Cognitive health is top of mind—not only as you age, but any time you long for improved focus, clarity and energy. While experts agree that a healthy diet and lifestyle are two important factors for brain health, research suggests certain supplements can also help support brain and cognitive health—especially for older adults, people following restricted diets and people navigating certain medical conditions.
Before you start shopping, learn which research-backed supplements may preserve or improve brain function, and read expert guidance on how to keep your mind sharp as you age.
Why Nutrition Matters for Brain Health
Nutrition affects cognitive health beyond fueling the body and brain throughout the day. In fact, nutrients from the foods you eat affect your brain function and can influence your risk for neurodegenerative disease.
“The brain requires essential nutrients to function properly,” explains David Seitz, M.D., medical director for Ascendant, a chemical dependency treatment center in New York. “Eating a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, complex carbohydrates and healthy fats can help provide the necessary vitamins, minerals and antioxidants needed for sharp thinking and memory retention. Additionally, adequate nutrition is necessary for proper brain development during childhood [and] adolescence and even into adulthood,” he adds.
“What you do or don’t eat can affect your brain and mental health,” adds Lindsay Delk, registered dietitian and owner of Food and Mood Dietitian in Texas. The MIND diet was developed specifically to promote brain health and reduce the risk of developing dementia, she notes.
“The MIND diet combines elements of the Mediterranean and DASH diets. It focuses on foods that can boost brain health, including green leafy vegetables, berries, nuts, whole grains, fish, poultry, beans and olive oil,” explains Delk.
Virginia Beach-based registered dietitian Kristin Gillespie advises people to get nutrients through foods rather than supplements whenever possible. “Nutrients found in foods tend to be more readily absorbed by the body compared to the synthetic forms found in supplements,” she explains. Foods also provide additional nutrients and healthful compounds rather than focusing on a single nutrient or handful of nutrients, she adds.
Furthermore, when you get your nutrients from food, you don’t have to worry about getting too much or too little the way you do with a supplement, adds Dr. Seitz.
However, supplements can be a helpful way to fill any nutrient gaps in your diet. “For people whose diets may be inadequate in these nutrients (i.e., those with absorption issues or who are adhering to restricted diets), a supplement may be necessary,” explains Gillespie.
The Best Brain Supplements, According to Experts
While experts agree a healthy diet and lifestyle are the most important components of supporting brain health, research suggests the supplements below can help fill important nutrient gaps in a person’s diet—and potentially support cognitive health and mood.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Of all the supplements recommended by experts for brain health, omega-3 fatty acids top the list. “Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly the long-chain fatty acids DHA and EPA present in fatty fish, are essential for the development of the brain and the eyes and have a significant influence on mental health at all ages,“ notes Eva De Angelis, licensed dietitian nutritionist and chef based in Argentina.
Omega-3s play important roles in the membranes of nerve cells, and people with neurodegenerative disorders tend to have lower levels of EPA and DHA. Furthermore, research suggests omega-3s may help protect against neurodegeneration and reduce risk of cognitive decline.
The recommended daily intake of omega-3 fatty acids for all adults is between 1.1 and 1.6 grams. A typical fish oil supplement provides about 1,000 milligrams (or about 1 gram) of fish oil, with about 300 milligrams of omega-3s specifically. Dosage varies widely, so check product labels carefully before choosing a supplement.
Creatine supplementation is often used for building muscle and improving athletic performance, but recent research suggests creatine may help improve brain function as well.
According to a 2022 research review in the journal Nutrients, creatine may aid recovery from concussion and mild traumatic brain injury, ease symptoms of depression, improve cognition and help protect against neurodegenerative diseases. In one study referenced in the review, creatine supplementation helped improve memory in older adults.
Creatine is a naturally occurring amino acid found in muscle tissue and the brain. It’s important for energy production, especially during times of increased metabolic demand, such as sleep deprivation.
