Fish Oil, Turmeric, and Ginseng, Oh My! Are ‘Brain Foods’ B.S.?

It’s rare a week goes by without a new ‘brain food’ making headlines, promising to make us smarter and healthier. Which of these foods have science to back them up, and which are nothing but snake oil?

Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

Reverse Aging! Lose Weight! Enhance Brainpower! These are just a few of the medical miracles purportedly delivered by dietary supplements.

These claims are incredibly effective. A 2007 government survey revealed that Americans spent $14.8 billion on nonvitamin, nonmineral, natural products—substances like fish oil and ginkgo biloba—in one year alone. Often, there is little scientific evidence to support these claims—remember Dr. Oz and green coffee beans?

In a society where we constantly seek to work harder and be smarter, claims about improving brain health attract massive attention. Every other day, it seems a new “brain food” is making headlines, the latest being turmeric. A recent study by German scientists focused on a compound in the spice that may play a role in brain repair. This finding must be interpreted carefully. The discovery that a compound found in beer—xanthohumol—enhances brain function in mice does not mean a cold brew before taking the SAT would boost your score. Similarly, the results of this study should not drastically increase your intake of Indian food. Before you rush to stock up on chicken tikka masala, let’s take a closer look at what these scientists found.

Turmeric is a household spice in South Asia and a common ingredient in many curries. The German neuroscientists identified a naturally-occurring compound in turmeric called aromatic-turmerone, which may have a role in the growth of neurons. The researchers first isolated a set of cells known as neural stem cells (NSCs) from the brains of rats. NSCs, like other stem cells, have a characteristic known as multipotency; that is, they can develop into a number of other types of cells. NSCs give rise to the different types of cells in the brain, of which neurons are the best known.

The scientists exposed the isolated rat NSCs to various concentrations of the turmeric compound and measured their ability to multiply (proliferate) and to grow into more mature cell types (differentiate). The compound was also injected into the ventricles—fluid-filled brain spaces—of live rats. The researchers discovered that the turmeric compound increased the ability of the isolated NSCs to proliferate, and found that both isolated NSCs and rats with the injections had greater NSC differentiation.

The team found that higher concentrations of the compound led to larger effects, an important characteristic of any potential therapy. This is exciting because it seems that this turmeric compound can enhance the characteristics of NSCs. Other studies have shown that NSCs may have positive effects in brain repair after damage (like a stroke) or disease (like Alzheimer’s).

Turmeric could have important abilities in healing and preventing brain damage—or this could be an aberrant finding. Carefully controlled studies, especially in humans, are required if this result is going to have true therapeutic value. The results, however, are promising and encouraging.

Unfortunately, it is often very difficult to separate the gold from the garbage. Though scientists have only started exploring how turmeric derivatives affect brain health, no doubt we will see a slew of supplements that claim to enhance memory, creativity, and mental endurance by providing a ridiculously high oral dose of the basic spice.

Turmeric is just the latest in a long line of “brain foods.” Here are a famous others and an evaluation of the supporting evidence.

Fish oil ($976 million in 2009 consumer spending)

The key family of molecules that lead many to look to fish oil as a brain booster are the omega-3 fatty acids. The evidence to support eating fish for omega-3s’ role in heart health may be strong, but the picture for brain health is far less clear. A review of studies that tested omega-3s in the prevention of mental decline found marginal, if any, evidence of the cognitive benefit of omega-3s, though the effects of fish oil on depression are still being evaluated.

Ginkgo biloba ($15 million in 2010 consumer spending)

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This dietary supplement originates in China and has been reported to enhance cognitive ability in healthy individuals. While the science to support that claim is shaky at best, there is some evidence of gingko’s positive effects. A few studies have shown that it can help cognitive symptoms of patients with dementia, whereas others found no differences in cognition or memory. More study is needed to determine any potential benefits for gingko on brain function.

St. John’s wort ($8.9 million in 2010 consumer spending)

The flowers and leaves of this herb are used to make medications and the supplement is popularly used for depression. The American College of Physicians-American Society of Internal Medicine suggest that St. John’s wort can be considered an option for short-term treatment of mild depression. However, it can interfere seriously with blood thinners and should never be taken with other antidepressant drugs. There is a lack of evidence in comparing St. John’s wort to prescription antidepressants and no strong evidence that it is medically useful for any other conditions.

Ginseng ($7.3 million spent in 2010 consumer spending)

There are several herbs used as supplements that fall under the term ginseng, though the most common is Panax ginseng. Though there are many claims that implicate it in improved brain function, the evidence in support of this finding is tenuous. A review of trials of that use ginseng to improve brain function found that evidence in support of improved mental function was overall not convincing.


Though the overall evidence of foods and supplements that can improve brain health and function may not be convincing, many people will seek these items regardless. It is important to remember that if you decide to begin supplements, the best thing you can do is read. Stick to websites with government (.gov) web addresses and universities that you are familiar with. Then, speak with someone who cares about your health and will have some knowledge about these areas, like your healthcare provider.

At the end of the day, it is highly unlikely that any supplement can take the place of a balanced diet, a good night’s sleep, and regular exercise—but they may be able to supplement meticulous mental and physical hygiene.