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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

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12 Responses

  1. P. Gassman M.D. says:

    Very useful information! Agrees with my research.

  2. Caroline says:

    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 says:

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

  4. Caroline says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

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

  7. Alvaro says:

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

  8. ninin says:

    Thanks for good information at a nice moment.

  9. Nick says:

    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.

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