According to the Internal Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), consuming up to 30 grams of creatine monohydrate daily for five years is safe for healthy individuals. If you choose to supplement with creatine, the ISSN recommends starting with a daily dose of around 0.3 grams of creatine per kilogram of body weight (for example, 20 grams of creatine for a 150-pound person) for five to seven days, followed by 3 to 5 grams daily thereafter. It’s important to stick to the recommended dosages, as ingesting too much creatine at once can cause damage to the liver or kidneys.
Research confirms what coffee lovers around the world suspect—caffeine improves cognitive performance. A 2016 research review in the journal Practical Neurology suggests caffeine can increase alertness and feelings of well-being, improve concentration and mood and help alleviate depression symptoms. It’s even associated with a reduced risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.
“Caffeine is very popular for cognitive function, as it has demonstrated neuroprotective benefits,” notes Susan Hewlings Ph.D., vice president of research affairs at Radicle Science.
Just don’t overdo it. Experts recommend limiting caffeine intake to no more than 400 milligrams (about five cups of coffee, depending on the brew strength) a day and no more than 200 milligrams per sitting. Excessive caffeine consumption can be associated with restlessness, insomnia and heart palpitations.
L-theanine is an amino acid found naturally in some mushrooms, as well as green and black teas. “It’s linked to an improvement in mental performance and focus in numerous studies,” notes Chicago-based registered dietitian Leah Johnston.
In one small study in the journal Neuropharmacology, participants who took 100 milligrams of L-theanine before a monitored two-hour task period made fewer errors during that time than those who received a placebo.
While there isn’t an established dose recommendation or upper limit for L-theanine supplementation, studies examining its effects on cognitive function often use daily doses between 100 and 250 milligrams. A cup of green tea provides between 8 to 30 milligrams of L-theanine.
Though called the sunshine vitamin, vitamin D is actually a hormone, notes U.K.-based specialist dietitian Sascha Landskron. “Vitamin D has hundreds of important functions [in the body] and is essential for good brain health,” she adds.
Research shows vitamin D is important for early brain development, and deficiency is linked to conditions including dementia, depression, autism and schizophrenia. One 2017 study in Current Gerontology and Geriatrics Research suggests vitamin D helps maintain cognitive function in older adults.
While the best source of vitamin D is sun exposure, you may need a supplement during the winter months or if you work indoors, wear sunscreen, cover your skin, have darker skin or have obesity, advises Landskron. Good food sources of vitamin D include cod liver oil, fatty fish like salmon and trout, mushrooms and fortified cereals and milk.
For most adults, the ideal daily dose for vitamin D is 600 to 800 IU. However, people supplementing with vitamin D over the long term can experience adverse health effects over time, such as high calcium levels in the blood, which can block blood vessels or cause kidney stones. Consider getting your vitamin D levels checked and consulting with your health care provider to determine the correct vitamin D supplementation dose for your body’s needs.
“Found naturally in eggs, choline is an essential nutrient that helps your brain make acetylcholine, which is a neurotransmitter needed for memory and general cognition,” explains Jacques Jospitre, Jr., M.D., board-certified psychiatrist and co-founder of SohoMD in New York.
In one study of over 2,000 older adults, those who consumed high amounts of choline tended to have lower risk of cognitive decline. While more human clinical trials are needed, animal-based research shows some promise in regards to choline’s role in reducing amyloid plaques and Alzheimer’s disease risk, adds Dr. Jospitre.
Resveratrol, an antioxidant polyphenol abundant in grapes and red wine, may help protect cells from damage, improve blood flow to the brain and slow cognitive decline. “Taking resveratrol supplements could prevent the deterioration of the hippocampus, an important part of the brain associated with memory,” notes Adash Bajaj, M.D., an anti-aging and longevity specialist in Los Angeles.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), supplementing with up to 1,500 milligrams of resveratrol daily for up to three months is considered safe. Higher doses up to 3,000 milligrams are also safe but more likely to cause stomach upset. Resveratrol can also slow blood clotting, so it should be avoided in people preparing for surgery or who take blood thinner medications.
Lion’s Mane Mushrooms
“Lion’s mane mushrooms (Hericium erinaceus) are tied to a host of health benefits, including reducing inflammation, treating anxiety or depression and enhancing cognitive function,” notes Johnston.
