Traditional medicine has generally focused on physical health, but over recent years mental health has become accepted as a real factor in wellbeing. It’s becoming clear that the line between our mental and physical health are blurred, and it can often be impossible to distinguish between our mental state and the physical condition of our brain.
Our higher cognitive functions like the ability to remember an event or concentrate on a task are often attributed to intelligence, but mental functions are inevitably the product of well-functioning brain tissue.
We know that brain decline can affect memory and focus, especially as we age. How much of our emotional lives are the result of our personality versus brain health? Scientists are discovering that depression may have more to do with our brain chemistry than we ever suspected.
The good news is that you may be able to control your mental health better than you think. The lifestyle and diet decisions we make now can help us to keep our minds in good condition throughout our lives. (1)
Our brain tissue is nurtured by several of the B-complex vitamins, as well as vitamins C, D and E. We will take a detailed look at how these key nutrients work to support our brain function.
VITAMINS AS MEMORY BOOSTERS
Most of us think of our lives as a collection of memories we’ve built up over our years on Earth. Much of what makes us who we are is represented in our minds as mental images or scenes which help us re-live our relationships and past experiences.
This is why memory loss is so devastating when it happens to us or our loved ones. Most of us will experience some degree of forgetfulness as we get older, and this can begin as early as age 45. (2)
While some loss of memory is normal as we age, it can be exacerbated by factors such as stress, lack of sleep, substance abuse or diseases like Alzheimer’s.
Vitamins to enhance memory power
Though our bodies require a small amount of B-complex vitamins, they play a crucial role in our health. Vitamin B12, also called cobalamin, contributes to the metabolism in every cell in the body, especially DNA, RNA, tissues and nerve cells.
The function of B12 in boosting memory likely has something to do with its place in the health of our nervous system. Vitamin B12 contributes to maintaining and building nerve cells. It’s instrumental in forming myelin, the fatty protective substance around nerve cells. Myelin degeneration can lead to nerve damage and has been connected to serious nerve disorders, many of which result in declining cognitive function and memory loss.
A deficiency in vitamin B12 could result in nerve damage, poor moods and mental fatigue, as well as memory loss. (3)
If you’ve ever forgotten where you put your keys or exactly why you walked into a particular room, you’re not alone. While all of us have occasional memory lapses, more severe memory disorders including dementia can sneak up on us over the years.
Vitamin B12 may be able to stave off memory diseases which affect the elderly. A co-ordinated study by the University of Oxford, the Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals NHS Trust and the University of Oslo found that a mixed supplement of vitamins B12 and B9 resulted in a reduction in brain shrinkage in elderly patients. (4) Brain atrophy is a major contributor to memory loss.
Plants are incapable of producing this vitamin, so unfortunately for vegans, all natural food sources come from animal products. Here are some of the vitamin B12 rich foods that you can easily find in your local grocery store:
- Meat: Although meat, especially red meat, is subject to caution due to the presence of saturated fats and cholesterol, there are some real nutritional benefits too. Beef is the best conventional meat source of vitamin B12, and pork is a runner-up.
Fresh grass-fed meat is the best choice for a healthy source of vitamin B12
- Liver: While offal has an unpleasant reputation in modern western societies, liver is an extremely nutritious organ. Liver contains B12 in far larger amounts than more popular meats like minced beef or pork.
- Yeast: Vegetarians can get their vitamin B12 from yeast flakes or extracts. Nutritional yeast flakes are sought after for their cheesy flavour, adding flavour to vegan meals. Yeast extract is popular among omnivores and vegetarians alike, especially in certain countries. It can be spread on toast or even celery sticks. Marmite, for example, provides 25 percent of your recommended daily intake.
Vitamin B6 (also known as pyridoxine) is another member of the B-complex. Like all the B vitamins, it is water soluble, meaning that it gets eliminated through urine and cannot be stored for long periods in the body. It is involved in metabolism, blood health, the immune system and brain function.
Vitamin B6 is important for the development of an infant’s brain both in the womb and after birth, as well as the maintenance of nerves and neurotransmitters (chemicals which send signals with between nerves and brain cells) throughout your life. Like vitamin B12, it contributes to myelin production and brain health. Taking in adequate vitamin B6 helps with ensuring that your nerve and brain health are at their best, and therefore cognitive functions like memory are working. The Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging published a study in 2004 which suggested that consuming the recommended daily allowance of B6 was related to improved memory in men and women. (5) Another study by the University of Oregon found that low levels of vitamin B6, as well as other B vitamins, could be linked with decreasing cognitive function in people with Alzheimer’s disease. A study published by the Journal of Nutrition in 2012 also found that bad memory and poor brain function was associated with low levels of B6 in elderly patients. (6).
