Natural nootropics can help improve your mental functions safely, without the inherent risks of pharmaceuticals, while making your brain healthier.
If you’re looking for a pill you can take to improve your mental performance, you’ve probably come across the term nootropics.
Almost any substance that can have some positive effect on brain function is now being called a nootropic, whether it’s natural, synthetic, or even quasi-legal.
But this is not the way the word was meant to be used.
By its original definition, a nootropic is a substance that improves mental functions such as memory, intelligence, motivation, attention, and concentration, while doing no harm.
Unfortunately, the definition of nootropics has broadened over time to include any substance, pharmaceutical or natural, that temporarily enhances brain function, regardless of its risks or side effects.
In this article, we’ll be covering only those nootropic supplements that will leave your brain in better shape after taking it.
12 Ways Nootropic Supplements Build a Better Brain
Here are some of the many ways a nootropic supplement can improve brain health and performance:
- increases circulation to the brain
- provides essential brain nutrients often missing in the average diet
- provides missing nutrients if you are a vegetarian
- provides precursors to important neurotransmitters
- neutralizes free radical damage to brain cells
- increases energy, oxygen, and/or nutrient flow into the brain
- reduces brain inflammation
- protects the brain from toxins
- minimizes the effects of brain aging
- stimulates the formation of healthy new brain cells
- increases neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change
- increases resilience to stress
Any substance that does not make your brain healthier does not fit the true definition of a nootropic.
There are many types of substances that act as nootropics by nourishing and protecting the brain — amino acids, vitamins, minerals, herbs, phytonutrients, antioxidants, essential fatty acids, and more.
But everyone’s brain and life circumstances are different, so no one nootropic supplement works equally well for everyone.
From the many available nootropics, I’ve handpicked those that have track records of safety and effectiveness for a broad audience.
In making your choice, look for supplements that best align with the results you’re looking for.
Nootropic Amino Acid Supplements
Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins and several are particularly beneficial for the brain.
Amino acids are found in protein-rich foods, but it’s not always easy to get enough from diet alone.
Surprisingly, in some cases the amino acids found in supplements work even better than those that naturally occur in food.
Acetyl-l-carnitine (ALCAR) is a form of the amino acid carnitine.
ALCAR works largely by creating acetylcholine, the primary neurotransmitter required for learning and memory functions.
ALCAR can also improve mental clarity, alertness, processing speed, focus, and mood.
It has fast-acting antidepressant properties, often bringing relief quicker than prescription antidepressants.
There are other forms of l-carnitine, but ALCAR is the one to use since it has the ability to cross the blood-brain barrier, moving from the bloodstream into the brain.
Since carnitine is found almost exclusively in red meat, it is one supplement that vegetarians or those who rarely eat meat should definitely consider.
Creatine is an amino acid often used by bodybuilders and athletes to increase lean muscle mass and enhance physical performance.
So it was a bit unexpected when this supplement turned out to be a nootropic that boosts mental performance as well.
Additionally, there’s evidence that it can alleviate depression, and when taken along with an antidepressant, it can make the antidepressant work better.
As with carnitine, creatine is found mostly in red meat.
One study on vegetarians and vegans found that creatine supplements significantly increased mental performance with improved scores in memory, intelligence, and processing speed.
Take a look at adding creatine to your supplement regimen if you don’t eat meat, are looking to boost your antidepressant, or are looking to build both mental performance and muscles.
Taurine is another amino acid used to increase physical performance.
You may recognize it as an ingredient sometimes included in energy drinks.
Taurine is integrally related to the calming neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) by stimulating its formation and release.
Additionally, taurine activates GABA receptors in the brain to minimize anxiety, insomnia, and other signs of a GABA deficiency.
If you tend to be anxious or have trouble concentrating or sleeping, taurine can calm and focus an anxious, distractible mind.
Tryptophan unfairly gets its 15 minutes of fame every Thanksgiving as the ingredient in turkey that makes you tired.
(That’s a myth that refuses to die. It’s all those carbs you eat that make you tired, not tryptophan.)
Tryptophan is essential for the formation of two important brain chemicals: serotonin, the “happy molecule,” and melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate the sleep cycle.
Besides helping to improve memory and the ability to focus, tryptophan is helpful for a wide variety of mental health disorders, including:
- attention disorders
- bipolar disorder
- eating disorders
- obsessive-compulsive disorder
- panic attacks
- seasonal affective disorder
- sleep disorders
Oddly, tryptophan supplements work even better than eating foods high in tryptophan since the protein in foods blocks the synthesis of tryptophan into serotonin.
Tyrosine is a precursor for dopamine, the neurotransmitter that helps keep you focused and motivated.
Low levels of dopamine can leave you feeling apathetic, fatigued, moody, and unable to concentrate.
