Are there herbal and vitamin supplements that will protect my memory?

Here is ques­tion 17 of 25 from Brain Fit­ness 101: Answers to Your Top 25 Ques­tions.

Are there herbal and vit­a­min sup­ple­ments that will pro­tect my memory?

Key Points:

  • Omega‑3 and omega‑6 fat­ty acids found in cold-water fish may be help­ful to long term brain health.
  • Folic acid may also be help­ful to both cog­ni­tive func­tion and hearing.
  • Gink­go bilo­ba and DHEA do not appear to help your brain.
  • There is still more research to be done and nev­er dis­miss the place­bo effect!


Per­haps. The New Eng­land Jour­nal of Med­i­cine pub­lished an arti­cle debunk­ing DHEA, a steroid pre­cur­sor to testos­terone and estro­gen used to fight aging. The con­clu­sion of a two-year study at the Mayo Clin­ic in Min­neso­ta and Uni­ver­si­ty of Pad­ua in Italy showed it did not improve strength, phys­i­cal per­for­mance, or oth­er mea­sures of health. The study’s lead author, Dr. Nair said, “No ben­e­fi­cial effects on qual­i­ty of life were observed. There’s no evi­dence based on this study that DHEA has an anti­ag­ing effect.”

Gink­go bilo­ba is anoth­er over-the-counter mem­o­ry-enhanc­ing sup­ple­ment fre­quent­ly men­tioned. Yet, Paul Solomon from Williams Col­lege found “when tak­en fol­low­ing the manufacturer’s instruc­tions, gink­go pro­vides no mea­sur­able ben­e­fit in mem­o­ry or relat­ed cog­ni­tive func­tion to adults with healthy cog­ni­tive function.” Nicholas Burns from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ade­laide, Aus­tralia found longer-term mem­o­ry improved in healthy 55–79 year olds, but no oth­er cog­ni­tive mea­sure improved for either younger or old­er par­tic­i­pants. Sarah Elsabagh from King’s Col­lege Lon­don found gink­go ini­tial­ly improved atten­tion and mem­o­ry. How­ev­er, there were no ben­e­fits after 6 weeks, sug­gest­ing that a tol­er­ance devel­ops quick­ly. Not an over­whelm­ing endorsement.

Omega‑3 fat­ty acids found in cold-water fish such as mack­er­el, her­ring, salmon, and tuna look more promis­ing. Giu­liano Fontani’s work at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Siena in Italy asso­ci­at­ed omega‑3 sup­ple­men­ta­tion with improved atten­tion­al and phys­i­o­log­i­cal func­tions, par­tic­u­lar­ly those involv­ing com­plex cor­ti­cal processing.

Folic acid sup­ple­men­ta­tion also shows promise of pro­tect­ing and improv­ing cog­ni­tive func­tion in old­er adults, accord­ing to a 2007 study pub­lished in Lancet by Jane Dur­ga and col­leagues. It may also reduce age-relat­ed decline in hearing.

What can you do right now?

  1. Eat a bal­anced diet with plen­ty of green leafy veg­eta­bles such as spinach, kale and collards.
  2. Get plen­ty of phys­i­cal exercise.
  3. Stay cog­ni­tive­ly active.
  4. Reduce your stress.
  5. And as always, talk with your doc­tor about any health concerns.

Fur­ther Reading


  1. P. Gassman M.D. on February 22, 2007 at 1:18

    Very use­ful infor­ma­tion! Agrees with my research.

  2. Caroline on February 22, 2007 at 1:22

    Thanks Dr. Gassman! If you come across oth­er good arti­cles in your research, please do let us know. Nutri­tion is such a dif­fi­cult area in which to run good studies.

  3. eleanor on February 23, 2007 at 9:12

    I remem­bered this arti­cle on brain health and nutri­tion on our archive — won­der if it could be of inter­est in this area

  4. Caroline on February 23, 2007 at 12:25

    Eleanor, real­ly inter­est­ing arti­cle. I know from per­son­al expe­ri­ence I can feel the dif­fer­ence in mood and ener­gy based on what I eat (plus exer­cise, stress, and sleep), but look­ing at the list of ref­er­ences in the arti­cle is impres­sive. I agree with the arti­cle that we need to at least con­sid­er try­ing more lifestyle changes that work with our bod­ies rather than resort­ing to quick fix­es that may lead to oth­er problems.

  5. Ralph on March 14, 2008 at 4:29

    great arti­cle. i am a 55 year old male with a back injury, veg­an, work­out 4 times per week. i notice for myself in addi­tion to the sup­ple­ments and eat­ing well, sleep is the most impor­tant for me. pain wears you down like joe fra­zier. by the end of the day, you are beat. i am in bed 9 hours, but do not sleep 9 hours, so i have to adjust my day around that. pain affects mood. also every­one around you. so i do not go by the 6 hours of sleep is enough. for me 6 hours will leave me burnt and exhaust­ed with­out being able to con­cen­trate or work­out. we are all dif­fer­ent and have dif­fer­ent needs.

  6. Jack M on May 4, 2008 at 3:17

    Which “men­tal enhanc­ing” sup­ple­ments can even pass through the brain-blood barrier?

  7. Alvaro on May 5, 2008 at 3:41

    Jack: good point. That’s one of the rea­sons why none of the sup­ple­ments seem to work as advo­cates suggest.

  8. ninin on August 19, 2008 at 1:45

    Thanks for good infor­ma­tion at a nice moment.

  9. Nick on March 6, 2009 at 3:09

    It real­ly depends on how a sup­ple­ment is for­mu­lat­ed. A lot of sup­ps on the mar­ket have ingre­di­ents that can’t pass the blood brain bar­ri­er, while there are oth­ers that are in fact effec­tive. I think a lot of it has to marketing.

English About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.

English About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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