Written by Dr. Inez Van Roy on
September 9, 2021
Reading Time: 12 minutes

Medically Reviewed by our Medical Affairs Team

Written by Dr. Inez Van Roy on:

So, you want to improve your brain function? It’s important to remember that taking mere brain supplements might not be enough to increase your brainpower. However, we can say that consuming the necessary vitamins, minerals, and oils is essential for brain health. 

Brain Supplements: Which are Important, How to Choose or Combine Them

There are some vitamins associated with positive effects on healthy brain function and healthy brain aging. These might improve cognitive function. Those are usually the ones targeted to supplement.

Brain health supplements are usually complementary or alternative medicine. That means there is little proof but maybe a long tradition of this dietary supplement.

If you have a healthy lifestyle and complete diet, you should get enough of these. Always ask your doctor about how much and how long you can take these. Below we will provide a guide of the most common brain health supplements.

Vitamin B-1 or Thiamine

Thiamine or vitamin B-1 is an essential vitamin for growth, development and function of cells. It is key in the maintenance of brain function. 

Our body does not inherently make it, so we need to get this vitamin out of our food. Yeast, legumes, yoghurt, pork, brown rice or fortified cereal usually contain thiamin.

Thiamin is a safe supplement in general, however, taking it for a prolonged period of time can cause an imbalance with the other B vitamins. Prenatal supplements usually contain a mix of B vitamins. It is vital to support the brain development of the little bean. Other people who might need to supplement at some point are people with

  • Diabetes
  • old age
  • bariatric surgery, 
  • HIV/ AIDS 
  • chronic alcoholism.

They risk having a shortage. Certain medication and alcohol can prevent proper absorption of thiamin. Too much thiamin usually gets secreted via your urine.

Signs of a deficiency of Vitamin B-1 are: 

  • weight loss, 
  • anorexia, 
  • confusion, 
  • short-term memory loss, 
  • muscle weakness 
  • and cardiovascular symptoms.

Another consequence is beriberi, a condition characterized by peripheral neuropathy and wasting. These people suffer from impaired sensory, motoric and reflex functions. It can also cause congestive heart failure or edema in the legs.

Lastly, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome could also be a consequence of a vitamin B-1 deficiency. People with alcohol dependence or abuse and who have HIV/AIDS have a higher chance of getting this syndrome. This syndrome is characterized by 

  • mild cognitive impairment, 
  • short-term memory loss,
  • disorientation and 
  • confusion between what is real or imagined. 

Psychosis also might be a consequence.

Vitamin-B2 or Riboflavin

As mentioned, when supplementing with any B vitamin, it is better to use a complex of B vitamins. B-2 vitamin is an antioxidant that fights free radicals in the brain and body. Riboflavin also has a role in the growth of red blood cell production and processing of vitamin B6 and folate. 

You can find Vitamin-B2 in supplements, food and some energy drinks. You should eat:

  • brewer’s yeast, 
  • almonds, 
  • meats, 
  • grains, 
  • rice, 
  • some green vegetables, 
  • and certain dairy products. 

If your food or supplements are stored in light, they might lose their riboflavin. Riboflavin is fairly safe to supplement, our body does not really absorb more than it can handle, or else it excretes it via urine. Vitamin-B2 supplements interact with certain medications used to treat 

  • depression, 
  • cancer, 
  • rheumatoid arthritis, 
  • seizures and so on.

Some signs that you might be lacking in this vitamin are:

  • fatigue
  • Slowed growth
  • Digestive problems
  • Hair loss
  • Reproductive problems
  • Cracks and sores around the mouth
  • Swollen magenta-colored tongue
  • Eye fatigue (itchy, red)
  • Degeneration of the liver and nervous system
  • Swelling and soreness of the throat
  • Light sensitivity.

Age, stress and certain drugs can make it so that our body does not absorb riboflavin as usual. 

Groups at risk of having a deficiency in vitamin-B2 are the following:

  • Vegan or vegetarian athletes, because of the lack of dairy and meat. Also, excess stress breaks riboflavin down.
  • Pregnant or lactating women, higher levels of vitamin B-2 seem to have positive effects on the baby. 
  • Lastly, some studies say that riboflavin might prevent or treat migraine headaches.

