Supplements are a smart choice for brain health

Top 10 Supplements for the Brain

Like the rest of you, your mind needs the right nutrients to thrive. Some, like magnesium, benefit your brain as well as your overall health. Others, like lithium, ashwagandha and sage find their value centered purely in the space between your ears.

What are the different types of brain supplements?

There are several categories of brain supplements, ranging from B vitamins you might be taking for overall health and well-being, to more specialized brain supplements that support specific types of cognitive function—whether that's improving attention span or performing well on tests. Memory health supplements are also very popular, given that new research shows certain nutrients can fend off the decline in memory that most people experience as they age.

Here's a little more info about each of these types of brain supplements:

  • Supplements for focus.

    Being able to concentrate, without getting distracted: that's generally what we mean when we say "mental focus." But that's easier said than done, right? A supplement designed to help you focus will contain nutrients and extracts that have been clinically studied for their ability to help you stay on task.
  • Memory support formulas. What we think of as a "memory" is when your brain records something by making new synaptic connections or strengthening preexisting ones between neurons. Some memory supplements help keep those neurons healthy. Others provide nutrients to help them do their work making memories.
  • General brain supplements.

    There are general brain health nutrients as well. Let's start with vitamins, such as the vitamin B family. B vitamins can help maintain your brain in several ways. One of the most influential brain vitamins is vitamin B12, which has several forms. The active forms of vitamin B12 are called methylcobalamin and adenosylcobalamin are the ones that support healthy brain function. Both kinds of vitamin B12 play a role in maintaining a sharp, healthy mind.

    And while it's often associated with your heart and joints, omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil can help you maintain healthy cognitive function. Brain cells are susceptible to oxidative stress, so make sure to get plenty of the powerful antioxidant vitamin C in your diet. Similarly, L-carnitine and acetyl-L-carnitine both support nerve health…which can do wonders for your brain. 

  • Nootropic supplements:

    The name "nootropic" comes from the Greek nous (which means "mind") and tropein (which means "to turn"). While nootropics are a popular brain health supplement category, any compound that helps improve your brain performance is, by definition, a nootropic; if you've ever made an extra pot of coffee while studying for an exam, you know why nootropics are so popular. One of my colleagues wrote a terrific article about the various nootropic nutrients in your everyday foods.

How do nootropic supplements support brain function? Well, how a nootropic does what it does depends on how it interacts with your brain. Some nootropics enhance cerebral circulation (literally "getting your creative juices flowing"). Others encourage a healthy balance of the compounds your brain needs to work, like neurotransmitters. Some even promote the best kind of brain waves you need to hit the books!

Now, let's look at the top 10 ingredients that make up great supplements for brain health.

Top 10 brain-boosting supplements

Whether you're trying to whiz through an exam or protect memory and cognitive function as you age, we have good news for you: brain health supplements abound. But they all work somewhat differently, so it's important to know how they work. Here are the top 10 on our list—plus, how they work and whether you should take them.

1. Magnesium: To boost "brain plasticity"

Magnesium is critical to building and strengthening the synaptic connections between neurons in a process known as synaptic plasticity. It also plays a role in "brain plasticity", which is essentially how good your brain is at reshaping memories as it encounters new information (think riding a bike or speaking a second language). Synaptic plasticity is basically brain plasticity at the cellular level.

Like vitamin B12 and omega-3s, most of us don't get enough magnesium in our diet. Plus, there's a catch: most forms of magnesium supplements are exceedingly poor at actually getting magnesium into your brain. Look for a special kind of magnesium called magnesium L-threonate. It is ideal for crossing the blood-brain barrier.

2. Say “ahhhh” and “ah-hah!” with ashwagandha

Withania somnifera is an herb famous for helping you manage stress. But it's also great for memory and brain function: ashwagandha can help improve cognition and boost your mood. And if you're feeling good, it's always easier to concentrate!

Here's the thing about ashwagandha: traditional herbal preparations vary wildly in concentration of native compounds that give Withania its health properties. Optimized Ashwagandha is standardized, so you get the same health benefits in every dose.

Honorable mention: L-theanine. The amino acid L-theanine supports a healthy stress response and promotes a calm, relaxed state of mind.

3. Nootropics: For better cognitive performance

As we previously mentioned, a nootropic is what you want to have handy when it matters most—whether you need to ace a test, volley back a witty comeback, or crush your friends in Wordle. (Hey, we all have our own priorities.) Different nootropics work in different ways, but your best bet may be a combo formula, such as Quick Brain Nootropic, which combines:

  • Lutein & zeaxanthin:

    These macular carotenoids are nutrients found in high quantities in the macula of your eyes. But they're very, very present in your brain as well, and studies show that lutein and zeaxanthin can help how your brain works, support spatial memory (think "Where are my car keys?") and improve attention scores on cognitive tests.
  • Gotu kola:

    Gotu kola (Centella asiatica) extract has been extensively studied for its cognitive benefits. Those benefits likely stem from an asiaticoside compound in gotu kola that improves reaction time, accuracy and working memory on standardized testing—and can actually make you feel calmer.
  • Water hyssop:

    Many people take nootropics because they've got to study for something. Water hyssop (or Bacopa monnieri) is very popular for this purpose. Here's why: it improves attention, concentration and recall. Plus, this isn't just for age-related memory support…water hyssop extract works for both young people and older folks.

