Oily fish for better blood pressure. Olive oil for healthy hearts. We’re all sold on the idea that the food we eat can help keep our bodies in good working order. What’s less well known is the way our diets affect our cognitive health. But making sure you’re eating the right vitamins to improve memory could be a winning strategy for anyone struggling to remember where they put the car keys.
When it comes to nourishing our hard-working brains, it’s well worth putting the effort in. Dementia (of which Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type  is now the leading cause of death in England and Wales, overtaking heart disease for the first time in 2015. There is currently no drug treatment that slows dementia once it has started and the disease is expected to affect more than one million of us in the UK by 2025.
That may sound frightening, but there is some positive news. A 2019 study of 200,000 people carried out at the University of Exeter found that nearly everyone could lower their risk of dementia, even if it runs in the family, by making simple lifestyle changes – with healthy diets full of memory-boosting vitamins playing a key role.
According to Lisa Mosconi, neuroscientist and author of Brain Food: How to Eat Smart and Sharpen Your Mind, diet is our first line of defence against mental decline. Speaking to the Guardian, she said: “Contemporary medicine often disregards the ways that our diet helps shape our cognitive health. A brain-healthy diet optimises your capacity for keeping a healthy, sharp and active brain over a lifetime – while reducing the risk of developing age-related cognitive impairments and dementia.”
While more research is required when it comes to vitamins for brain and memory, certain micronutrients have been shown to play a role in maintaining cognitive health. But what are they? And can we get them from our diets, or could a supplement ensure we’re getting enough? Our guide to vitamins and memory will explain how to keep your mental clarity for a lifetime.
Vitamins that help with memory
If you keep forgetting appointments and names never seem to leave the tip of your tongue, bear in mind that the brain needs particular nutrients in order to work efficiently. In fact, along with stress, hormonal changes and medical conditions such as an underactive thyroid, nutritional deficiencies are also considered a major cause of memory changes as you age.8]
To understand why a diet rich in vitamins that help with memory is so essential, we need to look at how the brain develops. The structure of our grey matter is continually evolving, from birth right through to our golden years. Yes there’s the inevitable bit of shrinkage over time, but new connections must still be made, new synapses will be forged and different neurons need to fire together throughout the whole of your life.
Like a never-ending construction project, the brain needs the right tools to do the job. It gets these solely from the food we eat and the better the quality of these ‘tools’, the better the system that can be built. Some brain functions are carried out by proteins, but others can only be performed with the help of vitamins.
The best vitamins for memory include vitamin B12, folic acid, vitamin C, vitamin E and vitamin D, while other micronutrients that deserve a mention include phytonutrients called flavonoids plus the minerals iron and iodine. We’ll take a look at each one in detail and explain why you need them all in your memory-boosting toolkit.
Vitamin B12 and memory
How it works: A lack of B12 and memory loss are intrinsically linked because of the important role the vitamin plays in the brain. Vitamin B12 allows brain cells to form new connections, a process that helps in memory formation. But it also plays an important role in the electrical signalling between neurons, something that’s considered crucial for memory retrieval.
Brain impulses run along ‘wires’ called axons which are insulated by sheaths of a fatty substance called myelin. Vitamin B12 makes and maintains myelin so that brain signals can run along the axons effectively – helping you instantly put a name to a face at a party . When you experience memory loss caused by a vitamin B12 deficiency, it’s usually down to damage to the myelin sheath.
Even a slight vitamin B12 deficiency can hamper brain signalling, leading to a feeling of fogginess and memory lapses. But worse, a chronic B12 deficiency could lead to dementia which may or may not improve when levels of the vitamin are restored.
Where to find it: You can get adequate amounts of vitamin B12 for memory by eating liver, meat, dairy and fish. However if you don’t eat meat or dairy, you may not be getting enough. Luckily, the brain-boosting essential can be found in Inessa Advanced Daily Multivitamin vegan formula which should be taken alongside a healthy, balanced diet.
Folic acid and memory
How it works: All the B vitamins are critical for the production of neurotransmitters in the brain, but folic acid (or vitamin B6) deserves a special mention because of the way it lowers homocysteine.
A common amino acid, the amount of homocysteine our bodies produce increases naturally with age. But having too much in the bloodstream has been implicated in heart attacks and strokes, as well as memory loss, brain atrophy, cognitive impairment and dementia. Folic acid is known to lower homocysteine levels in the blood, something that’s very important when it comes to maintaining our cognitive health.
