Natural nootropic supplements help you reach peak mental potential safely, without the risks of synthetic smart drugs, while making your brain healthier.
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If you’re looking for a supplement or drug to improve your mental performance, you’ve surely come across the term nootropics.
Almost any substance that can have some positive effect on brain function is now being called a nootropic, whether it’s natural, synthetic, or even quasi-legal.
But this is not the way the term “nootropics” was meant to be used.
By its original definition, a nootropic is a substance that improves mental functions such as memory, intelligence, motivation, attention, and concentration, while doing no harm.
Ideally, a nootropic should leave you and your brain in better shape than before you took it.
However, the definition of nootropics has broadened over time to include any substance, pharmaceutical or natural, that temporarily enhances brain function, regardless of its risks or side effects.
How Natural Nootropic Supplements Build a Better Brain
Natural nootropics boost brain functions while making your brain healthier.
Here are some of the many ways a nootropic supplement can improve your brain health and fitness:
- increases circulation to the brain
- provides essential brain nutrients often missing in the average diet
- provides missing nutrients if you are a vegetarian
- provides precursors to important neurotransmitters
- neutralizes free radical damage to brain cells
- increases energy, oxygen, nutrient flow, and/or blood flow to the brain
- reduces brain inflammation
- protects the brain from toxins
- minimizes the effects of brain aging
- stimulates the formation of healthy new brain cells
- increases neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change
- increases resilience to stress
Any substance that does not make your brain healthier does not fit the true definition of a nootropic. (1)
Safe and Effective Natural Nootropics
There’s an abundance of natural substances that act as nootropics by nourishing and protecting the brain — amino acids, vitamins, minerals, herbs, phytonutrients, antioxidants, essential fatty acids, and more.
But everyone’s brain and life circumstances are different, so no one nootropic supplement works equally well for everyone.
From the many available nootropics, I’ve handpicked those that have track records of safety and effectiveness for a broad audience.
In making your choice, look for supplements that best align with the results you’re looking for.
Nootropic Amino Acid Supplements
Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins and several are particularly beneficial for the brain.
Amino acids are found in protein-rich foods in the diet, but it’s not always easy to get enough from diet alone.
Surprisingly, in some cases, supplements work better than the amino acids found in food.
Acetyl-l-carnitine (ALCAR) is a form of the amino acid carnitine.
ALCAR works largely by creating acetylcholine, the primary neurotransmitter required for learning and memory functions.
It can improve mental clarity, alertness, processing speed, focus, mood, and memory. (2)
ALCAR also has fast-acting antidepressant properties, often bringing relief quicker than prescription antidepressant drugs. (3)
There are other forms of l-carnitine, but ALCAR is the one to use since it has the ability to cross the blood-brain barrier to get from your bloodstream into your brain.
Since carnitine is found almost exclusively in red meat, consider this supplement especially if you are a vegetarian or rarely eat meat. (4)
Creatine is an amino acid often used by bodybuilders and athletes to increase lean muscle mass and enhance physical performance.
So it was a bit of a surprise when this supplement turned out to be a nootropic that boosts mental performance as well. (5)
As with carnitine, creatine is found mostly in red meat.
One study on vegetarians and vegans found that creatine supplements significantly increased mental performance with improved scores in memory, intelligence, and processing speed. (6)
Take a look at adding creatine to your supplement regimen if you don’t eat meat or are looking to build both brain power and muscles.
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Taurine is another amino acid used to increase physical performance.
You may recognize it as an ingredient often included in energy drinks.
It also activates GABA receptors in the brain to minimize anxiety, insomnia, and other signs of a GABA deficiency. (11)
If you tend to be anxious and have trouble concentrating or sleeping, taurine can calm and focus your anxious, distractible mind.
Tryptophan unfairly gets its 15 minutes of fame every Thanksgiving as the ingredient in turkey that makes you tired.
(That’s a myth that refuses to die. It’s all those carbs you eat that make you tired, not tryptophan.)
Tryptophan is essential for the formation of two important brain chemicals: serotonin, the “happy molecule,” and melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate the sleep cycle.
Besides helping to improve your memory and ability to focus, tryptophan is helpful for a wide variety of mental health disorders including: (12)
- attention disorders
- bipolar disorder
- eating disorders
- obsessive-compulsive disorder
- panic attacks
- seasonal affective disorder
- sleep disorders
Oddly, tryptophan supplements work even better than eating foods high in tryptophan since the protein in foods blocks the synthesis of tryptophan into serotonin. (13)
Tyrosine is a precursor for dopamine, the neurotransmitter that helps keep you focused and motivated.
Low levels of dopamine can leave you feeling apathetic, fatigued, moody, and unable to concentrate.
