Best Nootropics to Boost Brain Function

Authored by Brady Holmer • 
October 28, 2019
 • 14 min read
nootropicsbiohackingsupplementscognition

When we talk about biohacking, we are referring to the process of quantifying biomechanics. We take an engineering mindset to biohacking; can we adjust our inputs to achieve desired outputs? Can we measure the impact of those inputs and outputs? What data is available to us?

While the term biohacking has morphed into many meanings, we simply consider it a way of looking at our bodies as a platform to optimize and build upon.

Some biohacking approaches involve removing something. Like fasting, for example.

Other processes involve “adding” something to yourself, in one way or another. This may take the form of eating foods or taking other substances to enhance health. Many of these strategies are specifically targeted to the brain—one of our most, if not THE most important organ in the body. Mental well-being is just as important as physical well-being.

One popular strategy to “hack” brain function involve taking nootropics—certain compounds that are known to have biological effects, primarily on the brain. The nootropics scene is buzzing with new products and technologies, so you need to know what some of the top choices are if you’re interested in starting some self-experimentation.

What are Nootropics?

As a concept, nootropics aren’t new. In fact, they’ve been around in the scientific literature for some time.

The term “nootropic” was probably coined in 1972 when a Dr. Corneliu Giurgea was researching some compounds and decided that a fitting name for them would combine the Greek words for “mind” (nous) and “bending” (tropic). Biohacking was born.

Also known as “smart pills,” “smart drugs,” or “cognitive enhancers,” nootropics don’t have a cut-and-dried definition.

However, a 1977 paper proposed a definition of nootropics describing them as “a class of psychoactive drugs that selectively improve efficiency of higher telencephalic integrative activities.”1 Basically, any natural or synthetic substance that might have an effect on mental health or function fits the bill.

To be considered a nootropic, a drug or formulation may have one of several different actions, including: enhancement of learning acquisition, resistance to impairing agents, facilitating the transfer of information among brain regions, increasing cortical-subcortical control, and preventing the usual pharmacological effects of other neuropsychotropic drugs.

Nootropics aren’t prescription drugs (though some do qualify). Rather than have a use designed to bring someone up to baseline (say, regulate ADHD), nootropics are meant for “healthy” people to use to boost brain function and mental performance above their normal level. This doesn’t mean that people with an abnormal brain function/activity or condition can’t take them, however; several nootropics have shown benefits for neurological conditions.

It’s important to point out that nootropics won’t give you superhuman capabilities or an Einstein-like brain if don’t already have one. But some evidence does point to the fact that healthy non-compromised individuals might be able to achieve cognitive enhancement by using nootropics.

Before you consider nootropics, ask yourself: are you optimizing the other first-line strategies for brain function in your life? If not, that is the first place to start.

Sleep, diet, and stress levels play a much more important role in brain health and function than any drug or compound. If you don’t first cover these bases, then you’d best start here before sending an S.O.S to supplements. Energy levels can be drastically improved through simple lifestyle “hacks” that aren’t really hacks at all.

One caveat about the use of nootropics is that many doctors and health professionals warn of the “placebo effect” these drugs may have—meaning that simply by believing they work...they’ll work. Now, the placebo effect is a REAL biological effect, the only difference is that the effects are self-induced rather than brought about by the drug itself. Psychology is a powerful thing.

Synthetic vs. Natural Nootropics

Many drugs have “nootropic-like” qualities, even though that isn’t their intended purpose. Drugs like Ritalin, Adderall, and other amphetamines are designed to treat conditions like ADHD, where they help stabilize neurotransmitters and improve brain function. Some of these (Adderall in particular) are becoming popular among college students for their ability to increase focus.

Examples of “pharmacological nootropics” include Modafinil and Adrafinil, Piracetam, Aniracetam, Lucidril, Phenibut, Nicotine, Amphetamines, and Adderall. We won’t go into detail about any of these, however.

The problem with these drugs is that, in contrast to the natural nootropics, they can be highly addictive, are human-made and, without a prescription, their consumption is technically illegal. They may also have side effects. For example, Adderall can have effects such as appetite suppression, weight loss, and a development of tolerance or dependence.

