The desire to improve focus, mood, and memory have intrigued humans for ages. Expanding the mind's core capacities (i.e., cognitive enhancement) has been long practiced with substances, rituals, and mental training. Nootropics (also called smart drugs) are natural or synthetic substances used by healthy individuals to shift consciousness into a wanted direction, for example, to be more alert, improve mood, or have better focus and motivation at work. We listed below six nutrients that can support cognitive performance in various ways.
CAFFEINE + L-THEANINE
Caffeine is the most widely used psychoactive substance in the world and also one of the most popular nootropics. Caffeine can be isolated from sixty different plants, but the most common sources of caffeine include coffee beans, cacao, black and green tea, yerba mate, guarana, guayusa, and kola nuts.
Caffeine increases alertness because it blocks adenosine receptors in the brain. Adenosine is a brain hormone that builds up in the brain during the day and increases sleepiness. Therefore, high amounts of adenosine in the evening signals the brain that is time to relax and go to sleep. When caffeine blocks adenosine receptors, it consequently prevents the feeling of sleepiness but also promotes neurotransmission of dopamine and acetylcholine, which further increases wakefulness, motivation, alertness, and cognitive function.
The effects of caffeine peak on average within 30–45 minutes (range 15–120 minutes) of ingestion and thus also the highest task motivation and alertness would be expected within this period. Caffeine is often combined with L-theanine, which is a calming and relaxing compound found in tea leaves (green tea in particular). A systematic review of human studies on L-theanine noticed that while L-theanine alone has little to no effect on alertness and cognitive task performance, it can counterbalance the stimulating effects of caffeine leading to improved cognition.
Creatine is known to be absolutely vital for neurological functions – creatine deficiency due to genetic reasons has been found to lead to mental retardation caused by either disrupted synthesis or lack of transport into the brain (Creatine Deficiency Syndrome). Based on a 2018 systematic review of randomized and controlled trials creatine monohydrate may improve short-term memory and intelligence of stressed individuals and/or healthy individuals with the biggest potential in the aging population. Athletes often use creatine as a supplement to increase power, strength, speed, and muscle mass. For cognitive purposes, the dosing for creatine supplementation is still somewhat debatable but considered similar to athletic use.
Turmeric contains curcumin (a type of curcuminoid) which has powerful antioxidative and anti-inflammatory properties. It has also been shown to modulate the immune system. Results of published clinical studies, while somewhat mixed, continue to show promise for curcumin’s use as a therapeutic agent for treating and preventing memory diseases and cognitive decline.
Curcumin’s bioavailability can be increased by piperine which is found in black pepper. Research suggests that piperine can increase curcumin absorption even by 2000 % by inhibiting the liver’s glucuronidation pathway. The best absorbing and bio-active form of curcumin is a curcumin phytosome supplement.
Tyrosine is one of the most important amino acids in the body and is found in many protein-rich foods such as meat and eggs. In the body, it is synthesized from phenylalanine by phenylalanine hydroxylase. Tyrosine crosses the blood-brain barrier, making it an important raw material for catecholamines. Increasing tyrosine intake in the diet raises brain tyrosine concentrations and stimulates catecholamine synthesis.
L-tyrosine has been observed to relieve stress and improve alertness because tyrosine is the precursor from which the body produces important signaling hormones for the brain, dopamine and norepinephrine, and thyroid hormones (triiodothyronine and thyroxine). The best sources of tyrosine in the diet are parmesan cheese, spirulina, sheep, beef, game, pork, salmon, seafood, chicken and turkey, pumpkin seeds, and many legumes.
Tyrosine supplementation increases working memory, particularly in a “multitasking” environment. During extended wakefulness and after night shifts, in particular, using tyrosine as a supplement seems to help to cope cognitively with stress and sleep loss. Tyrosine might also help adapt to stress even without sleep deprivation. However, individual genetic predisposition (DRD2 genotypes) modulates the effect of tyrosine as a cognitive enhancer. This means that for some, tyrosine may work really well and that for others, it may not do much.
ALPHA-LIPOIC ACID (ALA)
Alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) is an organic substance belonging to the carboxylic acids. It is present in both plant and animal kingdoms. ALA acts as a vitamin-like substance and as a coenzyme with antioxidant effects. The basic form of lipoic acid, lipoate, is the most common form of lipoic acid in the body. An important role of alpha-lipoic acid in biochemistry is to act as a coenzyme under acidic conditions to two important enzymes in the energy-producing citric acid cycle (pyruvate dehydrogenase and ketoglutarate dehydrogenase) in the mitochondria.
The versatile properties of lipoic acid in the body are related to its chemical structure, which makes it both water- and fat-soluble. Lipoic acid is absorbed fast and transported to various organs such as the brain, liver, muscles, and nervous system. ALA enhances vitamin C and E production in the cells and increases the levels of glutathione, the major antioxidant in the liver. Alpha-lipoic acid also acts as a chelating agent helping to remove excess heavy metals from the body. In skeletal muscles, alpha-lipoic acid inhibits the action of NF-kappa-beta and activates AMPK, which has numerous beneficial effects at the cellular level such as increasing lifespan of the cells and converting sugar and fat into energy.
The most bioactive form of alpha-lipoic acid is R-lipoic acid.
BACOPA MONNIERI (WATER HYSSOP)
Bacopa Monnieri (BM) or Brahmi is a plant that has been used for a long time in Ayurvedic medicine. Brahmi grows in wet, tropical environments and it can thrive underwater (therefore it is also known as Water hyssop).
The nootropic benefits in Bacopa Monnieri are primarily linked to plant compounds called bacosides. A review from animal and human studies with BM concluded that the plant can reduce toxic beta-amyloid, increase cerebral blood flow, and affect the cholinergic neurotransmitter system. However, human clinical trials are normally short-term (up to 12 weeks) and as with many other nootropic-like compounds, the long-term effect of BM is unknown in humans. Yet, animal models provide promising results on restoring nerve cell damage and increasing brain growth factors. A review of six studies on placebo-controlled human trials concluded that BM could potentially enhance memory even in a healthy population by reducing the rate of forgetting. In a comparison of Bacopa monnieri, Panax ginseng, and modafinil, BM had the largest effect on memory recall.
What’s your favorite nootropic? Tell us in the comments!
P.S. one special nootropic blend that is the absolute favorite of Dr. Olli Sovijärvi & Teemu Arina, is the Qualia Mind. It also contains all of the above-mentioned nootropics and loads of essential nutrients and other nootropics.
Thank you for this article. The information was very accessible and useful. I noticed that you recommend Qualia. Are there any other supplements you recommend for cognitive support/enhancement? What do you think of methylene blue?