Vitamin B-6

Vitamin B-6 is pretty essential for our brain health. It is essential in the synthesis of dopamine, serotonin, GABA, noradrenaline and melatonin. A dysregulation of these neurotransmitters can have serious consequences. It could impact your sleep, cardiovascular and cognitive system. Trust us if we say that you don’t want to deal with that. 

The best sources of Vitamin B6 are:

  • fish
  • Beef liver
  • Organ meats
  • Potatoes or starchy vegetables
  • A variety of (non-citrus) fruits.

You can also take a mixed multivitamin to supplement your levels. Although it is safe in general, you should still ask your doctor. Sustained administration could cause severe and progressive sensory neuropathy characterized by ataxia. It can also interact with medication.

An excess of this vitamin can lead to photosensitivity, nausea and heartburn. You could also get painful, disfiguring dermatological wounds. Lack of this vitamin looks like the lack of other b vitamins (as they are a very interactive system).

  • microcytic anemia
  • EEG abnormalities
  • Scaling and cracks of the lips and mouth
  • Swollen tongue
  •  Depression
  • Confusion
  • And weakened immune function.

People with the following conditions might be at risk of this deficiency:

  • alcohol dependence 
  • autoimmune disorders f.e. rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease, Crohn’s disease 
  • renal or kidney dysfunctions. 

Folate – Vitamin B-9

Folate or vitamin B-9 is derived from folic acid. This vitamin is important for cell growth and red blood cell formation. Further, it is important for growth during pregnancy. Folate is very connected to vitamin B12, if there is a B12 deficiency, your folate will be low as well as they are in a cycle. 

Vitamin B-9, folic acid or folate can be found in supplements (f.e. Prenatals) and in food. The foods that contain this vitamin are:

  • dark green leafy vegetables
  • Beans
  • Peas
  • Nuts
  • Oranges, lemons, bananas, melons and strawberries.

In easy words, folic acid aids in brain health, improves brain function and could potentially boost memory. A lack thereof is associated with atrophy of brain cells.

These are the signs that you might notice when you have a shortage of folic acid:

  • anaemia
  • Feeling tired or weak
  • Heart palpitations
  • Shortness of breath
  • Headaches
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating.

The risk factors of a shortage of folic acid are the similar to the other b vitamins.

Vitamin B12 or Cobalamin

Vitamin B12 is available in supplements and in animal products such as:

  • fish, meat, poultry
  • Dairy products
  • Clams and beef liver
  • Fortified cereals or yeasts.

Again it is advised to take these as a complex of b vitamins, ask your doctor for advice.

People with a vitamin B12 deficiency present with similar symptoms as the above.

You might experience:

  • anaemia 
  • heart palpitations
  • Pale skin
  • Loss of appetite or weight loss
  • infertility
  • Fatigue (lack of energy)
  • Muscle weakness
  • Balance problems
  • Intestinal problems
  • Nerve damage
  • Depression
  • Poor memory (dementia)
  • Confusion
  • Soreness of the mouth and tongue

Infants might not thrive the way you want them to or are lacking in their development and might risk megaloblastic anemia.

There is a whole process behind how our body takes up vitamin B12. It mostly takes place in our stomach, saying that it is logical that the following are at risk of deficiency:

  • older adults
  • People intestinal or stomach issues f.e. Celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, atrophic gastritis, stomach or intestinal surgery
  • Vegetarians or vegans
  • Vitamin C / ascorbic acid

Vitamin C, ascorbate acid, or short ascorbate is an antioxidant for the brain. It has an important function in brain health and cognitive function. Researchers believe  it modulates

  • glutamatergic, 
  • dopaminergic, 
  • cholinergic and 
  • GABAergic transmission and behaviors. 

Apparently, it might also have a protective role against 

  • ischemic strokes, 
  • Alzheimer’s, 
  • Parkinson’s 
  • and Huntington’s disease. 

It also has an important role to play in collagen and iron. So we can conclude vitamin C supports bone, muscle and cognitive health. 

