Better memory. Improved focus. Lower odds of developing dementia. Brain health is big business. A 2019 report by the Global Counsel on Brain Health projected that by 2023, people will spend more than $5 billion a year globally on brain health supplements.
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But can popping a pill really boost your brainpower? “The research in this area is in its infancy,” says dietitian Maxine Smith, RDN, LD. “We don’t yet have the data we need to make a recommendation about whether brain supplements work. And there are some safety concerns.”
Here’s what you should know before you buy supplements for your brain.
Brain health supplements: Do they work?
Many of the ingredients in brain health supplements have been tied to brain health in some way. But much of the evidence comes from research on food and diet, not supplements, Smith says.
“There are more than 25,000 bioactive substances in food, which work together to protect your body including your brain and processes that affect your brain,” Smith says. “Taking just one or two of those vitamins or chemicals isn’t going to be a cure-all.”
Still, you might be wondering about the link between common brain booster ingredients and brain health. Here’s what the science says.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3s are a type of healthy fats that are important for several body functions. They’re found in fatty fish, shellfish and plant sources like walnuts and flaxseed. Omega-3 fatty acids are important for heart health, and scientists are studying whether they may also benefit the brain.
“But there’s not enough research to say that a supplement has the same benefits as omega-3 fatty acids from foods,” Smith says. It’s probably a better bet to just order the salmon.
Researchers have explored the link between cognition and vitamins B6, B9 and B12. But so far, there isn’t evidence that B vitamins improve cognition or prevent dementia. Most people get plenty of B vitamins from their diet, Smith says.
Some older adults are deficient in B12, however. In that case, a supplement could benefit overall health, including brain health. “If you are taking a daily multivitamin, it’s likely providing enough B-12, but it’s always best to discuss supplements with your physician before taking,” she says.
Vitamin E is an antioxidant that protects your cells from damage. In people who already have dementia, a daily supplement of vitamin E may slow the rate of decline.
And there’s some evidence that people who eat a diet rich in vitamin E may be less likely to develop dementia. But it’s not clear whether supplements would have the same benefit.
What’s more, too much vitamin E can be harmful. “High doses of vitamin E supplements are associated with an increased risk of death,” Smith says. Instead of supplements, she recommends a vitamin E-rich diet, with foods like nuts, seeds, dark green leafy vegetables and vegetable oils like sunflower and corn oil.
Vitamins A, C and D are often included in products that claim to benefit the brain. But while these vitamins are important for overall health, there’s no evidence that they boost memory, cognition or brain health. That being said, vitamin D is the “sunshine vitamin” and many of us aren’t getting enough. Vitamin D is a good one to discuss with your physician.
Ginkgo is an herb that’s long been popular as a supplement for cognitive health. But a large study of more than 3,000 participants found that ginkgo was no better than a placebo at preventing dementia in older adults. And in people who already had dementia, ginkgo didn’t do anything to slow the rate of cognitive decline.
Plus, ginkgo could interact negatively with other medications. In other words, you should probably skip this herb.
Should you take a brain supplement?
What about all those over-the-counter brain supplements that claim they’re proven to benefit your brain? “Take those claims with a grain of salt,” Smith says.
Supplements are loosely regulated in the U.S., so there’s no guarantee they do what they claim to do. The studies done by manufacturers aren’t always well-designed, Smith says. And some supplements might contain ingredients at doses that could be harmful. “They might even be tainted with contaminants like heavy metals that can be dangerous,” she adds.
Better ways to boost brain health
Someday researchers might identify a blend of ingredients that does wonders for your gray matter. But in the meantime, there are more effective ways to keep your brain healthy:
- Diet. Nutrition is one of the best ways to protect your brain, Smith says. She recommends a diet rich in produce with healthy oils from olive oil, nuts and seeds and fatty cold-water fish. “Aim for a colorful diet, with dark leafy greens, as well as orange and red fruits and veggies,” she says. “Colorful foods contain antioxidants that may protect the brain.”
- Limit alcohol. “Too much alcohol can increase the risk of cognitive decline,” she says.
- Physical activity. “Regular exercise has a strong association with the prevention of cognitive problems,” Smith says. “Try to get at least 150 minutes of activity a week.”
- Sleep. Being sleep-deprived is linked to cognitive decline, so prioritize your slumber.
- Socialize. Social interaction is closely tied with maintaining cognitive function as we get older. “Try to spend time with others and limit isolation,” Smith advises. “Whenever you can, share meals with friends and family.”
- Treat health problems. Chronic health problems like Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure can increase the chances of cognitive decline and dementia. To lower your risk, work with your doctor to manage any illnesses.
“As we’re living longer and our population is aging, more people are concerned with protecting cognition,” Smith says. There’s no magic pill, but healthy lifestyle choices can do a lot to benefit your brain.
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