Do vitamins help our memory?

Do vitamins help our memory?

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It is commonly believed that vitamins can help our memory.

Is this really true? What is the biological basis of this?

Is there any specific research paper on the subject?

There seems to be no effect of vitamins. This paper ("Preventing cognitive decline in healthy older adults." found no evidence for herbal supplements, vitamins or fatty acids improve cognitive functions.

There seems to be some evidence ("Preventing Alzheimer's disease-related gray matter atrophy by B-vitamin treatment.") that a cocktail of hig dosed vitamins including folic acid, Vitamin B6 and Vitamin B12 can slow Alzheimer's disease. But: The benefits were only seen in participants which had high blood levels of homocysteine. This amino acid is linked to a higher risk of heart disease for which the B vitamins are postive for the outcome. So this might only be helpful for people with too high homocysteine levels.

And its questionable if high doses of antioxidants (like vitamin A or E) are not only not helpful, but can cause actual damage. This is due to the fact that they catch up reactive oxygen species, which might otherwise trigger the cell to go into apoptosis and prevent it from becoming a cancer cell. Here is the paper: "Antioxidants accelerate lung cancer progression in mice.".

5 Vitamins for Brain Health and Memory

Maintaining brain health is essential for optimal cognitive function, quality of life, and healthy aging. Cognitive impairment, which can impact individuals at any age, results in difficulty with processes such as language, memory, and judgment, affecting everyday life. Causes of cognitive decline such as brain injury may be outside of your control. However, other factors that cause cognitive issues may be addressed through dietary and lifestyle approaches, such as vitamin supplements for brain health. (2)

A combination of nutrients

Many brain supplements focus on omega-3 fatty acids (such as those found in fish oil), vitamin E, various B vitamins, or various combinations. Why these?

There's strong evidence that certain diets — like the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet, and the MIND diet — can help improve cognitive function, according to Dr. Marshall.

"These diets contain foods with large amounts of these vitamins and minerals," he says. "But what is not clear is whether it's the combination of nutrients in these diets that's beneficial, or whether it's specific ones or even certain amounts, or some other factors." Researchers have tried to answer these questions by testing how these individual nutrients affect cognitive health. So far the limited studies have found no evidence they help, with a few rare exceptions.

"Still, this doesn't mean that the brain supplements may not work," says Dr. Marshall. "It's just that there is not much, if any, evidence from randomized clinical trials — the gold standard for research — on isolated vitamins or minerals and brain health."

Here's a summary of what science has found so far and what it means.

Supplements for Brain Health?

by Hallie Levine, AARP, August 7, 2018 | Comments: 0

En español | Taking steps to keep your brain healthy as you age is certainly a wise move, and studies show that things like healthy eating, exercise and getting enough sleep can significantly lower your risk of Alzheimer’s disease. As for popping “brain-boosting” supplements, sales of which increased 74 percent between 2006 and 2016, the jury is a little more mixed.

"There are a lot of supplements out there that don't work,” cautions Majid Fotuhi, M.D., medical director of NeuroGrow Brain Fitness Center in McLean, Va. One of these supplements is one you've no doubt heard of — ginkgo biloba. One study published in the medical journal The Lancet Neurology of almost 3,000 adults over age 70 with memory complaints found that this herb didn't reduce rates of developing Alzheimer's compared to those who took a placebo. Similarly, faddish DHEA supplements also recently failed to pass muster in studies.

Here's a look at three supplements you might want to consider specifically for brain health — and another, fish oil, that comes with some caveats.

B vitamins

Certain B vitamins may help slow memory decline when they're taken for at least 18 months, says Tod Cooperman, M.D., president of, one of the country's leading independent evaluators of dietary supplements. One two-year study of people age 70 or over who had mild cognitive impairment, for example, found that those who took a combination of B vitamins (800 mcg of folic acid, 500 mcg of vitamin B-12 and 20 milligrams (mg) of vitamin B-6) had slower cognitive decline than those who took a placebo. These vitamins, especially B-12, are important for brain health because they help insulate and build up brain neurons, says Fotuhi. Yet “about thirty percent of people over the age of 50 don't absorb B-12 properly from food,” notes Cooperman. As a result, they're more likely to be deficient.

