Supplements for Brain Health

Healthy Nutrients for a Healthy Brain

If you could look inside your brain, you’d find six trillion cells and a biological computer far more complex than anything ever created by Apple, Intel, or Microsoft. It grows, learns from experience, and adapts to new information.

There’s one other fact about the brain that’s pretty amazing: its structure and biochemistry depends on nutrition. After all, nutrients provide the biochemical building blocks of everything physical in the body.

The production of new brain cells, called neurogenesis, lies at the heart of brain development. Vitamins A, C, and E, and the B-vitamin folic acid are essential for neurogenesis, or for turning generic stem cells into full-fledged functioning neurons. Growing research suggests that vitamin D may also be important to the brain as well.

Low levels of these and other nutrients during infancy can set the stage for problems later in life, just like a lack of nurturing and social interaction. For example, deficiencies of folic acid and vitamin B12 during childhood increase the risk of poor learning and mood disorders later in life.

My Top Brain Supplements

Incredible as it might sound, 60 percent of the brain consists of fat or fat-containing compounds. Essential fatty acids (EFAs) and phospholipids are among the most important dietary sources of healthy brain fats. They are needed for developing brains, and are important for thinking, memory, and balanced moods in adulthood.

Essential Fatty Acids

Two omega-3 fats, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are required for the normal development of the brain, eyes, and nervous system. Arachidonic acid, an omega-6 fat that can be problematic in adulthood, is also needed for normal brain development in infancy.

EPA and DHA, abundant in fish oils, are incorporated into the walls of brain cells, where they increase the activity of genes involved in neurotransmitter activity and connections between brain cells.[1] Considerable research has found that EPA and DHA benefit a wide range of mood problems, poor memory, thinking processes, impulsiveness, hostility, and physical aggressiveness. [2] [3] [4] [5] Consider 1-3 grams of omega-3 fish oils daily.


The two principal dietary phospholipids are phosphatidylserine (combining a phosphorus-containing fat with the amino acid serine) and phosphatidylcholine (combining a phosphorus-containing fat with the B-vitamin choline). Both phospholipids are incorporated into the fatty membranes of brain cells, where they enhance cell-to-cell communication. They can also improve memory and mood and may slow the progression of age-related cognitive decline. [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] A recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that a combination of EPA, DHA, and phosphatidylserine improved attention span in hyperactive children.[11]  Consider 1 daily tablespoon of lecithin granules. Made from soy, lecithin is rich in both phosphatidylserine and phosphatidylcholine.

B-Complex Vitamins

These vitamins have diverse supportive roles in mood and brain energy levels. Vitamins B6, B12, and folic acid are needed to make neurotransmitters, the chemicals that regulate our moods. Vitamins B1, B2, and B3 are involved in “bioenergetics,” the process that energizes cells. Supplements can often take the edge off feelings of nervousness or apprehension and help maintain healthy moods. Consider a high-potency B-complex supplement.

Neurotransmitters, Neuronutrients, and Mood

Our moods—whether we’re feeling up or down—are regulated in large part by the activity of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters also play important roles in memory and other cognitive processes.


Based on the B-vitamin choline, the neurotransmitter acetylcholine plays important roles in our thinking processes and memory, concentration, and sexual arousal. Acetylcholine is not available as a supplement, but choline, phosphatidylcholine, and alpha GPC are all supplements that the body easily converts to acetylcholine. Consider 200 mg daily.


(Gamma-AminoButyric Acid) is both an amino acid (protein building block) and a calming neurotransmitter. It helps the brain filter out distractions, enabling us to focusing on specific thoughts or tasks. Consider 500 mg, one to three times daily.


This amino acid functions as a calming neurotransmitter, and supplements have a mild sedative effect. Consider 500 to 1,000 mg daily, taken at least one hour away from meals.


Found in high-quality green and black teas, L-theanine is an amino acid that increases the activity of alpha waves in the brain, leading to improved mental focus and a greater sense of relaxation.[12] Supplements may reduce feelings of anxiousness and tension. Consider 100 to 200 mg, once or twice daily. Combine with GABA.


This amino acid serves as the basic building block of our stimulating neurotransmitters, including dopamine, noradrenaline, and adrenaline. Consider 500 mg daily of L-tyrosine 15 minutes before breakfast.


This form of the amino acid L-tryptophan is readily converted to serotonin, a calming neurotransmitter. It helps maintain healthy moods and promotes healthy sleep patterns. Consider 50 to 100 mg three times daily, at least one hour away from any food.

Common Mood and Cognitive Problems

Feelings of sadness

Sometimes feeling blue has an obvious cause, such as grief, which can lead to profound changes in brain chemistry, other times the reasons may not be so obvious. Seasonal Affective Disorder—the wintertime blues—may be related to low levels of vitamin D during the shorter days of autumn and winter.

