The Top 10 Nootropics You Need to Enhance Your Cognitive Function

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Nootropics are substances that boost cognitive performance.

What are nootropics? You’ve likely incorporated these “smart drugs” into your daily routine without even realizing it in an attempt to perform excessive mental tasks. Nootropics are substances (drugs, supplements, and more) that boost cognitive performance, most notably in executive functions, creativity, memory, and more.  

While living in a society that culturally rewards ambition and overworking, we may feel pressured to push ourselves beyond our bodies’ natural limits. Students cram for exams, and high-pressure deadlines are a norm in the workforce. Coffee, energy drinks, and even nicotine are popular and widely accepted nootropics that, at least in the short term, boost alertness and memory capacity, allowing for a feeling of productivity and achievement. People who are severely hindered by an inability to focus may turn to prescription stimulants such as Adderall, Ritalin, and Provigil.

But these types of stimulants come at a cost, especially with long-term use. Harmful side effects and increasing tolerance can easily lead to the potential for addiction. Ultimately, reliance on these quick fixes results in the opposite desired effect, causing severe crashes, hampered productivity, and even the need to withdraw from the drugs altogether to regain a sense of functionality. 

You might be asking, “Are there more sustainable, natural options?” Yes! Let’s take a look at the leading herbs and nutrients that can enhance cognitive functioning and mental productivity — minus the unwanted side effects. 

Natural Nootropic Herbs and Supplements

1. NMN 

Nicotinamide mononucleotide (NMN) is a precursor to nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD+), an energizing coenzyme responsible for hundreds of metabolic processes in the body and declines with age. It’s a crucial anti-aging and longevity supplement recommended by renowned Harvard researcher David Sinclair, Ph.D.

In addition to NMN’s ability to enhance cellular health, it bolsters brain functions, too. One study found that NMN chiefly supports brain health by repairing blood vessels in the brain and increasing cerebral circulation and blood supply, thereby breaking through brain fog, and increasing mental focus. 

In aging mice, another study showed NMN’s ability to improve memory and physical coordination by lowering oxidative stress and increasing blood flow. While you may achieve similar results by supplementing with NAD+ directly, supplementing with its precursor, NMN, may help the body achieve higher concentrations of NAD+ levels on its own.

2. Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3’s are considered a staple in brain health, playing a critical role in proper development and maintenance.

Abundantly found in fish oil, omega-3’s are considered a staple in brain health with the two primary components, EPA and DHA, playing a critical role in proper development and maintenance. A review of older adults found that lowered levels of DHA in the red blood cells are associated with expedited aging of the brain, and can even result in smaller brain size. 

Additionally, one animal study highlighted that diets lacking in omega-3 led to a substantial decrease in the animals’ neural activity, leading to learning and memory deficiency. 

3. Ginkgo Biloba

Ancient Indian and Chinese medical systems have been using this powerful plant medicine for ages to bolster the brain's ability to function well, despite aging. Studies have found the herb to be beneficial for a large range of behavior and psychological disorders such as dementia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and depression, assisting with focus and clarity. However, it should be noted that some studies show ginkgo biloba may benefit the average healthy individual as well, protecting against the cognitive decline that can often accompany aging. 

4. L-Theanine

L-theanine is an amino acid commonly found in green and black tea leaves and works as a nootropic by boosting alertness and creativity. Best used in conjunction with caffeine, another nootropic, L-theanine has a calming and modulating effect on the brain. One study found that people taking 50 mg of L-theanine had a greater increase in alpha brainwave activity, resulting in a better ability to focus on mental tasks. 

5. Methyl B12 

B12 is found in the brain, where it protects nerve cells and helps to combat brain atrophy. The most absorbable form is methylcobalamin (methyl B12). Most people identify B12 supplementation with energy increase, but supplementing with methyl B12 has been known to boost energy levels in the brain, providing relief from psychiatric conditions such as depression and mania. Furthermore, methyl B12 may decrease oxidative stress in the brain, providing relief from inflammation-based cognitive decline found in Alzheimer’s disease, suggests a study in CNS Spectrum.

6. Bacopa Monnieri

Rumor has it that this popular Indian herb was what helped Vedic sages memorize long-winded songs and scriptures. Bacopa monnieri, also known as “brahmi,” is an antioxidant that has been shown to enhance cognition, information processing and retention, and reduce depression and anxiety by inhibiting inflammation. Bacopa, along with ginkgo, increased dendrite length, which is linked to learning and memory capacity, according to a study in Pharmacology, Biochemistry, and Behavior. 

7. Choline

Choline is a precursor to acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter in the brain responsible for crucial functions like memory, learning, alertness, and concentration. As we age, our bodies produce less of this essential chemical. When used as a supplement, studies suggest CDP-choline, a more bioavailable form of choline, may increase dopamine receptor density, thereby enhancing attention, cognition, and memory, and decreasing ADHD-like activities, such as procrastination. CDP-choline has neuroprotective qualities as well.    

8. Curcumin

 Curcumin has promising brain-enhancing capabilities.

A polyphenol found in turmeric, curcumin gained fame as an anti-inflammatory herb, as well as a staple in the Indian diet and gold standard in Āyurveda, the Indian medical system for its ability to ease pain in the joints due to inflammation. But curcumin’s potent anti-inflammatory properties pertain to more than joint health. In fact, it has promising brain-enhancing capabilities. The herb may boost memory retention by protecting against neuroinflammation that can lead to dementia seen in an aging brain, as stated in a study in The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. 

9. GABA

Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a naturally-occurring amino acid that works as a neurotransmitter. GABA acts as a nootropic by enhancing functions like vision, motor control, and regulation of anxiety and mood by modulating erratic communication between nerve cells and the brain. Though it’s unclear whether GABA crosses the blood-brain-barrier (BBB), one study suggests GABA may improve concentration, especially in visual-temporal attention tasks, or the ability to prioritize information as it relates to time.

10. Sulforaphane

In a typical Western diet, vegetables are rarely at the top of people’s “most desired food” list. But there is mounting evidence to support their necessity for a healthy brain. Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli sprouts, contain a compound known as sulforaphane, a preferred nootropic of Rhonda Patrick, Ph.D, biochemist and anti-aging expert. The compound was found to lower inflammation by 20% in a study in the Journal of Nutrition.   

How is that possible? Sulforaphane does this by activating the NRF2 pathway, which is responsible for regulating over 200 genes, including antioxidant and anti-inflammatory genes. It is the body’s best defense against oxidative stress and inflammation, a common factor in brain diseases. Sulforaphane may promote a healthy nervous system, brain, and improved mood.  

The Takeaway

Nootropics are “smart drugs” falling into two main categories:

  1. Synthetic and prescription drugs - fast-acting, risk of dependency and side effects
  2. Natural nutrients and herbal supplements - subtle, slower acting, long-term benefits

Natural forms of nootropics are an essential contributor in brain health and disease-free years known as healthspan. While it’s tempting to want to reach for stimulants that appear to be silver bullets like caffeine and synthetic drugs, natural alternatives may be safer and more effective in achieving healthy brain cognition in the long run.

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