This Is the Most Important Supplement To Take if You Want To Improve Your Brain Health

Nope, it's not omega-3s.

When it comes to brain health, you've probably heard again and again the importance of adding omega-3 fish oil to your diet. But what if omega-3s aren't the only supplement that promotes a healthy brain? What if the most important supplement to take for brain health is something completely different?

"Omega-3 fats are highlighted as part of the Mediterranean diet, which is thought to be important for brain health," Rachel Ojha, MNutrDiet, APD, LDN, Director at Medical and Scientific Affairs explains to Parade. But there are other supplements that actually have an even greater impact that you'll want to know about.

What's the Best Supplement For Brain Health?

In addition to omega-3 fatty acids, flavonoids, anthocyanins, antioxidants and monosaturated fats can do wonders for brain health too. But when it comes to the supplement that reigns supreme, B vitamins are a must-have, according to Ojha.

"When people think of B vitamins, they might not think of the role they play in brain health," Ojha says.

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Among the B vitamins, B1, B2, B3, B6, B9, and B12 are considered the most effective for brain health.

Each works to improve the brain's function in different ways, but all of them are important in protecting the brain and keeping it as healthy as possible. Some of these B vitamins are even scientifically proven to reduce the risk of cognitive decline associated with diseases like dementia and neurological disorders.

Types of B vitamins

Here's what to know about the different types of B vitamins, and how they impact brain health:

  • Vitamin B1 (thiamine): linked to reduced risk of dementia and improves focus and memory.

  • Vitamin B2 (riboflavin): reduces risk of migraines by decreasing oxidative stress and inflammation in the nerves.

  • Vitamin B3 (niacin): protects brain cells from both stress and injury; prevents general cognitive decline and reduces risk of dementia.

  • Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine): helps maintain healthy cellular metabolism, supports the production of amino acids, and maintains nerve and skin health.

  • Vitamin B9 (folate): produces healthy red blood cells, healthy cell function, and maintains healthy DNA.

  • Vitamin B12 (hydroxocobalamin): maintains the health of neurological brain tissue and allows electrical impulses to move along nerve cells.

Ojha adds, "B vitamins play an important role in the production of neurotransmitters, which send important messages between your brain and your body. For example, vitamin B6 plays a role in the synthesis of many neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and serotonin, which influence your mood."

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Signs of a B Vitamin Deficiency

How do you know if you have a B vitamin deficiency? There are a few factors that make you more predisposed or likely to develop a deficiency (more on that below), but there are also a few signs to be on the lookout for.

According to Ojha, brain-specific symptoms of deficiency include:

  • Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) deficiency: irritability, impaired alertness, cognitive decline and dementia diagnosis.

  • Vitamins B9 (folate) and vitamin B12 (hydroxocobalamin) deficiency: behavior changes, general cognitive impairment/decline.

Foods With B Vitamins for Better Brain Health

While supplements can go a long way—particularly for people who may be suffering from a B vitamin deficiency—there are also ways to implement more B vitamins into your diet by eating certain foods.

"Food sources of vitamin B6 include meat (e.g., chicken, pork), fish (e.g., tuna, salmon), legumes (e.g., chickpeas, black beans), leafy greens, enriched cereals, nuts, bananas and potatoes," Ojha says. "Food sources of folate include liver, leafy vegetables (spinach, kale, lettuce), asparagus, avocado, beets, legumes (lentils, pinto beans), citrus fruits and enriched cereal."

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And if you're looking to infuse more vitamin B12 into your diet, Ojha explains that foods like liver, meat (steak, pork), fish (salmon, tuna), plain yogurt, cottage cheese, Swiss cheese and other animal products are what you should be reaching for.

Between foods high in B vitamins and B-complex supplements, who should be prioritizing B vitamins in their diet? 

"Depending on your age, diet and lifestyle, you may consider incorporating B vitamin supplements," Ohja explains. "For example, as we age, our bodies may have a harder time absorbing Vitamin B12."

That's no speculation—it's backed by science. In fact, National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) data shows a high percentage of adults over 50 do not meet dietary intake for vitamin B6 (41 percent), folate (46 percent) and vitamin B12 (24 percent).

Another factor that may play a role in B vitamin deficiency is diet. People who eat primarily plant-based may be more susceptible to deficiency.

"If you are a vegetarian or vegan, you may consider including B12 supplements since many of the food sources high in B12 are meat and dairy products," Ojha adds.

Next up, Dr. Sanjay Gupta offers up tips for keeping your brain sharp.