The desire to boost our brain function gives us hopes of having a better memory, improving our focus and concentration, and retaining new information for improved learning abilities. The science behind nootropics show that these hopes can become a reality.
There are different categories of nootropics based on their use, but one of the most popular is nootropic supplements.
Nootropic supplements provide concentrated nootropic components in a capsule, pill, or liquid that is taken in addition to your regular diet – what you normally eat in a day. Just as the name suggests, supplements supplement (or add an extra boost) to our regular diet by providing additional quantities of components that we can obtain through foods.
Nootropic supplements are well-studied, and we have significant information at our fingertips about the different nootropic supplements that can help boost our brain health.
In this article, we will provide you with an introduction to nootropic supplements including information on how they work, how they differ from other types of nootropics, and we will describe some of the most well-studied nootropic supplements used to boost different elements of brain function.
What are Nootropic Supplements?
Nootropics as a general category refer to elements that help to improve the cognitive function of the brain by maximizing its natural potential. Unlike other drugs, nootropics have limited, if any, side effects and they do not alter the natural potential of brain function.
The FDA defines dietary supplements as products taken by mouth (including by pill, capsule, or by liquid form) that contain a “dietary ingredient.” Dietary ingredients include vitamins, minerals, herbs or botanicals, amino acids, enzymes, fatty acids, or other components that supplement the diet.
Supplements are usually taken for one or more of four main reasons:
- To fill nutrient gaps in the diet. If you know you aren’t getting a certain nutrient through the foods you eat, you can take supplements to help fill the void. For example, people who follow a vegan diet do not have a source of Vitamin B12, a nootropic vitamin, since this vitamin comes from animal foods only. For this reason, they need to supplement their diet with vitamin B12.
- To boost health with higher doses. Even if you meet the dietary requirement of certain nutrients through your diet, there are some nutrients that can be beneficial at higher doses than those established in the % Daily Value. It is important to note that some nutrients can pose health issues when consumed in extremely high doses, so it is important to inform yourself beforehand; less isn’t always more.
- As “insurance”. This is one of the reasons that people tend to take multivitamins. Multivitamins contain several vitamins, minerals, and sometimes amino acids and fatty acids that humans need to consume in their diet. These usually do not contain megadoses of vitamins and minerals, but rather they contribute from 10-100% of different nutrients to the body. They are taken as “insurance” that they will get the nutrients they need no matter the type of diet they have.
- To add “extra” beneficial components to your diet. There are several phytochemicals that come from botanicals, herbs, plants and plant extracts that are not necessarily “required” by the body to function properly, but that present benefits when they are consumed. This is the case for many nootropic supplements.
How do Nootropic Supplements Differ from Other Types of Nootropics?
There are several ways to categorize nootropics. They can be categorized by the mechanism of action of the active ingredient (e.g. stimulants, dopaminergic, serotonergics, nerve-growth stimulators, and many more), by chemical form, and by mode of use, among others.
For the sake of simplicity, we categorize nootropics by the mode of use as it is the most practical and easily understood division. The main categories of nootropics by mode of use are:
Nootropic Medicines and Pharmaceuticals
Nootropic medicines and pharmaceuticals are used as therapy for a range of diagnosed brain-related diseases and conditions. Because they are considered therapy, they are often prescribed alone or together with other pharmaceuticals by a health practitioner.
The wide application of nootropics for therapeutic purposes was the original vision for their application in the health world.
While there is some crossover with supplements and nootropic foods, natural nootropics usually refer to the whole plants and herbs that are taken specifically for cognitive enhancement.
Foods can be defined as whole substances that are eaten for nutritional support and nourishment. Nootropic foods contain nutrients (vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and other chemicals) that present a direct benefit to the brain.
Nootropic foods, more than any of the other categories, need to be implemented as a lifestyle practice in order to fully benefit from them.
Adopting a diet rich in nootropic foods is important to maximize the effect of any of the other categories of nootropics, because diet ensures that the basic needs of the brain and body are met so that other nootropic forms can contribute to additional function.