If you're over 50, it's a good idea to get your B-12 levels tested, advises Cooperman. If they're low, talk to your doctor about temporarily taking a 100- to 500-mcg daily supplement of B-12, along with possibly 400 mcg of folic acid. It's also important to make sure that you get the recommended daily allowance of B-6, which is 1.7 mg. You can easily get this particular vitamin through your diet, and supplements aren't recommended since high doses have been linked to reduced kidney function and stroke. A list of foods rich in this vitamin can found here.


This compound is found in the spice turmeric and is what gives it its orange-ish color. It also provides a host of anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Some research has also found that it may benefit both your thinking and memory. “We think it's one of the reasons that senior citizens in India, who eat curcumin virtually every day, have a lower prevalence of Alzheimer's disease,” says Gary Small, M.D., director of geriatric psychology at UCLA's Longevity Center. A study done by Small and published this past January in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry on 40 adults between the ages of 50 and 90 with mild memory complaints found that those given 90 mg of curcumin twice a day for 18 months experienced significant improvements in their memory and thinking abilities compared to those who just took a placebo. They also had less buildup of amyloid and tau in their brains, two substances known as biomarkers of Alzheimer's disease.

A teaspoon of turmeric spice contains about 150 mg of curcumin, so you can reap its benefits by adding a dash to your food every day. (If you do opt for a spice, use it in a meal that contains fats or oils, which increases absorption, says Cooperman.) If you take a supplement, be cautious, as many commercial brands don't contain the amounts they claim on their label. The four that have recently passed ConsumerLab's testing requirements are Doctor's Best High Absorption Curcumin, NOW Curcumin, NutriGold Turmeric Curcumin Gold, and Swanson Ultra Turmeric Phytosome.

Cocoa Flavanols

These compounds, found in chocolate, have also been linked to improved memory and thinking skills. Flavanols are particularly abundant in the cacao bean, which is found in unsweetened cocoa powder. One 2015 Italian study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that healthy people aged 61 to 85 who consumed a daily drink that contained anywhere from 520 to 993 mg of flavanols saw significant improvements on memory tests after eight weeks compared to those whose drink contained only about 50 mg. Another 2012 study published in the medical journal Hypertension found that drinking cocoa flavanols each day improved thinking skills in adults who already had mild cognitive impairment.

You need to be careful with cocoa powders since many of them are contaminated with the toxic heavy metal cadmium, warns Cooperman. Consider using an extract like CocoaVia instead. If you have your heart set on a drink made with traditional cocoa powder, limit yourself to a cup a day. ConsumerLab's testing has found that Hershey's (100% Cacao Natural Unsweetened) powder has the highest levels of flavonoids with the least contamination with cadmium or other heavy metals.

Fish oil

If you're healthy, with no memory problems, there's little evidence that you'll benefit from this popular supplement. Research shows positive effects have been seen in people who already are suffering from early-stage dementia. One study published in the British Journal of Nutrition followed people over the age of 65 who had mild cognitive impairment for six months and found that those who took daily fish oil pills improved their scores on verbal fluency, a type of memory-related test where you have to produce as many words as possible from a category in a small amount of time. But a 2012 Cochrane Library review looked at the use of fish oil in more than 3,500 cognitively healthy older people for up to 40 months and saw no benefit. Chances are, if you eat fatty fish such as tuna, mackerel or salmon at least twice a week, you're getting enough fish oil, and a supplement won't make a difference, explains Cooperman.

1. Methyl B12 for mild cognitive impairment

Because B12 works synergistically with folic acid, they should be taken together. B12 is found naturally in meats and seafood therefore, vegans and vegetarians should supplement with B12. Poor nutrient absorption due to a gluten intolerance or poor gut function can also limit B12 absorption from diet.

