doctor prior to taking.
Omega-3 fatty acids play an important role in anti-inflammation in our bodies. Supplementation of these fatty acids may help to improve mood and memory, and may even help to reduce cognitive decline in aging.
Caffeine, an ergogenic aid, has been well studied. Grabbing a cup of coffee is one of the most common solutions to fixing that mid-day brain fatigue.
Consumption of caffeine enhances dopamine (DA) in the brain. Dopamine is responsible for our daily behaviors; what we eat, how we learn, and our addictions. Low dopamine levels may result in depression, fatigue, and changes in mood.
How Does Caffeine Help the Brain?
A 2015 study evaluated the effects of caffeine as a psychoactive substance. Twenty healthy male subjects consumed a 300-mg dose of caffeine, which reflects caffeine consumption in two to three cups of coffee. A second observation was done with the same 20 male subjects consuming a placebo, without caffeine.
The subjects were asked to describe their mood; if they were alert, tired, sleepy, or moody. These subjective measures were taken before the study and at two intervals (30 min and 120 min) after the placebo and caffeine administration.
This study found a significant higher self-report of ‘alertness’ at both 30- and 120-minute intervals. Researchers also saw a significant reduction in sleepiness at 120 minutes compared to the placebo group (6).
Other studies have found that caffeine may improve an individual’s attention and productivity. A significant relationship was observed with caffeine consumption ranging from 40 mg to 280 mg and improved speed and accuracy, as well as improved focus (7).
Sources, Deficiencies, & Side Effects
The most common sources of caffeine include coffee and tea. However, you may be surprised to find there are other foods and beverages we encounter in our daily diet that also contain caffeine.
- decaf coffee,
- non-cola sodas,
- ice cream (chocolate or coffee flavors),
- energy waters,
- energy drinks containing alcohol,
- energy drinks,
- and some pain relievers (8).
The amount of caffeine may vary in each of these items, but it is still important to note caffeine can be found in other items besides coffee and tea.
There are no deficiencies associated with caffeine as caffeine is not essential to our body. However, those who consume an excess amount of caffeine for a prolonged period of time may experience withdrawal symptoms.
It appears that up to 400 milligrams of caffeine a day can be safe for most healthy adults. This would equate to 4 cups of brewed coffee. Side effects with consumption greater than 400 milligrams may include:
- migraine headaches,
- frequent urination,
- fast heartbeat,
- and more (9).
Caffeine consumption may interact with certain medications and herbal supplements. Also, caffeine can affect some medical conditions. It is recommended to discuss potential interactions and/or concerns of caffeine intake with your doctor prior to consumption.
One to two daily cups of coffee may help to improve fatigue, attention, and focus. If you are drinking more than this amount, it is highly recommended you reduce your caffeine intake.
B Vitamin Complex
The B vitamins are essential for normal physiological functions. There are eight B vitamins which include thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) biotin (B7), folate (B9), and vitamin B12 (cobalamin). Each B vitamin plays their own role in the body.
A few responsibilities of B vitamins include:
- converting food into energy,
- production of red blood cells,
- DNA production,
- creation of neurotransmitters,
- and regulation of gene expression (10).
How Do B-Vitamins Help the Brain?
B complex vitamins come jam-packed with all eight B vitamins. This supplement has shown to reduce fatigue and improve alertness.
A 2010 study evaluated the effects of a high-dose B vitamin complex on psychological functioning. For 33 days, cognitive performance, mood, and fatigue were assessed in 215 full-time employed males (30 to 55 years).
Researchers found that this population of healthy males may benefit from supplementing with B vitamin complex. Improved levels of stress, mental health, and cognitive performance were found during intense mental processing (11).
Other studies have found that supplementation of folic acid and related B vitamins helped to reduce brain atrophy. Furthermore, optimal intake of B vitamins can be associated with improved cognitive health while aging and may be crucial in maintaining brain health (12).
