As a nutritionist psychiatrist, I always make it a point of honor to maintain a balanced diet. A lot of that has to do with making sure I’m getting all the right vitamins, especially because it’s essential for preventing cognitive decline.
And given that the risk of neurological diseases increases with 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 diet is personalized to an individual’s unique needs. But the group of vitamins I prioritize the most to keep my brain young and healthy are the B vitamins.
The Brain Benefits of B Vitamins
Depression, dementia and mental disorders are often associated with a deficiency in B vitamins, a study from Wayne State University School of Medicine found.
“Vitamin B12 deficiency as a cause of cognitive problems is more common than you might think, especially in older people who live alone and don’t eat properly,” says Rajaprabhakaran Rajarethinam, psychiatrist and lead author of the study.
There are eight different B vitamins, each with their own health benefits:
1. Increase your energy.
Vitamin B1or thiamin, is crucial 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.
2. Break down the drugs.
Vitamin B2or riboflavin, acts as a helper for enzymes in our cells that carry out important reactions, such as in the body and brain.
It also helps to grow cells, produce energy, and break down fats and external materials like drugs.
3. Reduce inflammation.
Vitamin B3, or niacin, works with over 400 enzymes to produce materials like cholesterol and fats 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 your overall brain health.
Vitamin B5or pantothenic acid, is essential for making a molecular compound called coenzyme A, which helps our body’s enzymes build and break down fatty acids for energy.
It also helps our cells generate acyl-carrying proteins, helping to produce needed fats. The brain is mostly made of fat, so pantothenic acid is one of the most important vitamins for brain health.
5. Fight disease.
Vitamin B6or pyridoxine, is notable for its role in disease prevention, as appropriate levels of this vitamin are associated with a lower risk of a number of cancers.
Additionally, pyridoxine promotes many chemical reactions in the body that support immune function and brain health.
6. Help cells communicate better.
Vitamin B7, more commonly known as biotin, regulates cellular signals for fast and efficient communication throughout the body. In the brain, it is crucial for cell signaling via neurotransmitters.
7. Keep you balanced.
Vitamin B9or folate, is a popular supplement and key vitamin for supporting brain and neurological health, optimal neurotransmitter function, and balanced psychological health.
Another benefit is that it helps encourage cellular detoxification.
8. Help 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 functioning of the nervous system.
B12 also supports the breakdown of homocysteine, a protein that can negatively impact cardiovascular health and lead to dementia when in excess.
The best vitamin B foods
I’m a “food first” person, so I always encourage people to incorporate foods containing these vitamins into their meals. However, our diets are not perfect, so there may be instances where supplements can help. If so, my simple advice is to “test, not guess” – and consult your doctor first.
The good news is that B vitamins are some of the easiest to get into your diet because foods rich in a single B vitamin often contain many, if not all, B vitamins when consumed as whole foods.
Here are six foods rich in vitamin B that I eat every day:
1. An egg contains one-third of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin B7, while also containing small amounts of many other B vitamins.
2. Yogurt is rich in vitamin B2 and vitamin B12, as well as natural probiotics, which promote both gut health 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 is naturally rich in all B vitamins, especially vitamin B2, vitamin B3, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12. Pay attention to the source of your seafood and remember that frozen or canned salmon is also an economical option.
5. Sunflower seeds are 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, Swiss chard and cabbage are an excellent source of vitamin B9. It’s the first food I suggest to patients who want to boost their low mood.
Dr Uma Naidoo is a nutritional psychiatrist, brain expert and faculty member of Harvard Medical School. She is also director of nutritional and lifestyle psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and author of the bestselling book “This is Your Brain on Food: An Indispensable Guide to Surprising Foods That Fight Depression, Anxiety, PTSD, OCD, ADHD, and More.” Follow her on Twitter and instagram.