Tag Archive for: essential nutrients

Your brain is powerful. You can even use it to think about how the brain itself works. But this power doesn’t make your brain immune to factors that impact the rest of your body. Lifestyle and environment can affect your brain health. Luckily, there are nutrients for brain health shown to support cognitive function.

You’ll read about a handful of the most important nutrients for your brain. And you’ll find brain foods that contain these key nutritional components of maintaining cognitive health.

Healthy Lipids

For a long time, dietary fats (lipids) have been connected to brain health. Originally, lipids’ effect on the cardiovascular system was thought to facilitate that connection. But more recent research shows beneficial dietary fats have more direct actions on the brain.

Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (like DHA from fish oil) normally make up cell membranes throughout your body. And like other saturated fats, they’re fundamental building blocks for your brain cells. That’s part of the reason fish is often called a brain food.

But fatty, cold-water fish aren’t the only food you should turn to for healthy lipids for supporting brain health. Add these options to your brain health shopping list:

  • Avocados
  • Nuts (almonds to walnuts and everything in between)
  • Seeds
  • Plant-based oils
  • Soybean


The antioxidant effects of flavonoids are well-established in a test-tube setting. But these plant compounds—like cocoa, ginkgo, and grape-seed extracts—have more complex actions in the body that is are continually being researched.

Some flavonoids show promising results in maintaining healthy brain function. Quercetin—a flavonoid that’s a major component of ginkgo biloba extracts—has been shown to maintain memory and learning abilities in some studies. Further research on the subject is needed.

Flavonoids come from a variety of colorful plant foods. That provides ample options for packing your diet with flavonoids. Try these:

  • Berries
  • Dark chocolate
  • Dark green, leafy vegetables
  • Grapes
  • Tea
  • Plums
  • Broccoli


Like their phytonutrient cousins, carotenoids are pigments, providing color to fruits and vegetables. The yellows, reds, and oranges bringing warm color to your diet come from carotenoids.

Some powerful members of this phytonutrient family—lutein and zeaxanthin—are more known for supporting eye health than the brain. But research has shown ties between these carotenoids and maintaining normal, healthy cognitive function.

Other carotenoids are sought out by the brain. They are used as antioxidants to help protect your brain from oxidative stress.

To help in your brain’s quest for more carotenoids, turn to:

  • Carrots
  • Pumpkin
  • Spinach
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Red bell peppers
  • Tomatoes (canned and raw)
  • Kale

B Vitamins

Adequate levels of the B vitamin folate are essential for brain function. The proof? Folate deficiency can lead to neurological and cognitive issues.

Clinical trial results have deepened the connection between folate and cognitive function. These studies have shown folate supplementation—by itself or in conjunction with other B vitamins (B6 and B12)—to be effective at maintaining healthy cognitive function during aging.

Finding folate and other B vitamins is fairly easy. Seek out these foods:

  • Legumes
  • Spinach
  • Broccoli
  • Asparagus
  • Enriched grains
  • Beef, seafood, and eggs (for vitamin B12)
  • Bananas, potatoes, and nuts (for vitamin B6)

Vitamin E, or α-tocopherol

Looking up brain foods will often lead you to nuts and fish. Part of that, as you read above, is thanks to healthy fats. But many nuts also pack an important vitamin payload. They are often packed full of vitamin E.

This powerful antioxidant also has studied links to cognitive performance. One example that sticks out is an association between dipping serum levels of vitamin E and poor memory performance in older individuals.

So, remember to add these good sources of vitamin E to your menu:

  • Nuts
  • Plant oils
  • Green vegetables
  • Blackberries
  • Broccoli
  • Sunflower seeds

Calcium and Magnesium

Your brain works so well because of the interconnectedness of your neurons and their ability to communicate. Two minerals—calcium and magnesium—play a big role keeping communications flowing.

You know them better for bone health benefits. But these minerals help your brain, too. Calcium aids proper functioning of nerve cells and helps control the flow of neurotransmitters. Magnesium plays a role in impulse transmission. And it also helps your brain unlock all the benefits of B vitamins by catalyzing their transition to active forms.

Luckily, these mighty minerals are widely available in your diet. Calcium can be found in dairy products, beans, oranges, cabbage and kale. Magnesium is available in nuts, whole grains, milk, meats, and green, leafy vegetables.