Vitamin B6 is one versatile nutrient found in a huge variety of foods. Name almost any whole food and likely to find a natural source of vitamin B6. Beans, seeds, fruit, vegetables and meat all contain this common vitamin. Here are just a few specific examples:
- Fish: Particular types of fish are high in vitamin B6, especially oily fish. Fresh Tuna is the richest source, followed by salmon. They are not only generous in vitamin B6 but also provide you with high amount of good fats that work in their own right to fortify the health of brain tissue. Other fish, including herring, mackerel, …also good sources of vitamin B6.
- Bananas: Unlike its cousin vitamin B12, vitamin B6 can be readily found in plants. The convenience and versatility of bananas make them a staple fruit for children and adults. Even sugar junkies appreciate the satisfaction and delicious taste of a banana split or a piece of hot banana bread. Sneak this tasty fruit into deserts or put a frozen banana into the blender to whip up a guilt-free ‘ice-cream’ substitute. Better yet, just eat them fresh for a snack at any time of day.
- Potato: These starchy roots have a bit of a bad reputation these days, due to their high carbohydrate content. While carbs go in and out of fashion, natural sources of starch aren’t necessarily bad. Potatoes are a good source of several vitamins and minerals, including vitamin B6. Don’t go overboard, but eat in moderation to keep a balanced carbohydrate intake.
It looks like the B vitamins are the superstars when it comes to brain health! Vitamin B9, commonly known as folate, is most often recognised in its role in fertility and pre-natal health. But this is yet another member of the B-complex which can help with memory and overall mental function.
An Australian cross-university study found that a mixture of vitamins B12 and B9 significantly affected patient test results over the period of a year. The improvement was specific to memory as opposed to general mental function, showing that folate has some very specific advantages for people who want to boost their powers of recall. (7) &(8) Another study found that even people who had lower, but not deficient, levels of B9 were still at risk of cognitive decline. (9)
Folate is the natural form of B9 and is found in whole foods. There is a common synthetic form called folic acid, which is often added to fortified foods, particularly breads and pastas, during processing. Foods containing vitamin B9 are usually cheap and easily found at the supermarket:
- Leafy green vegetables: Some doctors like to say that ‘folate’ comes from ‘foliage,’ meaning that leaves and greenery can be counted on for plenty of this vitamin. We all know that leafy greens are some of the best things we can add to our diet, but it can be a struggle to consume enough on a daily basis. Greens can be prepared in such a variety of ways that there’s really no excuse for neglecting them, though. Broccoli, spinach, romaine lettuce and collard greens are all high in folate, either raw or cooked. Blending greens into a fruit smoothie is a trendy option, or add them to omelettes, stir-frys, salads and sandwiches.
- Yeast Extract: Vegemite and Marmite are both rich in folate, with about 50% of your daily requirement per serving. These spreads are synonymous with Australians and Brits, but don’t be scared to try them wherever you live! The intense salty flavour can surprise first-timers, definitely making it an acquired taste. Start with a thin spread on toast and work up from there.
- Beans and peas: Most varieties are good sources of vitamin B9, from chickpeas, black-eyes peas and lentils to almost any kind of bean. There are so many different legumes that you can mix them up for an almost endless variety of recipes. Blend into hummus, toss into a salad or add to a curry.
VITAMINS FOR FOCUS & CONCENTRATION
Many modern societies have moved toward intellectual industries which require intensive brain energy and a constant demand for new ideas. hile some social structures have relied on manual labour, we have switched to a system that depends on mind power. Modern industries like computer science, advertising and finance call for increased qualifications and offer jobs based on intellect rather than physical exertion. This mental demand can leave people with a ‘brain drain’ where they struggle to focus effectively. Those people may feel they need a ‘pick-me-up’ to help them concentrate for hours at a time. While some people turn to temporary fixes like drugs or unhealthy energy drinks, a better option would be to maximise nutrition to get the most out of our minds at all times.
Several vitamins have been linked to improved focus and concentration, so try adding them to your diet to help take your professional or school life to the next level.
One of the most recognizable nutrients among the public, vitamin C is synonymous with a healthy immune system. This vitamin is often used as our weapon of choice to fight colds and flu. In fact, there are many more benefits of vitamin C to our health generally and brain function particularly, that are not publicly recognised. Vitamin C, known as ascorbic acid, contributes to a wide range of body functions including production of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine that affects the attention centre of the brain.
Vitamin C is an antioxidant. Antioxidants are molecules which intercept and neutralise damage caused by ‘free radicals.’ Excessive oxidation of body tissues, caused by free radicals, is associated with a range of diseases, from cancer to Parkinson’s. Free radical damage provokes brain inflammation, which can reduce your ability to concentrate, as well as affecting other cognitive functions. Chronic brain inflammation can exacerbate conditions like ADHD, brain fog, and can even contribute to serious mental decline, in conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. (9). To minimise symptoms of inflammation, eat a diet high in soothing fats and antioxidants.