Dopamine plays a huge role in depression and addictions of all kinds.
If procrastination, lack of focus, or drive are holding you back, consider taking a tyrosine supplement.
Tyrosine supplementation is also a good idea if you are stressed, overworked, or don’t get enough sleep.
All of these factors can increase your body’s need for tyrosine. (14)
Theanine, also called l-theanine, is one of the most unusual brain enhancers.
It’s found almost exclusively in tea (green, black, white, and oolong) and helps you enter an optimal state of relaxed concentration, with no drowsiness. (15)
This is an ideal supplement for achieving a state of calm focus, especially if you don’t drink tea or practice meditation.
Nootropic Herbal Supplements
Nootropic herbs have a long history of traditional use and a large body of research-based evidence to attest to both their safety and effectiveness.
There are dozens of herbal remedies with nootropic properties.
Here are my favorites.
7. American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)
Ginseng is a quintessential traditional Chinese herb.
Ginseng grown in Asia has been China’s “elixir of life” for thousands of years.
American ginseng excels as a brain enhancer.
Studies show that it quickly works to improve memory, mental clarity, and sharpness within just a few hours of taking it.
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8. Arctic Root (Rhodiola rosea)
Arctic root is highly regarded for its adaptogenic properties.
Like all adaptogens, it improves your ability to handle both physiological and psychological stress.
It increases levels of the major neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. (22)
If you have brain fog, trouble concentrating, and low energy along with stress and anxiety, give this herb a try.
9. Bacopa (Bacopa monnieri)
Bacopa is another adaptogenic herb that’s been used in Ayurvedic medicine as a cognitive enhancer for thousands of years.
It’s an excellent choice for anyone looking to improve memory, focus, and concentration while reducing stress. (23)
It works by balancing the brain chemicals dopamine, serotonin, and GABA as it reduces the stress hormone cortisol.
This herb is especially good for age-related mental decline.
Keep in mind that bacopa is not a quick fix.
It can take two to three months to experience maximum benefits. (24)
So this is not an herb to take if you’re in need of a mental performance boost today.
10. Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba)
You probably need no introduction to ginkgo, one of the most popular herbal remedies in the world. (25)
It’s an all-around excellent cognitive enhancer that’s so powerful that, in some countries, it’s available only as a prescription medication.
Ginkgo largely works by increasing circulation to the brain, balancing brain chemicals, and protecting the brain from free radical damage. (26)
Use it for poor concentration, memory loss, fatigue, mental confusion, depression, or anxiety. (27)
11. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
Since before William Shakespeare wrote “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance,” rosemary has been associated with memory.
This common cooking ingredient has a long history of use for improving memory and concentration.
But the most surprisingly simple way you can use rosemary is by inhaling rosemary essential oil.
Just a whiff of the scent of rosemary can improve cognitive speed and accuracy as well as mood. (28)
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Naturally Sourced Nootropic Supplements
Supplements that belong to this next group are based on naturally occurring substances that get some help from human ingenuity.
Their active ingredients are extracted from and/or synthesized from natural compounds.
Your body makes some citicoline from the choline found in foods like eggs, beef, and seafood, but you can’t eat enough for any meaningful cognitive enhancement. (29)
This underutilized supplement works by increasing blood flow to the brain, neuroplasticity, and the capacity to grow new brain cells. (36)
Curcumin is an extract of turmeric, an important spice in Ayurvedic medicine, India’s 5,000-year-old natural healing system.
Generous use of turmeric in Indian cuisine may be responsible for India’s particularly low rate of Alzheimer’s disease. (37)
Curcumin is an excellent antioxidant and all-around brain tonic that can improve memory and concentration by increasing blood flow to the brain. (38)
It boosts levels of serotonin, dopamine, and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that stimulates brain cell production. (39)
Be aware that curcumin supplements are not very bioavailable unless measures have been taken to improve absorption such as the addition of piperine, phosphatidylserine, or the use of nanoparticles.
14. Huperzine A
Huperzine A is the main active compound extracted from Chinese club moss (Huperzia serrata).
It works as a brain booster mainly by increasing acetylcholine levels and stimulating new brain cell formation. (42)
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15. Lion’s Mane Mushroom
Lion’s mane mushroom (Hericium erinaceus) is a unusual-looking mushroom that offers unique health benefits.
This mainstay of Chinese medicine is said to bestow “nerves of steel and the memory of a lion.”
According to legend, the Yamabushi sect of hermit Buddhist monks possessed supernatural powers. (43)
They used lion’s mane to stay focused during meditation.
