If you’ve ever found it challenging to focus in our fast-paced world, you certainly aren’t alone. Life’s distractions—especially those linked with digital devices—can take a toll on our ability to concentrate and may even pose harm to our mental health. Finding ways to support our brain health is essential!
Of course, the foundation of brain health is a wholesome diet, minimal use of intoxicants, limited exposure to environmental toxins, regular exercise, and social connection. And while there are medications that can help address cognition and inattention, many come with side effects and addiction risks. So, are there any natural products that can support brain health and function? Well, research suggests that nootropics may help with short-term memory, focus, and cognition.
What Are Nootropics?
From the Greek word “noo” meaning “mind/intellect” and the French word “trope” meaning “changing in the way specified,” nootropics are substances that can enhance cognition. The term “nootropic” was coined in 1972 by the Romanian scientist, Corneliu Giurgea. Today, their popularity has grown and people all around the world are using nootropics. Taking them may support your brain naturally as they can improve brain function by deepening focus, enhancing concentration, and more.
What Are the Most Effective Natural Nootropics?
You may be wondering, “what are the best nootropics to take?” There are many natural compounds, botanicals, and mushrooms purported to support brain health—read on for some of my favorites.
If you enjoy a morning cup of coffee or tea, you’ve been starting your day with a nootropic, perhaps without even realizing it! The caffeine found in coffee and tea has been shown to help people focus, which is why you may feel you can’t function without it.
In one experiment looking at the effects of coffee consumed at different times of the day and night, caffeinated coffee had a beneficial impact on alertness and improved performance on a variety of tasks no matter when consumed, and “the effects were often very large.”
If you are sensitive to the effects of caffeine, limit yourself to 1–2 cups of coffee in the morning and green tea for a milder dose of alertness in the afternoon.
L-theanine is a compound found in black and green tea that can bring about a state of calm alertness. Unlike stimulants that may cause jitters and other negative side effects, L-theanine helps relax you as it improves your ability to focus. A systematic review found L-theanine simultaneously reduces anxiety while increasing attention. This is why people who drink green tea often report that it gives them a sense of calm alertness.
Research suggests L-theanine and caffeine in combination are beneficial for improving performance on cognitively demanding tasks. So to really boost your brainpower, consider taking a supplement of L-theanine (100 mg) with your morning coffee (if you don’t like drinking tea!).
You’ve probably heard me tout the benefits of this herbal ally. Also known as Brahmi, Bacopa monnieri has long been used in the traditional Indian system of medicine, Ayurveda, to enhance memory and learning. Modern research also supports this use.
An extensive neuropharmacological review found that the aerial parts of bacopa “demonstrate immense potential in the amelioration of cognitive disorders, as well as…cognitive enhancement in healthy people.”
In another study, volunteers who took 300 mg of bacopa every day for 12 weeks showed improvement in visual information processing, learning rate, and memory consolidation compared to those who took a placebo. Based on these findings, researchers concluded that bacopa “may improve higher-order cognitive processes that are critically dependent on the input of information from our environments such as learning and memory.”
While we may think of nootropics for adults and elders, bacopa has been studied in children with ADHD. A review of five studies found that bacopa was beneficial for improving attention and memory while reducing hyperactivity in children and adolescents. While the authors call for more studies, they concluded that the review “highlights the safe use of Bacopa monnieri in child and adolescent populations for improving elements of cognition as well as behaviour and attention-deficit domains.”
Bacopa appears to have a good safety profile when used appropriately. The dose used in most studies was 300–600 mg per day of bacopa extract.
With a history of use dating back at least one thousand years, Ginkgo biloba has long been believed to enhance cognitive function. While results are mixed, research indicates ginkgo can help your memory.
One study looking at the effects of ginkgo on elder participants over eight months showed improvements in cognitive function. In another study, middle-aged volunteers were given either ginkgo extract or a placebo every day for six weeks. At the end of the study period, those who took ginkgo were better able to perform a recall task of remembering a list of appointments.
Typical daily doses of 80–240 mg of standardized ginkgo appear safe when used by healthy adults. However, caution should be used if taking anticoagulant medications.
Lion’s Mane Mushroom
This shaggy ‘shroom contains compounds that are found to stimulate brain cell growth. Multiple animal studies suggest supplementing with lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus) can improve memory and combat cognitive decline.
Although more research is needed, human studies also indicate that lion’s mane has brain-boosting potential. One such study found that regular supplementation with lion’s mane improved cognitive function in older adults, although the effects disappeared when supplementation stopped.
The safety of lion’s mane mushroom is very good. It is consumed as a culinary delight as many people love its savory taste.
This mineral performs a role in every cell in your body. Not having enough magnesium on board can be harmful to brain health! Yet, nearly 50% of Americans fall short of the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of magnesium for their gender and age group. In fact, magnesium deficiency is linked to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in kids and decreased cognitive abilities in adults.
Not getting sufficient magnesium in the diet is concerning enough, but there are also some medications that can wipe out magnesium; including diuretics commonly used for high blood pressure and proton-pump inhibitors which carry a black box warning from the FDA for causing low magnesium.
There are different forms of magnesium available—I generally recommend magnesium citrate, malate, glycinate, or a combination of them. Supplementing with 300 mg of magnesium per day is safe. However, higher doses can cause diarrhea and should not be taken by those with significant kidney disease.
Phosphatidylserine (PS) is present in every one of your body’s cells and is a vital building block for your brain. Research indicates supplementing with PS may help reduce the cognitive decline that often accompanies aging.
In a study examining the effects of PS on elderly subjects with cognitive impairment, “statistically significant improvements in the phosphatidylserine-treated group compared to placebo were observed both in terms of behavioral and cognitive parameters” after three and six months.
Usually taken at doses of 200–400 mg per day, studies show that PS is well absorbed, crosses the blood-brain barrier, and can help support cognition, short-term memory, and enhance focus and concentration. Originally PS was derived from cattle brains, though due to fears of mad cow disease, it is now primarily synthesized from plants. I recommend checking the source when purchasing.
A compound found predominantly in red wine and dark chocolate, and sometimes called “the longevity molecule,” resveratrol has been shown to lengthen the lifespan of multiple animal species. Additionally, research suggests resveratrol may enhance the plasticity of the hippocampus—part of the brain associated with memory.
In one promising study, older individuals who took 200 mg per day of resveratrol for 26 weeks experienced an improvement in memory performance compared to a placebo group.
Resveratrol has an excellent safety profile at doses up to 1000 mg per day. However, studies have shown that it interacts with a drug-metabolizing enzyme (CYP2C9), meaning it can interact with drugs like tamoxifen, warfarin, and others. For a list of medications, click here.
Are Nootropics Safe?
As with any form of supplementation, I recommend talking to your healthcare provider before trying nootropics—especially if taking prescription or over-the-counter medications (including other supplements) as interactions may occur. Also, if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, always talk to your midwife or physician before taking any supplement or OTC medication. For more on supporting mental health naturally, click here.