Where to find it: You’ll find folic acid in vegetables like broccoli, asparagus, spinach and sprouts. But cooking these vegetables can lead to a loss of some of their important memory enhancer vitamins, which means we may consume less of this nutrient than we might think. A daily supplement (or a multivitamin) can be helpful to ensure you’re eating enough.
Vitamin E and memory
How it works: Vitamin E is often overlooked as a brain nutrient, but its effects on memory can be powerful. Elderly people with high levels of vitamin E in their blood are less likely to suffer memory lapses and some studies have even suggested it may help in the prevention or treatment of Alzheimer’s.
But how does it work? The neurons needed for proper memory function are made from cholesterol and polyunsaturated fats, meaning they’re highly susceptible to oxidative damage. Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant that stops your fatty neurons from oxidising.
Where to find it: You’ll find vitamin E in olive oil, oily fish and nuts and seeds, which also contain lots of unsaturated fat. That’s no coincidence, because nature has conveniently packaged unstable fat together with its protective compound!
Vitamin C and memory
How it works: Did you know the brain contains a much higher concentration of vitamin C than the rest of the body? That’s because vitamin C is a true brain essential. The powerful antioxidant neutralises free radicals – something the brain creates rather a lot of. Our hungry brains burn up vast amounts of glucose to power all that thinking, giving off molecules of oxygen in the process. These free molecules could damage your DNA without adequate vitamin C on hand to mop them up.
But it’s the way vitamin C works on the myelin sheath that makes it such a good memory booster. As mentioned before, the myelin sheath carries brain impulses from neuron to neuron, helping with all kinds of cognitive performance, including memory retrieval. Vitamin C aids with collagen synthesis, which helps form the structure of the myelin sheath.
Where’s it’s found: You’ll find vitamin C in colourful fruits and vegetables such as peppers, citrus fruits, green leafy vegetables, broccoli, tomatoes, and berries.
Vitamin D and memory
How it works: Although best known for promoting bone health and regulating calcium, there are vitamin D receptors throughout the brain. In fact, we’re just waking up to the vital role the sunshine vitamin plays in maintaining our grey matter.
Lack of vitamin D has long been known to cause a host of disorders throughout the body, including cardiovascular disease, heart attack and stroke. But recent studies have added cognitive impairment to this list, with conditions including dementia and psychosis linked to inadequate blood serum levels of vitamin D.
But what about vitamin D and memory loss? Older adults with low vitamin D levels may lose their memories faster than those with normal amounts, according to a study of 318 adults at California University. It’s thought to be because vitamin D boosts the regeneration of myelin which allows nerve impulses to be carried from one part of the brain to another, a vital part of memory retrieval.
Where to find it: Vitamin D is found in oily fish, liver and eggs and, of course, we manufacture it in the body through exposure to sunshine. However, we can struggle to get adequate amounts through food and sun exposure alone and many experts believe that taking 1,000 to 4,000 IU of vitamin D daily is the only way for most of us to achieve the amount of vitamin D needed by the brain.
Flavonoids and memory
How they work: Plants produce a vast array of chemical compounds known as phytonutrients. Sometimes referred to as ‘vitamin P’, their job is to fight oxidative stress and inflammation which helps the plant to live for longer.
Flavonoids are a type of phytonutrient and although they’re useful as an antioxidant, they’re thought to have other neuroprotective tricks up their sleeve.
According to a 2018 review of scientific literature on the subject, flavonoids were shown to enhance memory and cognition by helping with the plasticity of our brain synapses. Flavonoids from cocoa seemed particularly useful to our memory banks as they prevented neurons from being killed off by free radicals in the brain.
Where to find it: You’ll find flavonoids in green tea, parsley, cocoa and blueberries.
Iron and memory
How it works: A lack of iron is one of the most common nutritional deficiencies in the world affecting some 1.2 billion people. That’s bad news when you consider a reduced iron intake is known to be detrimental to cognitive function. In fact, along with tiredness, one of the first symptoms of iron deficiency is brain fog.
A lack of iron affects our memory because not only does it cause low haemoglobin levels, which affect the supply of oxygen to the brain, it also plays an important role in the transmission of signals from neuron to neuron. It seems that without enough iron in the brain you’ll suffer slower central neuron processing, meaning it’ll take you much longer to retrieve important memories.