Eating these fruits and vegetables and not exposing them to too much heat, can help you get your daily intake:

  • red and green pepper
  • Oranges
  • Kiwi
  • Broccoli
  • Strawberries
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Cantaloupe.

Some signs that might indicate a deficiency are the following:

  • fatigue
  • Malaise
  • Inflammation/ swollen gums
  • Losing teeth
  • Iron deficiency
  • Poor wound healing 
  • Joint pain
  • And more. 

In that case you can supplement. Other people who might consider supplementing are:

  • Elderly people
  • Children
  • People who abuse drugs or alcohol
  • People with mental illness
  • smokers/ passive smokers.

When you experience an upset stomach, you might be taking too much.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D might protect your cognitive function. It is associated with clearing amyloid plaques, which is associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Low levels are associated with infarcts, strokes, and cerebrovascular accidents. Outside of our brain health, this vitamin is usually associated with bone health (as it enhances calcium absorption).

Children, adolescents and adults can have a deficiency of this vitamin. Consequences could be:

  • skeletal deformities, 
  • soft or weak bones and 
  • signs of rickets ( a disease characterized by failure of bone tissue, pain and so on). 
  • Mostly dark skinned babies that are breastfed are sensitive to this disease.

Vitamin D is a tricky one, this fat-soluble vitamin is made when we are in contact with sunlight. You can also use dietary supplements. Some medication can interfere with vitamin D absorption. Ask your doctor for advice as too much could be toxic.

There are some foods that you can eat to give your vitamin D intake a small bump:

  • fatty fish, fish liver oil
  • Beef liver, egg yolks, cheese
  • Mushrooms
  • Fortified foods (like cereals, milk).

People who might risk deficiency:

  • don’t get much sun exposure, 
  • Have a vegan or vegetarian diet, 
  • or a lactose intolerance/ allergy
  • Are a breastfed infant
  • Elderly people
  • Have dark skin
  • Don’t absorb fat well (f.e. Crohn’s disease)
  • Or are obese or went through gastic bypass surgery. 

Magnesium

Magnesium is a mineral that regulates many reactions in our body. It plays a role in protein synthesis, muscle and nerve function. Further, magnesium has a crucial role in communicating between the brain and the body, by gatekeeping NMDA receptors. In short, it has a role to play in mental performance, mental clarity and your thinking skills.

Some high sources of magnesium content are:

  • spinach
  • pumpkin seeds
  • chia seeds
  • almonds
  • whole grains
  • nuts
  • legumes. 

Further magnesium is also found in waters and dietary supplements.

If you suspect a magnesium shortage, you might show the following symptoms:

  • Upset stomach
  • loss of appetite
  • fatigue
  • weakness
  • numbness/ tingling 
  • muscle contractions
  • cramps 
  • and worse depending on your shortage. 

People at risk of a magnesium deficiency could have the following characteristics:

  • alcohol dependence
  • Diabetes, type 2
  • Gastrointestinal diseases
  • Elderly people

Caffeine

Caffeine is something that can be found in certain products like energy drinks, coffee and tea. Its effects on our body are short term (positive). It stimulates the central nervous system. This might result in increased thinking skills (attention and might boost memory). While you feel like caffeine can help your brain power, it is also addictive.

Too much caffeine looks like:

  • headache, fatigue and drowsiness
  • intestinal upset (diarrhea)
  • anxiety/nervousness
  • jitteriness. 

Reduce or scrap your caffeine if you experience this or are pregnant.

L-theanine

L-theanine is a supplement that can be found in tea. It has been studied for its positive effects on the brain health and anxiety levels of people.

But, there is no substantial evidence yet to claim it as an actual “brain booster”. Some say it might help with memory (but this doesn’t mean you should expect miracles). For most people it could have a calming and relaxing effect.

If you don’t like tea, you could consume it as a dietary supplement. Some tea supplements might not be of great quality and could even contain fluoride.

This could cause brittle bones or worse, so be sure to discuss this first with a doctor. They can provide medical advice, which is important if you are pregnant or take any medication as this might interact negatively.

Taking too much L-theanine might result in:

  • Headaches
  • Dizziness or feeling faint.

