Harvard nutritionist shares the No. 1 vitamin that keeps her brain ‘young and healthy’—and foods she eats ‘every day’

Harvard nutritionist shares the No. 1 vitamin that keeps her brain ‘young and healthy—and foods she eats ‘every day’

Dr. Uma Naidoo, a nutritional psychiatrist, educates her patients about the importance of maintaining their mental health and adopting a healthy diet. Likewise, Dr. Naidoo makes sure she practices what she advises her patients.

“I always make it a point to maintain a well-balanced diet,” Dr. Naidoo, a brain expert and faculty member at  Harvard Medical School, wrote for CNBC’s Make It. “Much of that involves ensuring I get all the right vitamins, especially because it’s essential to preventing cognitive decline.”

Because the risk of neurological disease increases with age, Dr. Naidoo’s patients frequently ask her: “What is the best vitamin for protecting our aging brains?” Dr. Naidoo says the vitamin group she prioritizes the most to keep her brain “young and healthy” are B vitamins.

B vitamins are essential because they help the body convert food into glucose, also known as sugar, which the body uses as an energy source. B vitamins also help the body break down fats and protein. A lack of B vitamins can place older adults at a higher risk for cognitive decline.

A study by investigators at Wayne State University Medical School found that depression, dementia, and mental impairment are often linked with vitamin B deficiency, especially in the elderly.

“A B12 vitamin deficiency as a cause of cognitive issues is more common than we think, especially among the elderly who live alone and don’t eat properly,” Dr. Rajaprabhakaran Rajarethinam, a psychiatrist and the study’s lead author, said.

There are eight different B vitamins, also known as vitamin B complex, and each vitamin has different benefits:

1. Vitamin B1

B1, also known as thiamin, helps the cells break down nutrients to use as energy and is especially important to brain health and keeping the nervous system functioning properly. A thiamin deficiency can lead to neurological problems.

2. Vitamin B2

B2, also known as riboflavin, helps enzymes in cells that are involved with cell growth, energy production, and the breakdown of fats and external materials like medications.

3. Vitamin B3

B3, also known as niacin, is required for more than 400 enzymes to perform various functions in the body. Niacin helps the enzymes to create materials like cholesterol and fats, and convert nutrients into energy for all the organ systems in the body. Niacin also works as an antioxidant, which helps reduce excess inflammation.

4. Vitamin B5

B5, also known as pantothenic acid, helps to make coenzyme A, a molecular compound that assists the enzymes that build and break down fatty acids for energy. Vitamin B5 also helps to make acyl carrier protein, which is also involved in building fats. Since the brain is primarily fat, pantothenic acid supports brain health.

5. Vitamin B6

B6, or pyridoxine, helps chemical reactions that support the immune system, the brain, and the nervous system. Pyridoxine has been associated with reducing the risk of certain cancers.

6. Vitamin B7

B7, most commonly known as biotin, helps the body break down fats, carbohydrates, and proteins in food. Biotin also supports the health of hair and nails, supports a healthy pregnancy, and helps to manage blood sugar levels. B7 also regulates signals sent between cells throughout the body.

7. Vitamin B9

B9 also called folate, is key in creating red blood cells and contributing to healthy cell growth and function. Folate is also important in maintaining brain health and neurotransmitters that regulate mood, memory, and mental performance. Folate also helps encourage cellular detoxification, which involves removing harmful toxins at the cellular level.

8. Vitamin B12

B12, or cobalamin, is essential in forming red blood cells and the production of DNA and helps to maintain a healthy nervous system. B12 also supports the breakdown of homocysteine, an amino acid that can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and in high levels, is a risk factor for developing dementia.

Best Food Sources of Vitamin B

It’s not difficult to find foods containing vitamin B. In fact, some foods that have one type of vitamin B often have other types of B vitamins when consumed as whole foods.

Dr. Naidoo, author of This Is Your Brain on Food: An Indispensable Guide to the Surprising Foods that Fight Depression, Anxiety, PTSD, OCD, ADHD, and More, recommends incorporating foods with vitamin B into your meals. Since our diets “are not perfect,” there may be instances where vitamin B supplements may help.

“If that’s the case, my simple advice is to ‘test, not guess’— and consult with your doctor first,” she said.

Here are six vitamin B-rich foods Dr. Naidoo says that she eats every day:

1. One egg. When making a list of healthy foods, eggs are usually at the top. An egg contains a third of the recommended daily value of vitamin B7, which is 30 micrograms daily for adults 19 years and older and pregnant women. Eggs also have small amounts of almost every vitamin, including other B vitamins.

2. Yogurt is a good source of vitamins B2 and B12, and is a prime source of natural probiotics, the “good” bacteria that support both gut health and mental health. “I like plain Greek yogurt for the added protein,” Dr. Naidoo said.

3. Legumes are a great source of vitamin B9 and include small amounts of vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, and B6. Legumes are a class of vegetables that include black beans, lentils, chickpeas, and edamame, all of which help to boost your mood and brain health.

4. Salmon is another food containing many vitamins, including vitamins B2, B3, B6, and B12. Dr. Naidoo recommends being “mindful of the source of your seafood, and remember that frozen or canned salmon is a budget-friendly option, too.”

5. Sunflower seeds are one of the best plant sources of vitamin B5. According to Dr. Naidoo, you can get 20 percent of the recommended daily value of vitamin B5 (which is 5 mg for adults 19 years and older and for pregnant women) from just one ounce of seeds.

6. Leafy greens and vegetables are excellent sources of folate. Leafy greens such as cabbage, spinach, kale, Swiss chard, and spring greens are rich in vitamin B9. “This is the first food I suggest to patients who want to boost low mood,” Dr. Naidoo said.


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