What to Consider Before Taking Nootropics

Despite being low risk, natural nootropics aren’t for everyone. There are several considerations to make before deciding whether you should or should not use nootropic supplements.

Consider (and research!) the potential interactions with drugs you’re taking—and always consult your doctor or a health professional before beginning a nootropic regimen.

Like the general supplement industry, the “nootropics industry” isn’t FDA-regulated, meaning that there is no formal definition of what a “nootropic” is and therefore, anyone can label their product with the designation with zero penalty. Without regulation, makers of nootropics can also slap any unsubstantiated or scienceless claim on their package about what the product supposedly does. It’s easy to sell (and fall for) gimmicks, fads, and false advertising within this industry.

As with all drugs and even food, there is a high individual variability in how nootropics will work—everyone’s got a different brain chemistry. One nootropic that works well for your friend might prove to be a dud when you take it.

There is some solid evidence behind individual nootropic ingredients, and research studies support many of the claimed benefits and uses of these supplements. However, another popular way of consuming nootropics is in a “stack,” whereby you consume multiple different nootropic compounds together. The theory behind this is that the individual beneficial effects will act synergistically with each other to further enhance their brain-boosting power. Unfortunately, when it comes to stacks, there is a lack of research.

With that being said, let’s take a look at some of the top nootropic supplements to boost your cognitive health and function.

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Best Nootropic Supplements Backed by Research

Below, you’ll find a list of the best and most popular nootropics that have research to support their efficacy.

Many of these have been shown to benefit numerous aspects of brain health including memory, learning, cognitive function, mental performance, alertness, and mood.

Caffeine

We have to put caffeine at the top of our list, since it’s the most researched and widely consumed substance in the world for boosting brain and body performance.

Caffeine is known as a “stimulant” and is found in food and beverages like coffee, tea, and cacao.

The psychostimulatory effects of caffeine are due to its antagonistic binding to Adenosine receptors in the brain—meaning that when it binds, it prevents the actions of Adenosine from occurring.2

Adenosine is a “depressant,” promoting sleep and suppressing arousal in the brain. When Adenosine builds up in the brain, we feel sleepy. This is why caffeine keeps you up: it tells Adenosine “I’ll take it from here.” Without the binding of this molecule, thanks to caffeine, we stay awake and wired. Caffeine may also boost blood flow to the brain when consumed in moderate to high doses, which is perhaps another reason for its potent cognitive qualities.3

There are more than enough studies to provide evidence for a caffeine-induced cognitive boost, and the studies provided below are just a mere sampling of the literature on the world’s favorite drug.

In one study, even a “lower” dose of 50mg - 100mg of caffeine significantly improved cognitive performance and mood in adults who reported regular use of caffeine.4 Caffeine has consistently shown to improve auditory and visual vigilance, reaction time, memory, and mood state.5 Even better, these effects might be enhanced under situations of fatigue, sleep deprivation, and stress.5 You’re doing things right when you sip some coffee during an all-nighter.

Caffeine may also be beneficial for remembering things—it elevates learning capacity during tasks where information is presented passively or during sub-optimal learning conditions (i.e. when you’re stressed or tired). However, it doesn’t help learning capabilities when the material is being learned intentionally and can hinder performance when tasks rely on working memory.6 It appears that the potential negative effects on this type of learning are due to the potential for jitteriness and lack of attention, so monitor your caffeine intake and find a dose that wakes you up and makes you feel good!

There is a reason humans are drawn to caffeine-containing beverages.T hey help us feel better, more awake, and can even facilitate daily tasks especially when we’re feeling tired. Since most of the evidence points to the fact that there aren’t any health risks to moderate caffeine intake, pour another cup of joe and start sipping...for your brain.

How to take: Enjoy your preferred form of caffeine about 45 - 60 minutes before you want the benefits to kick in.T his is about how long it takes for the body to start metabolizing caffeine. 100mg - 200mg should do the trick, but a higher dose of 300mg - 400mg might be needed if you’re looking for an extra pick-me-up.