Amino Acids 

Amino acids are substances that can be found in food and also come as dietary supplements. The idea behind using amino acid as a potential potent brain booster is to improve your mood or sleep cycle. 

There are many sources of amino acids. They can be found in food naturally or as supplements which you might find more convenient to take (especially if the taste is not your favorite). Amino acid foods include:

  • red meat, poultry and fish
  • milk products like cheese for example 
  • eggs
  • soy protein powder; soybeans
  • legumes
  • nuts and seeds 
  • grains like barley, oats or wheat. 

If you are not consuming enough amino acids, it can lead to:

  • fatigue
  • decreased appetite 
  • weight loss.

You might also experience muscle pain and weakness for example if the lack of proteins in your diet is severe or prolonged over time.

There are many reasons why you might be lacking in amino acids. For example:

  • a vegetarian or vegan diet 
  • anorexia nervosa 
  • strict weight loss programs without proper nutrition advice from a doctor for example.  

Omega-3s Fatty Acid

Omega-3 fatty acids are said to help with brain cells and development. But, there is no substantial evidence yet that they could improve memory or protect against diseases like dementia.

You can find omega 3 fatty acids in food naturally or as supplements. For example,  

  • fatty fish like salmon, 
  • sardines 
  • and other fishes 

are good options to include into your diet for their high content of omega 3 fatty acids.

Other sources are vegetable oils like walnuts, flaxseed oil and chia seeds. You can also choose a fish oil supplement to get enough omega 3 fatty acids.

Since omega 3 fatty acids are crucial for brain health, you might be lacking in this substance if you experience some of the following symptoms:

  • Problems with skin, hair and nails
  • poor memory or concentration 
  • depression 
  • sleep issues
  • joint pain and leg cramps
  • excessive ear wax
  • heart issues
  • problems with your menstrual cycle.    

This is probably the most popular supplement taken by adults over 50. They might want to reduce their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. 

The most common reasons why you might be deficient is an unbalanced diet low in fats or fatty fish. Vegetarians and vegans are at a higher risk of lacking Omega-three fatty acids.

Vitamin E

Vitamin E is claimed to protect against Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. But, research shows that vitamin E supplements might not be effective in protecting your thinking skills.

You can find vitamin E in many different types of food. The richest natural source is sunflower seeds, but you can also find vitamin E in:

  • nuts like almonds or pistachios   
  • seeds like sesame and sunflower seeds    
  • vegetables such as spinach and broccoli  
  • fruits like avocado and kiwi fruit
  • Green leafy vegetables such as spinach and broccoli.

If you notice the following symptoms, it still might be the case:

  • loss of feeling in the arms / legs
  • muscle weakness
  • vision problems
  • loss of body movement. 

Some causes could be Crohn’s disease, cystic fibrosis or rare genetic diseases.

Ginkgo Biloba

Ginkgo Biloba is said to boost memory and improve reaction times.  Some say that Ginkgo biloba against age related cognitive impairment.

The only sources of ginkgo biloba are the ginkgo tree and supplements based on the leaves.

Ginkgo biloba can interact with your current medication, and also can be toxic if you don’t consume the right thing. The seeds should never be consumed. Most ginkgo biloba dietary supplements are safe, however a doctor can provide medical advice.

Ginseng

Ginseng, a root, has been used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine. The root is dried and powdered to make teas or supplements, which are claimed to improve mood and thinking skills. Some say that ginseng can prevent cognitive decline or improve brain function, however that is not proven. 

Taking too much could lead to insomnia or anxiety, headaches and nosebleeds so make sure not to exceed.

Curcumin

Curcumin is a compound found in the spice turmeric. It  has long been used as an herbal remedy to prevent or treat heart disease and other health conditions. Today there is research on curcumin to prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s or other neurological diseases. It might not make a significant impact though.

Turmeric is safe to eat at low content. Curcumin can interact with your current medication, and also can be toxic if you don’t consume the right thing. 

Resveratrol

Resveratrol is a compound found in grape skins. It has been claimed to improve memory and reduce the risk of neurodegenerative disease.

But these supplements might not be effective for 

  • preventing cognitive decline 
  • or improving brain function. 

