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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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June 06 2018

Supplements For Brain Health: What Nutrients and Supplemental Foods Make the Most Difference

By Mark Sisson
32 Comments

As humans, our most important bodily endowment isn’t our claws, sharp teeth, powerful haunches, iron grips, prehensile tails, venomous secretions, or aerosolized musk. It’s the brain. We use it to shape the world around us, to bend physical reality to our will, to manipulate matter and create powerful technological terrors. These days, the human brain is more important than ever. If you want to enjoy life, pursue and succeed at your passions, to conquer your little corner of reality—you need a healthy brain. Brain health is key to total health—and quality of life.

By some analysis at least, however, neurogenerative diseases remain on the rise and take an ever more extreme emotional and economic toll. So, how do we keep our brain health intact? While much of it comes down to doing the things that keep your brain healthy and avoiding the things that harm it—exercising instead of sitting on the couch, breathing exclusively fresh air instead of tobacco smoke, sleeping instead of staying up—another big variable is the food we eat.

First, I’ll list the most important nutrients for brain health and function, keeping things brief to get through them all. To be honest, this isn’t even “all.” It’s likely that every single micronutrient we’re supposed to be consuming plays a role in brain health, so central is the brain to our basic functioning.

Then, I’ll highlight some of the most critical food sources of these nutrients.

Let’s go.

Nutrients To Note

B Vitamins

The B vitamins are co-factors in every pathway related to dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

Choline

Precursor to acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter involved in focus, memory, and processing.

Vitamin E

Reduces oxidative stress and inhibits oxidation of fragile polyunsaturated fats in the brain. Also reduces lesion formation in brain white matter, a strong risk factor for cognitive decline.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is one of those compounds that interacts with seemingly every pathway in the body. Whether it’s immune function, hormonal production, musculoskeletal maintenance, or even UV protection, vitamin D plays an important role. Dementia patients tend to have very low vitamin D levels, and good vitamin D levels predict strong executive function ten years down the road. High-dose supplementation may even improve visual memory in D-deficient subjects. For those who need more in their lives, sun is key. Quality supplementation can help.

Magnesium and Iron

Magnesium and iron are two more nutrients that are involved with everything, including the brain. A recent study found evidence that patients with either mild cognitive decline or full-blown Alzheimer’s tended to have lower magnesium and iron levels and higher oxidative stress loads.

Zinc

Regulates absorption of copper and prevents overloading, which can inhibit cognitive function. Along with magnesium and vitamin D3 (among others), helps testosterone production. Testosterone is critical for cognitive function, especially mental energy and drive.

Lutein and Zeaxanthin

Typically valued for their beneficial effects on eye health, these plant-derived carotenoids are also linked to cognitive function. Seniors with low levels of both exhibit lower neurological efficiency—their brains work harder during cognitive tasks. And a year of luten and zeaxanthin supplementation slows cognitive decline in community-dwelling adults. Even young healthy adults see improvements to memory upon supplementation, if their baseline levels are low.

Creatine

Creatine doesn’t just enhance physical performance. Creatine is also found in the brain, where it maintains cognitive function by recycling ATP, the basic energy currency of the body. Studies show that vegetarians who supplement with creatine enjoy improved cognition and physical performance. Vegan brains and muscles, which have even less (small amounts of creatine are present in eggs), should benefit even more from supplementation. Creatine also provides quick ATP for intense, short-lived physical feats.

Long Chain Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Having a good ratio of omega-3:omega-6 in our tissues sets us up for a healthy inflammatory response to oxidative insults—not too little, not too big. There’s evidence that balanced omega-3/omega-6 ratios can actually prevent the “initiation and progression” of many neurological disorders by improving the efficiency of our inflammatory response.

What Are Some Of the Best Foods For These Nutrients?

Red Meat

A great source of creatine, zinc, iron, and B vitamins. Its even got a little-known nutrient called carnosine, which acts as a brain antioxidant.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

A great source of monounsaturated fat, which is critical for stable cellular membranes in the brain and other parts of the body. Spicy or peppery EVOO indicates the presence of high levels of olive phenols, which show efficacy in slowing the onset of dementia and preserving brain autophagy.

