Foods — Not Pills — Are Best for B Vitamins, Omega-3s

Both groups of nutrients are crucial for brain health


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When it comes to keeping your mind alert and your thinking clear as you age, the vitamins and nutrients you put in your body are crucial. B vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids are two in particular that may help the brain continue to function at its best into old age. Running low on these nutrients can lead to brain fog and poor memory.

But before you reach for a bottle of supplements to try to make up for any potential deficit, consider this: There’s more scientific evidence to back up the health benefits of vitamins and nutrients that come from food than from pills. In fact, the Global Council on Brain Health, an independent collaborative of scientists, health professionals, scholars and policy experts convened by AARP, reviewed the evidence for the brain health benefits of some 20 vitamins, minerals and other nutrients and found it insufficient to support taking any of them for brain health.

That doesn’t mean supplements couldn’t do you some good. But foods that contain nutrients such as B vitamins and omega-3s bring a bounty of health benefits to the brain.

The benefits of Bs

B vitamins, studies show, play a key role in almost all of the interactions between your cells. Researchers learn a lot about the health benefits of these vitamins by studying people who have extremely low levels of them. Some studies show that many people are running on sub-optimum levels of B, which can lead to poor brain function.

“B12 deficiency, in particular, can cause dementia,” says J. David Spence, M.D., professor of neurology and clinical pharmacology at Western University in London, Ontario. “Low levels of B12 and folic acid [another B vitamin] raise levels of homocysteine, which increases the risk of stroke, which also increases the risk of dementia.”

With only a few exceptions, most people can get all the B vitamins they need from a healthy and varied diet, with no need for supplements. Manufacturers add B vitamins to whole grain breads and cereals. You can also get these nutrients from fruits, vegetables (especially leafy green ones, like spinach and kale) and beans. B12 is the only one you won’t find in these plant-based foods, so some people may need that in another form.

For example, “if someone eats a vegan diet, doctors may suggest a B12 supplement,” says Uma Naidoo, M.D., a nutritional psychiatrist and director of nutritional & lifestyle psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital. However, vegetarians who eat eggs and dairy can still get plenty of B12. Fish, poultry and fortified cereals and nutritional yeasts are good sources, too.

People who avoid meat and eggs should ask their doctor how they can get sufficient levels of B12 in their system.

“Absorption of B12 through an oral supplement, such as a pill or a capsule, is not the most efficient. You may want to ask your doctor about injectable B12,” Naidoo says.

Anti-inflammatory fats

Omega-3s are one of the few types of fat that the body needs but can’t make on its own. You have to get it from food.

“Omega-3s have a good amount of research behind them for keeping the mind healthy,” Naidoo says. “Their main mechanism of action is their anti-inflammatory properties in the brain.”

Inflammation in brain tissue is the suspected cause of many long-term health problems, including Alzheimer’s disease. Omega-3s may help keep inflammation at bay.

Probably the best-known source of omega-3 fatty acids is salmon. You can also get omega-3s from other fatty fish, such as anchovies and halibut. But fish isn’t the only source; vegetable oils, nuts (especially walnuts), flaxseeds, flaxseed oil and leafy vegetables also provide hearty amounts of the nutrient. 

“For individuals who don’t consume seafood, leaning on the omega-3s in flaxseeds, hempseeds, chia seeds and walnuts is important,” Naidoo says. “But these don’t get to the brain as efficiently as fat, so consider also supplementing with an algal oil supplement.” These are omega-3 fat supplements that don’t come from fish.

The Global Council on Brain Health agrees that supplements may be necessary for people who don’t eat fish if a person’s personal physician recommends them.

When to add brain-healthy nutrients to your diet

However, a single serving of salmon or a helping of spinach won’t make much of an impact on your memory and thinking skills.

“You’ve got to eat these things consistently — leafy green vegetables, chickpeas, kidney beans, brussels sprouts, salmon — because just eating one piece of salmon isn’t going to improve your memory overnight,” Naidoo says.

Though it takes time to reap the rewards of brain-healthy foods, it’s almost never too late to start eating them.

“There’s always hope,” Naidoo says. “The power to improve your brain is at the end of your fork. Why not give it a chance?”

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