Other Nutrients for Brain Health

Here’s a short list of the other nutrients with researched roles in brain health:

  • Alpha lipoic acid has been shown to maintain memory and cognitive function.
  • Caffeine is more than a pick-me-up for your brain. There have been ties between caffeine consumption and the brain’s processing abilities.
  • Zinc is an essential mineral that is found in the front part of your brain. More study is needed to determine mechanisms, but a lack of zinc has connections to numerous neurological issues.
  • Curcumin is a strong antioxidant that seems to protect the brain from lipid peroxidation and nitric-oxide-based radicals.
  • Several gut hormones or peptides—like leptin, ghrelin, glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP1) and insulin—have been found to support healthy emotional response and cognitive processes.

Energy Production

The brain runs your body. And it takes a lot of energy to maintain proper operation. Healthy macronutrients are necessary to fuel your brain and provide the energy it needs.

The mechanisms involved in the transfer of energy from foods to neurons are likely to be fundamental to the control of brain function. Processes that are associated with the management of energy in neurons can affect brain plasticity.

Far-Reaching Impacts of Good Brain Nutrition

Lifestyle and diet have long-term effects on your health. That means they are likely underestimated for their importance to public health—especially when it comes to healthy aging.

But those factors are important to your brain.

The gradual and sometimes imperceptible cognitive decline that characterizes normal aging can be influenced by the nutrients you feed your brain through a healthy diet. So, properly fueling your brain to tackle your daily tasks should go hand-in-hand with long-term maintenance efforts. With so many delicious options, the burden of eating brain food shouldn’t be too hard to bear.



You’ve heard it before: you can get all the nutrients you need from the food you eat. Well, maybe you can. It’s certainly possible. But it’s unlikely.

We all know that vitamin supplements are no substitute for a healthy diet. But nobody is a perfectly healthy eater. It’s hard to get everything you need if you’re ill, a picky eater, dieting, or have food allergies. For those on restricted diets it can be particularly challenging.

Research has shown that deficiencies also vary by age, gender, or ethnicity. And deficiency may soar to nearly one third of certain population groups. In addition, many people are too busy to take the time to eat well or cook at home.

Luckily, there’s something you can do to help prevent deficiency. New research shows daily multivitamin/mineral supplements may be a nutritional insurance plan.

A new study in the journal Nutrients analyzes data from 10,698 adults age 19 years and older. The data comes from the 2009-2012 National Health and Nutrition Surveys (NHANES). This provided reliable 24-hour dietary interviews—including the use of dietary supplements. An in-person health examination also collected blood samples to analyze markers of nutritional status.

They found the daily use of multivitamin/mineral supplements helped prevent shortfalls in important nutrients necessary to support overall health. There were a few exceptions: calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D. But those are still important nutrients everyone needs to get enough of.

“Regrettably, there appears to be a great tenacity to old ways of thinking, e.g., you can get all the nutrition you need if you just eat a healthy, balanced diet—and then ignoring how most people actually eat and what they actually require,” lead author Jeffrey Blumberg, PhD said. “… Also, as our understanding about higher nutrient requirements of optimal health and wellness grows, particularly among older adults, it is clear that it can be quite difficult to achieve these intakes of selected nutrients from commonly available food choices.”

Now when someone says, “you can get everything you need from your diet,” you can point them to this study.

Health Benefits of Nutritional Supplements

Blumberg JB, Frei BB, Fulgoni VL, Weaver CM, Zeisel SH. Impact of Frequency of Multi-Vitamin/Multi-Mineral Supplement Intake on Nutritional Adequacy and Nutrient Deficiencies in U.S. Adults. Nutrients. 2017;9(8)



Previous research has shown positive effects of essential fatty acids (omega-3/6) in children with attention and reading difficulties. New research shows that these fats could improve reading ability in mainstream schoolchildren.

Foods high in omega-3 include fish, vegetable oils, nuts, flax seeds, and leafy vegetables. Most omega-6 fatty acids in the diet are obtained from vegetable oils. The modern diet is particularly low in omega-3 fatty acids which are important for signal transmission between nerve cells and the regulation of signaling systems in the brain.

The study group included 154 schoolchildren from western Sweden who were in grade 3 (between 9 and 10 years of age). The researchers then measured their reading skills using a computer-based test, called the Logos test. It measured reading speed, ability to read nonsense words, and vocabulary.

The children were randomly assigned supplements with omega-3/omega-6 or a placebo of palm oil which they took for 3 months (3 capsules per day). The study was double-blinded so neither the researchers nor parents knew which treatment the children were taking. After 3 months all the children received the real omega-3/6 capsules for the remainder of the research study.

Researchers saw a significant improvement in reading skills after the first 3 months in children taking the omega-3/6 acid compared to the placebo. While no children diagnosed with ADD/ADHD were included in the study, those children with mild attention problems achieved greater improvements in certain tests, such as faster reading, after taking the real supplements.

