How to boost your brainpower with 3 supplements

by Kaiser Permanente |
Hands holding a variety of pills

Who doesn’t want a healthier brain — one that’s quick, focused, and ready to tear it up at trivia night? Fortunately, there are plenty of paths to brain health. Proper diet is one — fresh fruits and veggies, whole grains, and natural proteins — while regular exercise and social outings are some others. But what if you’re looking for a little boost? Are there supplements for brain health? Short answer: Yes.

Supplements provide a variety of nutrients, including isolated quantities of specific vitamins, minerals, herbs, and probiotics. In other words, they’re specifically made to fill in what your diet might be missing. If that sounds too good to be true, that’s because it’s not as simple as stocking up. Just like with anything you put in your body, it’s important to stay informed, both to maximize the results and to protect your health.

For example, the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t require supplement labels to disclose how their products interact with other drugs, which could lead to unintended side effects or irritations without proper physician guidance. Additionally, overdosing on vitamins is possible and, in some cases, can be toxic.

Before considering supplements of any kind, talk to your doctor to determine not only what nutrients and doses will support your specific needs, but also whether you even need them in the first place.

Supplement-free brain boosters

Here’s something your doctor will tell you: Supplements have that name for a reason. You’re better off using them as fillers for nutritional gaps, rather than substitutes for a healthy lifestyle. So, before we get into the best supplements for brain health, make sure to:

  • Eat well — Fresh-food nutrients are much stronger than those isolated in pills, powders, and chewables. It’s also less expensive — and often tastier.
  • Exercise regularly — Working out gets blood pumping throughout your body and your brain, making it a healthy, efficient way to circulate nutrients. It also leads to neurogenesis — or the creation of neurons — which is tied to dementia-fighting effects and better memory.
  • Get enough sleep — Studies suggest that sleep helps flush out potential toxins that build up in your central nervous system throughout the day.1 That’s why you feel restored after a peaceful night’s rest.
  • Train your brain — Try challenging yourself with memory exercises and puzzle games. Or pick up a new hobby to flex your mental muscles every day.
  • Socialize — Interacting with people is key to gaining new perspectives and experiences. It gives you a chance to teach others, too, which stretches your brain’s ability to organize ideas and relay them succinctly.

3 essential nutrients for brain health

So, which nutrients are best for your brain health? Some support better memory, alertness, and creativity. Others slow down the development of major mental health conditions. No one nutrient can do it all, but here are 3 — all available in supplement form — to help sharpen your mental edge.

Omega-3 fatty acids

As far as brain supplements go, omega-3 fatty acids are a great place to start. That’s because your body can’t naturally make this type of fat from scratch. And trust us: You don’t want to miss out on their big-time benefits.

Omega-3s bring a bit of everything, including improved brain function, memory, and reaction times. They may also reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and potentially even help prevent depression and dementia.2 Babies benefit, too. In fact, omega-3s promote brain health both during pregnancy and early life — making it an important nutrient for expectant parents and newborns alike.

Fatty fish like salmon, trout, and herring are excellent sources of omega-3s. However, if you’re pregnant, nursing, or feeding young children, be sure to avoid fish high in mercury. Sardines are among the fish with the lowest levels of mercury. Not a fish fan? You’ve still got plenty more sources of omega-3s to choose from, like flaxseed, soybeans, nuts, and omega-3 supplements.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is famous for supporting strong bones and helping to prevent osteoporosis — but it’s linked to healthy brain function, too.

More research is needed to completely understand the effects of vitamin D on the brain, but we know a lot about what happens when we get just the right amount. In fact, maintaining healthy levels of vitamin D may prevent the onset of mental health conditions like depression, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, and dementia.3,4 But here’s the kicker: About 1 billion people in the world don’t get enough of it.

Interestingly enough, sunlight stimulates your skin to produce vitamin D, which makes a 5- to 10-minute walk outside an excellent — and easy — daily dose. Vitamin D is also available in many different foods, including cold-water fish (salmon, sardines, tuna), egg yolks, and breakfast basics like milk and cereal.

If you can’t get out in the sun, have dietary restrictions, or struggle to absorb nutrients, consider vitamin D supplements.

Vitamin B12

Like vitamin D, vitamin B12 has so many mental benefits. Getting enough vitamin B12 may give you more energy, improve memory, and make learning new things easier. It also has been shown to help improve mood and lessen depressive symptoms.5,6

You might be getting all the vitamin B12 you need from natural animal products, like fish, poultry, and dairy, as well as whole grains and high-fiber cereals. But if you’re an older adult, vegetarian or vegan, or have trouble absorbing nutrients, you’ve got a lot to gain from complementing your diet with the supplement form of this potent brain booster.

To learn more about whether supplements are right for you, schedule an appointment with your doctor.

Lulu Xie et al., "Sleep Drives Metabolite Clearance From the Adult Brain," Science, October 18, 2013.

"Can Omega-3 Help Prevent Alzheimer’s Disease? Brain SPECT Imaging Shows Possible Link," Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, May 19, 2017.

Phoebe E. Mayne and Thomas H.J. Burne, "Vitamin D in Synaptic Plasticity, Cognitive Function, and Neuropsychiatric Illness," Trends in Neurosciences, April 1, 2019.

Thomas J. Littlejohns et al., "Vitamin D and the risk of dementia and Alzheimer disease," American Academy of Neurology, August 6, 2014.

Theresa Köbe et al., "Vitamin B-12 concentration, memory performance, and hippocampal structure in patients with mild cognitive impairment," The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, February 24, 2016.

Kaitlyn Berkheiser, "9 Health Benefits of Vitamin B12, Based on Science," Healthline, June 14, 2018.