Vitamin C is commonly associated with citrus fruit such as oranges, lemons and grapefruit. Generally, this vitamin is found in the fruit and vegetable kingdoms, rather than grains or animal products. Here are some good examples:
- Peppers (capsicums, bell peppers): Bell peppers are some of the best natural sources of this vitamin. Red and yellow coloured ones have the most vitamin C, either raw or cooked. Green capsicum has less of the vitamin, but is still a rich source when compared with other fruit and vegetables. Chop raw ones into a salsa or try the classic Italian dish of roasted peppers.
- Broccoli: The bane of many a childhood dinner plate, these little green florets are actually plentiful in vitamin C. One cup gives you more than your recommended daily intake, so get a head start on tomorrow with this vegetable. Cauliflower carries some of the vitamin, though less than its cousin broccoli.
- Guava: Fruit in general is a truly excellent source of vitamin C. Guava has some of the highest documented vitamin C levels, but may be difficult to find unless you live in a tropical climate. Brightly coloured fruits such as mango, papaya and pineapple are all good sources and readily available during summer. During winter, your local market is likely to have a limited supply of tropical fruit, so stick with oranges and mandarins. No matter what the season, there’s no excuse to be low in vitamin C.
Vitamin D is often called the “sunshine vitamin” because our bodies produce it in a reaction to the sun’s light on our skin. Bone, immune and skin health all rely on vitamin D, as do our moods and cognitive functions.
Vitamin D could have a huge impact on our ability to complete cognitive tasks. It’s believed to act in the memory and concentration centre of the brain, ensuring proper focus on a task. Two studies is England found that deficiencies in vitamin D were related to poorer performance of mental tests and impaired cognitive function (10).
Vitamin D contributes to growth of new nerve cells and serves to reduce inflammation and protect neurons. This is due to its promotion of the antioxidant glutathione, which fights free radicals that damage neurons. It is required to produce some neurotransmitters, like dopamine and norepinephrine, which are being used in the treatment of attention disorders like ADHD. It also helps in the manufacture of acetylcholine, an enzyme which correlates with the capacity to focus for long periods of time. (11)
Vitamin D is a unique vitamin in that our major source doesn’t come from food at all. This is an unusual case where dietary intake can supplement our body’s natural production. Combine these environmental and dietary sources:
- Sunlight: The majority of vitamin D is synthesised by our bodies in a chemical reaction that occurs when our skin is exposed to sunlight. While UV exposure has become a concern over the past decades, it’s important to spend time outside every day to keep up your levels.
- Eggs: Egg yolks have been out of favour for the last few years due to their cholesterol content. More recent studies have revealed them to be nutritional powerhouses, including a decent amount of vitamin D.
- Oily fish: Salmon is one of the best dietary sources, followed by trout and other oily fish such as sardines, mackerel and herring.
Having already looked at vitamin B6 for memory improvement, we can now see that it also impacts in our ability to concentrate. It should be noted that its cousin vitamin B12 also contributes to concentration, due to both of these vitamins’ roles in nerve maintenance.
In addition to its role in promoting myelin production and nerve health, Vitamin B6 is required to produce several neurotransmitters. These are dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin and GABA. Dopamine and serotonin in particular influence our mental state, especially our moods and alertness. Neurotransmitters send messages between different parts of the brain and if you don’t have enough of these chemicals you’re likely to slow down and lose the ability to focus. Confusion and lack of concentration are signs of a vitamin B6 deficiency.
We looked at some good sources of B6 earlier, here are some more:
- Legumes: A range of dried beans contain vitamin B6. Choose from chickpeas (garbanzo beans), lentils and pinto beans. Beans add a filling, ‘meaty’ ingredient to any dish and are great flavour carriers for interesting spices or seasonings.
- Poultry: Chicken and turkey both contain a reasonable amount of vitamin B6. Organ meats are higher in the vitamin, but white poultry meat is a more palatable option for most people in modern Western societies.
VITAMINS FOR DEPRESSION CONTROL
Depression can be a debilitating problem for people of any age. It can arise for a huge range of reasons, from sudden trauma to chronic stress. Emotions of sadness or hopelessness are often compounded by the demands placed on us by work, family and social convention, making it hard to talk about even with those close to us. While therapy and pharmaceuticals play a part in treatment, nutrition can be a major factor.
As we saw earlier, vitamin B12 plays a huge role in brain and mental health. No one is exactly sure how it affects emotional states like depression, but there is significant evidence that it does. The role of vitamin B12 in maintaining brain tissues is likely involved. The part it plays in serotonin production could be a factor, but this isn’t certain. In truth, it’s probably a combination of the various vitamin B12 functions synergistically creating an environment conducive to a positive mental state.
