You now the feeling around 3 p.m. when your brain can’t seem to function? When you stare blankly at your computer screen and can’t process your coworker’s sentences? Even when that feeling is all day, instead of just the later hours of the workday?
Your brain is the engine that drives your entire body, and if your brain is grinding gears, it might be time to consider whether it needs a little extra help.
Fortunately, you’re the kind of person who believes in taking a front-row seat for your own health. Which is why you’re here, researching whether brain supplements are the right fit for you. Here’s everything you need to know about giving your brain a leg up–and what vitamins and minerals are perfect for the job.
Understanding Your Brain
It’s astonishing to think that a spongy mass of about three pounds is more complex than any other structure in the known universe. We actually know more about outer space than we know about the human brain.
The human brain named itself, contemplates itself, and researches itself. It is the driver behind every action in your body, whether you’re aware of it or not. Brain scans have shown that your brain makes a decision ten full seconds before you become conscious of making that decision.
So when we talk about brain vitamins and brain supplements, you need to understand that this is not the same thing as putting gas in a car.
Think of it like adding a line of code to the most complex supercomputer in the universe. Except that supercomputer is both astonishingly durable and inexpressibly fragile. It is possible (if exceptionally difficult) to survive a gunshot to the head, yet you can suffer permanently disabling brain damage from a simple trip and fall.
How the Brain Works
At first blush, the brain seems to be made of humble stuff. In basic terms, your brain is a mass of supportive tissues and nerves connected to the spinal cord. It has three main parts:
The cerebrum controls thinking, reading, learning, speech, emotions, and planned muscle movements like walking, to name a few. It is split into the right and left hemisphere, each controlling the opposite side of the body.
The cerebellum, located in the back of the brain, controls balance, coordination, and fine muscle control while helping the body maintain posture and equilibrium.
The brain stem, at the bottom of the brain, connects the brain to the spinal cord and controls fundamental life functions such as breathing, heartbeat, blood pressure, and eye movements.
Because the brain is so important and so fragile, the body has a complex defense system to guard it. The skull and meninges (the lining of the brain) cushion and shield the brain, while the spinal column protects the spinal cord. There’s also the blood-brain barrier, a semipermeable gate protecting the brain from harmful substances while allowing oxygen and nutrients through.
Pillars of Brain Health
In short, the body goes to great lengths to ensure that its most vital control system is protected. The brain is the crown jewel of humanity, controlling everything that we do.
It should come as no surprise, then, that an engine so complex has an equally complex maintenance system. In basic terms, there are six key pillars of brain health:
Since your brain is involved in everything you do, every action you take and every minute of caretaking (or lack thereof) has an impact on how the brain performs in the short-term and over the course of your lifetime.
Take mental fitness, for example. Your brain is a use-it-or-lose-it system. When you form and maintain habits, the brain forms and strengthens neural pathways associated with those habits. This is how you get better at habits over time and how it becomes easier to maintain these habits.
Conversely, if you don’t maintain certain habits, your brain quickly loosens the neural pathways in favor of those you use more often, allowing the brain to stay efficient.
In short, the brain is always changing. It never stops working, not quieting down even when you sleep (though it does rely on sleep to function successfully).
What are Brain Supplements?
This brings us to the question of brain supplements.
Walk into any supplement store today and you’ll see an army of so-called “smart drugs,” or nootropics, promising to superpower your brain, usually cognition. Remember the movie Limitless, where Bradley Cooper took a pill and became a super genius? Nootropics promise real-life Limitless, though they stop short of promising Einstein-level brilliance.
More than 80 wildly different substances fall under this category, ranging from Adderall to coffee to psychedelics. The kicker is that given what they promise (improved cognition), they’re mostly ineffective.
What Brain Supplements Can and Can’t Do
First, let’s get clear on what supplements can and cannot do.
Most nootropics aren’t supplements at all, but stimulant drugs–short-acting chemicals that function like a highly concentrated dose of caffeine. They will wake you up and give you a boost (for a few hours, anyway).
As for cognition, well, not so fast.
The nootropics with the best scientific support include stimulants like Adderall and Modafinil in the USA. The kicker is that these are not actually nootropics. They’re prescription stimulants for ADHD and narcolepsy, respectively.
Those with ADHD do report that prescription ADHD stimulants like Adderall do help them think clearly. Not so for those without ADHD. That’s because ADHD actually results from underactivation of the brain, resulting in insufficient attention regulation. Adderall helps bolster brain activity closer to average, which is why it helps ADHD patients settle and focus.
