Supplements are nutrients and vitamins people take to mitigate the effects of an imperfect diet or increased needs due to chronic disease or aging. Over 170 million Americans take dietary supplements. Top reasons for taking supplements include overall health and wellness benefits, increased energy, filling a nutrition gap, bone health, heart health, and healthy aging.
Research on supplements has exploded over the past two decades. However, it is a tough field to study as nutrients and vitamins are studied for their effect in food, not specifically on the brain. Good clinical trials to test supplements compare the effects in two groups, one taking the supplement and the other taking a placebo. Neither the person taking the medication (supplement or placebo) nor the investigators should know who is taking which medication. This reduces the placebo effect. It is also important to control for as many variables that may affect the outcome of the study as possible.
Not all supplements are helpful. Some may not help at all because they are not bioavailable to the target organ, and some may even be harmful, especially at high doses. This is why it is essential to research the products you are taking. Verify that you are getting them from a US-based, FDA-registered pharmacy and that, if a prescription is required, the pharmacy will not fill it without a valid prescription.
Like most products, if advertisers make claims that sound too good to be true—they probably are. Reputable products will supply an ingredient list and dosage and any available research regarding their products. Supplement manufacturers are not required to prove their products are effective, as long as they don’t make any claims about curing or treating specific diseases.
Since supplements are not regulated like pharmaceuticals, contaminated nutritional products are a significant health risk. Supplements from unregulated producers can be contaminated with pesticides, herbicides, and heavy metals. Sometimes, ingredients are added to products that are not listed on the label. In 2016, an FDA investigation found 776 dietary products that contained ingredients not listed on their labels. Read more about buying nutritional supplements from the US and China.
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Many people understand brain health as the health of neurons (brain cells) and their ability to produce chemicals called neurotransmitters that send messages from one cell to the next. They may define mental health as the ability to produce thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that do not cause undue distress and help with functioning in the world. Mental illnesses are physical illnesses of the brain that are treatable, just like other physical illnesses.
Separating these two—brain health and mental health—increases the risk that people with mental illness may face stigma and discrimination as they seek treatment for their medical condition. Mental illness is a manifestation of symptoms secondary to changes in the brain, whether those changes are in brain structure or function. When asked, “How do brain health and mental health intersect?“, the answer should be that mental health depends on brain health. Brain health encompasses a wide range of functions, including cognition, movement and sensation, coordination, regulation of bodily functions, and mentation and emotion.
Much of the current data on what works and what doesn’t comes from surveys. The supplements that are rated most helpful for brain health are vitamin E, ginkgo biloba, hormones such as estrogen and testosterone, and fish oil. Two recent evidence-based reviews of findings from 89 randomized controlled trials found that there was insufficient evidence to support the use of medications or supplements to protect cognitive health in people with normal cognition or mild cognitive impairment. This would make sense because there is no way to control for the many variables that affect brain health, including diet, genetic predisposition, body composition, and chronic diseases. The field of cognitive health is a growing field of interest and more definitive information on the potential risks and benefits of supplements for protecting and enhancing brain health is expected.
All the B vitamins, including B6, B12, and folic acid, are important to overall health and play a role in brain health. Vitamins B12 and B6 can lower homocysteine levels. High homocysteine levels are associated with an increased risk of stroke and cognitive decline. However, clinical studies have shown inconsistent results as to whether B vitamins support cognitive health.
Researchers have found that folic acid deficiency in pregnant people can increase the risk of spinal cord defects. Many foods are fortified with folic acid to reduce the risk of birth defects. Folic acid deficiency alone or with vitamin B12 deficiency can negatively affect brain health.
Vitamin B6 is involved in many metabolic reactions in the body. Most people can get enough vitamin B6 from their diet, so a deficiency is rare. People with autoimmune disorders are at an increased risk of vitamin B6 deficiency. Symptoms include numbness and tingling in the hands and feet, depression, confusion, and a weakened immune system.
Vitamin B12 is a water-soluble vitamin in which deficiency is common, affecting 6% to 23% of people under age 60 and nearly 20% of people over age 60. Vitamin B12 deficiency increases the risk of dementia and neurologic symptoms such as numbness and tingling. Observational studies have found a link between low vitamin B12 levels and reduced cognitive function. People at an increased risk for vitamin B12 deficiency include:
A 2019 AARP survey found that 26% of adults over 50 take a B vitamin, and of those taking a B vitamin supplement, 48% are taking B12 and 62% are taking B complex.
L-theanine is a natural amino acid found in tea and mushrooms. When paired with caffeine, L-theanine may improve focus and attention. Cognitive performance may improve secondary to improved alertness.
Consumption of fatty fish and other types of seafood may benefit cognitive health. This may be because of increased omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA, in these foods. DHA is a building block of cell membranes in brain cells. Some observational studies have shown that people who consume more seafood have a lower risk of cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and dementia. Lower blood DHA levels are associated with a build-up of amyloid in healthy older adults. People with Alzheimer’s disease have lower blood DHA levels than cognitively healthy people.
Omega-3 fatty acids are important for heart and cardiovascular health and may be important for brain health as well. Clinical trials show that omega-3 supplementation may help people with mild cognitive impairment, however, it did not help reduce the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Clinical trials have not found a benefit for cognitively healthy people, but more research is needed.
Ginseng is an herb that has been used in traditional Chinese medicine. Ginseng contains ginsenosides and gintonin. It is possible that ginseng improves memory and mood. A review of nine clinical studies suggested an improvement in some aspects of cognitive function and mood. However, there was no consistent evidence that ginseng improves cognitive function.
Vitamin E is an antioxidant that is essential for proper immune function. However, taking too much vitamin E, a fat-soluble vitamin, can be toxic. Antioxidants like vitamin E protect cells, including brain cells, from the harmful effects of free radicals, which are unpaired electrons that can damage cells.
Researchers are investigating whether increased vitamin E consumption to neutralize free radicals can better protect brain cells and reduce the risk of cognitive decline. More research is needed because clinical studies so far show contradictory results.
Supplements may be helpful to support cognitive health, especially in people with vitamin or mineral deficiencies. Before using supplements, talk to your doctor to learn more about the risks and benefits of taking them, especially if you are taking prescription medications.
If you are concerned about your cognitive health, whether cognitive function or mental health, see your doctor. There are many treatable medical conditions that affect brain function, and unless the underlying problem is addressed, it is unlikely that supplements will help, and they may even be harmful. People with cancer or who are about to have surgery should be extra cautious when taking supplements. Check with your doctor or pharmacist to verify whether your supplements are safe to take with prescribed medications.
For people without cognitive concerns who want to support their overall physical and cognitive health, supplements can fill the gaps left by an imperfect diet or a deficiency caused by lifestyle choices, chronic diseases, aging, or other health issues.
If you are interested in brain and health-protective supplements, contact the experts at Invigor Medical to learn more about how these supplements can promote healthy aging and support overall wellness.
While we strive to always provide accurate, current, and safe advice in all of our articles and guides, it’s important to stress that they are no substitute for medical advice from a doctor or healthcare provider. You should always consult a practicing professional who can diagnose your specific case. The content we’ve included in this guide is merely meant to be informational and does not constitute medical advice.