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The human brain is a biological wonder. It’s what makes us distinctly human and allows us to… well, to pretty much do every single thing that we do. But as much of a marvel as our brains are, sometimes they need a boost. Enter nootropics (noh-uh-trop-icks). Also known as “brain boosters,” “smart drugs,” and “cognitive enhancers,” nootropics are substances that support healthy brain function. Do you enjoy a daily cup of coffee, or green or black tea? Then you’re already experiencing the benefits of a nootropic substance (caffeine!).
Nootropics run the gamut, from supporting attention and focus, and memory and learning, to improving cognitive efficiency and brain plasticity. One of the exciting things about nootropics is that each one is unique and has its own mechanisms of action. They can work by providing essential nutrients to the brain; supporting the normal production of neurotransmitters; improving energy production in the brain; neutralizing free radicals and reducing inflammation; stimulating the formation of neurons and new synapses; improving communication between neurons; increasing resiliency to stress; and supporting neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to change.
While not an exhaustive list, the following nootropics are well researched and are proven to have cognitive benefits.
PS is classified as a phospholipid, a class of fats that are critical components of all cell membranes, maintaining strength, structure, and fluidity, and influencing the overall health of the cell. You are only as healthy as your cell membranes, so it is critical that they are in good health. PS is concentrated in the brain where it maintains the structural integrity and plasticity of neurons and enhances communication between neurons.i ii iii Supplementation with PS has been shown to cross the blood-brain barrier and support cognitive function, including short- and long-term memory, learning and recall, focus and concentration, problem solving, and language skills.iv Research has also found that PS supplementation can reduce stress and improve mood.v vi Children struggling with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can benefit from PS as well, especially as prescriptions for stimulant drugs like Ritalin and Adderall continues to rise. One double-blind placebo-controlled study found that 200 mg of PS daily significantly reduced ADHD symptoms after only two months in children aged 4-14. There were specific improvements in classroom behavior, social skills, and auditory memory, or the ability to process and recall orally presented information.vii
Start with 200-300 mg a day for a month or two to fully saturate cell membranes, then reduce dose to 100-200 mg daily for maintenance.viii It also appears that PS works most effectively when there are optimal levels of the omega-3 fat docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in the brain.ix This can be obtained from a quality fish oil supplement.
This carotenoid is mostly known for its role in eye health, but new research is proving that it’s instrumental in keeping the brain sharp, from birth into our golden years. Recent research investigating lutein’s role in the brain in adults over the age of 50 found that high levels of lutein were associated with better scores in several measures of cognitive function, including memory and executive function, which includes reasoning and judgement, planning, focus, and regulating emotions.xxi Research has also shown that higher levels of lutein in children are significantly related to intelligence as well as executive processes, which include concentration and focus, self-control, memory, and cognitive flexibility.xxii One study found that higher levels of lutein are associated with better academic performance in children, particularly in math and written language.xxiii Lutein provides both antioxidant and anti-infl ammatory protection to brain cells. It also enhances blood fl ow and improves communication between neurons; essentially, lutein helps the brain work smarter, not harder.xxiv xxv xxvi It can also increase brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), which plays an important role in neuronal growth and promotes brain plasticity, the brain’s ability to grow and change.xxvii
Studies have used 10-20 mg daily.xxviii xxix xxx
This herb has been used for centuries in the Indian Ayurvedic tradition to improve memory and intellect and was recommended in ancient Ayurvedic texts for a range of mental conditions, including anxiety, poor cognition, and lack of concentration. It continues to prove itself as a valuable nootropic for brains of all ages. One recent review found that bacopa improved behavior, memory, and attention and focus in children and adolescents,xxxi while a separate study of children diagnosed with ADHD saw a significant improvement in self-control, restlessness, learning problems, impulsivity, and psychiatric problems in the majority of children supplementing with bacopa over a period of six months.xxxii Bacopa has also been investigated for its effects in older adults, with positive results. Supplementation with 300 mg bacopa daily resulted in significant improvement in memory recall, information retention, verbal learning, and depression and anxiety scores.xxxiii xxxiv Curious to see if bacopa could improve cognition in young adults with peak cognitive function, researchers recruited 60 medical school students to take 150 mg of a standardized extract of bacopa twice daily for 45 days. At the end of the study, the participants saw a significant improvement in attention and focus, working memory, and recall of newly learned information.xxxv Modern research has investigated bacopa’s mechanisms of action and has found that compounds in the herb can enhance communication between nerves and help regenerate synapses and repair damaged neurons, improve neuronal synthesis, and increase brain serotonin, a neurotransmitter that promotes feelings of wellbeing and happiness.xxxvi xxxvii
A standardized extract, taken in divided doses; 100-200 mg daily for children and 200-400 mg daily for adults.xxxviii
Whether you’re looking to ward off age-related cognitive decline, improve focus and productivity in your work or school life, or just provide your brain with extra support to maintain mental clarity, nootropics can provide a simple solution. In general, the nootropics discussed here will show results with long-term use, so take them consistently for at least a few months to fully optimize brain function. You may also “stack” nootropics, that is, take several together, to enjoy multiple benefits. It’s also important to remember that they work best with a foundation built on a healthy diet, regular exercise, and quality sleep. Are you ready to take your brain to the next level?