Nootropics hold the promise of helping to enhance your brain’s natural abilities to boost cognitive potential. As a result, you see noticeable improvements in memory, concentration, focus, creativity, and mental energy.
Essentially, nootropics are brain boosters, known popularly as “smart drugs.” This may bring on flashbacks from watching the movie “Limitless” with Bradley Cooper.
To give you a quick refresher, Cooper’s character, Eddie Mora, gets hooked on NZT-48, a fictitious nootropic pharmaceutical. The effects are immediate and overwhelming – he can recollect everything he has ever learned and experienced, has improved interpersonal skills, and, most importantly, has a seemingly supernatural ability to concentrate on making significant progress on his book.
This movie is science fiction of course, but the existence of nootropics – drugs and natural substances that help to enhance cognitive abilities – is very real, indeed. When people learn that nootropics and “smart drugs” really do exist, they wonder what opportunities lay in popping a pill to improve their brain health and boost cognitive abilities.
In this article, you will learn about the nootropics that are available to help boost focus and concentration. We will describe how they work and what options exist for you to integrate into your supplement regimen with your health provider’s support.
Who Uses Nootropics?
Nootropics have two main categories of uses: for therapeutic purposes and for supplemental purposes.
Nootropics for Therapy
Therapeutic purposes include those that are for the prevention or treatment of conditions, particularly related to cognitive ability. They may block or facilitate receptors in the brain, promote the circulation of oxygen and nutrients to parts of the brain, or they may protect neural cells from the damaging effects of free radicals and toxins.
Nootropics may form part of a prescribed regime for people with the following cognitive disorders:
They may be used in conjunction with other non-nootropic treatments to help ameliorate some of the symptoms of these disorders. People with diagnosed cognitive disorders may also be encouraged by registered dieticians to consume foods and drinks with nootropic components, like coconut oil, almond oil, coffee, teas, and others.
Nootropics for Enhanced Brain Performance
The therapeutic purposes of nootropics have been known and implemented for over 50 years in the western world, and hundreds, even thousands of years in traditional medicinal systems.
Only recently, however, have nootropics gained popularity for other purposes. Nootropics, especially herbal and naturally-derived nootropics, have few to no side effects when they are used in recommended amounts for a reasonable period.
For this reason, supplement and pharmaceutical companies started to examine the use of nootropics for people who require higher-than-normal mental performance in their day-to-day activities.
Those who are taking “nootropic stacks” tend to be:
- Entrepreneurs (currently very popular among Silicon Valley entrepreneurs)
- Business leaders
- Anyone seeking “enhanced life performance.”
Most people who take nootropics individually or nootropic “stacks” seek out over-the-counter nootropics. This is as opposed to prescribed nootropics, which are usually reserved for therapeutic purposes.
Over-the-counter nootropics are not marketed with claims to prevent or treat diseases or linked to any specific health benefits. Note that there is still plenty of research to be done regarding the measurable benefits of nootropic supplements for professionals.
Two of the most common uses of nootropics for enhanced brain performance are to improve the brain’s ability to focus and concentrate, even in the most demanding contexts. In the following sections, we will describe the evidence that demonstrates how nootropics can be used to improve your focus and concentration.
How Nootropics Improve Focus and Concentration
From a biomedical perspective, herbs and pharmaceuticals work because they interact with our body on a physical, chemical and biological level to produce a certain effect.
The description of these processes is called the drug, herb, or supplement’s pharmacology. It can also be described as its mode or mechanism of action.
The “target” is the place in which the mechanism of action takes place to produce a certain effect. Below we describe both the target and the mechanism of action of nootropics for focus and concentration.
The “Target”: The Frontal Lobe
To have an impact on our focus and concentration, the mechanism of action needs to take place on The part of the brain responsible for attention, focus and concentration is the frontal lobe.
The frontal lobe is the part of the brain that integrates all components of human behavior on a higher level, including sustained attention. The effects of nootropics on focus and concentration generally impact cells on and in the frontal lobe of the brain.
The Mechanism of Action
When we are talking about the brain, our intelligence, and our thought process, we need to talk about the role of neurotransmitters.
Neurotransmitters are brain cells that are responsible for the actions and reactions within the brain, including those that are conscious and subconscious. The six key neurotransmitters that play a role in how we think and do things are excitatory neurotransmitters adrenaline and norepinephrine, serotonin, dopamine, acetylcholine, GABA, epinephrine, and norepinephrine.
While we won’t go into detail about each neurotransmitter in this article, it is important to know that nootropics can enhance or inhibit the uptake of certain neurotransmitters into brain cells.
In addition to modulating neurotransmitters in the brain, other ways in which nootropics boost brain function include:
- Increasing circulation of blood rich with oxygen and nutrients to the brain: when our brain cells have enough oxygen, energy, and key components to carry out their tasks, they function more effectively.