4. Lithium: Clear away the cobwebs

Your brain normally produces certain types of proteins that over time, can build up and affect cognition and memory. Low-dose lithium encourages your brain's built-in processes for getting rid of those proteins—and is one of the most affordable memory supplements there is.

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5. Pregnenolone: For a healthy brain

Speaking of brain plasticity: pregnenolone is a neurohormone that's great for maintaining things like mental focus, memory and cognitive health. Unfortunately, levels of pregnenolone decline with age. Supplementing with pregnenolone can help you maintain healthy levels.

What’s the Best Brain Health Supplement?

Too many nutrients making your head spin? Don't worry: you don't need to take 10 different brain health supplements! Simplify, simplify, simplify: choose Cognitex Elite® Pregnenolone for a wide variety of comprehensive ingredients that support attention, memory, and recall. It also helps protect brain health as you age.

6. Periwinkle: For healthy blood flow to the brain

If you've ever seen a periwinkle flower, you could be forgiven for thinking it is pretty—but not much else. You'd be wrong, however: periwinkles are the source of an alkaloid nutrient called vinpocetine.

Vinpocetine helps maintain a healthy supply of blood in your brain. With that blood comes good stuff like oxygen and glucose. Because of this, vinpocetine has been shown to support your brain's ability to concentrate as well as retain and recall information. Don't worry—you don't have to add periwinkles to your diet: it's available as a brain supplement ingredient.

7. Spearmint: When you need to concentrate

Mentha spicata is a special species of mint. In addition to freshening your breath, spearmint has phenolic compounds including rosmarinic acid. This compound helps you concentrate—the hard part is getting enough of it. There's a standardized spearmint preparation called Neumentix™ that delivers over 50 beneficial phenolic compounds…especially rosmarinic acid. You can also get this ingredient combined with ashwagandha in daily capsules to help you find your zen and sharpen your focus.

You can also get the benefits of spearmint as an herbal tea. (Learn more about spearmint tea—and how to make it—from our registered dietitian, Holli Ryan.)

Neumentix™ is a trademark of Kemin Industries, Inc.

8. Dopamine support: For healthy neurotransmitter function

You've probably heard of dopamine—it's known as the "feel-good" neurotransmitter. But healthy mood aside, dopamine is also directly involved in brain health—specifically memory, learning and attention. The problem: stress and even normal aging can bring down your dopamine levels. Keep them up to stay focused!

When it comes to brain supplements, there are several ingredients that can help maintain dopamine levels. Phellodendron bark powder and neurological powerhouse adenosylcobalamin vitamin B12 help maintain normal dopamine levels—and work great when combined in a dopamine support supplement. (If you're looking for an entirely plant-based option: supplement with a special extract of wild green oats that inhibits MAO-B, an enzyme that breaks down dopamine.)

9. Sage: To support cognitive function

The herb sage is aptly named: the extract found in this plant (which has the Latin name Salvia officinalis) encourages healthy levels of an essential neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. Your brain needs acetylcholine (along with other neurochemicals which sage also encourages) for optimal brain health. In placebo-controlled studies, people taking sage extract improved accuracy in test scores of attention, working memory, and recall.

(Interesting footnote: Native to Southeastern Europe, sage has been used for culinary and health purposes for centuries—and research continues to this day.)

10. Peppermint: To pep up your mental powers

When you're not feeling on your game and need a pep talk, look no further than peppermint! Peppermint oil has compounds called monoterpenes, which help encourage aspects of brain health, such as mental stamina and improved attention (and also working memory). When you're looking at ingredients, however, make sure you choose a peppermint oil extract that's been standardized to provide a steady amount of monoterpenes.

Do brain supplements work?

The short answer is "yes!" They're not magic, however, so healthy habits like getting enough sleep, engaging in regular exercise, maintaining already-healthy blood pressure and eating a healthy, sensible diet go a long way towards improving the efficacy of your supplement regimen—brain related or otherwise.

Who should not take brain health supplements?

For the most part, brain health supplements (such as B vitamins) are fine. But bear in mind that pregnenolone is a hormone, so you should speak with your healthcare practitioner before adding it to your diet. (You can read the caution below the supplement facts panel of any reputable retailer, including us.)

Vinpocetine can also be an issue for women who are of childbearing age, pregnant or planning to become pregnant. If you have questions or concerns about taking any nutritional health supplement, speak to your healthcare practitioner.

But don't worry too much—there really shouldn't be any reason not to feed your mind…literally!

Want to know which brain health supplements are right for you? Take the quiz!

About the Author: John Gawley graduated from the University of Miami with a degree in English before beginning his career as a technical writer, copy writer and content manager. John has extensive experience in the health and wellness field, and he is the Senior Copywriter at Life Extension.


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