We are focusing upon brain function specifically, so nootropics that aid restful sleep, reduce stress levels or reduce anxiety will not be featured on this list unless they also specifically boost one or more aspects of cognitive function!
The ten nootropics we list below are provided in no particular order, and some may be more suited to your specific needs than others. Don’t forget that many of these supplements can also be stacked for greater effect, and are present in numerous nootropic blends available on the market. Some of these nootropics can be sourced from additions to your diet, whilst others need to be supplemented separately.
Caffeine is one of the most common ingredients found in supplements today, as it is added to weight loss supplements, energy boosting pills, pre-workout aids, and, of course, nootropics. This is because caffeine has a huge list of benefits, beyond just the energy boost that your morning cup of coffee provides! As caffeine is naturally occurring in tea, coffee and even dark chocolate, it is easy to source without having to purchase a supplement.
Not only does caffeine stimulate your central nervous system to make you more alert, but the increased alertness translates to quicker responses and improved performance on a number of different tests.
Doses as low as 32 mg (less than half the amount found in the average cup of coffee) of caffeine “significantly” improved reaction times to visual stimuli.
However, too much caffeine can cause jitteriness, insomnia and can increase anxiety, amongst other side effects. Consider stacking caffeine with theanine, which is also naturally occurring in green tea, as it appears to reduce the side effects of caffeine, aiding relaxation without drowsiness.
Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter which is linked with improved learning, memory retention and recall. Acetylcholine cannot pass the blood-brain barrier, making direct supplementation pointless. However, supplementing other forms of choline that can pass through the blood-brain barrier can be useful; once the supplemented choline passes the blood-brain barrier, the body converts it into acetylcholine.
Choline can be supplemented via a choice of three different supplements, CDP-Choline (also known as citicholine), Alpha GPC and phosphatidylcholine.
CDP Choline appears to promote cognition and improve memory in healthy older adults (Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9203170). Studies in rats suggest that it may also improve memory and general cognition in younger adults as well, but no human studies have been conducted in younger adults to confirm this yet. One study also suggested that 250 mg per day of CDP-Choline had positive effects upon attention, which could have positive implications for learning and information retention (Source: http://www.scirp.org/journal/PaperInformation.aspx?paperID=19921). Suggested dosages of CDP Choline range between 500 mg and 2000 mg per day, taken in two divided doses (of 250-1,000 mg) usually separated by 8-12 hours, although a single daily dose is also sometimes used.
Alpha-GPC has been shown to reduce the symptoms of Alzheimer ’s disease in “mild to moderate” cases. Dosages used in studies vary, often depending upon the purpose of the study, but seemingly the standard dosage for fighting cognitive decline is 1200 mg per day, spread between three doses of 400 mg.
As we mention above, acetylcholine is incredibly important and closely linked with memory, learning and recall. Whilst you can take supplements that can be used by the body to produce acetylcholine, it is also possible to take supplements that inhibit the breakdown of acetylcholine. This is simply another method of keeping acetylcholine levels high in the brain.
Huperzine-A, extracted from a plant called Huperzia Serrata, acts as “an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor”, i.e. it reduces the capabilities of the enzyme that typically breaks down acetylcholine.
Preliminary trials show improved results in various tests that assess memory function (Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21766442). Huperzine-A is in preliminary trials for usage in fighting Alzheimer’s Disease as well.
Huperzine-A has a relatively long half-life, and so should be cycled. More research is needed to pinpoint the ideal cycle pattern, but currently recommendations are to take the product for 2-4 weeks before having a break. Supplementation of Huperzine-A tends to be in the range of 50-200mcg daily, and while this can be divided into multiple dosages throughout the day it tends to be taken at a single dose.
Numerous studies have suggested that supplementing ginkgo biloba can help to slow down rates of cognitive decline. Many of these studies are long term, following participants for five years or even longer.
One study, published in “Aging & Mental Health” in 2009, stated that treating patients with Alzheimer’s disease with a specific ginkgo biloba extract provided near equivalent results as treating patients with donepezil, a prescription medication often used to treat Alzheimer’s.
Various aspects of cognition and how they are affected by ginkgo have been tested in various trials. Facial recognition appears to improve, but route planning ability remained unchanged. (Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12404671) The herb can also improve perceived sleep quality (Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11518478) and appears to help regulate stress and cortisol levels (Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12369732).
This amino acid is vital for cognitive function, and is found in the brain in high concentrations. The body can synthesise phosphatidylserine, and so supplementation is not strictly necessary. However, preliminary studies have suggested that supplementation can improve cognitive function in both healthy participants (Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22017963) and in people who have dementia and general cognitive decline (Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21103034).
Supplementation also appears to have a mild protective effect, possibly helping to combat progressive cognitive decline. (Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1609044)
More commonly known as the lion’s mane mushroom, yamabushitake is an edible mushroom. Preliminary evidence suggests that it could help to reduce the signs of cognitive impairment in the elderly.