- Improving neuron function
- Preventing oxidative damage of brain cells by free radicals and toxins
- Providing usable energy directly to the brain
- Delivering key chemical messengers to the brain
- Facilitating information transfer between right and left sides of the brain
To affect focus and concentration, these mechanisms of action usually take place directly in the frontal lobe of the brain. When these activities take place in other parts of the brain, they may help promote brain health, but they will likely impact other components of thought and action like memory, hearing, and alertness.
It is important to note that one of the key differences between nootropics and other drugs that affect the brain is that nootropics do not have the pharmacological effects of neuro-psychotropic drugs (like analgesics, anesthetics, antipsychotics, and antidepressants). This generally makes them safer, but some still require monitoring by a health professional.
Nootropic Drugs That May Improve Focus and Concentration
Drugs are chemicals and substances that are prescribed for therapeutic uses. Drugs are defined by the FDA as “articles intended for use in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease.”
Any substance that is claimed to be beneficial against diseases is categorized as a drug and is regulated differently than if it were a dietary supplement.
Some drugs need to be prescribed, while others can be purchased over the counter. For the consumer, it is difficult to distinguish between over the counter drugs and supplements.
In general, nootropic drugs are those that have enough research to back up claims about their benefits and therapeutic effects or that claim specific therapeutic effects on the packaging and advertising. These are closely regulated by the FDA, whereas supplements are not.
Supplements are usually vitamins, minerals, and plants or plant extracts that deliver specific nutrients or phytochemicals. They cannot claim a therapeutic effect on the packaging.
Some of the most well-researched nootropic drugs that improve focus and concentration include the following:
Racetams modulate acetylcholinergic systems and other receptors in the brain. There are several types of racetams, and those that have shown evidence to improve focus and concentration include the following:
- Pramiracetam: One study showed an increase in cognition in males who suffered from brain injuries at a dose of 400mg three times a day.
- Piracetam: Several studies show that piracetam may help to reduce cognitive decline.
- Aniracetam: May help to aid in collective and holistic thinking.
Stimulants generally improve productivity as long as they are in the blood. Note that several stimulants are not nootropics, but rather neuro-psychotropic drugs.
Some of the nootropic stimulants known to improve focus and concentration include:
- Modafinil and adrafinil: Helps to enhance awakeness, originally developed as a treatment for narcolepsy, a sleep disorder. Research shows that it reduces fatigue even with sleep deprivation or hypersomnia. It also helps to improve cognitive performance and reduces reaction time. Adrafinil is a precursor to modafinil.
- Caffeine: classified as a nootropic because it provides mental stimulation. It can help to improve reaction time, increase wakefulness and reduce fatigue.
Dopaminergics affect the dopamine neurotransmitter or components of the nervous system that uses dopamine. In some cases, nootropics are metabolized to produce increased dopaminergics of some kinds.
The dopaminergics found to be effective for concentration, focus and cognition include:
- L-Tyrosine: Demonstrates a minor improvement in cognition and cognitive performance.
- CDP-Choline: Use results in improved attention.
- L-Theanine: Research demonstrates that it increases attention and reduces anxiety that could interfere with concentration.
- 5-HTTP: Initial evidence suggests that it could help to reduce distress, which may interfere with concentration.
- Resveratrol: While there is only initial evidence on its impact on cognition and fatigue, it does have a minor positive impact on cerebral blood flow.
Other popular nootropic drugs include DHEA, which is often referred to as a secondary enhancer, meaning that it may only be beneficial to people who happen to lack certain neurotransmitters.
Other types of nootropic drugs include blood flow and metabolic function enhancers are sometimes referred to as vasodilators, they help to promote efficient energy use, improve blood flow, remove waste, and take in new materials.
Some of the additional nootropic drugs that may have a positive impact on focus and concentration include:
- DHEA (Dehydroepiandrosterone): Used primarily as a testosterone booster, researchers are beginning to explore its nootropic effects, especially for memory enhancement.
- Coenzyme Q-10: Can promote blood flow generally around the body
- Creatine: May improve cognition and brain performance in vegetarians.
- Pyritinol: Initial studies show it may reduce cognitive decline by recovering and repairing damages cholinergic neurons.
Vitamin, Mineral and Other Nootropics That May Improve Focus and Concentration
Vitamins, minerals and other nutrients are naturally found in foods, but you can also find them in supplement form as well. In supplements, they are usually found in higher doses than in foods. Depending on the nutrient, you may need higher doses to get the nootropic effect.
Many more vitamins and minerals than those listed here are essential for brain health, but we will summarize a few that are known to be essential for healthy brain function. While these components may not enhance your concentration and focus, deficiency in any of them will affect your ability to focus and concentrate. If you are deficient in any of these components, it will be difficult for other nootropics to enhance their brain function.
Magnesium is an important cofactor in hundreds of biochemical reactions in the body, including the synthesis of glutathione, a very powerful antioxidant.
