It’s back to school time: Supplements for brain function

The end of the summer signals back to school season.  We are accustomed to the familiar commercials for school supplies, fall clothing and autumn activities.

Another back to school essential we don’t often think about includes nutritional and herbal supplements to support healthy brain function during the school year.  Nutritional and herbal supplements can help to optimize brain function leading to improved memory, concentration and learning in the classroom.


Top 5 Supplements for Back to School:

1. Multivitamin: A multivitamin includes a combination of vitamins and minerals to ensure the body has an adequate daily supply to prevent deficiency.  With our busy lifestyles it can be difficult to have great nutrition everyday and a multivitamin can be helpful for ensuring our brains are nourished with the nutrients we need.

Choose a multivitamin appropriate for your age and take the recommended dose with meals to increase absorption.  Liquid and powder multivitamins are great for children because they can be mixed into juice, smoothies, applesauce or yogurt.

2. B-complex vitamin:  In addition to a multivitamin supplement, additional B vitamins can be helpful for improving cognitive function.  B vitamins are essential for producing neurotransmitters that influence mood and can be helpful for anxiety and depression.

Make sure you take a b-complex vitamin with meals to prevent nausea.  It is best to take it in the morning with breakfast because it also helps improve energy throughout the day.

3. Omega-3 fatty acids: A fish oil supplement is the best way to get an appropriate dose of omega-3 fatty acids.  The two major types are ecosapentanoic acid  (EPA) and docosahexanoic acid (DHA).  A combination of EPA and DHA is important for supporting nervous system function leading to improved learning, attention and concentration in the classroom.  Nourishing the brain with omega-3 fatty acids is essential for improving mood.

Fish oil is available in liquid or capsules.  You can freeze the capsules to prevent it from repeating or purchase an enteric coated brand.  Liquid fish oil is great for children because it can be mixed into a smoothie or juice.  There are even delicious gummies and chewable capsules for the picky eater!

If you follow a vegan diet or are allergic to fish, omega-3 fatty acids can be found in flaxseed oil, chia seeds and hempseed.  However, much higher doses are needed to absorb the same amount that is found naturally in fish oil.

4. Gingko biloba:  Once you ingest the essential vitamins, minerals and omega-3 fatty acids, gingko biloba is a great herb for increasing circulation to the brain and ensuring those nutrients are delivered to where they need to go.  Gingko biloba itself increases neurotransmitter function in the brain helping to improve cognition and short term memory.

Gingko biloba is available in capsule and liquid tincture form.  Putting drops of the liquid tincture into a cup of boiling water will evaporate the alcohol leading to a more pleasant taste.  Adding a bag of your favourite herbal tea will also mask the flavour of the gingko.  Cooling this tea and making popsicles are a wonderful way to help children ingest herbal remedies.

If you are taking blood thinning medications it is best to be cautious and speak to your primary healthcare provider before starting gingko biloba.

5. Water: We don’t often think of water as a supplement but I frequently prescribe water as part of one’s  daily lifestyle routine.  Increasing water intake prevents dehydration and improves brain function, restlessness and focus in the classroom.

Schedule breaks to the water fountain or carry a water bottle to remind you to drink water frequently.  Adding slices of lemon, lime, orange, cucumber, apple or berries to your water will give it a fresh taste so you don’t get bored with plain old water.  Peppermint or spearmint leaves are also a refreshing twist!

We all know the recommended 8-10 glasses of water per day and it is important to make this a priority.  Such a simple lifestyle change can make a significant impact on how you feel.  Go ahead and give it a try!

Just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s safe!

Just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s safe!

I find myself repeating this phrase over and over again at health talks and to my clients.  I say it so frequently that it warrants a blog post.

What I mean by, ‘Just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s safe!’ is that just because you can buy a product at a natural health store or a product was prescribed to you by a health care practitioner does not mean it has no side effects, interactions, contraindications or toxic dosages.  

It also does not mean that you can give this product to your friend with the same symptoms.   Would you share your prescription drugs with your friend? Definitely not recommended!

Side effects:

Natural health products DO have side effects, the most common being skin rashes, allergic reactions, headaches and digestive symptoms like nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.  They don’t show up in everybody, it depends on the person and how sensitive they are.  The main point here is to not rule out the possibility that the appearance of these symptoms is caused by the new natural health product you just started.