Where to find it: You’ll find iron in red meat, lentils, chickpeas and green leafy vegetables.
Iodine and memory
How it works: Iodine is required to produce thyroid hormones. Without enough iodine, you may be at risk of hypothyroidism which may cause memory loss as one of its symptoms. Iodine also has a role to play in signalling between neurons, as thyroid hormones help stimulate the myelin protein synthesis in the brain. Treating even a mild deficiency has been shown to boost mental capabilities in children.
Where to find it: You’ll find iodine in seafood, dairy products, in plants grown in iodine-rich soil and iodised table salt.
The best foods for memory
Have you heard of the ‘Blue Zones’? These five regions are home to the highest concentration of centenarians in the world. But not only do the inhabitants of the Blue Zones live longer, they also enjoy extraordinary levels of good mental health, with low incidence of memory loss and dementia.
The five Blue Zones may be far-flung geographically, but they share remarkable similarities when it comes to lifestyle. Blue Zone centenarians enjoy low stress levels, strong social connections and high amounts of daily physical activity. And, despite some regional variations, they also share similar diets, with meals largely based around plants, legumes and oily fish.
So what should be on the menu if you want to keep as mentally sharp as a Blue Zone centenarian? Here’s our list of their top memory-boosting brain foods.
Oily fish such as salmon, tuna and sardines are all rich in polyunsaturated fat – the very fat our brains are made of. They contain plenty of the proteins, vitamins and minerals that are essential for good brain function.
But they also contain high amounts of the Omega 3 fatty acids DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). DHA is an essential building block of a brain cell’s membranes, while EPA plays an anti-inflammatory role which in itself is thought to be neuroprotective.
Omega 3 can even help blood flow in specific regions of the brain. In fact, according to a report published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease there’s “a clear correlation between lower Omega 3 fatty acid levels and reduced brain blood flow to regions important for learning, memory, depression and dementia”.
So important are EPA and DHA to the brain that if you don’t like the taste of oily fish, or are worried about high levels of toxins, it’s worth supplementing with a good quality and high dose Omega 3 fish oil. Algae could also be used as a vegan form of Omega 3, although it often is not as high in EPA as fish sources.
Eggs are quite simply a memory boosting super-food and it’s all down to one thing – the amount of choline they contain. A type of B-vitamin, the brain depends on choline to make the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, essential for memory and learning. In fact, Alzheimer’s is a disease associated with a shortage of acetylcholine.
Choline is incredibly important to the brain, but the body can’t produce it on its own. Luckily, eggs yolks are among the richest sources of choline available to us.
Legumes, nuts and seeds
Legumes such as lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans and peas are a great way to keep the brain fed with a steady supply of blood glucose, both of which will help with memory and concentration. Nuts and seeds are rich sources of the antioxidant vitamin E, which protects brain cells from oxidative stress, plus they contain protein which is essential for a healthy, active brain.
Berries are loaded with flavonoid antioxidants that can protect the brain from harm. They’re also thought to be able to improve communication between brain cells and increase plasticity to boost learning and memory.
Green leafy vegetables
Leafy greens such as kale come loaded with lots of the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that the brain needs to stay healthy. They’re rich in compounds called glucosinolates which break down in the body to produce isothiocyanates, which help to reduce oxidative stress, and improve brain function.
The best supplements for memory
While a healthy diet is always the best way to get all the vitamins for memory you need, there will always be times in our increasingly busy lives when we struggle to eat well.
Inessa Advanced Multivitamin contains all the necessary memory-enhancing vitamins to help keep our brains healthy, while the Inessa Advanced Omega 3 can make sure you’re getting enough of the essential fatty acids EPA and DHA, something that may be of concern for those who don’t like the taste of fish, or who worry about levels of contamination.
Can taking vitamins for memory really help?
We all forget things from time to time, but frequent lapses in memory don’t have to be an inevitable part of ageing. In fact, it’s thought that a third of all Alzheimer’s cases could be prevented by simple lifestyle changes. Stopping smoking and taking regularly physical exercise are key, but so is feeding the brain a healthy diet rich in the kind of vitamins and fats it needs to keep mentally sharp.
If you enjoyed reading this article, you might like What are the benefits of Omega 3 fish oil?