One of the questions that I get asked when I talk about memory has to do with what I think about using supplements to improve memory. My answer usually comes through gritted teeth.
I don’t think that the idea that there is some food supplement, vitamin, or herb that will make your memory better is particularly interesting or useful. I think it represents a desire to pop a pill and get “magic” benefits without having to put in any effort.
The analogy I like to use is that worrying about what supplements you can take to have a better memory is a lot like asking what protein shake you should take in order to have a great body without going to the gym and exercising. It just doesn’t work that way.
A professional athlete or body builder can use pills and supplements to get that last tiny fraction of excellence it takes to compete, but only AFTER doing the basics required for good health. First, they eat a balanced diet, get lots of sleep, and exercise. Once they’ve mastered the fundamentals of good health they can use protein shakes and vitamins to become truly competitive.
My contention is that the same is true of memory. If you have a bad diet, your body and brain are going to suffer. Support your body and brain by eating a reasonable and varied diet. A normal healthy person isn’t going to need more.
If you don’t get adequate quality sleep, your brain and memory are going to suffer. Sleep is extremely important to memory formation. Support your memory with good sleep. I highly recommend afternoon naps as a memory aid.
Exercise improves blood flow and has been scientifically shown to support good brain functioning. You’re not likely to go wrong with moderate exercise.
As for supplements and drugs, there are indeed quite a few medications you can get from your local pharmacist (not health food store) that can improve memory. I won’t list their names here, because they should not be used to boost memory. They come with unreasonable side effects. Most are medications for various mental health issues, and many high school and college students abuse them in order to get better test performance. It’s a risky, unnecessary practice. It’s the direct equivalent of a track and field athlete taking steroids to boost performance. Yes, it works; no, you shouldn’t do it because the health costs are too high.
Use your search engine of choice to search for “brain health supplements” or “memory supplements” and you’ll find thousands or millions of hits, most of which are trying to sell ginkgo biloba. Ginkgo biloba seems to be the herb of choice for improving memory. The scientific support for claims that ginkgo biloba works is dodgy at best. If there is a benefit, it’s so small that it’s hard to find statistically. Articles that do claim benefits for ginkgo or any other supplement are almost universally by rather sketchy companies that are trying to sell those supplements on profit margins that would make a narcotics dealer blush with shame.
Memory is extremely hard to measure. Memory benefits claimed by individuals that take supplements are prone to the placebo effect. You should always think critically about anecdotal evidence. “My best friend’s wife said…” is not good information about the efficacy of highly concentrated substances you are thinking about ingesting.
The memory techniques I am interested in and that I blog about have a few benefits over the supplements industry.
They work. I can teach anyone in half an hour how to go from barely being able to remember a list of seven items for two hours to being able to remember 100+ items in a list and have 100% retention after two weeks.
They are free. Although I admit I wouldn’t mind someday being a rich professional blogger, the fact is I’m not selling pills that are going to cost you $50 a month for the rest of your life. I have a day job.
They have no side effects. Ginkgo has COMMON side effects listed on drugs.com as diarrhea, dizziness, headache, stomach ache, and nausea. Severe side effects include allergic reactions, tightness in the chest, fainting, trouble speaking, and more. Just because the label says “all natural” does not make it safe.
A trained memory comes with no documented cases of nausea. Nobody has ever developed diarrhea as a result of using the Method of Loci memory technique.
My advice on supplements is to not worry about it. Eat well. Sleep well. Exercise. These have been shown to have repeatable positive effects on memory. Then do the work to develop a trained memory using the techniques I’ve been writing about in this blog.