How Do Memory Vitamins Work? (And the Best Brain Supplements)
Vitamin vs Supplement
First, let’s talk about the difference between a vitamin and a supplement. Vitamins are simply organic compounds that are necessary in small quantities to sustain life.((Medical News Today: What are vitamins and how do they work)) We’re talking the vitamin A, B, Cs here. Vitamins are in the unprocessed, healthy foods you eat every day and are also available as daily supplements in pill form. Or as chewy, edible cartoon characters.
Supplements are just extra pills, liquids, or cartoon characters that you consume in addition to the actual food you eat. Supplements can include but are not limited to vitamins, minerals, amino acids, herbs, hormone building blocks, and other compounds that are synthesized or extracted from natural sources.
What Research Says About Vitamins and Supplements
Supplements are big business. In 2015, Americans spent 643 million dollars on supplements, and a quarter of Americans over 50 take them regularly.((The Guardian: Save your Money)) That’s a lot of money spent on an extremely unregulated and under-researched industry.
Here’s what we do know:
The brain needs vitamins and minerals to function properly. We also have some studies on rats and in small samples of humans that show preliminary glimmers of hope that certain memory vitamins and brain supplements may also have positive effects on our brains.
How Do Memory Vitamins and Supplements Work?
Any vitamin or supplement that aids memory falls into a category called nootropics. Nooptropic is now a term that refers to any natural or synthetic substance that has a positive impact on memory. ((Webmd: What are nootropics? ))
Each type of nootropic works differently in the body to affect memory.
Antioxidants help memory by protecting cells from free radicals. When free radicals buildup in the body (a natural by-product of metabolism, aging, and exposure to environmental toxins), they cause cellular damage, so antioxidants help memory by preventing and reversing some of this cellular damage.
Some nootropics help memory by going a step further than antioxidants. Some, like Lion’s Mane mushrooms, may help stimulate new cell growth. This regeneration would help memory by stimulating new neural growth.
Memory relies on strong neural pathways, so nootropics that stimulate cell growth might be especially effective supplements.
In order to remember, we have to be awake and alert. The first part of memory is perception, so nootropics such as caffeine help us wake up enough to perceive in the first place. These sensory perceptions can then be turned into memories.
Adaptogens are believed to regulate your adrenal glands, which helps your body deal with stress. More research is needed, but some think that adaptogens help control hormone levels, which helps your immune system, energy levels, and brain functioning.((Time: What are adaptogens and why are people taking them?))
Another way some nootropics help memory is by reducing inflammation in the brain. Memory relies on strong neural connections, and inflammation hurts these connections. So, nootropics that relieve this inflammation may be helpful for people to improve their cognitive functioning and memory.
While we sleep, we are actually clearing out less important memory pathways. This helps strengthen the memories that do matter, so sleep is a critical component in memory. Any nootropic that improves our sleep may also be helping strengthen our memory and brain functioning.
The Best Brain Supplements
1. Vitamin E
Vitamin E is an antioxidant, which means it protects cells from free radicals. When there are too many free radicals in the body, they cause cellular damage. So, vitamin E helps slow the aging process (cellular damage) including the onset of Alzheimer’s-related dementia.
Studies have shown that people with adequate levels of vitamin E performed better on cognitive and memory tests and significantly delayed Alzheimer’s-related dementia. To boost vitamin E’s effects even more, some studies have also shown that it performs better with adequate levels of vitamin C.((NCBI: Effects of Vitamin E on Cognitive Performance during Ageing and in Alzheimer’s Disease ))
2. Lion’s Mane
Lion’s Mane mushroom has been around in Chinese medicine for thousands of years but may not be on your radar just yet. Some preliminary studies on rats have shown that it may improve memory and protect the brain.
Lion’s Mane has anti-oxidizing effects in the body, fighting off those free radicals, but it may also stimulate Nerve Growth Factor. As Dr. Mary Sabo L.Ac DACM explains,
Myelin is the fatty substance around nerve cell axons. Axons are like the wires between cells, so when we’re talking about memory, protecting the axon coverings is like protecting the plastic covering of electrical wires. When the covering is compromised, the wire itself is, too.
Like all the other nootropics, much more research needs to be done on Lion’s Mane, but the early studies seem encouraging. It may help stimulate neural growth, protect brain cells, and remove free radicals, which may help improve your memory.
3. Omega 3 Fatty Acids
A lot of research has been done on fish oil and how it affects overall brain health. Just like vitamin E, we should be getting the fatty acids in fish oil in our actual diet. But if you don’t, a supplement might be just what the doctor ordered (and again, please check with your doctor before taking any supplements).
There still needs to be more studies to clarify which fatty acids have which effects on the brain, but preliminary studies show that omega 3, especially DHA, is the most important fatty acid for the memory of non-impaired adults.((Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience: Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids and the brain))
Omega 3s are found in cell membranes, and studies have shown that consuming them may help protect cell health in the brain by helping build cell membranes throughout the body.((Healthline: How Omega-3 Fish Oil affects your brain and mental health))
4. Rhodiola Rosacea
There’s an herb called Rhodiola Rosacea that may also help mental and physical fatigue. Rhodiola Rosacea is an adaptogen, which means it helps regulate the adrenal glands. This helps you deal with stress better.
According to Dr. Sabo,
“One double-blind, placebo-controlled study on physicians working night shift showed it [Rhodiola Rosacea] was helpful in boosting cognitive cerebral functions when taken daily in supplement form.”
So if you’re looking for a supplement to help with your cognitive endurance, Rhodiola Rosacea may be the thing for you.
There is still not enough research to definitively say which memory vitamins are best or which supplements will boost your brain the most. What most doctors agree on is that a healthy diet with natural, unprocessed foods, a physically active lifestyle, a good night’s rest, and strong social relationships are actually the best things we can do for our memories and our brains more generally.
But if you’re making those positive changes with your diet, exercise, sleep, and relationships, you may also still be considering supplements. Consult with your doctor first because memory problems may be a sign of something much more serious. As Dr. Sabo explains,
“Problems with memory and concentration can be symptoms of other conditions such as hypothyroid, anxiety, depression, or insomnia. It can also be an early sign of Alzheimer’s or dementia in the elderly. While some supplements can help with these symptoms, getting the right diagnosis and medical care from an MD and targeted support from a holistic practitioner can be the best path for ongoing care.”