Sources, Deficiencies, & Side Effects
Most often, you do not have to worry about a deficiency, unless you are following a diet that significantly reduces consumption of all B vitamins. A deficiency in certain B vitamins result over an extended period of time as these vitamins are water soluble. The most common deficiencies would be that of vitamin B12.
This could be from:
- reduced absorption,
- post weight loss surgery,
- digestive disorders (Celiac disease or Crohn’s disease),
- or sometimes from following a vegetarian or vegan diet.
Side effects of vitamin B12 deficiency may include:
- feeling tired and weak,
- loss of appetite,
- weight loss,
- and megaloblastic anemia.
Numbness and tingling in your extremities may also occur (14). There can also be side effects associated with taking a vitamin B complex. This is not common, especially if you are taking the supplement correctly.
However, the following side effects may still occur, such as:
- frequent urination,
- change in the color of urine,
- black stools,
- nausea and vomiting,
- abdominal pain,
- and redness or irritation of the skin (15).
There is no recommended dosage of B vitamin complex to consume, however, each B vitamin has their own recommended daily allowance. It is important to discuss supplementation of vitamin B complex with your doctor prior to taking.
Supplementing with a B vitamin complex may help to reduce stress and boost mental health and cognitive performance.
Vitamin C, another water-soluble vitamin, is unable to be synthesized in the body. Therefore, this vitamin is essential to our diet.Vitamin C is involved in biosynthesis of collagen, l-carnitine, and other neurotransmitters. This vitamin is also needed for protein metabolism.
Vitamin C is mostly known as an antioxidant and has been shown to regenerate alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E). Antioxidants reduce the damaging effects of free radicals in the body. Lastly, vitamin C aids in immune function and improves absorption of nonheme iron (16).
How Does Vitamin C Help the Brain?
In 2017, a study observed the correlation between vitamin C concentrations in men and women compared to metabolic health and cognitive impairment. Researchers observed lower levels of cognitive impairment in those with the highest plasma vitamin C concentrations. These subjects with optimal plasma vitamin C were also found to be in better health (low BMI, normal weight, less risk of disease) compared to those with lower levels of vitamin C (17).
Other research has found that higher level of vitamin C concentrations are usually demonstrated in the cognitively intact groups compared to cognitively impaired groups (18). Researchers theorize this may be due to the antioxidant properties. However, more research should be conducted on the direct relationship between vitamin C supplementation and brain health.
Oxidative stress can occur when cells cannot adequately destroy the excess free radicals. This can cause damage to lipids, proteins, and DNA and can lead to a higher risk of degenerative and chronic diseases (19). Adequate consumption of antioxidants can help to reduce oxidative stress, therefore, reducing risk of certain diseases.
Sources, Deficiencies, & Side Effects
The best sources of vitamin C include fruits and vegetables, specifically citrus fruits. Vitamin C is also widely fortified in many foods. The next time you eat or drink something that has a label, check the nutrition facts to see if vitamin C has been added to the product.
The RDA for vitamin C is 90 mg for adult men and 75 mg for adult women.
Deficiencies may occur in those who smoke or experience secondhand smoke. This is because smoking increases the need for more vitamin C to repair damage caused by free radicals. A smoker will need to increase their daily vitamin C consumption by 35 milligrams (20). A prolonged deficiency may result in scurvy, but is not common in the U.S.
Other deficiencies may occur in those that have a limited diet or have certain medical conditions that cause severe malabsorption. Side effects of taking too much vitamin C include diarrhea, nausea, and stomach cramps.
Vitamin C can be a great supplement to take to help maintain brain cognition and fight aging processes, such as oxidative stress.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that can be synthesized in the body endogenously from ultraviolet rays from sunlight through our skin (21). However, amount of daily sun exposure, where you live, and other factors can affect Vitamin D synthesis.
Vitamin D has many responsibilities in the body, for example:
- aiding in the absorption and maintenance of calcium (bone health),
- cell growth,
- neuromuscular and immune function,
- and reduction in inflammation.