It is best to take all vitamins—but especially vitamins for memory—in their most bioavailable forms. For B12, this means you should take methyl B12, or methylcobalamin (as opposed to the more common, synthetic cyanocobalmin). Not only is methyl B12 more neurologically active, it also enhances a detoxification process called methylation, which in itself will help slow or prevent the progression of mild cognitive impairment because it lowers homocysteine and helps reduce inflammation.

Recommended doses of methyl B12 vary depending on whether you have a deficiency, and you should work with a qualified health care practitioner to determine the best dose.

2. 5-MTHF (5-Methyltetrahydrofolate) for mild cognitive impairment

5-MTHF is a biologically active form of natural folic acid. Not only is it more active, but an estimated one in three people have a genetic inability to properly convert folic acid to its usable form, so 5-MTHF is more available to them. Like methyl B12, 5-MTHF also supports the body’s detoxification process and anti-inflammatory effects, thus supporting brain health and lowering the risk of mild cognitive impairment.

It’s always best to try to supply your vitamin needs through diet, and that is true with folate as well. Dietary sources of folate include liver, romaine lettuce, spinach, asparagus, turnip greens, mustard greens, parsley, collard greens, broccoli, cauliflower, beets, and lentils. If you prefer to use a supplement, be sure to purchase folate or 5-MTHF. The necessary dose may vary depending on deficiency or whether you have the genetic inability to fully utilize folate. Again, an integrative physician can assist you with vitamin testing and/or genetic testing.

3. B6 for mild cognitive impairment

Like B12 and folate, B6 is one of the best vitamins for memory because it helps control homocysteine levels and inflammation. B6 is also necessary for the production of the “feel-good” neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine.

The most bioavailable form of B6 is P5P (pyridoxal 5′ phosphate). The recommended dose of P5P is 20–25 mg a day, although higher amounts may be indicated in some conditions such as pyroluria, a genetic B6 and zinc deficiency.

This article was originally published in 2017. It is regularly updated.

The excitement over supplements

We've heard a lot of encouraging news about supplements. A series of studies hailed vitamin D as a possible defense against a long list of diseases, including cancer, diabetes, depression, and even the common cold. Omega-3 fatty acids have been touted for warding off strokes and other cardiovascular events. And antioxidants such as vitamins C and E and beta carotene were seen as promising silver bullets against heart disease, cancer, and even Alzheimer's disease.

Here's the big caveat: many of those exciting supplement studies were observational—they didn't test a particular supplement against a placebo (inactive pill) in a controlled setting. The results of more stringent randomized controlled trials haven't yielded the same good news.

"Often the enthusiasm for these vitamins and supplements outpaces the evidence. And when the rigorous evidence is available from randomized controlled trials, often the results are at odds with the findings of the observational studies," explains Dr. JoAnn Manson, chief of preventive medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, and principal investigator of a large randomized trial known as VITAL (Vitamin D and Omega-3 Trial).

Because observational studies may not fully control for dietary factors, exercise habits, and other variables, they can't prove whether the treatment is responsible for the health benefits. "People who take supplements tend to be more health conscious, exercise more, eat healthier diets, and have a whole host of lifestyle factors that can be difficult to control for fully in the statistical models," Dr. Manson says.

Some supplements that were found to have health benefits in observational studies turned out, with more rigorous testing, to be not only ineffective but also risky. Vitamin E, which was initially thought to protect the heart, was later discovered to increase the risk for bleeding strokes. Folic acid and other B vitamins were once believed to prevent heart disease and strokes—until later studies not only didn't confirm that benefit but actually raised concerns that high doses of these nutrients might increase cancer risk.