Ashwagandha

Also known as “Indian Ginseng,'' Ashwagandha is a popular supplement that’s native to South Asia, India, and North Africa. It’s a staple in Ayurvedic medicine and has several purported benefits including treatment of chronic fatigue, bone weakness, impotency, sedation, strength building...and even use as an aphrodisiac. If there’s a condition, the odds are good that Ashwagandha has been used to treat it.7

Ashwagandha is what is known as an adaptogen—a group of plants or compounds that can increase the body’s ability to adapt to stress, normalize mental and physical function in the face of unpredictable situations, while being devoid of significant side effects. Lots of benefits with little risk.8

Ashwagandha can fit the profile of an adaptogen, with particularly salient benefits for the brain, where it may have the ability to boost brain function in healthy individuals.

In a 14-day placebo-controlled study, 20 healthy adult men who supplemented with Ashwagandha (250mg/day) experienced significant improvements in psychomotor performance when compared to the placebo.9 Furthermore, studies of Ashwagandha supplementation have noted improved general memory, executive function, attention, and information processing.10 It should be noted, however, that this study was in adults with a mild form of cognitive impairment.

How to take: Based on the scientific literature, a dose of 300mg - 500mg taken daily with a meal appears to yield the most benefits. A lower dose of 50mg - 100mg might have smaller albeit still beneficial effects. The preferred form of supplementation is Ashwagandha root extract.

Bacopa Monnieri

Bacopa monnieri is another herbal staple of Ayurvedic medicine, and has been used for centuries. The most robust benefits of Bacopa might be those related to memory.

Bacopa monnieri works its “magic” in part through its antioxidant activity.

By scavenging free radicals and preventing oxidative stress in the brain, Bacopa might be neuroprotective against DNA damage in our brain cells; which could be one way to stave off cognitive decline.11

In healthy individuals using Bacopa for about three months, supplementation produced improvements in several aspects of working memory and visual information processing, memory consolidation, learning rate, and even reduced their anxiety.12,13

The neurocognitive enhancement achieved with Bacopa monnieri has even been found to be similar to that achieved using a prescription drug known as Modafinil, which is used to promote wakefulness and combat sleepiness.14

Even a single dose of Bacopa monnieri (not supplementation) of 320mg can improve sustained cognitive performance—preventing the “cognitive fatigue” during repeated mentally challenging tasks in healthy volunteers.15

The above benefits seem pretty sound. However, it should be noted that not all studies find that Bacopa supplementation improves cognitive function, memory or attention. While reviews on the nootropic mostly cite an overall beneficial effects for memory and cognition, more studies on the effects of Bacopa need to be conducted, especially those that compare it to other pharmacological agents.

How to take: Whether you’re planning to supplement with Bacopa regularly or ingest an acute dose on an as-needed basis, 300mg - 400mg of Bacopa extract is recommended.

Importantly, Bacopa exerts its nootropic effects by crossing the lipid-dense blood brain barrier (BBB) and for this reason, needs to be fat-soluble. Consuming Bacopa was traditionally done with ghee, a high-fat butter that helps to extract the active components of Bacopa (bacosides) as lipid extracts.16 In this case, it’s best to take Bacopa with a high-fat meal—so whipping yourself up some buttered coffee might enhance the benefits you can gain from this ancient nootropic.

Panax Ginseng

The “roots” of Panax ginseng date back centuries—where the plant was used for a variety of maladies and physical or mental enhancements. Often, ginseng was only reserved for royalty.

While the physical benefits are perhaps the most studied aspect of ginseng, this root might be terrific brain food.

Several studies on acute ginseng consumption have shown that it can improve long-term potentiation (memory formation), cognitive performance, reduce mental fatigue, boost visual and auditory reaction times, raise alertness, and enhance psychomotor performance in healthy individuals.17,18,19,20

Ginseng’s effects might even be comparable to those achieved through pharmacological agents like Modafinil. In one analysis comparing Modafinil, Bacopa, and ginseng, ginseng supplementation resulted in improvements comparable to Modafinil when reaction time was assessed.14 This is a major finding, considering Modafinil may have a higher likelihood of side effects compared to a natural supplement like ginseng.