If you don’t have ADHD, Adderall may give you some focusing and calming effects, but that’s mostly due to the placebo effect. You’re more likely to get nasty side effects ranging from loss of appetite to jitteriness to insomnia. A review of more than 40 studies found that prescription stimulants offer no cognitive improvement.
So, despite hefty promises, brain supplements cannot improve cognitive function.
Brain Vitamins vs. Stimulants
At this point, it’s important to distinguish between brain vitamins (which we’ll be discussing here) and stimulants, which are the common culprit in nootropic smart drugs.
Stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin are basically caffeine, but stronger and more targeted. On a broader scale, stimulants are a class of drugs that increase activity in the central nervous system. Basically, they speed up messages between the brain and body and make the brain work a little faster (for a few hours, anyway).
If you’re concerned with your brain health, brain vitamins and supplements focused on improving your overall health are the better investment. These are like any other vitamin, providing essential nutrients that your body needs to function.
Given that the brain is an energy hog, consuming a huge volume of your body’s energy for its size, vitamins can be useful, especially if you have nutritional deficits. However, the best way to take care of your brain is to take care of your whole body, since the brain’s health is closely entangled with your full-body health.
The Best Brain Supplements
With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at some of the best brain supplements to try.
Keep in mind that a holistic approach is the best approach to brain health. Do things that you should be doing anyway–get eight hours of sleep, eat a well-balanced diet, exercise regularly, spend time with people.
If you already check all of those boxes and want to give your health a bit more oomph, supplements can help make up for a few lacking areas. However, supplements cannot replace good nutrition, regular exercise, or other good health habits.
We’ll take a look at some good overall supplements, then some specific vitamins that can help with certain concerns. Remember, though, that most of the items on this list can benefit your health overall.
Before we look at specific vitamins, let’s look at a few overall supplements. Some of these you’ve heard of before–your doctor may have even recommended you start them. Others are less common and less researched but do have anecdotal support.
Remember to do your research before beginning any supplement, and always check with your doctor to get recommendations and ensure you don’t have any potential complications. Ideally, you should talk to a specialized nutritionist to get a complete picture of what your diet is lacking.
Fish oil supplements have long been sung as an excellent choice for your health. That’s because they’re rich in docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), two common types of omega-3 fatty acids.
These fatty acids are considered essential both because of their broad utilization in the body and because, unlike most fats, the human body cannot produce omega-3 fatty acids from other fats and raw materials. Omega-3s have to be consumed in food.
As for your brain, there are several benefits to both omega-3s. DHA, for example, accounts for 25% of the brain’s total fat and 90% of the omega-3 fats found in the brain (keep in mind that the brain is 60% fat).
EPA is more commonly associated with anti-inflammatory effects than with brain function, though it can have a positive impact on the brain in certain cases. One study of supplements with 60% or more EPA showed benefits on mean depression scores, improving mood in depression patients.
That said, this may be attributed to EPA’s anti-inflammatory effects, as depression and chronic fatigue are associated with an increased inflammatory activation of the immune system in the peripheral and central nervous system. Furthermore, higher levels of baseline inflammation are a reliable predictor of lower treatment efficacy in most cases.
Curcumin is the compound that gives turmeric its bright orange color–and its many health benefits. It’s a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent.
It should come as little surprise, then, that it can have a positive impact on your brain. It’s actually believed to be one of the reasons why seniors in India, who consume curcumin almost every day, have a far lower prevalence of Alzeimher’s disease.
The best way to consume curcumin is the old fashioned way: in your food, with a dash of turmeric. The average Indian diet contains 2,000 to 2,500 mg of turmeric per day, which translates to 60 to 100 mg of curcumin.
Vitamins for Concentration and Alertness
The B vitamins are a critical family for the human body. Among them is vitamin B3, or niacin, which is necessary for humans to convert food into energy.
Every tissue in the body converts absorbed niacin into the enzyme nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD), its metabolically active form. More than 400 enzymes rely on NAD to catalyze reactions (more than any other vitamin-derived coenzyme).
Basically, without niacin, your body can’t perform the chemistry required to turn your food into energy.
The good news is that niacin is widely available in our food, from meat to plant products, though animal products have more bioavailable niacin than plants. That said, bioavailability is decreased in some grain products, as naturally available niacin is bound to polysaccharides and glycopeptides.
Niacin deficiency is possible, though given its high availability, it’s more common in cases where the body’s absorption ability is inhibited, such as gastrointestinal disorders or severe alcoholism.
Of all the B vitamins on this list, B6 is the one best-recognized for its implications in brain health.