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Fish Oil Supplements

Several observational studies have shown a link between higher blood levels of the oil’s omega-3 fatty acids and a decreased risk of dementia. For example, one recent study of 185 seniors aged 80 and older published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found that people who scored better on a 10 minute cognition quiz had higher blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids. But a 2012 Cochrane Library review of data from three clinical trials with data from 3,536 people over age 60 who took fish-oil supplements for six to 40 months found that the memory supplements did not improve cognitive function.

Vitamin D and Memory

A general rule regarding memory and nutrients is that most dietary supplements are without effect unless a person has an inadequate diet. One nutrient of special interest is vitamin D. Vitamin D is synthesized in the skin from exposure to sunlight, but many people don't get enough sunlight every day. Sun-tan lotions, designed to reduce the risk of skin cancer, also reduce the likelihood that the skin can make enough vitamin D. Particularly vulnerable populations include Blacks and elderly who are confined indoors. Also the ability of skin to synthesize vitamin D declines with age.

Vitamin D and its receptors are found throughout the body. In recent years, scientists have learned that it contributes to normal cognitive function, including memory. Vitamin D increases the brain neurotransmitter chemical called acetylcholine, which is the most important transmitter for creating conscious arousal and attentiveness. Vitamin D also stimulates synthesis of nerve growth factor, which can promote growth of nerve terminals.

A recent study has confirmed results from another lab suggesting that normal brain function requires vitamin D. Participants, 1,766 adults aged 65 years and older, were evaluated to compare blood levels of vitanim D precursor and cognitive ability. Lower levels occurred in the subset of people who were cognitively impaired, compared to the normal subjects.

Another independent study reports similar findings. The study examined 3,133 men aged 40 to 79 at eight test centers across Europe. Men who had a better memory and were quicker to process information had higher levels of vitamin D. Men with 35 nanomoles per litre or less of vitamin D in their blood performed poorly.

These are only correlational studies, but they do suggest that increasing dietary vitamin D can improve memory in people who are vitamin D deficient. This idea awaits experimental verification. In the meanwhile, taking modest doses of vitamin D (use the D3 version, about 1,000-2,000 I.U. per day) is probably a good idea.

Llewellyn. D. J. 2009. Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry and Neurology, Vol. 22, No. 3, 188-195 OI: 10.1177/0891988708327888

Lee, D. M. et al. 2009. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry 200980:722-729 Published Online First: 21 May. doi:10.1136/jnnp.2008.165720

Do Brain-Boosting Supplements Actually Work Or Are They Total B.S.?

A quick online search for “mental clarity supplements” will turn up tons of products, such as Neurohacker Collective’s “Qualia Mind,” WTHN’s “Fully Charged,” and Bulletproof’s “Unfair Advantage, ” just to name a few. These supplements claim to improve focus, sharpen thinking, boost productivity and fight fatigue.

It all sounds like something straight out of a gimmicky infomercial ― just another quick-fix product to buy to improve your health. But as it turns out, there is some science that supports the brain-boosting power of some (yet not all) of the ingredients in mental clarity supplements. And, of course, there’s also a catch (there’s always a catch).

Here’s what you should know before you purchase them, according to experts:

Which Ingredients Work And Which Need More Research

The more scientific classification of these supplements and their ingredients is called nootropics. The term, coined by psychologist Corneliu E. Giurgea in 1972 , describes natural or man-made substances designed to support cognitive functioning and improve mental performance. Other terms you may have heard for them could include “smart drugs” or “cognitive enhancers.” They range from familiar substances — such as caffeine or turmeric — to complex blends of many different herbs and other ingredients sold online.

Now, for the million-dollar question: Do they work? Well, yes and no. The reason for this ambiguous answer? Th e research on brain-boosting supplements is ambiguous itself. While some of the ingredients in brain-boosting supplements have shown to be beneficial, the studies have been inconsistent, explained Dr. Michael Genovese , a clinical psychiatrist and chief medical officer of Acadia Healthcare.

Plus, “unlike other medications, the [Food and Drug Administration] does not regulate the distribution of so-called ‘nootropics,’ so there is no way to tell with certainty if the label on the bottle is what is really in the supplement,” he added.