If you are deficient in magnesium, your body’s cells, including those in the brain, is vulnerable to damage. In fact, research shows that elevation of brain magnesium can actually enhance learning and memory.
If you are looking to supplement for magnesium, look for a form of magnesium called magnesium glycinate or magnesium citrate, which have higher absorption rates.
Vitamin B12 is a nootropic vitamin essential for nerve health, and for the production of red blood cells. B12 deficiency is associated with brain deterioration in older adults and with poor cognition and social development in children.
Vitamin B12 deficiency can also cause confusion, difficulty thinking and memory loss. For this reason, we want to make sure we are getting enough vitamin B12 before we start thinking of other elements that may enhance our concentration and focus.
Vitamin D is an essential vitamin (meaning our body cannot produce it on its own, though it can synthesize it from the sun).
Vitamin D has many functions, but for its function as a nootropic, evidence shows that supplementation with vitamin D (4000 IU), improved executive function and working memory.
Omega-3s are not vitamins or minerals, but rather a type of fat defined by its structure. There are several types of omega-3, but the most beneficial for our brain are DHA, EPA, and ALA. They are naturally found in some seeds and in seafood.
Omega 3s have important roles in brain development in infants and young children, but they are also beneficial for normal brain function.
Research demonstrates that omega-3 supplementation is associated with improved attention and physiological functions that involve complex cortical processing.
Natural Nootropics That May Improve Focus and Concentration
Rhodiola is a traditional adaptogen that is used to reduce physical fatigue and improve cognitive functioning. Evidence shows that Rhodiola Rosea is particularly effective for people who experience physical exhaustion and reductions in cognition as a result.
In other words, if you are tired from exercise or lack of sleep, Rhodiola Rosea will help you power through that deadline you have lingering.
Rhodiola rosea may also help to protect the brain against toxins.
Ashwagandha is an adaptogen that can help to reduce anxiety. If your lack of focus or concentration is due to anxiety, ashwagandha may be beneficial.
Initial evidence also shows that ashwagandha may also be effective for improving motivation.
This traditional Ayurvedic adoaptogenic herb has been long used to improve cognition, reduce anxiety and improve memory. Most studies are based in older populations, where it is demonstrated to result in improvements in cognition, but a few have demonstrated similar effects in youth, demonstrating its potential as a nootropic.
Panax ginseng is commonly used for libido enhancement, but evidence has also demonstrated that it has positive cognitive effects as well, especially at higher doses. One study examined the effects of Panax Ginseng on cognitive performance during sustained mental activity, and it results show that it can improve performance and feelings of mental fatigue.
Clitoria Ternatea (Shank pushi)
Clitoria Ternatea, one of four herbs known in the Ayurvedic preparation as Shanka Pushpi, is used to promote neurological health. Initial clinical and laboratory evidence shows that it may help to improve memory, and has a similar effect as Pyritinol to increase acetylcholine activity in the brain.
Lion’s Mane (Yamabushitake)
Lion’s Mane is a bioactive mushroom whose primary function is to increase cognitive function and brain health. Its main mechanism of action has to do with neuroprotection (protecting the brain from toxins, free radicals, and nerve injury).
Studies have focused on its effect against cognitive decline, suggesting it might be most effective for concentration and focus issues related to aging.
However, its interactions with our neurology suggest it may be beneficial for brain health in people of all ages.
Clubmoss has a bioactive component called huperzine-A (it can be as an extract of only huperzine A as well.). It is shown to be effective for protecting the brain, and for the generation of new stem cells in lab settings.
It can boost learning ability by increasing acetylcholine, the “learning neurotransmitter.” More studies need to be carried out to demonstrate their outcomes in different populations.
Ginkgo biloba is one of the most popular adaptogens worldwide. It supports brain health in many ways, including boosting blood flow, which helps to get oxygen and nutrients to the cells that need them and improving cognition, including performance.
Too much information? Check out this video that highlights 3 nootropics that are effective for memory and focus.
In a high-demand workspace, nootropics have gained significant attention for potential applications outside of the medical and therapeutic realms.
The application of nootropics to heighten our cognitive performance, including memory, concentration, focus, and creativity, have made way for a new name for these substances: smart drugs.
Even though many of them aren’t technically drugs, but rather supplements and herbs, the idea behind the name is clear: taking these supplements will help boost your intelligence.
Entrepreneurs, CEOs, students, and academics are often required to spend long hours focused on a task with no chance at a break. Nootropic drugs, herbs, and nutritional supplements could help to make your days more productive and relieved of stress, thanks to their effects on your ability to focus and concentrate.
Are you intrigued by the idea of smart drugs improving your ability to concentrate for long periods of time? Do your research and talk to your health provider about integrating a nootropic into your daily health regime. Start with the lowest dose, and you may start seeing differences between as little as 2-8 weeks of consistent use.
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.