You can find resvaratol in red wine. Drinking excess alcohol increases the risk of cancer and other diseases. It can also cause deficiencies of the above vitamins.

Creatine

Creatine is said to improve memory and mental sharpness. But there isn’t enough evidence yet that creatine can prevent cognitive decline or improve brain function for example. 

Taking too much could lead to nausea, insomnia and anxiety so make sure not to exceed the suggested daily intake of three grams per day. Some causes of creatine deficiency could be muscle atrophy by age, muscle disease, liver disease or excess water loss.

Bacopa Monnieri

Bacopa monnieri extract is an Ayurvedic herb used to improve mental skills, and improve mood. People are also researching it to prevent Alzheimer’s disease. However more research is needed about the impact of bacopa monnieri extract.

This supplement can interact with your current medication, and also can be toxic if you don’t consume the right amount.

Rhodiola Rosea

Rhodiola rosea is a mild natural stimulant and herb used in traditional Chinese medicine. It could potentially support better memory. Research shows that rhodiola can’t prevent cognitive decline. It might not improve brain function either in a significant way. However, it gets used in handling some symptoms. 

It can interact with your current medication, and a doctor can provide medical advice.

Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha is an herb that has been used in Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicine for centuries. It is used to help build strong muscles and bones, treat insomnia, and reduce anxiety.

Modern science can’t really confirm the effectiveness of ashwagandha supplements. So we can’t confirm whether ashwagandha could prevent cognitive decline or could improve brain function either. 

It can interact with your current medication. So be sure to do your research and ask advice from a doctor.

Medium Chain Triglycerides

Medium chain triglycerides are a type of fat found in coconut oil. They say that it could have a  positive influence on people with degenerative diseases. It helps in providing our brain with extra energy. Still, research is not sure yet on it’s effectiveness.

But there isn’t enough evidence yet that these supplements can provide all these advantages. Taking too much can lead to nausea, diarrhea, gas and so on.  

Melatonin

Melatonin is a hormone. It is naturally produced by the human body to help regulate sleep and wakefulness.

Melatonin is mostly used to regulate your sleep after or before jet lag. 

Taking too much could lead to nausea, insomnia, and anxiety. It could also disrupt your sleep system and negatively influence your blood pressure.

Some causes of melatonin deficiency could be:

  • age
  • Diabetes type 2
  • mood disorders
  • pain
  • and so on.

Pantothenic Acid or Vitamin B5

Pantothenic acid or vitamin B5 is a water-soluble B vitamin. It plays a role in the synthesis of proteins and cell membranes. B5 could also help to regulate metabolic processes. By providing cells with energy, some hypothesize that it could improve memory. 

Vitamin B5 can be found in most foods, f.e.

  • meats
  • fish
  • grains
  • dairy products
  • legumes
  • variety of vegetables.

Research shows that pantothine supplements can’t prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Still, the following signs might indicate a potential deficiency:

  • feeling tired
  • apathy
  • depression
  • irritability
  • sleep problems
  • stomach issues and pain
  • numbness
  • muscle cramps
  • hypoglycemia
  • upper respiratory infections.

Taking too much vitamin B5 supplements could lead to nausea, insomnia and anxiety. So make sure not to exceed the suggested daily intake of three grams per day. Consult a doctor if you are pregnant or taking medication as it could have adverse effects.

Some possible side effects of too much vitamin B5 include nausea, diarrhea or stomach pain. 

How to choose the best brain supplements?

When it comes to choosing the best supplements for your brain health you can remember that most supplements are safe. However, eating a healthy and complete diet is the easiest and best way to get your vitamins all in. This way, all these vitamins can work together how they should.

Also – do your own research! You can find many brain supplements that could give your brain function an extra boost. It might be little, a placebo effect or you might have a shortage of that vitamin.

Don’t forget to check interaction with your own specific medications or if you suspect or plan pregnancy. Some supplements also boost brain function better when taken in a stack.

Join The Mental Health Community You've Been Dreaming Of


This discord family is a safe place where we can all (anonymously if we choose) talk about and seek help for what is going on in our heads.

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}
Insert About the Author
>