Avocados and Avocado Oil

They’re rich in vitamin E, lutein and zeaxanthin.

Leafy Greens

A great source of minerals like magnesium and carotenoids like lutein and zeaxanthin. Also, we can’t just eat multiple avocados every single day (can we?).

Chicken Hearts

They’re rich in every B-vitamin except for thiamin (still have thiamin, just not as dense as the other B-vitamins). They are loaded with zinc and iron. They’re a good source of cholesterol, which can help repair damaged brain junctions. And despite being an organ meat, they’re very mild. I like marinating chicken hearts in lime juice, garlic, onion, cumin, and olive oil, spearing them with skewers, and roasting over open flame.

Wild Sockeye Salmon (Skin On)

The intense red color indicates the presence of astaxanthin, an “animal carotenoid” with . Farmed salmon producers even dose their flock with synthetic astaxanthin; otherwise, the fish will be grey. Salmon is also a good source of (highly bioavailable) vitamin and, of course, long chain omega-3 fatty acids. Those omega-3s and that astaxanthin probably have a synergistic relationship, each increasing the effect of the other. Here’s a quality option for those who prefer a supplement to regular fish intake or want the added assurance a supplement provides.

Pastured-Raised or Omega-3 Enhanced Egg Yolks

Not only do they have tons of choline and additional folate and other brain-supportive micronutrients, they contain long-chain omega-3 fatty acids bound up in phospholipid form. When an egg is formed inside a bird, many of the fats come embedded in phosopholipids—highly bioavailable vehicles that deliver fats and nutrients directly to the brain. DHA-rich phospholipids enable faster, more fluid transmission of data across brain synapses. A good pastured egg will also have appreciable amounts of vitamin D in a form 5 times more bioavailable than vitamin D3.

Blueberries

A number of studies in both young and old, healthy and cognitively impaired, find that eating normal amounts of blueberries can improve cognitive function. Just a single dose of a blueberry drink (made with actual blueberries) triggers an acute boost to memory retention in children; a single dose of freeze-dried wild blueberries triggers boosts performance in children engaged in a cognitively demanding task. Older adults with cognitive impairment who eat blueberries improve their cognition. Older adults without cognitive impairment who eat blueberries improve brain activation. Plus, they taste great.

Look for blueberries that stain your mouth, an indication of high polyphenol content. Wild Boreal blueberries from Trader Joe’s have been the best I’ve found to date (and they’re quite affordable without being overly sweet).

Dark Chocolate

In case you needed another reason to eat some high quality high-cacao dark chocolate, cocoa flavanols enhance cognitive function in the elderly with and without cognitive decline.

That’s a pretty strong start. For further discussion of this topic, do your brain a favor and pick up a copy of Max Lugavere’s Genius Foods, in which he lays out a definitive guide to eating right for brain health. And be sure to check out his recent chat with host Elle Russ on the Primal Blueprint Podcast. 

If you have any questions about supplements, nutrients I might have missed, supplemental foods, and brain health, feel free to ask down below. Thanks for reading!

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32 thoughts on “Supplements For Brain Health: What Nutrients and Supplemental Foods Make the Most Difference”

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  1. Love red meat. These are all excellent ideas, but… I’ve said it before and it’s worth mentioning again, be wary of casual and/or copious drug use, both prescription and OTC. If you need a prescription for a problem that doesn’t respond to positive lifestyle and diet changes, then so be it, but there are often better answers. The elephant in the room (that nobody ever wants to address) is that some of those chemicals can really mess up your mind. Older/elderly people can be particularly vulnerable. Unfortunately, physicians have developed such a cavalier attitude toward pharmaceuticals that you’ll likely have to do your own research regarding safety.

