As a nutritionist psychiatrist, I always strive to maintain a well-balanced diet. A lot of it has to do with making sure I’m getting all the right vitamins, especially since it’s essential to prevent cognitive decline.
And since the risk of neurological disease increases as we age, a question I often get from my patients is, “What is the best vitamin to protect our aging brain?”
Each of our microbiomes is like a fingerprint, so a truly effective nutrition plan is tailored to an individual’s unique needs. But the group of vitamins I prioritize most to keep my brain young and healthy are the B vitamins.
The brain benefits of B vitamins
Depression, dementia and intellectual disability are often associated with B vitamin deficiency, found a study from the Wayne State University School of Medicine.
“Vitamin B12 deficiency as a cause of cognitive problems is more common than we think, especially among elderly people who live alone and do not eat well,” says Rajaprabhakaran Rajarethinam, a psychiatrist and lead author of the study.
There are eight different B vitamins, each with their own primary health benefits:
1. Increasing your energy.
Vitamin B1or thiamine, is vital for the basic functioning of our cells and the metabolism of nutrients for energy.
The brain is one of the most metabolically active organs in your body, which means it needs the support of thiamine to prevent deficiencies that can lead to neurological problems down the road.
2. Breakdown of drugs.
Vitamin B2or riboflavin, acts as an assistant to the enzymes in our cells that carry out important reactions, such as in the body and brain.
It also helps in cell growth, energy production and the breakdown of fats and external materials such as drugs.
3. Reduction of inflammation.
Vitamin B3, or niacin, works with more than 400 enzymes to make materials like cholesterol and fat needed in the body and to convert energy for all of our organ systems. Niacin is also an antioxidant, which helps reduce excess inflammation.
4. Support your support for your overall brain health.
Vitamin B5or pantothenic acid, is necessary for the production of a molecular compound called coenzyme A, which helps our body’s enzymes create and break down fatty acids for energy.
It also helps our cells produce acyl carrier proteins, aiding in the production of essential fats. The brain is mostly fat, so pantothenic acid is one of the most important vitamins to support brain health.
5. Fight disease.
Vitamin B6or pyridoxine, is notable for its role in disease prevention because proper levels of this vitamin are associated with a lower risk of a number of cancers.
In addition, pyridoxine helps many chemical reactions in the body that support immune function and brain health.
6. Helping cells communicate better.
Vitamin B7, more commonly known as biotin, regulates cell signals for fast and efficient communication throughout the body. In the brain, it is vital for cell signaling through neurotransmitters.
7. Keeping you balanced.
Vitamin B9or folic acid, is a popular supplement and an essential vitamin for supporting brain and neurological health, optimal neurotransmitter function, and balanced psychological health.
Another benefit is that it helps encourage cellular detoxification.
8. Helping your heart.
Vitamin B12, or cobalamin, is an essential vitamin for the formation of red blood cells and DNA and for supporting the development and function of the nervous system.
B12 also supports the breakdown of homocysteine, a protein that can negatively affect cardiovascular health and lead to dementia when in excess.
The best foods with vitamin B
I’m a “food first” person, so I always encourage people to incorporate foods that contain these vitamins into their meals. However, our diet is not perfect, so there may be times when supplements may help. If this is the case, my simple advice is to “test, not guess” – and consult your doctor first.
The good news is that B vitamins are among the easiest to work into your diet because foods rich in one B vitamin often contain many, if not all, of the B vitamins when eaten as whole foods.
Here are six foods rich in B vitamins that I eat every day:
1. One egg contains a third of the recommended daily value of vitamin B7, while also containing small amounts of many of the other B vitamins.
2. Yogurt it is high in vitamin B2 and vitamin B12, as well as natural probiotics, which support both gut and mental health. I like plain Greek yogurt for the added protein.
3. Legumes like black beans, chickpeas, edamame and lentils all help boost your mood and brain health. They are an excellent source of vitamin B9 and contain small amounts of vitamin B1, vitamin B2, vitamin B3, vitamin B5 and vitamin B6.
4. Salmon it is naturally rich in all B vitamins, especially vitamin B2, vitamin B3, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12. Be mindful of the source of your seafood and remember that frozen or canned salmon is also a budget-friendly option.
5. Sunflower seeds is one of the best plant sources of vitamin B5. You can get 20% of the recommended daily value of this vitamin from just one ounce of seeds!
6. Leafy greens such as spinach, chard and kale are excellent sources of vitamin B9. This is the first food I recommend to patients who want to boost a bad mood.
Dr Uma Naidoo is a nutritional psychiatrist, brain specialist and faculty member at Harvard Medical School. She is also the Director of Nutrition & Psychiatric Lifestyle at Massachusetts General Hospital and the best-selling author of “This Is Your Food Brain: An Essential Guide to the Amazing Foods That Fight Depression, Anxiety, PTSD, OCD, ADHD, and More.” Follow her Twitter and Instagram.