Memory Boosters

By Abu-Rustum, Nadeem R. MD

Wouldn't it be wonderful to be able to remember names, appointments, and where you left your keys just by taking an over-the-counter (OTC) memory pill? Some natural supplements are supposed to improve memory and concentration. But is staying sharp as simple as taking a supplement?

Most experts agree that there is no solid proof that memory-enhancing supplements work. These products may not even contain much of their "active herbal ingredients." The strength and purity of natural supplements also vary widely across brands because the FDA does not regulate them.

Here is a rundown on so-called memory supplements. Do NOT take any of these supplements, or others, without talking with your health care provider.

Ginkgo biloba

Claims that this herb improves mental performance are based on a few small, questionable studies. It may cause stomach upset or headache. Ginkgo is a blood thinner, so if you take an anticoagulant like aspirin, talk with your health care provider before using ginkgo. Avoid ginkgo if you take a seizure medicine.


This herb is supposed to boost the power of your memory, as well as your energy level, but studies have not proved either of these claims. Ginseng can cause a variety of health problems, including increased blood pressure, headache, vomiting, insomnia, tremors, and nosebleeds. Like ginkgo, ginseng is a blood thinner and should be avoided by people taking anticoagulant drugs. People with manic disorder or psychosis should not take ginseng.

Omega-3 fatty acids

You need these fats for brain function, and they are good for your overall health. There is no evidence, however, that taking them in supplement form has an effect on memory. Foods that are high in omega-3 fatty acids include fish such as salmon, halibut, sardines, albacore, trout, and herring, and oils such as walnut, flaxseed, and canola. Other foods with omega-3 fatty acids are shrimp, clams, light chunk tuna, catfish, cod, and spinach.

Vitamin E

Some studies have shown that high doses of vitamin E slow the progression of Alzheimer's disease. These studies, however, did not show that high doses of vitamin E improve memory. Vitamin E is important to your overall health, however. It is an antioxidant, which helps protect against tissue damage. Although some people take vitamin E to help prevent heart disease and cancers of the lung and prostate, a 10-year study on vitamin E supplements did not support that use. The study, published in the March 2005 Journal of the American Medical Association, found that long-term use of this vitamin did not prevent any type of cancer and actually increased the risk for heart failure and hospitalization for heart disease.

What you can do

Eat a well-balanced diet and take a multivitamin that includes beta-carotene, folic acid, iron, zinc, and vitamins C, B12, and E--your brain needs these nutrients. Avoid alcohol, OTC sedatives such as antihistamines and sleep remedies, and stimulants. Unless you absolutely need them, avoid prescription drugs that are sedatives.

Reading, working puzzles, and otherwise exercising your mind may help you stay sharp.

Although studies have shown an association between certain modifiable lifestyle factors and a reduced risk for cognitive decline, the National Institutes of Health says that researchers still aren’t sure whether these factors can actually prevent the disease.

A little forgetfulness is natural as we age. Still, if your memory lapses worry you, talk with your health care provider. Memory problems caused by medication, depression, infection, or thyroid disease can be treated.

Medical Reviewer: [Byrd, Sylvia RN, MBA, Coleman, Ellen RD, MA, MPH] Last Annual Review Date: 2008-06-11T00:00:00-06:00 Copyright: © 2000-2010 The StayWell Company, 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.