Medication interactions:

Natural health products work on similar pathways as pharmaceutical drugs and DO interact with prescriptions.  The most common herbs that have high interaction rates are St. John’s Wort, Gingko biloba, and Licorice.  These herbs alter liver metabolism which affects how your drugs are broken down resulting in increased or decreased drug effectiveness.  Always check the labels for drug interactions and speak to your primary care provider before starting new health products.


Natural health products are contraindicated if you have certain medical conditions which means they should be avoided.  For example, licorice increases your blood pressure so if you have high blood pressure you should not take licorice.  Also, many of those ‘natural cleansing products’ are contraindicated in people with liver, gall bladder and kidney problems; especially those with gallstones or kidney stones.  Once again, be sure to check the labels for contraindications and speak to your primary care provider.

Toxic overdose:

I once had a client who brought in a bag of natural supplements she purchased from a health food store.  Upon review, I discovered she was taking a supplement for bone health, a supplement for skin health, a supplement for boosting her immune system, and a multivitamin/mineral formula.  When I added all of these together I found that she was taking over 500 mg of zinc per day.  That is 10 times the safe daily dose of zinc which is 50 mg per day! And 50 mg per day would only be prescribed if we suspected she was zinc deficient.  Even though this client had very good intentions when she self-prescribed these supplements she was potentially doing herself harm.

Next time you walk through the supplement aisle please be mindful about the safety of the supplements you are about to purchase!

The benefits of a B-complex

Last weekend someone asked me, “What is a B-complex?’ and that question is what has inspired my blog post this week since there is an abundance of information available on B-complexes but there are a few key points that are important to know.

What is a B-Complex?

When all the B vitamins are put together into a single supplement, it is known as a b-complex.  All of the water-soluble B vitamins (B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B12), biotin and folic acid are usually included in a b-complex supplement.

Why would you supplement with a B-Complex?

1. You are not ingesting enough B vitamins through your diet.  This would be the case of a vegetarian, especially a vegan who is abstaining from dairy and eggs.

2. You are ingesting a substance that depletes the amount of B vitamins in your body such as alcohol, the birth control pill, and other pharmaceutical medications.

3. You are eliminating excessive amounts of B vitamins through excessive urination or perspiration.

4. You have an illness that can be improved by supplementation with high doses of B vitamins such as anxiety/depression, migraines or cardiovascular disease.  B-complexes are also used for stress management.

What do the numbers of a B-complex mean?

A B50 complex contains 50 milligrams of vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5 and B6.  A B100 contains double the amount at 100 milligrams of each.  The remaining vitamins are included in smaller amounts.

Is it better to take a B-complex or to supplement with each B vitamin individually?

It depends on what you are trying to accomplish.  High doses of specific B vitamins can be more  indicated for certain health conditions than a lower dose B-complex.

You should always speak to your primary care provider to determine if supplementing with B vitamins is beneficial for you and your specific situation.

Are there negative side effects from taking a B-complex?

B-complexes are generally safe at these high doses since B vitamins are water-soluble and are not stored in your body.  However, side effects are always possible.  Common side effects include sweating, skin flushing, nausea, vomiting, digestive upset, insomnia, excessive energy/agitation, bright yellow and smelly urine due to the breakdown products of the B-complex that are eliminated in your urine.

Overall, B vitamins are required for numerous essential functions in your body and generally have a beneficial effect.

A new field called Orthomolecular medicine is emerging which aims to restore optimal functioning of the body by supplementing with high doses of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and fatty acids to treat deficiencies and imbalances which contribute to disease states.

Naturopathic doctors are trained in the use of orthomolecular medicine, so if you are interested in being treated using these methods it is best to start by seeing a naturopathic doctor.  Psychiatrists are also starting to use orthomolecular concepts to treat mental illness.  The benefits of high dose nutrient supplementation for a multitude of diseases are emerging in the latest nutrition research.

More information about orthomolecular medicine can be found here:

Orthomolecular Medicine Online 

International Society of Orthomolecular Medicine

Canadian Society for Orthomolecular Medicine