  2. Great list and a timely topic as the rate of dementia-related disease seems to be rising, or perhaps getting more attention and better diagnosis and is of course a scary prospect for anyone. I have been conflicted by the need for choline. I stopped eating eggs as there are several studies out there (how accurate is the big question of course) linking higher blood saturation of choline to higher PSA and prostate cancer rates. My PSA has climbed a bit in recent years so I’ve been doubling down on berries, green tea, curcumin etc. etc. Other than not eating eggs my diet is pretty basic primal, with trying to add a bit more fat intake. There is a diet called the MIND diet that focuses on brain health. What I adopted from that is the only fruit I eat is berries, since they are nutrient dense and lower in sugar that other types of fruit.

  3. Eschewing eggs based on some dubious studies seems like a mistake. Eggs are some of the most nutrient dense foods on the planet. And choline is beneficial in a host of bodily functions.

    Even IF there was a legitimate link between choline and prostate health, I would still eat eggs. You’re preventing so many other issues by virtue of the vitamins, cholesterol, and healthy fats.

    PSA is not the end all be all either.

  4. The original brain foods of our hominid ancestors were Brain and Bone Marrow… these foods should grace this list, if not top it!

    Yes, before we evolved to become the baddest mammalian predators (hunters) that ever lived, we were simply scavengers. Even if starches were in-season, we still lacked the ability to digest them. That said, the anthropological record shows that our earliest ancestors patiently waited for predators to do their thing, when the coast was clear, we did ours… that included harvesting the skulls and femur bones so that we could crush them against rocks in order to gain access to the nutrient dense brain and bone marrow.

    Indeed, this is the original stuff that our DNA grew up on… this is the stuff that evolved the big brains that we enjoy today… this is the stuff that our DNA still expects in the modern world in order to think, perform and produce at our human potential. Traditional peoples, Native Americans and early ancestral healers believed that eating the organs from a healthy animal would strengthen and support the health of the corresponding organ of the individual. For instance, the traditional way of treating a person with a weak heart was to feed the person the heart of a healthy animal. Similarly, eating the kidneys of a healthy animal was believed to support urinary ailments and overall kidney health… Pancreas was fed to people with digestive and endocrine problems… and brain was frequently consumed raw and was thought to support clear thinking.

    Organs and glandulars were a staple of our early ancestors’ diets as the ultimate superfood, for good reason. It turns out, this nourishing tradition is backed by science… “Radioisotope labeling studies in animals have shown conclusively that, when eaten, organs and glands selectively travel to the corresponding organs and glands in high concentrations. This research, done at the University of Scotland in Edinburgh, lends credence to the ancient practice of eating animal organs to help ensure health in one’s corresponding organs…” – Dr. Ron Schmid, ND. Our early ancestors knew this, which is why their traditional diets included the frequent and nourishing consumption of nose-to-tail organs and glands.

    WHOLE BRAIN CONTAINS…
    – Proteins Exclusively Found And Expressed In Whole Brain Extract
    – Brain Derived Glandulars Including The Pituitary, Hypothalamus and Pineal Glands
    – Unique Peptides And Neurotrophic Factors Including Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF)
    – Sphingomyelin — Found In High Concentrations In The Myelin Sheath.
    – Brain Cell Activators, Phosphatidylserine & Omega-3 Fats EPA and DHA

    WHOLE BRAIN SUPPORTS…
    – Optimal Brain Health Based On “Like Supports Like”
    – Memory, Mood And Cognitive Health
    – The Survival of Existing Neurons & Encourages The Growth and Differentiation Of New Neurons
    – Myelin Sheath, Signal Transduction & Apoptosis

    Nothing tops procuring organ meats and marrow bones from your local farmer or butcher. You get the opportunity to shake a hand, look them in the eye, get to know the person and what they’re about… second best is buying top quality supplements where the animal was 100% pasture-raised in New Zealand or Iceland, grass-fed and grass-finished. Look for companies that make really small batches (i.e. less than 5,000 bottles at a time) or else you won’t get fresh goods. Trust me, you want fresh!