At present, there is only one human trial available that specifically looked into cognitive decline. Trial participants were tested according to the Revised Hasegawa Dementia Scale, a measure of the various symptoms of Dementia. (Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18844328) Their results improved throughout the course of the 16 week trial, but declined within four weeks after they stopped taking the mushroom. The dose used was significant, with each daily dose being three grams of the dried mushroom powder.
More studies are required, but this preliminary evidence is promising. Hopefully more trials will be conducted in the near future, including comparison trials to see how the mushroom measures up to Dementia medications, to establish its relative strength.
Bacopa monnieri has traditional been used in Ayuvedic medicine for thousands of years, and clinical research is mounting to suggest that it definitely has positive effects upon the consumer’s memory when supplemented daily over a prolonged period of time. It does take some time for the benefits of Bacopa to build up to a noticeable level; trials showed improved memory after five weeks of supplementation, but stronger results after 12 weeks of supplementation.
One of the really promising things about Bacopa is that studies show positive improvements in memory capacity and learning in adults of all age groups, and in “Healthy Human Subjects”, not just the elderly or people with cognitive impairment.
Subjects over the age of 55 with age-associated memory impairment also performed better in memory testing compared to a placebo group, after supplementing 12 weeks.
Although it has not been studied directly for its effects upon anxiety, numerous studies report that participants also noted reduced anxiety and depressive symptoms whilst taking the supplement.
Bacopa monnieri should be taken alongside a meal for two reasons. First, it is fat soluble, and needs to be consumed alongside dietary fat for it to be absorbed into the bloodstream. Secondly, side effects such as stomach cramps and nausea are much more common when taken on an empty stomach.
Fish oil is naturally high in two types of omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Typically promoted as a general health supplement, the truth is that fish oil has such a huge range of benefits that it is difficult to put them into a specific category.
Omega-3 fatty acids appear to improve skin, hair and nail quality, reduce arthritis pain (Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7490601) and can lower blood pressure (Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26817716) as well.
DHA accounts for around 25% of the fats found in brain cells, and so it is unsurprising that omega-3 levels have been connected with brain health.
Supplementing fish oil to ensure the body has sufficient levels of omega-3 fatty acids, especially EPA, appears to help reduce depression and anxiety.
Numerous studies have correlated depression and anxiety with omega 3 deficiencies. (Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18640689) Longer-term studies have clearly showed that a high omega-3 intake from fish sources in the diet is inversely related to the risk of impaired cognitive function and speed. (Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14745067) In other words, eating enough oily fish high in omega-3 does curb your risk of age related cognitive decline.
Fish that contain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids include wild salmon, mackerel, anchovies, rainbow trout, and sardines. People should try and eat fish several times a week, but a supplement is a good choice if you don’t like fish or don’t eat it regularly.
Acetyl-L-carnitine has been found to have a range of health benefits, but most importantly for this article, it appears to have some cognitive benefits. One study looked at the benefits that centenarians (those aged 100+) experienced when supplementing ALCAR. Not only were their physical and mental fatigue noticeably reduced, but they also scored better in an “MMSE” test. An MMSE test, also known as a Folstein test, is the most common test used to assess and measure cognitive impairment, and to screen for dementia. The improvements in their test results suggest strongly that ALCAR supplementation (2 grams daily) can offer noticeable cognitive benefits.
Another study showed similar results in a slightly younger age group; this study focused upon subjects age 71-88.
At the moment, there is no published research (that we could locate) into the effects of ALCAR supplementation upon the cognitive abilities of anyone below retirement age. As ALCAR does alleviate fatigue, it is possible that ALCAR supplementation could help to relieve mental fatigue, even if it does not specifically enhance cognition in the majority of the population.
Rhodiola rosea has repeatedly been studied for its anti-fatigue properties, as well as its apparent stress-reducing capabilities. However, numerous studies have reported that trial participants taking rhodiola rosea perform significantly better on work-related tasks and various types of tests that indicate cognitive ability, compared with placebo groups.
In one study, students during an examination period (arguably a time of significant stress levels) who took rhodiola had improved results in mental fatigue tests and a neuro-motoric test (accuracy of maze drawing test) compared with the placebo group.
In another study, doctors who were working night duty regularly were given rhodiola rosea, and were given a range of tests to assess their mental performance.
The tests chosen reflect an overall level of mental fatigue, involving complex perceptive and cognitive cerebral functions, such as associative thinking, short-term memory, calculation and ability of concentration, and speed of audio-visual perception.
After two weeks of supplementing rhodiola rosea daily, the doctors showed statistically significant improvement in these tests.
Rhodiola rosea appears to be a good supplement to support your brain function through periods of high stress and fatigue, such as exam periods, night shifts, and general periods of over-working.