Nutrition Tips: Taking a high-potency B-complex supplement can often brighten moods. The herb St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) has been shown to help maintain healthy moods.[13] [14] [15] [16] [17] [18] Take 300 mg daily of a standardized extract three times daily. A recent study in the Journal of Nutrition found that high-dose vitamin D supplements led to significant reductions in feelings of sadness.[19] Try 2,000 to 5,000 IU of vitamin D3 daily.

Apprehension and Tension

Stress generates feelings of anxiousness and tension. Consuming large amounts of caffeine in coffee, tea, energy drinks, and soft drinks can amplify those feelings. Caffeine increases the body’s production of adrenaline and other stimulating neurotransmitters.

Nutrition Tips: The B-complex vitamins can often reduce feelings of stress; they have been considered anti-stress vitamins since the 1940s. The omega-3 fish oils (1 to 3 grams daily) and L-theanine (Suntheanine® specifically, 100 to 200 mg daily) are helpful as well.

Impulse Control

The addictive nature of personal technologies—email, texting, and tweets—have encouraged new types of distractions and impulsive-control disorders in children, teens, and adults. People on cell phones drive slowly and walk erratically, and who hasn’t noticed the annoying blue lights of cell phones in movie theaters?

Nutrition Tips: One of several different supplements can ease impulse-control problems. The omega-3 fish oils (1 to 3 grams daily) combined with gamma-linolenic acid (a plant oil, 100 to 200 mg daily) can be very helpful. L-theanine (Suntheanine® specifically, 100 to 200 mg daily), GABA (500 mg daily), and N-acetylcysteine (1,200 to 1,800 mg daily) will likely help as well.

Irritability, Anger, and Aggressiveness

Some people go through life with a perpetual chip on their shoulders, and often, their anger is directed at people and situations unrelated to the actual source of the emotional turmoil. Blood-sugar fluctuations, toxic metal exposures, and nutritional deficiencies and imbalances can set the stage for anger and aggressiveness. Researchers at the Pfeiffer Treatment Center in Warrenville, Illinois, found that the majority of patients with intense angry outbursts had abnormally high levels of copper relative to zinc.

Nutrition Tips: Two types of supplements can often help. One is a high-potency B-complex (or high-potency multivitamin) supplement. The other is omega-3 fish oils. It’s also important to adopt a high-protein, low-carb, low-sugar diet.

Mood Swings

All of us have encountered people we might have described as moody or mercurial. One moment they can be pleasant, the next dark and brooding. Moods often track with blood glucose levels, and low blood sugar triggers feelings of hunger, impatience, and irritability.

Nutrition Tips: A diet relatively high in quality protein and low in starchy and sugary foods usually stabilizes blood sugar levels. High-carbohydrate and high-sugar diets deplete vitamin B1, so extra amounts (e.g., 50 to 100 mg daily) of this vitamin, combined with a high-potency B-complex supplement, might be helpful.[20] Chromium (500 to 1,000 mcg daily) and biotin supplements (1,000 to 5,000 mcg daily) can improve blood sugar levels as well.

Memory problems

Although occasional forgetfulness is not a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease, it can be worrisome. At the very least, it may interfere with our performance at school or work and undermine our self-confidence. It helps to remain mindful of and focused on specific tasks to reduce the effect of distractions.

Nutrition Tips: Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), one of the key omega-3 fats, can sharpen memory. [21] [22] So can the B-vitamin choline, although lecithin granules may provide a greater benefit because they also contain hefty amounts of phosphatidylcholine and phosphatidylserine. Gingko biloba supplements can also help memory (follow label directions). In addition, supplements of coenzyme Q10 (100 to 200 mg daily) and acetyl-L-carnitine (500 to 2,000 mg daily) may enhance memory.

Age-related cognitive impairment

In most cases, age-related cognitive impairment takes decades to develop, so prevention is paramount.

Nutrition Tips: Several studies have found that vitamin B12 deficiency can mimic the symptoms of age-related cognitive impairment. In these cases, replenishing vitamin B12 will restore normal cognitive function.[23] [24] [25] [26] Other B-complex vitamins will likely be helpful in combination with vitamin B12. People who consume a lot of omega-3 fish oils throughout their lives have a lower risk of developing age-related cognitive impairment. The long-term use of beta-carotene supplement may help maintain cognitive function during aging, according to a study by researchers at Harvard University.[27] Some research as shown that phosphatidylserine can reverse age-related memory loss. [28] [29]


[1] Das UN. Folic acid and polyunsaturated fatty acids improve cognitive function and prevent depression, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease–but how and why? Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes, and Essential Fatty Acids, 2008;78:11-19.

[2] Hallahan B, Garland MR. Essential fatty acids and their role in the treatment of impulsivity disorders. Prostaglandins, Leukotriences and Essential Fatty Acids, 2004;71:211-216.

[3] Iribarren C, Markovitz JH, Jacobs DR, et al. Dietary intake of n-3, n-6 fatty acids and fish: relationship with hostility in young adults—the CARDIA study. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2004;58:24-31.

[4] Hamazaki T, Thienprasert A, Kheovichai K, et al. The effect of docosahexaenoic acid on aggression in elderly Thai subjects—a placebo-controlled double-blind study. Nutritional Neuroscience, 2002;5:37-41.

