Tomás Ondarra
How to improve your memory with supplements
Health and beauty

How to improve your memory with supplements

Forty per cent of Spain's population take pills to improve memory and mental health, yet some healthy foods are highly effective too

Julio Arrieta


Friday, 16 February 2024, 15:42


In Spain, four out of 10 people aged 18 to 74 currently take some type of dietary supplement. Almost a quarter of these turn to such products in the hope of improving memory function. All too often they do it with zero professional advice and just let themselves be swayed by all the publicity.

Hardly surprising really as we notice, thanks to age or stress or both, that we increasingly forget things or find it difficult to concentrate. If we learn of nutrients that help the brain function better, we take a pill that includes them and job done. The problem is that it is not that simple. Are these supplements really effective? It depends is the short answer.

Proper brain function

“There is a group of nutrients that are essential for the proper functioning of the brain, either because they are part of its very structure or because they are involved in different metabolic functions,” says María José Alonso Osorio, collaborating research professor of Health Science Studies at the Open University of Catalonia (UOC).

It turns out that “a balanced diet already provides these nutrients”. To give an example: 70 grams of sardine has 190 milligrams of phosphorus, 90 times more phosphorus than is found in one of these pills.

The professor explains that a good diet for the brain must be rich in fish (especially blue fish that provide more omega-3 fatty acids), dried fruits and seeds, fruit, vegetables, pulses and whole grains and olive oil and really cutting down (and out) saturated fats and alcohol.

A 2017 meta-analysis of statistical data from 17 randomised control trials (RCTs) conducted on healthy older adults, published in ‘Advances in Nutrition’, concluded that those who followed the Mediterranean diet (MeDi) had better cognitive function.

However, there can be a drop in the absorption of nutrients whenever we are stressed, or the diet is lacking, or just through ageing or some other physiological issue, and this can lead to a decrease in some brain functions.

In such cases “these supplements can be beneficial,” says the expert. In any case, she is emphatic that a healthy person with normal cognitive capacity and a correct diet will not improve their memory further by taking this type of product.

Another factor to take into consideration is that of the quality of the supplements themselves. Some are properly developed, based on scientific knowledge of what the nutrients can achieve with the appropriate dosage. Then there are those that contain ‘good’ nutrients, but which are rendered ineffective because of incorrect content. “And ineffective at best,” states the specialist.

The right vitamins

If you need to take these types of supplements, what vitamins should they contain to be effective?

All B vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins E and C, carotenes, polyphenols from certain plants and minerals such as zinc, selenium and manganese, can play a beneficial role in preventing neurodegeneration and could reduce neuronal damage caused by free radicals in the body when there are not enough antioxidants to eliminate them.

Good for the brain

  • Carbohydrates: Foods with a low blood glucose index are recommended, such as legumes, brown rice and some cereals, among others.

    Virgin olive oil: According to experts from the UOC (Open University of Catalonia), some studies have shown that it reduces cerebral edema and oxidative stress, and protects neurons after ischemia.
    B6, B12 and Folic Acid: These vitamins are found in eggs, sardines and yoghurt. They reduce homocysteine in the blood. Elevated levels of this substance have been linked to strokes and cognitive impairment in certain types of dementia.

There are also studies suggesting that certain plants can provide a “protective effect” on the brain, plants such as turmeric for its rhizomes, and plant extracts from such as bacopa (water hyssop) and centella (Indian pennywort).

One reason for the increase in the number of people taking dietary supplements in Spain is the increase in life expectancy, up to 86 years in women and just over 80 in men.

“There is evidence that suggests elderly people are at risk of shortfalls in micronutrients, which negatively affect physical and mental capacity,” says the UOC professor.

Normal forgetfulness

Many older people become worried when they begin to experience the normal forgetfulness that can emerge as we age. What should we do about this? Best to speak with your GP to rule out any cognitive impairment that requires treating with meds and monitoring, as it is better to catch this in the early stages for a better outcome.

María José recommends the same for anyone suffering from normal, age-related forgetfulness or losing focus due to stress or overworking the brain.

“You should consult a professional who can help you choose the most appropriate food supplement for your condition and will give you the necessary dietary and lifestyle guidance to follow.”


One final warning from this specialist: that taking an incorrect or excessive dose of these supplements can cause adverse effects.

“There is also another risk: many people take different supplements simultaneously without being mindful of the fact that they may interact with each other or may contain one or more of the same type of nutrients, leading to harmful over-consumption. For example, an excess of antioxidants will cause the opposite effect of what was intended.”

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