Even though nootropics and smart drugs are modern concepts, traditional Chinese medicinal practices have existed with these compounds for thousands of years. Many of them are still being used in rural Chinese villages even as Wall Street financial traders find them.
Asian ginseng (Panax) – this drug has a relaxing/calming effect, which can improve learning capabilities. It can also reduce stress and anxiety. Look for an extract from the berries (highest ginsenoside content, which is the active ingredient) and then the root. The seed has the least.
Ginkgo biloba – this has antioxidant properties and can also reduce stress/anxiety. The quality of memory is improved and well-studied.
Polygala – there is only one modern study proving neuroprotection and enhanced memory, but Polygala is one of the “Yuan Zhi” 50 fundamental herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine.
Ayurvedic Compounds – as with the traditional Chinese medicine, the Ayurvedic Indian cultures were ahead of their time with nootropics. Their contributions include:
Bacopa monniera – this herb helps improve cognition by reducing anxiety. It is fat soluble, which is why traditional Indian families take this with ghee even in rural villages.
Ashwagandha – also known as Indian ginseng, this ayurvedic herb can reduce anxiety and improve concentration and focus.
Nutrients – you can use all of the supplements in the world, but if you don’t have the right nutrients you aren’t going to get very far! Certain things, such as DHA / EPA, are important for brain health. Krill oil is a good source of DHA that is well-absorbed. Other things like magnesium and zinc can be particularly useful if you are deficient.
Nootropic Amino Acids
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, and several are particularly beneficial for the brain. Amino acids are found in protein-rich foods in the diet, but it’s not always easy to get enough from diet alone. Surprisingly, in some cases, supplements work better than the amino acids found 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 function. It can improve mental clarity, alertness, processing speed, focus, mood, and memory.
ALCAR also has fast-acting antidepressant properties, bringing relief quicker than prescription antidepressant drugs. There are other forms of l-carnitine, but ALCAR is the one to use since it can cross the blood-brain barrier to get from your bloodstream into your brain.
Since carnitine is found almost exclusively in red meat, consider this supplement especially if you are a vegetarian or rarely eat meat.
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 of a surprise when this supplement turned out to be a nootropic supplement that increases energy to the brain.
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 or are looking to build both brain power and muscles.
Taurine is another amino acid used to increase physical performance. You may recognize it as an ingredient often included in energy drinks. Taurine is found in high concentrations in the brain where it aids the movement of potassium, sodium, calcium, and magnesium in and out of brain cells. Taurine is integrally related to the calming neurotransmitter GABA.
Taurine stimulates the release and formation of GABA. It also activates GABA receptors in the brain to minimize anxiety, insomnia, and other signs of low GABA. If you tend to be anxious and have trouble concentrating or sleeping, taurine can calm and focus your 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 brain myth that refuses to die. It’s all those carbs that make you tired.)
Tryptophan is essential for the formation of two important brain chemicals – serotonin, your “happy molecule,” and melatonin, a regulatory hormone for your sleep cycle.
Besides increasing your memory and ability to focus, tryptophan is helpful for a wide variety of mental health disorders including depression, anxiety, ADHD, OCD, and SAD.
Oddly, tryptophan supplements work even better than eating foods high in tryptophan since protein blocks the synthesis of tryptophan into serotonin.
Tyrosine is a precursor for dopamine, the neurotransmitter that keeps 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, lack of focus or drive are holding you back, consider an acetyl-l-tyrosine supplement. This is a highly absorbable form of tyrosine that readily enters the brain.
Theanine, also called l-theanine, is one of the most unusual brain enhancers around. It’s found almost exclusively in green tea and helps you enter the optimal state of “relaxed concentration” with no drowsiness.
Theanine increases levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, and GABA to improve mood, recall, and learning. It alters your brainwave patterns, putting you in the same brainwave state experienced during meditation. This is an ideal supplement for achieving a state of calm focus, especially if you don’t drink green tea or practice meditation.
Nootropic herbs have a long history of traditional use and a large body of research-based evidence to attest to both their safety and effectiveness. There are dozens of herbal remedies with nootropic properties. Here are my favorites:
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 in a surprise turn of events, American ginseng is now considered superior to Asian ginseng and is in great demand in China.
American ginseng especially excels as a brain enhancer. Studies show it quickly works to improve memory, mental clarity and sharpness within just a few hours after taking it.
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.
It 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 excellent herb a try.
Bacopa (Bacopa monnieri)
Bacopa is another adaptogenic herb that’s been used in Ayurvedic medicine as a cognitive enhancer for thousands of years. It’s an excellent choice for anyone looking to improve their 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 the 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 a herb you would take if you’re in need of a brain boost today.
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 so powerful that in some countries it’s used available only as a prescription medication.
Ginkgo largely works by increasing circulation to the brain, balancing brain chemicals, and protecting the brain from free radical damage. Use it for poor concentration, memory loss, fatigue, mental confusion, depression, or anxiety.
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 and mood.
Unlike nootropics from traditional herbs, some are based on naturally occurring compounds that need some “help” from humans. These are extracted from natural compounds or are synthesized (i.e., human-made) forms of naturally occurring compounds.