Most importantly, emerging research has been finding links between adequate vitamin D status and brain cognition.
How Does Vitamin D Help the Brain?
Vitamin D’s active form has shown to have neuroprotective effects on clearing amyloid plaque, which is a characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease (22). Several studies have found an association between low levels of vitamin D and Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
More research is needed to clearly define vitamin D’s role in preventing or treating Alzheimer’s disease.
A study in 2015 evaluated the association between vitamin D status and change in cognitive function in a diverse older adult population. Researches found that lower vitamin D status was associated with accelerated decline in cognitive functions, especially in those who had a higher risk of vitamin D insufficiency (23).
Another study found cognitive improvements in older adults supplementing with vitamin D after one to 15 months (24). Researchers suggest that most populations can benefit from vitamin D supplementation, not just to maintain brain health, but perhaps to restore it.
Sources, Deficiencies, & Side Effects
Dietary sources of vitamin D include:
- fatty fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel),
- beef liver,
- egg yolks,
- and fortified foods and beverages (breakfast cereals and milk) (25).
Nowadays it is common to be deficient in vitamin D due to less sun exposure as most individuals are sitting in offices during prime-time hours of ultraviolet rays. Also, geographical location and inadequate dietary intake of vitamin D containing foods will also put you at risk for a deficiency.
A deficiency in vitamin D can lead to rickets in children and osteomalacia in adults. Osteoporosis is a bone condition that can occur as you get older with insufficient intake of vitamin D and calcium (25).
Too much vitamin D may cause:
- poor appetite,
- and problems with your heart rhythm.
The RDA for vitamin D for men and women ages 19-70 years old is 600 IU. However, today you will see your doctor prescribe a megadose of vitamin D if you are deficient. Discuss the dosage of vitamin D with your doctor prior to taking.
Vitamin D may be helpful in maintaining cognitive function in healthy adults and may even help older adults improve some cognitive impairment.
When used correctly, supplements can be a great addition to your diet, especially when it comes to improving and maintaining your brain health. But, every day new information appears on the internet influencing our decisions to follow a healthy lifestyle.
Often, we are overwhelmed and at times even misled, with information speculating on what we should eat or drink to help live a longer and healthier life.
Sometimes it is hard to filter through all the information and decipher the truth!
Which is why the nutrients above are evidenced based and have been researched many times over. In fact, even more research is needed to assess the direct relationship between each nutrient and how the nutrient impacts our brains’ daily functions.
Thankfully there are a few study-backed steps that you can take to start improving your brain power and quality of life now. A few of those would include:
- making any necessary changes to your diet,
- incorporating some of the dietary sources listed above,
- and supplementing a nutrient when appropriate.
Also, it is important to note that all diets are not created equal. If you are following a diet that restricts certain food groups, it is important to discuss these changes with your doctor and ask about appropriate supplementation.
Keep reading: 10 Best Nootropic Products for Cognitive Performance
Prior to taking any new supplement, it is highly recommended that you discuss this with your doctor. A potential cause of impaired brain health could be a deficiency in one of these nutrients. A physical exam done by a medical professional, including blood work, can diagnose if you are at risk of or have a deficiency in a nutrient.
Also, if you have any questions about your diet, it is highly recommended that you speak with a registered dietitian to discuss your dietary needs.
ⓘ Any specific supplement products & brands featured on this website are not necessarily endorsed by Nicolette.
Stock Photos from BigMouse / Jacob Lund / Lan Kogal / Shutterstock
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About the Author
Nicolette is a Registered Dietitian specializing in nutrition and fitness. After, she received her Bachelor of Science in Dietetics, she completed her Master of Science in Nutrition from Stony Brook University where she focused on clinical nutrition and nutrition through the life cycle. Currently, Nicolette works as a private practice dietitian and a freelance health and wellness writer. Email Nicolette.