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. Any products that claim they are supplements are regulated by the FDA.
Because they include vitamins, minerals, and whole herbs and botanicals and extracts, there is some crossover with natural nootropics and nootropic foods.
The main difference is how they are used; supplements are taken in pill, capsule or liquid form in addition to foods and herbs we might consume with the purpose of receiving a health benefit.
Within the category of nootropic supplements, there aren’t restrictions about the source of the components provided in the supplements. In other words, it doesn’t matter whether they were extracted from plants or the earth, or whether they were made in the lab.
In the end, it is the chemical composition of each supplement and its mechanism of action in the body that defines each supplement.
Researched-Backed Nootropic Supplements
In some senses, nootropic supplements are an all-encompassing category of nootropics. They may contain therapeutic components as well as components that are extracted from foods herbs (or made in the lab to simulate those found in nature).
Below we discuss some of the most well-studied nootropic supplements, including what they are and how they work.
Fatty Acids and Amino Acids
Fatty acids are the building blocks of fats, and amino acids are the building blocks of protein. There is a growing body of research about how supplementation with some types of amino acids and fatty acids act as nootropics to boost brain function.
- Omega-3: One of the most well-studied nootropic supplements, omega-3 fatty acids, particularly EPA and DHA, have vital roles in the growth and development of brains. While it is important for fetuses, infants, and young children to get the right amounts of Omega-3 fatty acids as they grow and develop, Omega-3 is also important for long-term brain health. Research shows that long-chain omega-3 fatty acids improve brain function and structure in older adults.
- DL Phenylalanine (DLPA): DLPA is a neurotransmitter precursor that can be used for therapeutic purposes to help treat depression and ADHD, and even helping to relieve pain. It can also be used to increase mental sharpness.
- L-Tyrosine: This amino acid can help to stimulate wakefulness after periods of prolonged sleep. It functions by stimulating the production of the hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline and neurotransmitter dopamine
- L-Arginine: L-Arginine is an nootropic amino acid that has an important role in many processes in the brain, including in the regulation of synaptic plasticity, neurogenesis, and can help to reduce stress and inflammatory processes. One of the mechanisms of action of L-arginine is synthesizing nitric oxide, an important central nervous system regulator. Nitric oxide helps to promote blood flow to the brain, consolidates memory, and helps to regulate sleep-awake cycles, among others.
- Acetyl-L-Carnitine: L-carnitine has a key role in cellular energy metabolism. Research shows that supplementation with L-carnitine can help to reduce the severity of physical and mental fatigue in addition to increasing cognitive function in people over 100 years old. It may also help to reduce memory loss.
- Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 is used by the brain to make neurotransmitters. Even mild vitamin B12 deficiencies are associated with a lacking ability to focus and think analytically.
- Vitamin B1 (Thiamine): Vitamin B1 has an important role in the brain chemicals acetylcholine and GABA. It also has an important role in glucose production, which is essential to ensure the brain has enough energy to function.
- Folic Acid: Folic acid deficiency in the elderly is associated with the development of dementia, and higher amounts of folic acid can help to retain cognitive abilities and attention.
- Choline: Choline is another B vitamin that forms an integral part of brain chemicals that are responsible for brain and cognitive abilities.
- Vitamin D: Vitamin D is closely associated with the neurotransmission of dopamine. Low levels of vitamin D are associated with dementia and other psychiatric disorders. Initial studies are being carried out to examine the therapeutic potential of vitamin D to treat psychiatric diseases.
Minerals can be divided into macrominerals and trace minerals. Macrominerals are those that our body needs in larger amounts, and they include calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium, potassium, chloride and sulfur.
Trace minerals are those we need in smaller amounts. They include iron, iodine, zinc, cobalt, manganese, copper, fluoride and selenium.
In general, we should be able to get the minerals we need from the food we eat. However, dietary imbalance can cause mineral deficiencies. Since minerals are deeply involved in several cognitive processes, deficiencies logically result in negative impacts on the brain.
