A varied diet should provide all the brain-healthy nutrients you need, but could you benefit from taking more of them? Here the answers get much less certain.
Omega-3 is the supplement best known as a brain booster. It is the type of oil found in fatty fish like herrings, sardines and mackerel. The literature on oils and the brain would sink a tanker, but most of it is based on small, commercially motivated or otherwise unreliable studies. When these are removed, the evidence that’s left is underwhelming. A 2012 review by the Cochrane organisation – widely acknowledged as the ultimate authority on health – found no evidence that omega-3 reduces the risk of cognitive impairment, while a 2015 meta-analysis by Canadian scientists concluded bluntly: “Omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, and vitamin E supplementation did not affect cognition in non-demented middle-aged and older adults.”
Similarly, evidence for herbal supplements ginseng and gingko biloba fails to stand up to strict scrutiny, as does that for practically every other ‘brain-booster’. The Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, a non-commercial organisation which continuously collects and reviews data, failed to find a single proven effective supplement among more than 50 they assessed. They rated a few as “possibly effective” but most simply had “insufficient evidence” to call.
Lack of proof of efficacy is not, however, proof of lack of efficacy. The large-scale, expensive research needed to show beyond doubt if a thing works or not is usually done only for medicinal drugs, so it’s not surprising that there isn’t any to show what works for healthy people.
Supplements are not without risk – they can interfere with medicines and produce nasty side effects, especially if too many are taken. However, a supplement which gives the recommended daily dose of required vitamins and minerals may be a good idea if you feel your brain needs a boost, especially if you think your diet may be deficient in any way.
“Evidence for herbal supplements fails to stand up
Found in oily fish, omega-3 is often touted as being beneficial for the brain, but the evidence
for this is surprisingly weak