Supplementing your diet with the right vitamins, supplements and nootropics can improve memory, focus and fatigue. This is of particular importance for those living with neurological injuries and conditions and for people that find it difficult to eat a healthy and varied diet.
The content of this post is primarily relevant for people who have suffered a brain injury or a neurological condition such as dementia. However, most of the recommendations here are equally applicable for people without such conditions.
First, some housekeeping. Please consult with your doctor before guzzling down a bunch of new supplements. Although the dosages I've listed are considered safe, it is always wise to err on the side of caution and there may be unwelcome interactions with any medication you may currently be taking!
I wanted to keep this post short and practical. I have tried to include only supplements that have some reputable science behind them. If you're in a rush, I have summarised what are, in my opinion, the most important supplements to consider here. Otherwise, take a couple minutes to read up on some background.
We're going to focus on supplements, vitamins and nootropics that have shown promise in promoting memory functioning. First of all, you will likely only experience minor improvements by including these in your diet alone. Research is increasingly indicating that good sleep, healthy eating, a positive mindset and regularly exercising the body and mind is a far more powerful cognitive enhancer. That being said, taking supplements is easy to do, and in some cases, could help significantly.
Vitamins are described as ‘a group of organic compounds which are essential for human growth and functioning.’ Your body cannot synthesise vitamins in large enough quantities, so we need to get them from what we eat and drink. However, it can be difficult to get all the necessary vitamins for optimal brain functioning from your diet alone. One major reason for this is because many modern diets consist of highly processed foods which lack nutritional variety. There are actually lots of people who are vitamin deficient without even knowing it.
If you are suffering from a neurological condition or injury, making sure you are not vitamin deficient is critical. For example, vitamin D deficiency is strongly linked to chronic fatigue and 'brain fog' in brain injured patients .
However, drinking 20 litres of Sunny Delight isn't going to turn you into Einstein. Firstly, Sunny D barely contains any vitamin D (shock!). Secondly, having a surplus of vitamins doesn't really add anything. Instead, it is better to consider supplementation as a practical way of ensuring you are not vitamin deficient - something which is important if you think your diet lacks fish, root vegetables, seeds, nuts and greens.
The most popular definition of nootropics is any substance that increases mental performance . This includes vitamins, stimulants like caffeine, and drugs. Nootropics can be naturally occurring or synthesised by man. Many vitamins are also nootropics, however, there are plenty of non-vitamin nootropics with promising research behind them. In the list below, rather than listing everything as a nootropic (because they all promote memory functioning right?), I've separated vitamins from non-vitamin nootropics.
Alright then, below are some of the best vitamins and nootropics, as well as a wildcard.
A recent study reported that you are up to 50% more likely to develop dementia if you are vitamin D deficient . Other research shows that brain injury survivors are more likely to be vitamin D deficient and that this can contribute to worsening cognitive functioning . How do you get it? Nature made different variations of vitamin D. D2 is man-made or extracted from plants, whilst D3 is mostly synthesised by your skin in response to the sun. Most supplement shops claim D3 is better as it more closely resembles natural processes in your body (but mostly because it is more expensive!). Both D2 and D3 undergo identical activation and metabolism processes in the body and the difference is negligible. I highly recommend a vitamin D supplement simply because many of us do not get enough sunlight. Humans were born to roam the outdoors. These days, we roam the internet... So, get yourself a Vitamin D supplement!
There is a strong body of research suggesting that a deficiency in B-12 is linked to memory impairment, particularly in the elderly . Similarly to vitamin D, there is evidence that a surplus of B-12 improves memory function. You can get enough B-12 from a balanced and healthy diet, foods particularly high in B-12 are poultry and fish. Despite your diet, I would strongly recommend taking vitamin B-12 supplements. If you are a strict vegetarian, I would say it’s a must.
Otherwise known as fish oils. The two important types of omega-3 fatty acids for memory functioning are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Both are critical for normal brain function and development throughout all stages of life. The evidence of omega-3 fatty acids for slowing the progression of Alzheimer's is disputed. However, there are several large studies indicating that taking fish oil supplements may improve brain function in people with more mild types of brain conditions like mild cognitive impairment or age-related cognitive decline . A lot of people fall below the recommended amount of oily fish which is twice a week, and although your body can synthesis EPA and DHA from other foods, this process is inefficient. I would therefore highly recommend a daily fish-oil supplement.
Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) are a naturally occurring source of dietary fats that are abundant in coconut oil. Our bodies rapidly convert them into ketones, which can be used as an energy source by the brain. No studies have yet found that MCTs can prevent dementia, but some evidence suggests that patients with dementia might find short-term benefit using MCTs .
In addition to sounding cool, there are some new studies suggesting that huperzine-A might significantly improve cognitive performance in people with Alzheimer's disease . It is also found naturally - in Chinese club moss Huperzia serrata (this is a type of moss not a night club!). It acts as a cholinesterase inhibitor — basically it increases the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain. Some early studies suggest that might protect nerve cells and possible slow cognitive decline. There are other studies indicating it may reduce neuro-inflammation and improve memory and focus. There are even studies showing that huperzine-A attenuates cognitive deficits following brain injury (admittedly this was in rats..) . Although initial research is promising, it is still in its infancy.
Ye-old reliable needs no introduction. It is a naturally occurring stimulant in tea, coffee and those brightly coloured energy drinks. It helps with fatigue and focus and there is some research suggesting it may have a positive effect on long-term memory formation . Research suggests that you should not drink more than four cups of coffee a day . It's very easy to overdo this (I LOVE coffee). If your like me and drink far too much, you may find that caffeine makes you feel like a living person rather than a zombie. For this reason, I suggest limiting your caffeine and save it for those moments when you really need to focus. Watch out for the brightly coloured drinks too, a single can can have up to 400mg of caffeine!
An amino acid that is structurally similar to certain neurotransmitters in the brain. It is present in many black and green teas and is extracted from Camellia sinensis- a shrub. L-theanine is traditionally used to promote relaxation without sedative effects. However, there is some evidence of short-term benefit in cognitive functioning for those with mild cognitive impairment . It is currently unknown whether L-theanine can improve cognition or slow cognitive decline in people with dementia. And, whilst some preclinical results indicate a possible small benefit, conclusive evidence is still lacking .
Extracted from the leaves of the Ginkgo biloba tree, this supplement is often touted as a memory enhancer. However, recent large trials of Ginkgo extract give conflicting results on memory enhancement. While there exists some evidence suggests that ginkgo extract might modestly improve memory in healthy adults, most studies indicate that there is no significant improvement for those suffering from cognitive decline or dementia. However, Ginko is a powerful anti-inflammatory and anti-oxident. In fact, many experts believe that it is these properties which are behind many of the claimed benefits relating to circulation, mood and cognition. Despite some conflicting research and doctor permitting, Ginko may well be worth considering .
Rumour has it that modafinil was originally made to keep soldiers awake for days on end. Today, modafinil is prescribed to treat excessive sleepiness caused by narcolepsy. There is some evidence that modafinil can improve working memory and attention in healthy individuals. However, there is as of yet, little evidence of these benefits in those with brain injury or dementia is unclear and more research is required.
Piracetam is considered the original nootropic. It is a synthetic derivative of the neurotransmitter gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA), a chemical messenger that helps slow down activity in your nervous system. The exact mechanism of how it functions in the brain is still not understood. There are numerous studies reporting an improvement in memory and cognitive functioning in individuals with dyslexia, and dementia . However, there are also many studies reporting negligible difference and long-term use is still not studied.
CBD is a cannabinoid and the more respectable and sensible brother of Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) - the main psychoactive compound in cannabis responsible for the sensation of getting “high”. CBD on the other hand is not psychoactive and there is a growing body of evidence suggesting a range of health benefits, in particular pain management and anxiety. There is also recent research suggesting CBD may have neuroprotective properties such as reducing the likelihood of seizures and muscle spasticity for those with epilepsy and multiple sclerosis . There is also a suggestion that CBD may improve blood flow to the hippocampus which could improve memory functioning . The growing body of anecdotal evidence, and given the range of other related health benefits, indicates CBD oil may well be worth a try.