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Can supplements help improve brain health?

While there may be no ‘magic bullet’ for memory loss yet, there are supplements you can take which may boost brain health, and so help to slow it down

With literally thousands of different supplements on the market, many of them claiming to help with memory, it can be quite daunting to know which, if any, you can take to help slow memory loss (and whether they even work).

However, numerous studies seem to focus on certain supplements more often than others, and it’s these vitamins, minerals and herbs, which you may want to include in your diet if you’re keen on boosting your brain health and slowing down cognitive decline.

Please note, no vitamins or supplements should ever be taken without a GP or consultant’s approval as certain ingredients could interact with with prescribed medication.

1. Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)

What is it? DHA is an omega-3 fatty acid, commonly found in oily fish. It’s a major building block of the brain, but one that we can often be deficient in because many people don’t eat that much fish (or algae – the other key food source). However, fish oil supplements are widely available.
Why try it? DHA is crucial to brain function and people with memory loss, depression, mood swings, attention deficit disorder and dementia have all seen improvements after taking a DHA supplement. However evidence of their value is increasingly mixed. For example, a large study from the US National Eye Institute found that fish oil supplements do not slow cognitive decline in elderly people, whilst a study from Tufts University in Massachusetts of elderly people found those who took DHA were 47 per cent less likely to develop memory problems than those who didn’t.

2. Vitamin D

What is it? The body naturally makes vitamin D when UV rays from the sun hit our skin. Unfortunately, the UK doesn’t have a great rep for large amounts of sunshine and we tend to spend a lot more time either indoors or covered up, so it’s worth topping up your levels with a supplement.
Why try it? Recent studies have linked vitamin D to a host of health benefits, including reducing the risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, depression and helping to improve memory and problem-solving.

3. B vitamins

What are they? There’s a strong link between B vitamins and memory. B vitamins may help to boost your memory in two main ways; they improve oxygen and nutrient transport to brain cells by increasing the amount of red blood cells we have (vitamin B12), and they’ve been found to affect the levels of homocysteine in the body (vitamins B9 and B12). Homocysteine is an amino acid which can actually damage neurons (brain cells). B vitamins help to protect the brain (and so the memory) by keeping homocysteine levels low.
Why try them? A study from Oxford University found folic acid, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12 could help prevent mental decline and dementia. It’s best to take a vitamin B complex (a mix of all the different types) rather than taking separate supplements as they’ll be properly balanced.

4. Antioxidant vitamins

What are they? Antioxidants are extremely important in the body because they help to mop up something called ‘free radicals.’
Why try them? Free radicals are atoms which can damage nerves and other brain structures, including the chain of communication between the neural brain network. By taking an antioxidant (such as vitamin A, C or E or the mineral selenium), you will help to prevent this damage, which could potentially have beneficial effects on brain health.

5. Magnesium

What is it? This is a mineral, which is normally found in nuts, seeds, dark leafy vegetables, dried fruit and dark chocolate.
Why try it? It’s thought to help with memory by promoting something called neurogenesis. This is a term used to describe the formation of new brain cells, and it’s vital for slowing down mental decline.

6. Zinc

What is it? This mineral is usually used by people to help stave off colds, as it’s good for boosting immunity.
Why try it? Studies have shown that it’s also important in memory, especially short-term memory. That’s because zinc is needed to help form links between the different synapses (like gates in the brain).

7. Ginkgo biloba

What is it? Ginkgo biloba is an extremely popular herbal remedy, which originated in China. It contains phytochemicals, which are chemical compounds that occur naturally in plants.
Why try it? These phytochemicals have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties which can help to protect the brain cells from damage. They also improve blood flow to the brain, and it’s thought they help prevent the accumulation of beta amyloids which can cause Alzheimer’s disease.

8. Choline

What is it? This is actually a B vitamin and a deficiency of it has been linked to a range of medical problems including cancer, high blood pressure and infertility. A good food source of choline is eggs.
Why try it? It’s a precursor to acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that’s needed for memory consolidation while we sleep.

9. L-Carnitine

What is it? This supplement is created from two amino-acids – methionine and lysine.
Why try it? It’s thought to improve mental focus and memory.

10. Cocoa flavanols

What are they? These are phytochemicals derived from the cocoa bean. However, before you go out and stock up on multi-packs of Mars Bars, it’s worth remembering that the cocoa flavanol content in a normal chocolate bar is quite low and you’d have to eat a LOT to get any real kind of benefit. Luckily, you can get cocoa flavanol supplements. Taking these regularly have linked to improved circulation and heart and brain health.
Why try them? A 2014 study showed cocoa flavanols may improve the function of a specific part of the brain called the dentate gyrus, which is associated with age-related memory issues.

DISCLAIMER: These supplement suggestions have come from detailed research of different studies. However, it’s important to remember that some of these studies may have had limited participants or only been carried out on animals, rather than humans.