Up to third of depression patients exhibit vitamin B12 deficiencies. Emotional symptoms may be the first sign of a vitamin B12 deficiency and can progress to irritability, agitation, obsession and psychosis, as well as depression. Low levels of vitamin B12 have been found to not only create depression, but decrease the efficacy of medical depression treatment. (12) Patients who simultaneously undergo anti-depressant treatment and increase vitamin B12 intake were found to have overall better results. (13) &(14).
As discussed earlier, vitamin B12 comes largely from animal products. Choose from these natural sources or consume fortified foods as an alternative:
- Oily Fish: While vegetarians choose not to eat red meat or poultry, some are open to seafood. They might try mackerel, herring, salmon and sardines. Tuna is also a good one, but the canned version has significantly less vitamin content than the fresh fish.
- Shellfish: Oysters, clams, and mussels are excellent options. Prawns, crab and lobster are good, though not as rich as source. Make sure to get these from trusted sources only, as shellfish can be risky for food poisoning. Try to eat them as fresh as possible.
- Some artificially fortified foods are available, like certain cereals and tofu.
The “sunshine vitamin” might help you to keep a sunny mood. We discussed its role in concentration earlier, but this vitamin has implications on emotional wellness too. Since we get the majority of our vitamin D from the sun, deficiencies are common among people who spend too much time indoors, or those who live in overcast climates.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a common condition where people feel depressed and listless during winter months only, and may be linked with a decline in our vitamin D stores. The disorder is associated with low levels of dopamine and serotonin that are released by vitamin D’s activation. (15)People with depression often suffer from vitamin D deficiency, whether their emotional state is a result of SAD or not. Clinical studies have found a link between depression and low levels of the vitamin. (16)
Much of the milk and some orange juice in our supermarkets has been fortified with synthetic vitamin D. Check the label to see whether your products have added vitamin D or not. Supplementation should be done with caution, as this oil soluble vitamin can build up to toxic levels in your system. Perhaps try an ‘indirect’ supplementation in the form of cod liver oil.
Not one of the ‘big name’ vitamins, this isn’t one the public hears about all that often. In fact, it has a long list of functions in the body, especially in reducing inflammation. With psychologists bringing attention to the link between brain inflammation and depression, it’s impossible to ignore the soothing effect that vitamin E could have on depression. (17)
A study by the Clinical Research Centre for Mental Health in Belgium found that major depression was accompanied by significantly lower vitamin E concentrations. The researchers directly linked their findings with the vitamin’s antioxidant properties, suggesting that the depressed patients were less able to combat oxidative damage on their body fats. (18) Vitamin E also appears to prevent oxidation of omega-3 fatty acids in the brain, indirectly working to prevent depression. Omega-3s reduce inflammation in their own right, and supplementation has been found to be an effective treatment for depression. (19) The double action of vitamin E as it reduces depression-causing inflammation itself and additionally protects other anti-inflammatory brain tissues makes it a real contender against mental health issues.
Vitamin E is found in a range of common foods, many of them high in healthy fats:
- Avocado: Renowned for its healthy monounsaturated fats and high content of omega-3 fatty acids, this savoury fruit also boasts vitamin E. The combination of nutrients makes the avocado a nugget of anti-inflammatory gold.
- Vegetable oils: Pure, cold-pressed vegetable oils are chock full of healthy fats and vitamin E. Try olive oil, wheatgerm oil, sunflower oil and almond oil. You can also get the nutrients from the some of the whole foods too, like sunflower seeds and nuts.
- Leafy greens: Vegetables like spinach and swiss chard are reasonable sources. For increased absorption, eat them together with a fatty ingredient like oily fish (also a good source of vitamin E).
Lucky for all of us, we needn’t leave our brain health up to fate: we are able to arm ourselves with nutrition and fight back against memory loss, depression and lack of focus. Antioxidants such as vitamins C and E prevent inflammation in not only your brain tissues but your whole body, a problem which can lead to all kinds of chronic diseases as you age. Too many of us base our diets on convenience foods full of sugar and unhealthy fats, leading to a lifetime of body inflammation and cellular degeneration. Vitamin D and the B-complex vitamins help us to rebuild our damaged cells, particularly nerve and brain tissue. Vitamins B6, B9 and B12 are fundamental to all kinds of brain functions, making an impact on almost every aspect of our cognitive and emotional lives. The right lifestyle and a nutritious diet can help to fortify our brain power and enhance mental function throughout our lifetimes.
This website does not propose to diagnose, treat, prevent or cure any illness. The information presented in this article should not be considered medical advice; it is intended only for research and personal reference. Please consult a physician before changing your diet or lifestyle.