Johnson M, Fransson G, Östlund S, Areskoug B, Gillberg C. Omega 3/6 fatty acids for reading in children: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial in 9-year-old mainstream schoolchildren in Sweden. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2017;58(1):83-93.

Teenage years are a critical period for brain development. Adolescents experience major shifts in hormones, and their brains hit developmental milestones throughout puberty. These changes contribute to a teen’s working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control.

It’s important for teenagers to fortify their brain during this time of growth and development. Vitamin D is one of the key nutrients needed to help support and maintain a teenage brain.*

The Brain and Vitamin D

For children, teens, and adults alike, vitamin D helps protect brain cells and supports the development of new neural pathways. Vitamin D can even act like a hormone to help optimize cognition and executive (brain) function.*

For many teenagers, vitamin D is acquired in the diet and through sun exposure. But for adolescents living in high-latitude regions, like Norway or Alaska (where the sun doesn’t always shine), this daily nutrient requirement is often not met. And teens tend to make poor food choices that keep them from getting their vitamin D.

A European study conducted in 2016 tested several hypotheses on the relationship between adolescent’s vitamin D levels and executive function. The link between vitamin D levels and mental health (such as sense of well-being, happiness, and satisfaction) was also researched.*

The results supported researchers’ predictions—vitamin D supports executive function and mental health in teenagers. Teens optimized their performance on problem-solving and executive function tests when they supplemented with vitamin D. Their mental health was supported with higher levels of vitamin D, too.*

Conversely, the teens in the study who did not supplement with vitamin D (or who were vitamin D deficient) didn’t experience the same brain-supporting benefits.*

That’s why it’s so important that teens meet their vitamin D needs. The teenage years are booming with brain development. Maintaining healthy vitamin D levels is just one way teens can be proactive and support their executive function and mental health.*

Get to Know the Study

This study shows that adequate levels of vitamin D can be an effective way for teenagers to support their growing brains. Supplementing this essential vitamin may be the most practical way to optimize the daily intake of vitamin D for teens—particularly those living at high latitudes. And although this study was conducted in Norway, the results can be extrapolated and applied to adolescents all over the world.

Here are the details of the study and research that links vitamin D and teenage executive function:

This experiment examined the relationship between vitamin D supplementation and performance on two executive function tests. To account for the effects on mental health, a survey was given to all participants.

The study subjects were 52 Norwegian teenagers who participated in the experiment after school. All subjects received a tablet to take daily during the study, but only half the tablets contained a vitamin D supplement.

A blood draw and three online pre-tests helped researchers establish a baseline for vitamin D levels and brain performance. The first two tests were called the Tower of London, and the Tower of Hanoi, respectively. These tests observed the teenager’s ability to plan and “look ahead” by predicting how many steps would be required to solve a problem.

executive function

The final pre-test was a self-report of the adolescent’s mental health. There is a well-established link between mental health and vitamin D. Researchers wanted to confirm this link in their study.

Performance on each of the two executive function test and self-report of mental health were recorded for each subject at the beginning of the study, and 4-5 months later. With half of the participants supplementing with vitamin D tablets on a daily basis, the researchers had three predictions to test:

  1. Vitamin D supplementation would be beneficial on both executive function tests*
  2. Vitamin D supplementation during winter would improve self-perceived mental health*
  3. Vitamin D supplementation would increase overall levels of vitamin D in adolescents*

The Case for Vitamin D

In the years since this study was published, more research has established a similar relationship between the brain and vitamin D. Teens aren’t the only age group that could benefit from vitamin D. Young children especially need to meet their daily vitamin D requirements to support the development of fine motor skills, and establish a foundation of mental well-being.*

See all the ways vitamin D helps optimizes your brain health. Check out these resources and read the research for yourself.*

Compared to placebo, patients taking Vitamin E had slower functional decline and needed less caregiver assistance.

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association reports on the benefit of high dose Vitamin E in patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s Disease. The double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized clinical trial involved 613 patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s Disease. Participants were randomized to receive 2,000 international units (IU) of vitamin E, 20 milligrams of memantine, a combination of both, or a placebo daily. Average follow-up was 2.3 years.

Patients were analyzed on their capability to perform daily living activities, memory and language, cognitive function, behavioral and psychological issues, and the time needing caregiver assistance. The data was measured and collected at the beginning of the study and every six months during the trial.

Over the years of follow-up, scores declined by 3.15 units less in the Vitamin E group compared with the placebo group. In the memantine group, the scores declined 1.98 units less than the decline in the placebo group. Compared to the placebo group, those taking Vitamin E had an average delay in clinical progression of 19% per year, or approximately 6.2 months over the follow-up period.