Dr. David J. Puder , medical director of the behavioral health outpatient program at the Loma Linda University, puts it a little more bluntly: “The people making these supplements are not doing randomized controlled trials to determine if they really work,” he said. “They mostly use data about what might work, throw it together and add a bunch of excellent marketing.”

So, with that said — and a healthy dose of skepticism — let’s dive into what the research says about a few common ingredients used in mental clarity supplements:

Surprise, surprise. Many mental clarity supplements contain a very familiar ingredient, which is good old-fashioned caffeine. And for good reason: “It is commonly understood that caffeine reduces drowsiness and increases alertness and psychomotor performance,” Puder said. Plus, research shows caffeine use may have a protective effect on memory .

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Another nootropic you’ve likely heard of before is omega-3 fatty acids, namely EPA and DHA, which are critical for proper brain function and development. Several studies have shown that taking fish oil supplements (which are high in EPA and DHA) may help improve memory in people with mild cognitive impairment, and they are also recommended to help people with depression. One caveat: Research did not find improvements in healthy people’s cognitive function after taking fish oil supplements.


A highly revered herb in the Ayurvedic tradition (an ancient Indian healing system), ashwagandha is known as an adaptogen, which means it may help protect the body from the effects of stress . Research has also found ashwagandha may help enhance focus, mental stamina and can even be useful for people with neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.

A perennial flowering plant, rhodiola is a nootropic that studies have shown can decrease fatigue and increase the capacity for mental work, said Shari Auth, a holistic health practitioner in New York and co-founder of WTHN , a modern acupuncture studio with a line of herbal supplements. People with diagnoses like ADHD and anxiety disorders may also benefit from rhodiola, since it helps the mind adapt to stressors, Genovese added.

Bacopa Monnieri

Another Ayurvedic herb, Bacopa has traditionally been used to enhance brain function. “As a nootropic, it acts as a ‘brain tonic’ to enhance memory, cognitive function and reduction of cortisol levels, which alleviates stress in the body,” Auth said. Several scientific studies back this up, although it may require long-term use to reap the results.

Ginkgo Biloba

Derived from the leaves of a tree called Ginkgo biloba, this supplement has been shown to improve memory and mental processing in healthy older adults when taken daily for six weeks. Taking Ginkgo biloba before a highly stressful task can help lower stress-related high blood pressure, as well as high levels of cortisol, a type of stress hormone.

Genovese added that he’s heard anecdotal evidence that people have seen improvements in loved ones with Alzheimer’s after they supplemented with Ginkgo balboa. However, that’s yet to be determined through research.

What To Keep In Mind Before You Buy

It’s important to note that simply taking one or two of these nootropic agents often results in no significant net change, explained Dr. Alex Dimitriu, founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine .

Instead, researchers have found that a concoction of some of the most researched and validated supplements, with overlapping benefits, is a better approach. “The hope is that if you have enough ingredients with overlapping benefits, taken together, they may be more effective than taken individually,” Dimitriu said.

That’s why you’ll see long lists of ingredients of so many of the popular “mental clarity” supplements on the market. One popular product called Neurohacker Collective’s Qualia Mind , for instance, contains a laundry list of ingredients that contain six nootropics, along with other vitamins and adaptogens.

Most experts we chatted with said trying the supplement won’t be harmful. (Always check with your doctor first before trying something, though.) But if you’re gawking at the prices, don’t sweat it — you really don’t need a supplement to feel “smarter.”

Instead, focus on the basic lifestyle habits that are known for boosting your brain power. A good sweat session, particularly strength training, and eating well are particularly great for improving mental clarity and memory, Genovese said.

And don’t disregard the power of sleep: “In my opinion, sleep is the strongest supplement of all,” Dimitriu said. “Before looking for more supplements, unusual diets or very cold showers to boost mental clarity, try to sleep and relax for an hour more a day. Do this, and stick to it for a week, and see how you feel.”