When it comes to keeping your brain healthy as you age, your diet plays a big role. Eating a variety of foods is critical to getting the vitamins and nutrients your brain needs to keep performing at its best.
“A large body of literature has found that certain nutrients, flavonoids, unsaturated fats, and omega-3 fatty acids are associated with slower cognitive decline and reduced risk of dementia,” says Puja Agarwal, Ph.D., a nutritional epidemiologist and assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at Rush Medical College in Chicago.
Eating whole foods is the best way to get those nutrients. Supplements for brain health don't work as well, but cant be a helpful option in specific circumstances (more on that later). When you eat a balanced diet, the combination of vitamins, minerals, healthy fats (and more) helps the body better absorb the nutrients it needs.
“Food and nutrients can definitely help support healthy brain function and may even be able to slow age-related decline in brain function,” says Robin Foroutan, M.S., R.D.N., a functional dietitian. “We all want our brains to be age-resistant, so this is great news.”
So, which vitamins support brain health? And which foods can you find them in? Ahead, experts share everything you need to know.
Omega-3 fatty acids
If you’ve ever wondered why fatty fish like salmon and tuna are always touted as part of a healthy diet, here’s one reason: They’re high in omega-3 fatty acids, a type of unsaturated fat that has a brain-protecting anti-inflammatory effect and is a building block of cell membranes in the brain.
Omega-3s have also been linked to lower levels of beta-amyloid, a type of protein found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s-related damage. “Omega-3 fatty acids easily penetrate the blood-brain barrier and are essential for the brain’s structure and functioning,” explains Dr. Agarwal.
Foroutan adds there has been some research that indicates high doses of omega-3 fatty acids after a concussion or other traumatic brain injury may have protective effects on lasting damage
Where to find it: Besides fatty fish, good sources of omega-3s include nuts and seeds and some fortified foods such as eggs and yogurt. If you’re someone who doesn’t eat seafood often, check with your doctor about taking an omega-3 supplement if bloodwork indicates you’re deficient, says Mirella Díaz-Santos, P.h.D., an assistant professor in the Mary S Easton Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research at UCLA’s Department of Neurology and Women's Alzheimer's Movement partner.
This vitamin functions as an antioxidant in the body, and it protects cells from oxidative stress, a type of damage caused by free radicals (unstable molecules in the body), even in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. The brain is particularly susceptible to oxidative stress, which increases during aging and is a major contributor to cognitive decline.
Vitamin E is also anti-inflammatory, which helps to keep DNA healthy and replicating correctly while maintaining the structure of healthy brain cell membranes, Foroutan adds.
Where to find it: Vitamin E can be found in dark leafy greens, avocado, red bell pepper, asparagus, mango, pumpkin, and nuts and seeds.
When it comes to brain health, focus on the three B’s : vitamins B6, B12, and B9 (folate). “These three types of B vitamins are necessary for the brain’s normal functioning,” says Dr. Agarwal, “and any deficiency in them may increase the risk of memory loss and other forms of cognitive decline.”
The reason: These vitamins help boost the production of neurotransmitters, or brain chemicals, that deliver messages between the brain and body.
Where to find them: Beans are one of the best sources of B vitamins across the board. You can find B6 in bananas, oranges, papaya, cantaloupe, tuna, salmon, poultry, and dark leafy greens. Folate is found in broccoli, greens, whole grains, eggs, peanuts, and sunflower seeds.
Vitamin B12 is found solely in meat and fish products; for vegans and vegetarians, nutritional yeast is a good way to get your supply. People on a plant-based diet do have a much higher risk of a true B12 deficiency, so talk to your doctor or dietitian about whether or not a B12 supplement is right for you.
In one study, by Rush University researchers including Dr. Agarwal, people who consumed vitamin C-rich strawberries at least once a week were less likely to develop Alzheimer’s over the course of the nearly 20-year study period.
Where to find it: Get vitamin C in abundance from kiwi, red and green bell peppers, citrus, berries, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and tomatoes.
Supplements for brain health
Overall, there’s a lot of mixed research and feeling among experts when it comes to taking supplements for brain health. Most experts agree it’s always better to spend your money on nutritious foods, but there are exceptions.
Díaz-Santos says that if you’re someone with an allergy or aversion to a large food group (like seafood or dairy) or your doctor found a deficiency during a blood panel, you may want to consider taking a dietary supplement. Otherwise, a well-rounded diet for the average person should be enough.
“In general, supplements aren’t often useful for brain health unless you have a deficiency in certain nutrients, which happens but is rare,” agrees Gill Livingston, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at University College London whose research focuses on dementia prevention, intervention, and care.
If you choose to take a supplement for brain health, it’s important to work with a medical or nutrition professional well-versed in supplements, Foroutan suggests. Many of these products have mixed research or fancy advertising that makes promises the capsule can’t keep and supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.
If your doctor or dietitian determines that a supplement is right for you, there are high-quality options out there. Look for a seal of approval from a third-party certification program like Consumer Lab, NSF International, or the US Pharmacopeial Convention (USP), which means the product has been tested for quality, purity, and potency—plus that it actually contains the ingredients it claims.
If you do choose to opt for brain-boosting supplements, Foroutan says there are a few categories to consider.
- Supplements that can improve blood flow (like Gingko Biloba).
- Nutrients that support the building blocks of the brain (like Omega-3 fatty acids).
- Nutrients that help the body build neurotransmitters (like L-theanine).
- Longevity nutrients that help reduce the risk of age-related cognitive decline (like B vitamins and vitamin C, D, A, E, and K).
In addition to supplement forms of the nutrients for brain health we’ve already mentioned, a few common supplements for brain health include:
This amino acid helps calm neurotransmitters, which is great for mood and stress. Because stress negatively impacts brain functioning, this can be helpful along with mindfulness techniques to lower stress levels, Foroutan says. Other research suggests the supplement may improve cognitive functioning.
Research has been mixed, but the mitochondrial nutrient is known for improving cognition and neurotransmitter function, Foroutan says.
Foroutan says some research suggests certain mushrooms, like Lion’s Maine, Reishi, and Chaga, have been connected to brain health. It’s thought these supplements protect the brain from neurodegeneration and inflammation and may improve attention, focus, mood, memory, and cognition.
This funny-sounding supplement has been shown to improve memory, and Foroutan adds it supports healthy blood flow to the brain for even more health perks.
Sometimes called “smart drugs,” nootropics are said to boost mood, increase creativity, and improve brainpower, energy, and focus. There’s no set ingredient that makes a supplement a nootropic other than providing brain-boosting benefits, so Foroutan says only some kinds can help, depending on the ingredients.
Foroutan likes this supplement for brain health because it encourages attention and focus.
The bottom line
To keep your mind sharp, focus on eating healthy, nutrient-dense foods. And remember: Diet is just one piece of the puzzle. Keeping up with other healthy lifestyle habits—like exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and staying socially active—will go a long way in improving cognitive function and reducing your risk for Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Díaz-Santos adds that you should always be paying attention to your body, and if you think there’s something off, bring it up to your healthcare provider and advocate for yourself.