Patients receiving the vitamin also needed less caregiver assistance in comparison with the placebo group. There was no significant difference in all-cause mortality or safety issues reported between the placebo and Vitamin E groups.

This study showed that high dose Vitamin E appears to slow functional decline and caregiver burden in patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s Disease.

Dysken MW, Sano M, Asthana S, et al. Effect of vitamin E and memantine on functional decline in Alzheimer disease: the TEAM-AD VA cooperative randomized trial. JAMA. 2014;311(1):33-44.

Cigarette smokers are known to have an increased risk of heart disease and myocardial infarction (MI). Smoking negatively affects the cells lining the blood vessels (endothelial cells) and reduces the body’s output of plasminogen activator (t-PA), a substance involved in the normal breakdown of clots within the vessels. Previous research has linked fish oil to heart health benefits associated with improvements in blood lipid levels, blood pressure, heart rate, reductions in clotting, and overall vascular health.

In a study published in the journal Heart, researchers investigated the effects of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation on cardiovascular health and vascular function in otherwise healthy smokers. The randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled crossover trial included 20 cigarette smokers that were given either 2 grams of fish oil or placebo for a 6 week period.

The daily fish oil supplements were associated with an increase in t-PA at twice the level of the placebo group. Substances known to dilate blood vessels, thereby increasing blood flow, were also significantly higher in the omega-3 supplemented group compared to placebo.

This study is the first to show that omega-3 fatty acids may enhance endothelial t-PA release and improve endothelial vasomotor function in cigarette smokers. The researchers note that while the omega-3 supplements may have improved vascular function in smokers, they still aren’t likely to match the endothelial function of non-smokers, so quitting smoking is still a key factor in reducing heart disease risk.

For tips on how to quit smoking:




Din JN et al. Effect of ω-3 fatty acid supplementation on endothelial function, endogenous fibrinolysis and platelet activation in male cigarette smokers. Heart. 2013 Feb;99(3):168-74.

For those with diabetes, folic acid supplementation may be beneficial in reducing the risk of stroke.

Folic acid is a derivative of folate (an essential B vitamin) and is an essential nutrient which has been linked to numerous health benefits. It is important enough that many governments require grains to be fortified with folate/folic acid to provide their citizens with regular, daily access to this important vitamin.

In countries with low access to folate, research has demonstrated an incredible reduction of incidences of neural tube defects (NTDs) in infants whose mothers had access to folic acid supplementation during pregnancy. Folic acid supplementation has proven to be a safe, inexpensive, and effective way to reduce the risk of NTDs and other birth defects in third-world countries and at-risk populations all around the world.

Folic acid supplementation has also been purported to improve heart health. The American Heart Association (AHA) published an article last year exploring the decrease in congenital heart defects associated with folic-acid supplementation and folic-acid-fortified foods. This connection between the B vitamin and heart health suggests that folic acid can work preventatively with regards to stroke and myocardial infarction, otherwise known as heart attack.

Diabetes, which is characterized by high blood glucose concentrations during and after periods of fasting, is a known risk factor for stroke. Researchers at several universities and hospitals in China hypothesized about the link between folic acid supplementation and the first stroke associated with elevated blood glucose levels. They performed a randomized double-blind study over the course of several years.

Participants in this study were men and women between the ages of 45 and 75 with hypertension, who were diagnosed as diabetic (type 2 diabetes mellitus) or normoglycemic prior to the study. The subjects were provided with either a daily oral dose of 10mg enalapril and 0.8mg folic acid, or 10 mg enalapril only. Follow-up visits for each participant were scheduled every three months for the duration of the study (median duration = 4.5 years).

Results indicate that, for any given glucose category (hypoglycemic, normoglycemic, diabetic), risk of stroke was significantly reduced by folic acid supplementation. Those with fasting glucose blood levels indicating diabetes showed the greatest risk reduction due to folic acid supplementation.

From the results of this study, it can be inferred that folic acid supplementation may be beneficial in reducing the risk of stroke for those with diabetes. Increasing the amount of folic in the diet should be a priority for everyone; however, without regular access to folate-fortified grains, this goal can be hard to achieve. Folic acid supplements can be a great way to regularly meet the daily recommended value of this essential nutrient.

Xu RB, Kong X, Xu BP, et al. Longitudinal association between fasting blood glucose concentrations and first stroke in hypertensive adults in China: effect of folic acid intervention. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2017;105(3):564-570. doi:10.3945/ajcn.116.145656.

Folic acid fortified food linked to decrease in congenital heart defects. News on Heart.org. http://news.heart.org/folic-acid-fortified-food-linked-to-decrease-in-congenital-heart-defects/. Published August 29, 2016. Accessed May 10, 2017.