What leads to a broken brain? Most of us never learn how to manage our energy and bodies. Instead, we use drugs like sugar, caffeine, and alcohol to self-medicate and manage our energy and moods. We don’t connect our behaviors and choices with how we feel.
The key insight is that your brain is an organ that’s connected to everything else happening in your body. Fixing your brain starts with fixing your body: optimizing all the inputs and taking out the bad influences. The brain is resilient and can recover and heal when given the right conditions.
Many of us get too little good food, nutrients, light, air, water, rest, sleep, rhythm, exercise, community, love, meaning, and purpose. We’re exposed to far too much poor-quality food, stress, toxins, and allergens.
We don’t eat enough quality food, like plant foods (which are loaded with dietary fiber and phytonutrients) and healthy fats like avocado and wild-caught salmon.
Even if you do all those things correctly, you might not be getting the right amount of certain nutrients that support your brain and body. That’s where supplements come in.
Think of nutrients as fertilizer for your brain. These little helpers improve communication and connections.
In a perfect world, no one would need supplements. But given the stress of our modern life, the poor quality of our food supply, and the high load of toxins on our brains and bodies, we clearly need a basic daily supply of the raw materials for our brains and bodies to optimally function.
In my new Broken Brain docuseries, we discuss some of those nutrients to support your body and your brain. The good news is you don’t need a huge arsenal of supplements to get that care. Here’s how I approach optimizing nutrient support.
Start with the Basics
These nutrients are foundational supplements that cover the bases you might not—probably aren’t—getting from food. They feed your body and feed your brain. I put nearly all my patients on these supplements.
When choosing supplements, you should absolutely choose quality products. Not all supplements are created equal, and the wrong supplements—those with things like potentially reactive fillers or inferior forms of nutrients—can create more harm than good.
Fortunately, even among professional brands, none of these supplements are expensive. These are the foundational supplements that I recommend everyone take:
- A high-quality, high-potency, highly bioavailable, broad-spectrum multivitamin/mineral. This contains optimal amounts of the full range of vitamins and minerals in their correct forms. You will probably need to take 2 – 6 or more capsules (depending on the manufacturer’s recommended dose).
- Extra magnesium. Research shows about 75 percent of us are deficient in this calming mineral that plays a part in over 300 enzymatic reactions in our bodies. Take 200 – 400 mg of magnesium citrate or glycinate before bed in addition to what is in your multi. This relaxes the nervous system and muscles while calming your brain.
- Extra vitamin D3. Because so many of us work indoors all day, more than 80 percent of the US population has insufficient levels of vitamin D, which our bodies synthesize from sunlight. Research shows vitamin D deficiencies contribute to a wide range of problems including dementia. Ask your doctor for a vitamin D test and if your levels are low, work with him or her to optimize them.
- Omega-3 fatty acids. Our brains are nearly 60 percent fat, so it should be no surprise that not getting sufficient dietary fat can adversely impact this organ. Chief among those fatty acids for your brain are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These omega-3 fatty acids are critical for supporting brain function and mood, regulating metabolism, and preventing diabetes and inflammation. Most of us need more than our food delivers, which is why I recommend a high-quality supplement.
- Special methylation factors like folate, B6, and B12. Methylation is a key biochemical process essential for the proper function of almost all of your body’s systems. It occurs billions of times every second; it helps repair your DNA on a daily basis; it controls homocysteine (an unhealthy compound that can damage blood vessels); it helps recycle molecules needed for detoxification; and it helps maintain mood and keep inflammation in check. To keep methylation running smoothly you need optimal levels of these B vitamins. Without enough B vitamins methylation breaks down, and the results can be catastrophic. Your multi will contain some B vitamins, but I find many patients do well taking an additional B-complex multivitamin.
- Probiotics. These beneficial bacteria can improve your digestion, reduce food allergies, and reduce gut inflammation. Gut health plays a powerful role in brain health. When you don’t have the right gut diversity, inflammation and things like leaky brain can occur, setting the stage for diverse problems ranging from brain fog to dementia.
Going Deeper with Supplements
I frequently use other supplements beyond these foundational nutrients to address specific brain conditions. I’ve discussed these in my Broken Brain docuseries. They include:
- Glutathione precursors. Glutathione is your body’s master antioxidant that also recycles other antioxidants, which are critical for cleaning up free radicals. When left unchecked, these free radicals lead to massive cell destruction (including brain cells). A great way to get glutathione is with a lot of cruciferous rich vegetables such as broccoli and collards. Various supplements including lipoic acid, N-acetyl-cysteine, and quality grass-fed whey protein all serve as precursors to help your body make glutathione.
- Support your mitochondria. These little power plants in nearly all your cells fuel your brain and body. Nutritional deficiencies, low levels of antioxidants, exposure to toxins, allergens, infections, and stress can all damage your mitochondria. “If your mitochondria are not working very well, then that organ doesn’t work very well. In the brain, that means that you begin to have problems with fatigue, pain, irritability, and cognitive decline,” says Dr. Terry Wahls in our Broken Brain interview. Nutrients you can use to optimize mitochondria include L-carnitine, NADH, lipoic acid, and coenzyme Q10. When you don’t get enough of these nutrients, your mitochondria have a much more difficult time producing energy, compounding the problems they face from the onslaught of ever more free radicals. Your brain cells fire more slowly, your metabolism slows, and your ability to process toxins shuts down.
- Try calming nutrients. Mood disorders like anxiety and depression are at epic levels today. Fortunately, we have a wide array of supplement options to address these brain conditions. GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is a nutrient that calms the brain from too much of the neurotransmitters epinephrine and norepinephrine. It is like a brake on overstimulation in the brain. When you have low levels of GABA, it is harder for you to relax after your body has released these excitatory neurotransmitters. Other supplements that can improve conditions like depression and anxiety include L-theanine (an amino acid in green tea), 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), inositol (usually found as a powder), and herbs like Rhodiola rosea.
I recommend working with a Functional Medicine practitioner to address your particular supplement needs, though as I mentioned, nearly everyone will benefit from these foundational nutrients. I’ve gone into more detail about many of these and other nutrients in my Broken Brain docuseries. You can learn more about this cutting-edge series here.
Wishing you health and happiness,
Mark Hyman, MD