Most people are under the impression that Nootropics are pills, either pharmaceuticals or supplements, sold in bottles and taken daily. While this is true for many kinds of nootropics, they can also be found in your pantry and refrigerator and enjoyed as meals, rather than something you need to remember to swallow down daily.
Nootropics are substances that help to enhance brain function without having the effects of other drugs that are commonly prescribed to treat conditions like depression, anxiety, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease.
Nootropics are set apart from other drugs because of the way they work on the brain.
How do they work? They can enhance the brain’s ability to absorb new information, they can help the brain cells resist the negative effects of free radicals and toxins, promote communication between different sides of he brain, and activate parts of the brain that are linked to higher functions, like memory and learning.
Nootropic foods are rarely talked about, but it is important to know and understand; that way, you can incorporate more nootropic foods into your diet.
In this article, we will provide you with a definitive guide to nootropic foods.
We will include information on how they differ from nootropic pharmaceuticals and supplements, to some examples of nootropic foods and the components that help boost the brain, to tips for building a brain-boosting diet.
The Basics: How do Nootropic Foods Differ from Other Types of Nootropics?
There are many ways to categorize nootropics. They can be categorized based on their mechanisms of action in the brain, by their active components, or by categories based on use. For the sake of simplicity and clarity, we tend to organize them based on the latter: categories based on use.
In general, the three different categories of nootropics based on their use include:
Nootropic Medicines and Pharmaceuticals
These are used for therapeutic purposes. In other words, they are used to treat certain neural or cognitive conditions and are often prescribed alone or together with other pharmaceuticals by a health practitioner.
They are products taken orally that contain an ingredient that adds to the diet, including vitamins, minerals, herbs, botanicals, amino acids, enzymes or others. In other words, they contain components you could get from your diet, but often in a concentrated or enhanced form. These are regulated by the FDA.
While there is some crossover with supplements, natural nootropics usually refer to the whole plants and herbs that are taken specifically for cognitive enhancement.
The word “foods” speaks for itself. Foods can be defined as whole substances that are eaten for nutritional support and nourishment.
However, foods are also part of our culture and are rarely eaten only for their dietary properties. We eat food when we share moments or take part in cultural practices, or because we want to experience certain tastes and sensations.
Food is also what unites us a human race. While not everyone may be taking supplements or pharmaceuticals, everyone eats food.
Foods have a direct impact on our well-being. The food we eat can maintain or current health status, deteriorate it, or improve it. Unlike medicine, however, the results of diet (eating patterns) are usually revealed over longer periods of time.
For example, if you tend to eat lots of fast food, but then decide to eat a salad, your health won’t be corrected by simply eating a salad. Instead, it will most likely have manifestations of health issues that result from eating a lot of fast food over long periods of time.
The same goes for nootropic foods. For nootropic foods to benefit your brain health, it is important to incorporate nootropic foods into your diet often and regularly.
The advantage is that, once you adopt a nootropic diet, you are likely to keep up the good habits over longer periods of time because our attitude towards food changes, as does our lifestyle. That means the benefits will likely last as well.
Why do nootropic foods work more slowly than other nootropics?
Some of the reasons include:
- The nutrients and phytochemicals in foods come in lower concentrations than in medicines and supplements. This means that your body need a steady supply of these elements before changes are seen and felt. Medicines and supplements often contain megadoses of nutrients, or a concentrated form of a component demonstrated to improve brain function. Foods may contain some form of these nutrients and other components, but in lower concentrations.
- Eating certain foods require you to adopt them as part of your diet and lifestyle in order to see their nootropic effects. This is connected to the fact that they are provided in smaller amounts than in other forms of nootropics. The benefits are seen after regular use, rather than after taking concentrated doses.
- Medicines and pharmaceuticals are designed to have a certain physical and physiological effects on our cells. If they don’t produce the desired outcome over a short period of time, they are deemed ineffective. From a biological perspective, the primary function of food is to provide nourishment for all the cells in the body. After meeting basic needs, nutrients can be used to enhance functioning,
In short, nootropic foods work more slowly because they provide reasonable amounts of nutrients to the body rather than megadoses, making them effective only if hey are incorporated into the diet over longer periods of time.
What are Some Nootropic Food Groups?
If we discussed each nootropic food in detail, we would have a few volumes of an encyclopedia. In order to cover a more complete variety of nootropic foods, we have described nootropic food groups, described why they are beneficial for brain health and optimized function, and provided examples of each of the nootropic foods in the different groups.