According to New York-based prebiotic and gut health expert Kara Landau, lion’s mane mushrooms support oxygen flow to the brain and can enhance memory, focus and concentration. “I find incorporating [lion’s mane mushrooms] on a daily basis helps one have a clearer mind and be able to take on the day without the negative side effects of increasing caffeine [intake],” she says.
Landau recommends starting with 250 to 500 milligrams of lion’s mane mushrooms daily to gauge your body’s tolerance, working up to around 1 gram daily. Note that, similar to resveratrol, lion’s mane mushrooms can interfere with the body’s blood clotting abilities. It can also cause a rash for some people.
The eight B vitamins play essential roles in brain health. “The vitamin B complex is crucial for supporting healthy brain function and may protect against memory loss, cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases,” says De Angelis.
Vitamins B6, B9 (folate) and B12 specifically are necessary for the metabolism of homocysteine, a molecule created in methionine metabolism, notes De Angelis. “Chances of neurodegeneration and cognitive decline increase with high blood homocysteine levels because it can cause oxidative stress and DNA damage,” she explains.
Most people can meet their B vitamin needs through a nutritious, well-balanced diet. However, older adults, people who follow plant-based diets and those with certain medical conditions may need a supplement to meet their needs. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for vitamin B6 for adults is between 1.2 and 2 milligrams daily, the RDA for folate for adults is between 400 and 600 micrograms daily, and the RDA for vitamin B12 for adults is between 2.4 and 2.8 micrograms daily. Most B vitamins are safe, but consuming excessive amounts of vitamin B6 can lead to nerve damage.
Theobromine is a natural stimulant found in chocolate that helps people feel more alert without the jittery feeling often associated with caffeine-containing foods and beverages, explains Landau. While animal and in vitro studies suggest theobromine may be effective at enhancing cognitive performance by improving blood flow to the brain, more studies in humans are needed.
Landau recommends a daily cup of brewed cacao as a delicious, rich source of theobromine.
Probiotics and Prebiotics
Gut health is another important factor for optimal cognitive function, according to Hewlings. “Probiotics can benefit cognition via the gut-brain axis,” she says, which connects the gastrointestinal tract and the central nervous system through bidirectional neural, hormonal and immune signaling pathways.
In a 2021 study in the Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, 12 weeks of supplementation with a probiotic combination of Bifidobacterium bifidum BGN4 and Bifidobacterium longum BORI specifically appeared to improve brain function and decrease perceived stress in healthy older adults.
Prebiotics—non-digestible fibers in fruits, vegetables and grains—also support gut health by providing food for healthy gut bacteria. Landau recommends prebiotics called galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS) for both gut health and mood support. “GOS is a specific prebiotic that’s proven to support mental health,” she says. According to Landau, as little as 5.5 grams of GOS daily may help relieve anxiety.
In addition to probiotic and prebiotic supplements, you can support healthy gut flora by eating a wide range of fruits, vegetables and grains rich in prebiotic fiber, as well as fermented foods like kimchi, yogurt and sauerkraut that naturally contain probiotic bacteria.
While magnesium has many important physiological functions, its effect on brain health and cognition is only starting to come into focus. Magnesium supports normal neural function by protecting brain and nervous system cells from degeneration. Multiple studies suggest low magnesium consumption is associated with higher risk of cognitive impairment and dementia.
A 2022 study of over 2,500 people ages 60 and older found those who consumed the highest amounts of magnesium through food and supplements had higher scores on cognitive tests compared to those who consumed the least amounts of magnesium. Another long-term study found low magnesium levels during middle age to be associated with increased risk of dementia but not cognitive decline. However, in both studies, it’s unclear whether low levels of magnesium increase the risk of dementia or if people with dementia have low levels of magnesium for some other reason.
Magnesium is widely available in many plant- and animal-based foods, including leafy green vegetables like spinach, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains. The RDA for magnesium is between 310 and 420 milligrams for adult men and women.