How to take: Most studies have used an acute or chronic dose of Panax ginseng ranging from 200mg - 400mg

L-theanine

L-theanine is an amino acid that can be found in beverages like green tea and black tea. In fact, L-theanine is the compound that gives tea its savory, umami-like flavor (which may be the reason you love it...or don’t).

This amino acid is known for its potent relaxation-inducing qualities—it has been shown to reduce cortisol, heart rate, blood pressure, and dampen the body’s “fight or flight” response.21,22 But aside from the calming effects of L-theanine, it may be a cognitive enhancer.

One study in healthy adults prone to high anxiety showed that L-theanine consumption enhanced activity of alpha bands in the brain (an indication of calmness and peacefulness), improved reaction time, and elevated their visual attention performance.23

There is even some evidence that L-theanine may help with brain growth. When administered to rats at a young age, L-theanine facilitated neurogenesis (the growth of new neurons) and improved their memory.24,25

The mechanism of L-theanine’s action has also been studied, and might have to due with changing the activity of certain brain waves—in particular, alpha waves.

Alpha waves are thought to be an indicator of a state of relaxation without drowsiness; this may indicate improved focus and sustained attention capacity.

L-theanine administration has been shown in several studies to boost the activity of alpha waves in the brain.26,27

How to take: 100mg - 200mg of L-theanine is the sweet-spot dose for supplementation, but you can get a smaller daily dose by consuming some green tea (a typical cup has anywhere from 5mg - 25mg). If you want a larger dose and don’t necessarily want to down 5 - 10 cups of coffee—looking for an L-theanine supplement might be the best option.

Ginkgo Biloba

The Ginkgo Biloba tree is one of the oldest species of trees in the word, and it’s extract is one of the most well-known supplements for brain health and cognitive function.

Perhaps with age does come wisdom. Ginkgo Biloba got its roots in traditional Chinese Medicine, but is now one of the 10 most popular dietary supplements in the world.28

Ginkgo Biloba seems particularly great for boosting memory.

Two studies have shown that after six weeks of supplementation of Ginkgo Biloba, older healthy adults improve their memory recall and overall neuropsychological function—they improved their scores on a slew of different cognitive tasks.29,30

A single dose of Ginkgo might also be beneficial in the short term.

After one 360mg dose of Ginkgo Biloba, healthy older adults experienced improvements in cognitive performance along with a boost in mood, an effect that was also present when they took a combo of Ginkgo and Ginseng.31 These findings indicate that Ginkgo supplementation may be great for improvements in memory, while a single dose could be used to boost performance on cognitively demanding tasks in the short term.

How to take: Acute benefits of Ginkgo can be gained through a single 120mg - 240mg dose taken about 1 - 4 hours before you want the nootropic to take effect. Take it with a meal. For general purposes of alleviating cognitive decline or boosting memory, a daily dose of 40mg - 120mg taken 2 - 3x per day (with a meal) is recommended based on scientific studies.

CDP Choline

CDP choline, also known as citicoline, is a nootropic compound that, upon ingestion, metabolizes to the compounds choline and cytidine (eventually uridine).

In particular, choline is involved in both membrane and acetylcholine metabolism in humans.

We need choline to synthesize lipids and cell membranes, as well as synthesize important neurotransmitters—in particular acetylcholine.

Acetylcholine (ACh) is a neurotransmitter involved in memory, muscle contraction and movement, heartbeat, and other basic physiological functions. Our nervous system relies heavily on adequate ACh production.

Citicoline was originally used to combat neurological diseases and is beneficial in treating neurodegenerative conditions like glaucoma, mild cognitive impairment, and age-related memory impairment.32,33,34

But is there a potential for CDP choline as a nootropic to boost healthy brain function? There aren’t many studies, especially in healthy humans, but a few show some promise.