Grass-Fed and Organic Meats
Meat contains complete proteins, meaning that it contains all essential amino acids.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. While we tend to think of protein as that which makes muscle, protein does so much more than that.
Protein makes up hormones (chemical communicators), red blood cells, and, most importantly for this topic, neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that are used by the nervous system to communicate and cause brain-body responses.
To function normally, the central nervous system requires several amino acids found in proteins from foods. For example, some of the most important amino acids needed to build neurotransmitters and neuromodulators include tryptophan, tyrosine, histidine, and arginine.
Additionally, meats contain omega-3 fatty acids, cancer-fighting antioxidants, and certain vitamin precursors. According to research, grass-fed beef tends to be higher in these components than grain-fed beef, in addition to having less cholesterol-elevating saturated fatty acids. The same is true for organic meats of other kinds.
Antioxidants help to boost brain function by fighting off potentially damaging free radicals, while Omega-3 fatty acids and other polyunsaturated fatty acids help to promote healthy brain development and maintenance as we age.
Additionally, meats contain vitamin B12, which is a B vitamin that is lacking in plant-based diets. B12 deficiency is associated with brain deterioration in older adults and it is associated with poor cognition and social development in children, in addition to confusion, difficulty thinking and memory loss.
Based on the existing body of evidence, only some of which are cited above, if you choose to consume meats and eggs, choosing those that come from grass-fed, cage-free, and grazing animals that are grown and processed using organic standards will likely help to boost your brain health.
As mentioned, protein is essential for brain health. However, protein doesn’t necessarily need to come from animal sources. A well-balanced plant-based diet can provide you with all the amino acids your brain and body require. Additionally, many plant-based proteins are also packed in beneficial fatty acids and minerals essential for brain health and function.
In fact, evidence shows that plant-based diets not only have the potential to providing all the nutrition your body needs, they also help to preserve the body’s tissues from oxidative stress and inflammation because of the high content of antioxidants in plants.
Some plant-based proteins you can include in your diet to boost brain health include:
- Tofu, soy, and edamame
- Seeds and nuts (described below in more detail)
- Legumes (like lentils and beans)
Vegetables and Fruits
A diet rich in vegetables and fruits is, without a doubt, a diet rich in nutrients. Fruits and vegetables are the richest source o vitamins and minerals that are essential not only for brain function, but for overall bodily health.
In fact, well-balanced plant-based diets rich in fruits and vegetables are associated with lower incidences of both neurodegenerative diseases and metabolic syndrome.
One of the most significant nootropic properties of fruits and vegetables are the dozens of antioxidant components they contribute to the body. These include vitamins and mineral and other brain chemicals.
Below, we highlight a few vitamins and minerals contained in fruits and vegetables with particularly potent nootropic properties.
Minerals are essential for brain function when you consume them in the right concentration. As a group of nutrients, they are responsible for the regulation of nerve transmission and communication and by promoting a healthy brain metabolism.
There are several enzymes that are dependent on selenium and are important modulators of brain function. In fact, certain enzymes directly involved in antioxidant defense are dependent on selenium. Selenium depletion and deficiency of selenium-dependent enzymes is related to cell loss and, over time, neurodegenerative diseases.
Fruits and vegetables high in selenium include:
Magnesium takes part in in hundreds of biochemical processes in the body, including the synthesis of the antioxidant glutathione that can help to protect brain cells from damage. Its nootropic properties are related to its ability to enhance learning and memory; this is why one of the symptoms of magnesium deficiency is foggy thinking.
Some fruits and vegetables rich in nootropic minerals include:
- Algae and kelp
While the mechanism is still not well understood, zinc deficiency is associated with irreversible deterioration in memory and learning. For this reason, adequate zinc supply through our diet is essential for brain function and for the prevention of brain diseases.
Fruits and vegetables high in zinc include:
- Green peas
Antioxidants Vitamins and Phytochemicals
Antioxidant vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals help to protect the brain from oxidative damage to brain cells that can negatively impact cognition over time. In fact, oxidative damage can cause brain-based diseases like Alzheimer’s disease.
There are many categories and types of antioxidants that come from what we eat. Antioxidant-rich berries include:
- Berries (strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, mulberries, blackcurrants)
- Green, leafy vegetables (spinach, kale, lettuce, bok choy, arugula)
- Citrus fruits (oranges, lemon, lime, mandarin, and others)
- Bell peppers
High-Quality Oils and Fats
Certain types of fat, especially poly-unsaturated fats help regulate signaling pathways that maintain healthy brain function including neurotransmission, cell survival, and the prevention of neuroinflammation. In this way, they are important for regulating mood and cognition.