So far, approximately 70 bioactive compounds have been discovered in lion’s mane. (44)
Two unique groups of compounds not found anywhere else, the hericenones and the erinacines, heal and protect nerve cells, and stimulate the growth of new ones. (45)
Another compound found in lion’s mane, amycenone, is helpful for treating sleep disorders, cognitive and anxiety disorders, depression, and schizophrenia. (46)
Lion’s mane is usually taken as a supplement but is also a prized culinary mushroom.
Phosphatidylserine (PS) is found in particularly high concentration in brain cell membranes.
This phospholipid acts as your brain’s gatekeeper.
It regulates the flow of nutrients in and waste products out of brain cells, protecting them from toxins.
It’s usually extracted from soy lecithin, but PS extracted from sunflower lecithin is considered the higher-quality form.
PS used to be made from cow brains, but, here in the US, that is no longer allowed due to concerns about mad cow disease.
But if you live elsewhere, beware of any phosphatidylserine supplement that lists its source as bovine (i.e., cow brains) if that is of concern to you.
Vinpocetine is a relatively new brain booster based on vincamine, a chemical found in the periwinkle plant (Vinca minor). (50)
Vinpocetine is very popular in Europe and Japan, where it’s considered to be superior to ginkgo as a brain booster.
It’s usually taken to overcome brain fog, improve memory, increase mental clarity, and protect the brain against aging.
Essential Nootropic Nutrients: A Foundation for Brain Health
Lastly, I’d be doing you and your brain a disservice by skipping these essential nutrients that are critical to brain health.
I understand that taking a multivitamin or fish oil supplement is not as cool or sexy as the latest nootropic product.
But taking any brain supplement when your basic nutritional requirements aren’t being met is like trying to build a house on a weak foundation.
Of all the essential nutrients, the following are those most often missing from the modern diet.
Thus, they can have the biggest impact on your mental abilities.
18. Vitamin B12
All the B vitamins are essential for an optimally functioning brain.
But of all the B vitamins, vitamin B12 has the most impact on your brain and vitamin B12 deficiency is fairly common.
Addressing your B12 needs can make a world of difference to the health of your nervous system, brain function, and energy. (54)
B12 is often added to nootropic formulas, brain supplements, brain tonics, and energy drinks — sometimes in ridiculously large amounts. (55)
But keep in mind that when it comes to vitamins, more does not necessarily mean better.
If you have an adequate B12 level, taking more won’t help.
To determine your level, have a vitamin B12 blood test done.
19. Vitamin D
Vitamin D has profound effects on the brain throughout all stages of life.
It can improve memory, mood, and problem-solving ability.
Yet 75% of Americans aren’t getting enough of it. (56)
Ironically, the people who could most benefit from it — the harried and overworked — are those least likely to spend enough time in the sun to manufacture the vitamin D they need.
If you rarely spend time outdoors or wear sunscreen when you do, you could almost certainly benefit from a vitamin D supplement.
You can order a 25-hydroxy vitamin D blood test to confirm your vitamin D level.
Magnesium is called a master mineral because it affects over 600 biological functions.
Not getting enough will leave you feeling tired but stressed.
Eighty percent of Americans are believed to be low in this important mineral. (57)
If you have brain fog and fatigue, can’t focus, can’t sleep, or get leg cramps at night, give magnesium a try.
A new form of magnesium that shows promise for enhancing memory and other brain functions is magnesium l-threonate.
It is the only form of magnesium that freely crosses the blood-brain barrier. (58)
21. Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids
Omega-3 essential fatty acids may be the single most important supplement you can take for your brain.
Omega-3s are found mainly in cold-water, fatty fish and are the reason fish is often called a brain food.
One omega-3 in particular, DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), is a primary structural component of the brain, specifically in regions involved with memory, language, creativity, judgment, emotion, and attention. (59, 60)
An alarming 80% of us are believed to be deficient in this critical brain nutrient. (61)
If I had to pick one supplement for my brain, it would be a quality omega-3 supplement in the form of fish oil or krill oil.
22. Multivitamin-Mineral Supplement
If you feel you are in good health, mentally and physically, you may not need to take a lot of separate vitamins.
Taking a high-quality multivitamin-mineral supplement may meet most of your brain’s essential nutrient needs.
The Harvard School of Public Health advises all adults to take a multivitamin supplement as insurance to fill any nutritional gaps and I believe this to be a prudent course of action. (62)
Studies have shown that taking a multivitamin alone can improve memory and overall brain function, protect the brain from degenerative disease, and reduce the symptoms of adult attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. (63, 64, 65, 66, 67)
Natural Nootropic Supplements: Take the Next Step
Nootropics, by definition, are substances that improve cognitive functions and brain health with no harmful side effects.
There’s a plethora of natural nootropics that safely and effectively enhance brain functions.
With this many options to try, there’s really no need to take pharmaceuticals with their greater risks and side effects.
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