Dopamine plays a huge role in depression and addictions of all kinds.
If procrastination or lack of focus or drive are holding you back, consider taking a tyrosine supplement.
Tyrosine supplementation is also a good idea if you are overstressed, overworked, or don’t get enough sleep because these factors can increase your body’s need for this amino acid.
Theanine, also called l-theanine, is one of the most unusual brain enhancers.
It is found almost exclusively in tea (green, black, white, and oolong) and helps bring about an optimal state of relaxed concentration, with no drowsiness.
Theanine increases levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, and GABA to help improve mood, recall, and learning.
This is an ideal supplement for achieving a state of calm focus, especially if you don’t drink tea or practice meditation.
Nootropic Herbal Supplements
Nootropic herbs have a long history of traditional use and a large body of research-based evidence to back their claims of safety and effectiveness.
There are dozens of herbal remedies with nootropic properties.
Here are my favorites.
7. American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)
Ginseng is a quintessential traditional Chinese herb.
Ginseng grown in Asia has been China’s “elixir of life” for thousands of years.
But American ginsengis now considered superior to Asian ginseng and is in great demand in China.
American ginseng excels as a brain enhancer.
Research shows that it quickly works to improve memory, mental clarity, and sharpness within just a few hours of ingestion.
8. Arctic Root (Rhodiola rosea)
Arctic root is highly regarded for its adaptogenic properties.
Like all adaptogens, it improves your ability to handle both physiological and psychological stress.
Arctic root increases levels of the major neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine.
If you have brain fog, trouble concentrating, and low energy along with stress and anxiety, give this herb a try.
9. Bacopa (Bacopa monnieri)
Bacopa is another adaptogenic herb that’s been used in Ayurvedic medicine, India’s 5,000-year-old natural healing system, as a cognitive enhancer for thousands of years.
It’s an excellent choice for anyone looking to improve memory, focus, and concentration while reducing stress.
It works by balancing the brain chemicals dopamine, serotonin, and GABA while reducing the stress hormone cortisol.
This herb is especially good for age-related mental decline.
Keep in mind that bacopa is not a quick fix.
It can take two to three months to experience maximum benefits.
So this is not an herb to take if you’re in need of a boost in mental performance today.
10. Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba)
You probably need no introduction to ginkgo, one of the most popular herbal remedies in the world.
It’s an all-around excellent cognitive enhancer considered so powerful that, in some countries, it’s available by prescription only.
Ginkgo largely works by increasing circulation to the brain, balancing brain chemicals, and protecting the brain from free radical damage.
Use it if you experience poor concentration, memory loss, fatigue, mental confusion, depression, or anxiety.
11. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
Since before William Shakespeare wrote “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance,” rosemary has been associated with memory.
This common cooking ingredient has a long history of use for improving memory and concentration.
But the most surprisingly simple way you can use rosemary is by inhaling rosemary essential oil.
Just a whiff of the scent of rosemary can improve cognitive speed and accuracy as well as mood.
Naturally Sourced Nootropic Supplements
Supplements that belong to this next group are based on naturally occurring substances that get some help from human ingenuity.
Their active ingredients are extracted or synthesized from natural compounds.
Your body makes some citicoline from the choline found in foods like eggs, soy beans, and beef, but you can’t eat enough for any meaningful cognitive enhancement.
Citicoline can significantly improve memory, concentration, focus, and attention, and, in one study, was found to work as well as the study drug piracetam.
This underutilized supplement works by increasing blood flow to the brain, neuroplasticity, and the capacity to grow new brain cells.
Curcumin is an extract of turmeric, an important spice in Ayurvedic medicine.
Generous use of turmeric in Indian cuisine is thought to be responsible for India’s particularly low rate of Alzheimer’s disease.
Curcumin is an excellent antioxidant and all-around brain tonic.
It can improve memory and concentration by increasing blood flow to the brain as effectively as physical exercise.
Curcumin boosts levels of serotonin, dopamine, and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that stimulates brain cell production.
Be aware that curcumin supplements are poorly absorbed unless measures have been taken to improve bioavailability, such as the addition of piperine, phosphatidylserine, or the use of nanoparticles.
14. Huperzine A
Huperzine A is the main active compound extracted from Chinese club moss (Huperzia serrata).
It works as a brain booster mainly by increasing acetylcholine levels and stimulating new brain cell formation.
15. Lion’s Mane Mushroom (Hericium erinaceus)
Lion’s mane mushroom is a unusual-looking mushroom that offers unique health benefits.
This mainstay of Chinese medicine is said to bestow “nerves of steel and the memory of a lion.”
According to legend, the Yamabushi sect of Buddhist hermit monks possessed supernatural powers.
They used lion’s mane to stay focused during meditation.
So far, approximately 70 bioactive compounds have been discovered in lion’s mane.
