Derek Burnett is a Contributing Writer at Bottom Line Personal, where he writes frequently on health and wellness. He is also a contributing editor with Reader’s Digest magazine.
When people learn about the importance of nutrition for concentration, focus, and brain health, many naturally wonder whether they could give themselves an extra boost by taking supplements for focus, concentration, and memory. And the supplement industry is all too willing to exploit this line of thinking by pitching a plethora of “breakthrough” or “ancient” substances billed as secret weapons in the battle for greater brainpower. Unfortunately, most such products have not been shown to stimulate cognition, yet supplement manufacturers continue profiting from people’s desire to improve their lives.
That isn’t to say that all supplements are inherently bad, but rather that most haven’t been studied sufficiently to back up their claims with evidence. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate nutritional supplements as it does with drugs, which must undergo multiple phases of rigorous scientific study. That leaves supplement manufacturers open to making vague claims without hard evidence.
Without a doubt, there are certain key nutrients that are crucial for keeping your brain operating optimally. But these aren’t obscure, exotic substances found only as supplements for focus and memory, but rather the standard building-blocks of a healthy diet. Most can and should be obtained through food.
Crudely speaking, your brain consists mostly of protein and water. The “working parts” of your brain cells, as well as the tissues that connect your brain cells to each other, are made of protein.
Get your protein from lean sources, including fish, poultry, beans, legumes, nuts, and low-fat dairy. When you fill your plate, the protein portion should take up about a quarter of the space.
Mainly found in fish oil, these well-studied substances are understood to support brain function, heart health, the immune system and overall health. For most people, it’s difficult to get enough omega-3 by consuming fish alone, so many experts recommend taking a 1,000 mg daily supplement. Recent research has shown that taking higher dosages of fish oil can be dangerous for people with high triglyceride levels, so talk to your doctor if you fall into that category.
A substantial body of research has linked the B family of vitamins with proper brain functioning and mental health. B vitamins foster the growth of healthy red blood cells and contribute to the production of brain neurotransmitters. Deficiencies of vitamin B1 (thiamin) are associated with anxiety, depression and memory loss. Vitamin B9 (folic acid) positively influences memory function. Insufficient vitamin B12 can lead to confusion and dementia. Lean meats, fish, leafy green vegetables, fortified breakfast cereals, eggs, beans, citrus fruits, and low-fat dairy are all good sources of B vitamins. If you’re concerned that you’re not getting enough of those foods in your diet, it’s a good idea to take a daily multivitamin that contains the critical B vitamins.
Known as “the sunshine vitamin,” Vitamin D can have a significant impact on mood. It also plays an important role in brain development, and vitamin D deficiency has been linked to increased risk of neurocognitive decline. In a 2022 Tufts University study, as vitamin D levels in the brain doubled, risk of cognitive decline decreased by at least 25%. Although many experts have traditionally encouraged people to get their vitamin D through at least 10 minutes of daily sun exposure, recent research suggests that most North Americans cannot get adequate vitamin D just by going outside. Unfortunately, there are few good dietary sources of vitamin D, including wild-caught oily fish such as salmon, cod-liver oil, certain mushrooms, and fortified foods. That’s why 60% of people have insufficient levels of the vitamin in their blood. It’s therefore a good idea to take a supplement or make sure that your daily multivitamin contains vitamin D. The Institute of Medicine now recommends that you get 1,500-2,000 IU per day if you have a normal body weight and twice that if you’re obese.
This nutrient has antioxidant properties and has been linked to increased neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to create new neural pathways. Most people get plenty of vitamin E from food sources such as meats, dairy, and leafy green vegetables. It’s not a good idea to take vitamin E supplements unless you’re instructed to by your doctor. Excessive vitamin E can interfere with some medications, and high levels of the nutrient have been associated with increased risk of prostate cancer in some studies, as well as worse outcomes for people with diabetes, liver disease, heart disease, and other conditions.
Some other supplements billed as memory-boosters or supplements for focus do appear to hold some promise. They include:
Getting your vitamins and nutrients through food wherever possible—especially fruits and vegetables—allows you to ensure you’re getting enough fiber in your diet, which reduces inflammation, known to contribute to depression and dementia. And some foods and beverages contain phytochemicals and inflammation-fighting antioxidants conducive to brain health. Examples of foods and seasonings to incorporate into your brain-healthy diet include:
Understanding the effects of alcohol on cognition can be confusing. On one hand, some studies suggest that alcohol’s anti-inflammatory properties are neuroprotective. On the other hand, we know that one of the risks of heavy drinking is a long-term decline in cognition. What the science appears to tell us is that moderate drinking may have a positive effect on the brain, while heavier drinking is harmful. Yet even the effects of moderate drinking—defined now as no more than one drink per day for men or women—could balance out to be more harmful than beneficial. The best advice is either not to drink or to do so only in moderation. And without question alcoholic drinks are not billed as supplements for focus and concentration. Drinking more in the hopes of boosting your cognition would be a bad idea.