Below are some minerals that have been demonstrated to have a particularly strong influence on brain health and could potentially have nootropic effects because of their vital role in brain function.
- Zinc: zinc deficiency is associated with irreversible deterioration in memory and learning. For this reason, we need enough zinc for brain function and for the prevention of brain diseases.
- Magnesium: 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.
- Manganese: Manganese is essential for brain homeostasis (overall balance) and healthy neural activity. It is possible to consume too much manganese, which is toxic to the brain, so make sure to discuss supplementation with your doctor.
- Iron: Iron is an essential component for blood transport. Iron deficiency anemia results problems with oxygen transport around the body, including to the brain.
- Selenium: There are several enzymes that work in the brain that are dependent on selenium. Selenium deficiency is related to cell loss and, over time, neurodegenerative diseases.
Herbs and Botanicals
Herbs and botanicals have been used for thousands of years in ancient models of health (including Ayurveda of India, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and health models in Latin America) for their improvements on what we now know as cognitive function. While they were originally dismissed by western medicine, the study of their components and mechanisms of action have brought significant attention to their effectiveness.
Herb and botanical supplements differ from whole herbs and botanicals because of the way they are prepared and presented. Often, supplements are composed of extracts from herbs and botanicals, usually of the active ingredients that provide the nootropic benefits.
In other cases, the nootropic supplements are simply crushed or dehydrated whole herbs and botanicals presented in capsule form. The claims that are made for its marketing set it apart as a nootropic supplement, rather than a food or beverage.
Some popular herbs and botanicals found in supplement form include:
- Ashwagandha: it helps to reduce anxiety (anti-stress effect), improves memory, and enhances cognition.
- Bacopa Monnieri (Brahmi): There are some mixed results regarding the nootropic effects of Brahmi, but there is a growing body of research that supports its positive effects regarding its ability to reduce anxiety, and increase intellect and memory, without toxic effects.
- Panax Ginseng: Panax ginseng is best known for its components that boost cognitive performance and reduce anxiety. One study examined the effects of Panax Ginseng on cognitive performance during activities that required longer-term mental attention. The study demonstrated that Panax Ginseng can improve performance and feelings of mental fatigue. Additionally, it contains ginsenosides, which are active components with anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and anticancer effects that help to protect the brain and other organs from oxidative damage.
- Lion’s Mane: A review of several existing studies on Lion’s mane mushroom concluded that evidence demonstrated that it helps to improve cognition, and may even help to promote the synthesis of new nerves. Additionally, the composition of Lion’s Mane demonstrates that it has antioxidant, hypoglycemic, anti-cancer, and immune-enhancing properties.
- Ginkgo Biloba: Some studies have demonstrated statistical improvement in information processing and working memory and executive processing in people who took Ginkgo biloba. However, more studies are needed to confirm the nootropic effects of Ginkgo Biloba.
- Ginger: Ginger may help to improve learning and memory. Most studies have been conducted based on the use of ginger as a therapeutic agent for people who experience age-related cognition issues or dementia, like Alzheimer’s disease, or general memory impairment.
- Maca: Maca has been studied as an agent that can improve memory impairment and learning, especially in women who have gone through menopause.
Nootropic supplements are an all-encompassing category of supplements that include vitamins, minerals, herbs and botanical extracts, and other dietary components that have been demonstrated to improve cognitive function.
Taking nootropic supplements is one of the easiest and efficient ways to get brain-boosting components in your body, and most of them are available without subscription. Even so, it is important to talk to your physician about if and how different nootropic supplements will work based on your specific health condition.
Once you are in the clear by your physician to take nootropics, and when you take the time to read up on how different nootropic supplements might benefit you, you can easily take nootropic pills, gel caps or liquids at some point during the day without too much planning.
Now that you have read the definitive introduction to nootropic supplements, you are on the right track to making the most of the most current research on nootropic supplements to boost your brain function and reach your highest natural cognitive potential.
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.