Two unique groups of compounds found exclusively in lion’s mane, the hericenones and erinacines, heal and protect nerve cells, and stimulate the growth of new ones.
Another compound found in lion’s mane, amycenone, is helpful for treating sleep disorders, cognitive and anxiety disorders, depression, and schizophrenia.
Lion’s mane is usually taken as a supplement, but is also a prized culinary mushroom.
Phosphatidylserine (PS) is found in particularly high concentration in brain cell membranes.
This phospholipid acts as the brain’s gatekeeper.
It regulates the flow of nutrients in and waste products out of brain cells, protecting them from toxins.
It’s usually extracted from soy lecithin, but PS extracted from sunflower lecithin is considered the higher-quality form.
PS used to be made from cow brains, but, in the US, that is no longer the case due to concerns about mad cow disease.
If you live elsewhere, beware of any phosphatidylserine supplement that lists its source as bovine (i.e., cow brains) if that is of concern to you.
Vinpocetine is a relatively new brain booster based on vincamine, a chemical found in the periwinkle plant (Vinca minor).
Vinpocetine is very popular in Europe and Japan, where it’s considered to be superior to ginkgo as a brain booster.
It’s usually taken to overcome brain fog, improve memory, increase mental clarity, and protect the brain against aging.
Essential Nootropic Nutrients: A Foundation for Brain Health
Lastly, I’d be doing your brain a disservice by skipping these essential nutrients that are critical to brain health.
I understand that taking vitamins or fish oil supplement is not as exciting as taking the latest nootropic product.
But taking any brain supplement when your basic nutritional requirements aren’t being met is like trying to build a house on a faulty foundation.
The following essential nutrients are those which can have the biggest impact on your mental abilities and are often missing in the modern diet.
18. Vitamin B12
All 0f the eight B vitamins are essential for an optimally functioning brain.
But of all the Bs, vitamin B12 has the most impact on the brain and deficiency is fairly common.
Addressing your B12 needs can make a world of difference to the health of your nervous system, brain function, and energy.
B12 is often added to nootropic formulas, brain supplements, brain tonics, and energy drinks — sometimes in ridiculously large amounts.
But keep in mind that when it comes to vitamins, more is not necessarily better.
If you have an adequate B12 level, taking more won’t help.
Those most at risk for vitamin B12 deficiency include vegetarians, seniors, and frequent antacid users.
To know your B12 status for sure, have a vitamin B12 blood test done.
19. Vitamin D
Vitamin D has profound effects on the brain throughout all stages of life.
It can improve memory, mood, and problem-solving ability.
Yet worldwide, a billion of us are deficient in vitamin D.
Ironically, the people who could most benefit from it, the harried and overworked, are those least likely to spend enough time in the sun to manufacture the vitamin D they need.
If you rarely spend time outdoors, or cover up with clothing or wear sunscreen when you do, you could almost certainly benefit from a vitamin D supplement.
If you want to know your vitamin D status for sure, take a 25-hydroxy vitamin D blood test.
Magnesium is called a master mineral because it affects over 600 biological functions.
Not getting enough will leave you feeling tired but stressed.
Eighty percent of Americans are believed to be low in this important mineral.
If you have brain fog and fatigue, can’t focus, can’t sleep, or get leg cramps at night, give magnesium a try.
A new form of magnesium that shows promise for enhancing memory and other brain functions is magnesium l-threonate.
It is the only form of magnesium that freely crosses the blood-brain barrier to enter the brain.
21. Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids
Omega-3 essential fatty acids may be the single most important supplement you can take for brain health and performance.
Omega-3s are found mainly in cold-water, fatty fish and are the reason that fish is often mentioned as a top brain food.
One omega-3 in particular, DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), is a primary structural component of the brain, specifically in regions involved with memory, language, creativity, judgment, emotion, and attention.
An alarming 80% of us are believed to be deficient in this critical brain nutrient.
If I had to pick one supplement for my brain health, it would be a quality omega-3 supplement in the form of fish oil or krill oil.
22. Multivitamin-Mineral Supplement
If you feel that you are in good health, mentally and physically, you should not need to take a lot of separate vitamins.
Taking a high-quality multivitamin-mineral supplement may meet most of your brain’s essential nutrient needs.
The Harvard School of Public Health advises all adults to take a multivitamin supplement as insurance to fill any nutritional gaps in their diets and I believe this to be sound advice.
Studies have shown that taking a multivitamin alone can improve memory and overall brain function, protect the brain from degenerative disease, and reduce the symptoms of adult attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Recommended: Upgrading brain health is key to making your brain work better.
Brain supplement can help you:
- Improve your mental clarity and focus.
- Boost your memory and your ability to learn.
- Increase your capacity to think critically, solve problems, and make decisions.
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