    P.S. I totally agree with most food recommendations but I need to see Brain, Bone Marrow and Wild Fish Eggs on that list to really be content. I’d also like to see small fish like bone-in, skin-on wild sardines as opposed to salmon. Sure, astaxanthin is powerful stuff… it also kills DHT and wreaks havoc on the hormones. Not sure if eating real salmon has the same effects as the literature suggests but this is why wild sardines is on my tribe’s menu every Wed and Sun.

  5. Grant thanks for your input. The pubmed studies may be flawed. I do eat a lot of turkey, chicken, salmon and sardines, so I’m getting choline in my diet. I’m on a high potency supplementation routine and do bone broth, coconut oil, fish oil, avocado oil and ghee so my fat intake is decent I think. I’m hoping Mark does a definitive article one of these days on men’s prostate health. 🙂

  6. Love this list and eating most of these things…although I haven’t tried chicken hearts yet. Kind of need someone else to cook them for me lol. I’m fine with the livers though. Agree with liver king about the sardine thing and considering his other recommendations. Elle’s chat with Max was great…definitely worth a listen.

  7. Finally a mention of the goodness of chicken hearts! I have been procuring them from a local farm seasonally for the past decade or so and have a bunch of them raw as a late afternoon snack. I find their flavor and texture more pleasing uncooked. I have never suffered any ill effects from this.

  8. This just in: Wild Boreal TJ’s blueberries sold out nationwide 🙂

  9. Wow, what a timely article. I just picked up “Genius Foods” from my local public library. I’m looking forward to reading it.

  10. Thanks, but wish you could give a range based on sex, age, size, etc…. But, thank you though

  11. After 45 yrs and many studies, three of those concluded in this last 4 weeks, people popping multi vitamins and or suppliments, did not gain any benefit, only the companies making these products benefited by making over $200 billion just this last few yrs alone, not to far behind Pharmaceutical companies. People are popping these to make up for bad eating habits or in hopes of prevention of something when in fact they’re all doing wrong. It was found that many common vitamins, if taken when not recommended by a Dr, can actually be very dangerous and raise the risk of serious conditions,si, not prevent. Vitamin E, Niacin-(B3 I think), etc. No one and I mean no one should be popping vitamins and minerals unless advised by a MD specialist verifying that a person is deficient in a particular substance, and then get those vitamins on your plate. If exercise, sun exposure and your plate don’t give you enough of your needed vitamins, and all of that should, then suppliment a small amount of only what’s low. People need time get off this vitamin and suppliment craze. It has officially proven to be of no good in prevention of anything and unless you “need” supplimentation, avoid it all. Let’s not forget those companies that make these vitamins and suppliments are not regulated and many studies have concluded there’s less than 5-10% of the actual ingredients in those jars, and even other chemicals that are bad. I got off the suppliment train after 2 yrs of popping this and that to stay heart healthy, brain healthy and not get sick. I only needed D3 and magnesium as I was a rather low in tests. I had a wake up call. And none of the extra vitamins and suppliments were doing me any good, infact they were starting to cause other problems. So off to the shelf in the closet went all the extra support. I went to a healthier Mediterranean eating lifestyle, fish and some red meat and a mix of Asian too and went walking more, getting up at 530 am like the Buddhist Monks that live to be 90-110, long walks in the fresh cool air before it gets polluted from exhaust, come and learn to eat some breakfast, eat berries and nuts and grapes for snacks and before I knew it my health started to improve, BP went down, I had more energy. Fast food and processed anything is what’s making us all fat and unhealthy. Moderation is the key as is cooking instead of going out. And contrary to what we are being mislead to believe is thst we needs fats and cholesterol. Plus our ancestors fasted for upto 30 to 48 hrs per week at times, drank only water and possibly seeds/nuts/berries in low amounts. Where do you think the name breakfast came from? It was to break the fast, of the last 2 day’s. Fasting will kerp the body healthy, detoxed, and lean. It’s been happening thousands of years and our military elite stay sharp and lean from fasting all the time. I agree more with Liver King on a lot.

  12. This is a great list. Might seem like a strange question but could you get every nutrient you need by only eating the above. Sounds like a menu I could really dig into.