Healthy people don’t need to worry about getting too much magnesium from food—the kidneys filter out magnesium the body doesn’t need. But high doses of magnesium supplements can lead to gastrointestinal issues like nausea and diarrhea or even toxicity when taken in excess.
In one small but well-designed 2017 study in the Journal of Dietary Supplements, 50 adults with mild cognitive impairment received either 300 milligrams of ashwagandha root extract twice daily or a placebo for eight weeks. Those taking ashwagandha experienced significant improvements in memory, executive function, attention and information-processing speed compared to those who took a placebo.
In another 2021 study in Evidence-Based Complementary Alternative Medicine, healthy but stressed adults who took 300 milligrams of sustained-release ashwagandha extract daily for 90 days experienced significantly improved memory and focus, as well as psychological well-being, sleep quality and reduced stress compared to those who took a placebo.
Ashwagandha is commonly used in doses up to 1,000 milligrams daily for up to 12 weeks. While ashwagandha may be used safely in the short term, its long-term safety isn’t known, and large doses may lead to gastrointestinal upset or, rarely, liver problems.
According to the NIH, ashwagandha may interact with certain prescription medications, including antidiabetes drugs, antihypertensive drugs, immunosuppressants, benzodiazepines, certain sedative medications and thyroid hormones.
Consult your health care provider before taking ashwagandha to determine a proper dose for your needs and ensure it’s safe for you and medications you take. People who are pregnant or breastfeeding should avoid taking ashwagandha.
Phosphatidylserine (PS) is a class of phospholipids naturally found in brain tissue membranes. PS plays a critical role in communication throughout the nervous system by activating important signaling pathways and affecting the release of chemical messengers known as neurotransmitters. Studies suggest supplementing with PS can help protect brain health, lower risk of central nervous system diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, and improve cognitive function by reducing inflammation in the brain.
Observing the effect of phosphatidylserine on cognitive function in older adults, a 2022 review and meta-analysis in the Korean Journal of Food Science and Technology found PS supplementation at a level of 300 milligrams daily may improve cognitive function and memory without side effects.
However, many of the available studies on PS are dated, small and of relatively short duration. While more studies are needed to know whether supplementing with PS can improve brain health and cognition, the existing research seems promising.
There’s currently no recommended dose of PS, but studies suggest doses between 300 and 500 milligrams per day are safe and free of side effects.
One of the simplest ways to support brain health is to stay hydrated. About 73% of the brain and central nervous system is composed of water.
“Hydration is key for allowing nutrients into the brain and for toxins to get out of the brain,” explains Dr. Jospitre. “It sounds simple, but ensuring adequate water intake is very important to ideal brain health, and most people typically don’t get enough.
The Institute of Medicine of the National Academies recommends adult women consume about 11 cups and men about 15 cups of water daily, including fluid from fruits, vegetables and other water-rich foods you eat.
However, even water can be toxic in very large quantities. If you drink excessive amounts of water faster than your kidneys can process it, it can deplete the sodium levels in your blood to dangerously low levels, resulting in psychosis, coma and potentially death.
What to Look for When Buying Supplements for Cognitive Health
When choosing supplements to support cognitive health, Dr. Jospitre recommends avoiding any product that claims to prevent or reverse cognitive decline easily. “While supplemental nutrients are very helpful and [may] have research supporting their effects, there are no proven supplements that can make these claims by themselves. As usual, anything that sounds too good to be true usually is,” he says.
Landau recommends examining the quantity of nutrients in any supplement before you take it. “A lot of products add ‘fairy dust’ amounts of a hyped nutrient to draw in consumers but never offer any significant amount associated with clinically proven benefits,” she explains. On the flip side, some supplements may contain dosages above recommended limits, which could pose a toxicity risk over time.
Keep in mind that supplements aren’t regulated as drugs by the Food and Drug Administration, so it’s important to buy high-quality supplements from a reputable source, advises Delk. “Choose a supplement that has the good manufacturing practices (GMP) certification and undergoes third-party testing,” she adds.
Lastly, always consult a health care professional before starting any new supplement to be sure it’s safe for you and won’t interact with other medications you’re already taking.