A specific type of polyunsaturated fatty acid is Omega-3 DHA. Omega-3 DHA, is associated with proper brain development in the very early stages of life. This is why it is so important for pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers are consuming enough Omega-3.
DHA is also essential for neuronal signaling, meaning that it is directly related to communication between different parts of the brain.
A special for of saturated fat called medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), help to provide quickly available energy to the brain when needed. In fact, studies show that MCTs help to improve cognitive function in people with carbohydrate metabolism issues.
Some food sources of nootropic fats include:
- Fish and seafood
- Nuts and seeds
- Coconut oil
- Algae oil
- Grapeseed oils
- Peanut oi
- Flaxseed oil
Foods to Avoid
Foods that work against our brain’s health tend to be consumed in high proportions in the western diet. The irony is that the selection of foods (when focusing on food types and categories) that actively work against brain function is much more limited than the foods that promote brain health and potentially enhance brain function.
The key is to be able to discern between brain-boosting foods and those that fall into these categories, which are often very easy to come across in the current food industry.
- Processed Foods High in Inflammatory Oils: Inflammatory oils include trans fats and highly processed fats. If you consume oil sources that are very high in Omega-6, they can also cause inflammation; the lack of balance between omega-3 and omega-6 oils can have inflammatory effects. They are found in fried foods and many conventional packaged snacks.
- Processed Food High in Sugar and Refined Carbohydrates: These foods may boost your energy in the short term, but the rise in glucose will quickly fall again. This is a problem for concentration, focus, and longer-lasting tasks.
- Excess of Caffeinated foods: Caffeine is the most commonly consumed nootropic. Caffeine is proven to help boost concentration, awareness, and mental energy. However, too much caffeine can cause dependence, and over time, your brain may not function properly without caffeine consumption.
Tips for Building a Brain-Healthy Diet with Nootropic Foods
When it comes to food, there are endless options. It can be an overwhelming task to single out certain foods that contain nootropic components. It is equally important to cut out foods that work against brain function, meaning building a nootropic diet is as much about inclusion as it is about elimination.
Author and nootropic expert Evan Brand singles out several guidelines for building a brain-healthy diet. He discusses the importance of the connection between what we eat and how we feel. As mentioned previously, food contains chemicals that can either promote healthy brain function or hinder it, so selecting foods that establish a healthy brain base, and then potentially enhance function is key.
We summarize some of Brand’s tips for building a brain-healthy diet below.
- Food is medicine
Food provides the building blocks for healthy cell function, including that of brain cells. When we are stressed, we tend to crave high-sugar and high-carbohydrate foods that may give us a boost of energy, but they often lack the proper building blocks, like micronutrients and proteins, that promote a longer-term healthy brain function.
Taking charge of a dietary balance can act as medicine when you are feeling brain fog or are having problems concentrating.
- Quality is Key
Food quality is more important that food quantity. Choosing nutrient-dense foods is far more important for your brain health (and health in general) than choosing calorie-dense foods. When you think of food, it is important to equate nutrient density with food quality. Think of organic fruits and vegetables; fresh, high-quality protein sources like grass-fed meats and vegetable protein blends; and foods high in MCTs and unsaturated fats like nuts, seeds and fish.
- Stabilize Blood Sugar
Eating foods and consuming drinks that are high in sugar and refined carbs cause your blood sugar to spike. While the bodies of most healthy people are able to stabilize blood sugar, consuming a diet that is regularly high in refined carbs and added sugars can cause blood sugar destabilization and ultimately cause metabolic disorders.
Choosing foods that provide slow-releasing energy, fiber, high quality protein and fat, and carbohydrates will provide your body with the energy it needs to stay energetic and stable without causing spikes in blood sugar that are detrimental to your body’s health.
A knowledge of nootropic foods are important for everyone who is looking to improve brain function. Regardless of whether or not you choose to take nootropic medicines or supplements, nootropic diets help your brain to ensure the basis of proper brain health.
Foods are not prescribed and are not taken as pills like other nootropic alternatives – they are consumed regularly and over time in order to ensure proper nutritional balance in the brain as well as in the body.
Sasha is a Nutritional Anthropologist with an M.Sc. in Food and Nutrition. She has been a food, nutrition, and health researcher and writer for six years and also works as an international development consultant.
She is passionate about empowering people to make the best nutrition and health choices in a way that makes cultural and logical sense for each individual and community.
Sasha currently lives in Guatemala with her family and three dogs. In her free time, she cooks, reads, gardens, and goes on adventures with her family around Guatemala and the world.