Vitamin B6, like many B vitamins, is highly versatile. It involves more than 100 enzyme reactions throughout the body. Typically, these are related to protein metabolism. However, B6 has also been shown to play a role in the biosynthesis of neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers of the brain.
The riches B6 sources include:
Beef liver and other organ meats
Potatoes and other starchy vegetables
We offer vitamin B6 as part of a wide range of our patches, including our Focus Plus Topical Patch.
Vitamin B12 is a powerhouse vitamin for the human body.
On a chemical level, it’s a cofactor for methionine synthase, which catalyzes the conversion of homocysteine to methionine, and methionine in turn is required for the synthesis of S-adenosylmethionine, a universal methyl donor for over 100 different substrates.
In plain English, it’s a building block that makes it possible for your body to synthesize DNA, RNA, hormones, proteins, and lipids (a.k.a. fats, which make up more than half of the brain).
That said, most people don’t actually have a vitamin B12 deficiency, except in highly specific circumstances.
For as important as B12 is to the human body, humans don’t need that much of it per day–men and women over the age of fourteen only need 2.4 mcg per day. Most people get far more than that in their diet.
The good news is that the human body is exceptionally good at storing B12, and our absorption and reabsorption rates are only about 0.1% on average (higher for those with pernicious anemia or atrophic gastritis). Even with an unusually high turnover rate, your body can still store several years worth of B12 at any given time.
There are only a few exceptions to this rule, which is related to our B12 sources. B12 is found almost exclusively in animal products, which means that vegans and vegetarians who don’t eat dairy are among the few at risk of B12 deficiency. Those with gastrointestinal disorders who have trouble absorbing B12 are also among the few at risk of deficiency.
If you’re looking to give your brain a boost, reach for something bright to get a dose of vitamin C.
Vitamin C indirectly boosts your brain in two ways: its powerful antioxidant properties and its ability to improve iron absorption. This gives your brain better access to essential building blocks while also helping protect it against ongoing oxidative damage.
Think of it like metal bike handles slowly getting rusty over time. You can use them for a while, but the bike doesn’t work as well as it should, and eventually the handles wear out beyond the point of no return. That’s oxidative damage in action, and vitamin C helps protect your brain against it.
Plus, iron absorption is critical for those eating a meat-free diet, as most of our dietary iron comes from animal products (and vitamin C is available primarily in plants).
Vitamin C is also one of those vitamins that the human body cannot produce on its own. It has to be acquired through food. The best sources of vitamin C are citrus fruits–oranges, grapefruit, etc. But you can also get a strong dose of vitamin C from red peppers–just half a cup has 95% of your daily value of vitamin C.
You can also find lower amounts of vitamin C in:
If you’re not a huge citrus fan, no worries. Our C Plus Topical Patch makes it easy to get the vitamin C you need quickly and effectively, even if you’re on the go. Who says early morning meetings have to result in brain fog?
Zinc is what doctors call an essential trace element–the human body needs small amounts of zinc on a regular basis to function successfully. Unfortunately, unlike B12, humans don’t store zinc, so we have to eat it in our food.
Zinc is predominantly involved in cellular metabolism, allowing your body to catalyze more than 100 enzymes and process energy effectively.
It’s commonly found in:
By far the best source of zinc is oysters, with six medium oysters containing 32 mg or 291% your daily value of zinc.
If you’re not a shellfish fan or if you’re not a meat eater, we’ve got several patches with zinc as a key ingredient. For a good all-around option, check out our Multi Plus Patch for your daily dose of zinc.
Iron is one of the body’s essential building blocks. You’ll notice it quickly if you’re deficient in iron, and the effects are decidedly unpleasant.
That’s because iron is an essential component in hemoglobin, a protein that transfers oxygen from the lungs to the tissues. Without iron, your body can bring in oxygen, but your tissues can’t use it.
In other words, your brain can’t breathe.
Insufficient iron, either through iron deficiency anemia or other causes, means that your body doesn’t have enough oxygen to go around and has to conserve resources to keep you more or less functional. The problem is that the brain doesn’t deal with lack of oxygen very well, and you’ll quickly start to feel tired, weak, and dizzy.
The good news is that iron is widely available in our food. Common sources of iron include:
If you’re worried about your iron intake, we’ve got your back. Our Iron Plus Topical Patch is an easy way to ensure that your brain has enough iron to go around, no matter where you are.
Taking Charge of Your Brain Health
Your brain is the most important organ in the whole body. Why wouldn’t you take the time to take care of it with brain supplements?
If you’re ready to take charge of your brain and treat it with the same care it treats you, we’re here to help you get what you want from your health. Click here to learn more about how our patches work.