  13. Hombre, go back to eggs. Dr. Richard Ablin came up with the psa test and then shelved it as useless!!! It seems that all the test measures is the presence of up to five types of fungus! It seems a pregnant woman can have a high psa and they don’t even own one.

    Get off all the bread, peanuts, corn,potatoes, sugar etc, they feed fungus! Go to the “know the cause” website for more info.

  14. Diet is extremely important, but it’s almost impossible to get all needed nutrients in. My daughter has EBV and Hashimoto’s and one of the things that we do fairly regularly to help her stay sharp is make a blueberry smoothie. It contains: wild blueberries (the ones from Trader Joe’s are great!); banana; apple; celery; cilantro; spirulina; and, dulse. The liquid can be orange juice or coconut water – or just plain water. Because she is young and has no issues with insulin management, this combination of fruits and veggies works very well for her. I also have my elderly parents drink this regularly and they report becoming calmer and more focused shortly after drinking the smoothie… FWIW.

  15. I found a cow brain grass fed source for phosphatidylserine! (It is mostly soy lecithin based)

  16. Thanks John I’ll check that out. I don’t eat any of those foods (except some fruit … berries) but maybe some other source of fungus, interesting.

  17. Great list and reminder. Thank you 🙂
    But Mark, how do you reconcile the benefits of red meat that you list under red meat with the problematic sticky sugar molecule Neu5Gc that is in beef (Dr. Steven Gundry writes about this in his book The Plant Padadox). Dr Gundry recommends to stay away from meats that contain Neu5Gc (beef, sheep, pigs…) to avoid negative autoimmune responses in our cardiovascular system. Do we ignore what Dr Gundry writes and focus on the benefits you list here or do we find som happy medium? I.e. eat a red meat in moderation? How much / how little should we consume? I would really appreciate your comments and thoughts on this.

  18. Victoria said ; “I found a cow brain grass fed source for phosphatidylserine! (It is mostly soy lecithin based)”

    What does that mean?

  19. What abt chicken liver? As good as chicken hearts?

  20. This might be getting a little out of your wheelhouse and into “biohacking”, but speaking of tobacco smoke, I would love to hear your thoughts on nicotine and maybe other nootropics. Although there’s a lot to cover on nicotine alone. I can’t find the study, but farmers who smoked actually lived longer than those who didn’t because of the high levels of heavy metals they’re exposed to and nicotine being a great heavy metal chelator; it ended up being a net positive!

  21. Thank You, I was just thinking and wanting to know what was good for the brain. My ms keeps progressing and diet is always on my mind. Ive been craving meat and eggs for the past few years and wondered why. Now I know.

  22. Any replacement for someone who hates avocados? (I know, I know.) Everyone loves them, but I just can’t stand the flavor. I try to gag one down once a week just for the healthy fat, but I’d love a replacement food with those nutrients!

  23. In “The China Study” the Campbells talk about the relationship between animal protein and cancer. Do you think eating red meat is a good idea for someone with a family history of colon and prostate cancer?

  24. Reminds me, before I even read this:
    I had a dream, quite sure it was in jail after thinking about primal living and/or reading from a book about vitamins and mineral, that I went on MDA and there was a post called “[The] Brain on a Battlement” and it was about protecting your brain from chemical damage.

  25. Thanks for sharing this list of foods for the brain. We eat most of these foods, especially the green leafy vegetables, blueberries and dark chocolate. It’s good to have an excuse to enjoy a little more (especially chocolate) without feeling guilty! Not sure about the chicken hearts though.

  26. Very good article, however when I read articles about brain health it’s almost always about cognitive function, dementia or Alzheimer’s. I have Parkinson’s and I wish there was more discussions related to movement disorders as this can be more debilitating than Alzheimer’s. More specifically I would like to learn more about the protein clumps that form in the brain of people with Parkinson’s and how they got there in the first place.

    Are there special foods and/or supplements one should take to prevent or better yet help remove the plaques that are killing the neurons in the brain? I understand a good ketogenic diet is beneficial for people with Parkinson’s. i look forward to your response.

    Steve T.