For instance, after just 28 days of supplementing with either 250mg or 500mg of citicoline, healthy adult women experienced a significant improvement in attention.35 These findings are in line with rodent studies in which citicoline administration improves learning and memory.36

However, some studies have noted that these memory-enhancing effects are only significant in older rats, while no effects are seen in younger rodents without memory impairment.37

Again, there are not many human studies but citicoline appears to hold some promise, especially in older individuals.

How to take: A standard dose of CDP choline is anywhere from 500mg - 2,000mg per day taken in two separate doses (8 - 12 hours apart). You may also take a single, daily dose. The dose you take might depend on the goal. If acute performance is what you’re looking for, opt for a higher end of the range, but for long-term supplementation, maybe dose somewhere in the middle.

Nootropic Cycling

If you’ve been taking nootropics for a consistent period of time, you may begin to feel like you’re not responding as well or not getting the same brain power from the supplements that you did when you first started taking them.

As with all pharmaceuticals, including nootropics, the body initially responds to an active substance with a certain response, but over time, the body develops mechanisms that “normalize” this response and eventually dampen the body’s reaction.

This is known as adaptation or developing tolerance.38 This might come in the form of a downregulation of receptors for a substance or reducing the amount of neurotransmitters released in response to it. Either way, the same dose of a drug eventually causes less of a response, or no response at all. The nervous system may adapt over time.

Due to adaptation, you’ll eventually need to take a larger and larger dose of any nootropic to get the same response you did when you were “naive” to it.

Think about caffeine. If you’re a long-time coffee drinker, you might not get the same alertness, energy, or jittery feelings that you did when you first started drinking it. You’ve developed a tolerance to caffeine.

How can you avoid developing a tolerance? Nootropic cycling.

What is nootropic cycling? This practice involves taking a nootropic for a set amount of time—a few weeks to months, followed by a period where you don’t take any. For example, you could start taking a nootropic like L-theanine for 2 weeks, followed by one week where you don’t consume any of it. In addition, you could stop taking one new tropic for some time while replacing it with a different nootropic. Swap L-theanine for ginseng, for example.

There is no set recommendation for how long you should take/abstain from a nootropic during a cycle—it’s highly individual. Tolerance may develop more quickly in some people while take a bit longer in others. It might take a bit of self-experimentation to see how your own body reacts to supplement regimens.

Potential Side Effects of Nootropics

There are very few studies or research on the negative or unexpected side effects of nootropics and really...they are fairly low-risk as far as supplements go. However, there are a few things to consider when you start taking nootropics in order to avoid any potential downsides.

Since we don’t know the long-term effects of supplementation, it’s best to start out at the recommended dose, or at least a dose that’s been used in research studies. If you do want to eventually “up” your dose do so gradually.

As stated above, there is the potential of developing a tolerance to nootropics.

In addition, there is the possibility that, after taking them for some time, you could experience a nootropic “withdrawal” if you forget to take or completely stop taking the supplement.

These symptoms might involve brain fog or low energy levels. Again, think of the “caffeine headache” some people get if they don’t have their morning cup.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, taking a high dose of nootropics could lead to anxiety, hyperactivity, or trouble sleeping (especially with caffeine!). Like we said, experiment with different doses gradually and see how your body responds.

While all of these effects are possible, most will not occur if you take the recommended dose.

Brain Gains

There is no shame in calling upon a brain booster every now and then—it’s hard to function at 100% all of the time. Cognitive enhancement isn’t a sin, but a right afforded to us all.

There are several varieties of compounds, each with unique effects on the brain and body. As with all supplements, there is no “perfect” nootropic, just the one that’s “perfect” for you. Experiment with several, pick the ones you respond best to, and reap the benefits.

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© 2019 HVMN Inc. All Rights Reserved. H.V.M.N.®, Health Via Modern Nutrition™, Nootrobox®, Rise™, Sprint®, Yawn®, Kado™, and GO Cubes® are registered trademarks of HVMN Inc. ΔG® is a trademark of TΔS® and used under exclusive license by HVMN Inc.