[5] Iribarren C, Markovitz JH, Jacobs DR, et al. Dietary intake of n-3, n-6 fatty acids and fish: relationship with hostility in young adults—the CARDIA study. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2004;58:24-31.

[6] Benton D, Donohoe RT, Sillance B, et al. The influence of phosphatidylserine supplementation on mood and heart rate when faced with an acute stressor. Nutritional Neuroscience, 2001;4:169-178.

[7] Crook TH, Tinklenberg J, Yesavage J, et al. Effects of phosphatidylserine in age-associated memory impairment. Neurology, 1991;41:644-649.

[8] Blusztajn JK. Choline, a vital amine. Nature, 1998;281:794-795.

[9] Canty DJ, Zeisel SH. Lecithin and choline in human health and disease. Nutrition Reviews, 1994;52:327-339.

[10] Zeisel SH. Choline: critical role during fetal development and dietary requirements in adults. Annual Review of Nutrition, 2006;26:229-250.

[11] Vaisman N, Kaysar N, Zaruk-Adasha Y, et al. Correlation between changes in blood fatty acid composition and visual sustained attention performance in children with inattention: effect of dietary n-3 fatty acids containing phospholipids. Am J Clin Nutr, 2008;87:1170-1180.

[12] Cooper R, Morre DJ, Morre DM. Medicinal benefits of green tea: part 1. Review of noncancer health benefits. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 2005;11:521-528.

[13] Schrader E. Equivalence of St. John’s wort extract (Ze 117) and fluoxetine: a randomized controlled study in mild-moderate depression. International Clinical Psychopharmacology, 2000;15:61-68.

[14] Brenner R, Azbel V, Madhusoodanan S, et al. Comparison of an extract of hypericum (LI 160) and sertraline in the treatment of depression: a double-blind, randomized pilot study. Clinical Therapeutics, 2000;22:411-419.

[15] Philipp M, Kohnen R, Hiller K-O. Hypericum extract versus imipramine or placebo in patients with moderate depression: randomized multicentre study of treatment for eight weeks. British Medical Journal, 1999;319:1534-1539.

[16] Brenner R, Azbel V, Madhusoodanan S, et al. Comparison of an extract of hypericum (LI 160) and sertraline in the treatment of depression: a double-blind, randomized pilot study. Clinical Therapeutics, 2000;22:411-419.

[17] Woelk H, et al. Comparison of St. John’s wort and imipramine for treating depression: randomized controlled trial. British Medical Journal, 2000;321:536-539.

[18] Szegedi A, Kohnen R, Dienel A, et al. Acute treatment of moderate to severe depression with hypericum extract WS 5570 (St John’s wort): randomized controlled double blind non-inferiority trial versus paraxetine. British Medical Journal, 2005;330:503-507.

[19] Gloth FM 3rd, Alam W, Hollis B. Vitamin D vs broad spectrum phototherapy in the treatment of seasonal affective disorder. Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging, 1999;3:5-7.

[20] Elmadfa I, Majchrzak D, Rust P, et al. The thiamine status of adult humans depends on carbohydrate intake. International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research, 2001;71:217-221

[21] Richardson AJ, Montgomery P. The Oxford-Durham study: a randomized, controlled trial of dietary supplementation with fatty acids in children with developmental coordination disorder. Pediatrics, 2005;115:1360-1366.

[22] Freund-Levi Y, Eriksdotter-Jonhagen M, Cederholm T, et al. Omega-3 fatty acid treatment in 174 patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease: omegAD study. Archives of Neurology, 2006;63:1402-1408.

[23] Eastley R, Wilcock GK, Bucks RS. Vitamin B12 deficiency in dementia and cognitive impairment: the effects of treatment on neuropsychological function. Int J Geriatr Psychiatry, 2000;15:226-233.

[24] Kristensen MO, Gulmann NC, Christensen JE, et al. Serum cobalamin and methylmalonic acid in Alzheimer dementia. Acta Neurol Scand, 1993;87:475-481.

[25] Abyad A. Prevalence of vitamin B12 deficiency among demented patients and cognitive

recovery with cobalamin replacement. J Nutr Health Aging, 2002;6:254-260.

[26] Osimani A, Berger A, Friedman J, et al. Neuropsychology of vitamin B12 deficiency in elderly dementia patients and control subjects. J Geriatr Psychiatry Neurol, 2005;18:33-38.

[27] Grodstein F, Kang JH, Glynn RJ, et al. A randomized trial of beta carotene supplementation and cognitive function in men. Archives of Internal Medicine, 2007;167:2184-2190.

[28] Crook TH, Tinklenberg J, Yesavage J, et al. Effects of phosphatidylserine in age-associated memory impairment. Neurology, 1991;41:644-649.

[29] Schreiber S, Kampf-Sherf O, Gorfine M, et al. An open trial of plant-source derived phosphatydilserine for treatment of age-related cognitive decline. Isr J Psychiatry Relat Sci, 2000;37:302-307.