Your body makes some Citicoline from the choline found in foods like eggs, beef, and seafood, but you can’t eat enough from food for any significant 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.
In some countries, citicoline is prescribed for treating serious age-related memory loss. This underutilised 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, India’s 5,000-year-old natural healing system. Generous use of turmeric in Indian cuisine may be responsible for India’s particularly low rate of this disease.
Curcumin is an excellent antioxidant and all-around brain tonic that can improve memory and concentration by increasing blood flow to the brain. It boosts levels of serotonin, dopamine, and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that stimulates brain cell production.
Be aware that curcumin supplements are not very bioavailable unless measures have been taken to improve absorption such as the addition of piperine, phosphatidylserine, or the use of nanoparticles.
Huperzine A is the main active compound extracted from the plant Chinese club moss (Huperzia Serrata). Studies have found it enhances memory and learning in people in all stages of life – from middle school students to seniors with Alzheimer’s. It works as a brain booster mainly by increasing acetylcholine levels and stimulating new brain cell formation.
Phosphatidylserine (PS) is found in particularly high concentration in brain cell membranes. This phospholipid acts as a gatekeeper regulating the flow of nutrients in and waste products out of brain cells, protecting them from toxins.
PS reduces the wear and tear of stress while supporting memory, concentration, and learning and is particularly helpful for ADHD and attention problems. It’s usually extracted from soy lecithin, but sunflower lecithin is considered the higher-quality form.
PS used to be made from cow brains but here in the US that is no longer allowed due to concerns about mad cow disease. But if you live elsewhere, beware of any phosphatidylserine supplement that says its source is bovine (i.e., cow brains) if that is of concern to you.
Picamilon is the funny-sounding name of a supplement that’s a combination of the B vitamin niacin and GABA (gamma- minobutyric acid). GABA alone does not make a good supplement since it doesn’t readily cross from the blood into the brain. But the addition of niacin opens the blood vessels so that picamilon can take GABA along for the ride.
Picamilon is marketed as a cognitive enhancer that can treat migraines, depression, and anxiety. It was created in Russia where it’s considered a drug that is available by prescription. Here in the US picamilon formerly was a readily available supplement. But in December of 2015, the Food and Drug Administration initiated proceedings to take picamilon off the shelves.
The issue is not that picamilon is unsafe, but that it does not meet the statutory definition of a dietary ingredient. Depending on where you live, you may have to order it online. Don’t expect to find it from major retailers like Amazon.com or Vitacost, but you may be able to track some down from online supplement sellers that specialize in nootropics.
Vinpocetine is a relatively new brain booster based on vincamine, a chemical found in periwinkle (Vinca minor). Vinpocetine is very popular in Europe and Japan, where it’s considered to be superior to ginkgo as a brain booster. It enhances brain function by a variety of mechanisms including increasing blood flow to the brain, decreasing brain inflammation, and balancing neurotransmitter levels. It’s usually taken to overcome brain fog, improve memory, increase mental clarity, and protect the brain against aging.
Nootropic Essential Nutrients: A Foundation for Brain Health
Lastly, I’d be doing you and your brain a disservice by skipping these basics. I get that taking a multivitamin or fish oil supplement is not cool or sexy. And it definitely won’t make you feel like Bradley Cooper in Limitless.
But taking any brain supplement when your basic nutritional requirements aren’t met is like trying to build a house without foundation. Of all the essential basic nutrients, here are those most often missing from the modern diet that can have the biggest impact on your brain function.
All the B vitamins are essential for an optimally functioning brain. But of all the B vitamins, B12 has the most impact on your brain and vitamin B12 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 does not always mean better. If you have adequate B12 levels, taking more won’t help your brain function or energy.
Vitamin D has profound effects on the brain throughout all stages of life. It can improve memory, mood, and problem-solving ability. Yet 75% of Americans aren’t getting enough of it.
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 see the light of day, you could almost certainly benefit from a vitamin D supplement.
Magnesium is called a “master mineral” that affects over 300 biological functions. Not getting enough will leave you feeling tired but wired. 80% 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’s particularly good for memory loss and other brain functions is magnesium L-threonate.
Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids
Omega-3 essential fatty acids may be the single most important supplement you can take for your brain. They are found mainly in cold-water, fatty fish and are the reason fish is often called a brain food. One omega-3 in particular, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), is a primary structural component of the brain, specifically in regions responsible for memory, language, creativity, judgment, emotion, and attention.
An alarming 70% of us are believed to be deficient in this critical brain nutrient. If I had to pick one supplement for my brain, it would be a quality omega-3 supplement in the form of fish oil or krill oil.
There is no need to take a lot of separate vitamins. The Harvard School of Public Health advises all adults to take a multivitamin supplement as insurance to fill any nutritional gaps, and we agree. Taking a high-quality multivitamin supplement should meet most of your brain’s vitamin needs.
Studies have shown that taking a multivitamin alone can improve your memory, overall brain function, protect it from degenerative disease, and reduce the symptoms of adult ADHD.
There are safe, natural nootropic supplements to suit every circumstance whether you are looking for general brain enhancement or are specifically seeking to improve your memory, concentration, or mood.
With this many options, there’s no need to take risky off-label use prescription drugs, or so-called smart drugs to get optimal mental performance.