February 01, 2021

For brain health, skip the supplements

Before you reach for that "brain-boosting" supplement on the store shelf, consider this: It's unlikely to be helpful, and in some cases it could actually be harmful.

Limited data is available on the effects of brain health supplements, according to a report from an independent group of experts. The report explained that not many of these supplements have been subjected to thorough research, and evidence hasn't conclusively shown that a supplement can enhance brain function or prevent or reverse Alzheimer's disease or other causes of dementia. All in all, the report called these supplements "likely a waste of money."

The only noted exception was people who are deficient in certain nutrients, such as vitamin B-12 or thiamine. Deficiency of either can lead to nerve problems, confusion and forgetfulness. Those with B-12 deficiency may require B-12 supplementation or injections.

In addition, supplements are not always safe. A recent study in the journal Neurology Clinical Practice tested eight supplements claimed to improve brain function. All contained pharmaceutical drugs not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), sometimes in high doses or in combination. Some of these drugs were listed on the label — others were not — and could potentially make users quite ill or interfere with prescribed medications.

A better brain-health strategy is to manage health conditions such as diabetes and obesity, exercise regularly, stay mentally active and socially engaged, and prioritize adequate sleep. In addition, eat a healthy, mostly plant-based diet with lean protein sources.

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