The human brain is a biological wonder! I’d call it one of the 7 wonders of the body!!. It’s what makes us distinctly human and allows us to pretty much do every single thing we do. Neuroplasticity is the now proven principle that we can change the structure and function of our brains throughout our lives, and our thoughts, emotions and behavior are the primary means of doing that.
But, as much of a wonder the brain is, sometimes it needs a boost. Enter nootropics (noh-uh-trop-icks). Also known as “brain boosters,” “smart drugs,” and “cognitive enhancers,” nootropics are a category of nutrients that support cognitive performance, overall memory function, creativity, motivation, and attention. One of the most well-known nootropic is the caffeine found in your beloved cup of morning coffee or green tea.
The discovery of neuroplasticity has led to an explosion of natural nootropics, and each nootropic has a slightly different mechanism in which it influences the brain. The nootropic affects the brain performances through number of mechanisms or pathways, for example, the dopaminergic pathways which synthesize and release the neurotransmitter dopamine. These particular pathways are involved in many functions such as executive function, learning, reward, motivation and neuroendocrine control. The influence of nootropics on memory disorders, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases, are being studied since these disorders are observed to impair the same pathways of the nootropics.
While not an exhaustive list, the following nootropics are well researched and are proved to support the brain and overall cognitive health. They’re divided into the following categories: Fatty Acids, Herbal, Amino Acids, B-vitamins and Choline.
Fatty acids are well-studied natural nutrients that support many cognitive abilities. They play an essential role in providing structural support to cell membranes. Fatty acids also contribute to the growth and repair of neurons. Both functions are crucial for maintaining peak mental acuity as you age.
Among the most prestigious fatty acids known to support cognitive health are:
Omega-3 fish oil, especially DHA, Phosphatidylserine (PS) and MCT oil
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 they are in good health. PS is concentrated in the brain where it maintains the structural integrity and plasticity of neurons and maintains communication between neurons. 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. Research has also found PS supplementation can promote a calming effect and support balanced behavior. Children struggling with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can benefit from PS as well, especially as prescriptions for intense stimulant drugs like Ritalin and Adderall continues to rise.
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. It also appears that PS works most effectively when there are optimal levels of the omega-3 fat docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in the brain. This can be obtained from a quality fish oil supplement.
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is a wise one to add to your nootropic stack. It’s an omega-3 fatty acid crucial for the healthy structure and function of your brain at all ages. DHA impacts your brain’s signaling systems, neurotransmitters, memory, learning, focus and attention. DHA helps BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor), which is your brain’s growth hormone. DHA has the ability to turn on your brain’s BDNF. DHA helps neuroplasticity by helping your brain build new neural pathways. It also optimizes neural signaling and cognition.
DHA also supports a normal inflammatory response, which is really important when it comes to the brain.
Recommended daily dosage of DHA is 1,000 mg.
Many of these herbal nootropics first appeared in Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine. The most well-researched herbal smart drugs in today’s top nootropic stacks are:
Ginkgo Biloba, Bacopa Monnieri, Mucuna Pruriens, Rhodiola Rosea, Panax Ginseng, Ashwagandha, Huperzine A, St. John’s Wort, Vinpocetine
Their mechanisms of action vary, but each has a profound impact on memory, mood and mental energy.
This well-known tree is characterized by the fan-shaped leaves and is one of the best nutrients for brain function. In fact, it’s so powerful that, in some countries, it’s available only as a prescription medication.
It acts as an antioxidant which helps remove damaging free radicals from the brain. Ginkgo also contains terpenoids (bilobalide and ginkgolide), which are involved in inhibiting activation of caspase-3 and amyloid-β-aggregation, which is crucial for brain health.
Bacopa is an aquatic perennial native to the wetlands of India, Australia, Europe, Africa, and North and South America. This herb has been used for centuries in Ayurveda as a neurological tonic to maintain and promote cognitive function, including memory, learning and concentration. It continues to prove itself as a valuable nootropic for brains of all ages.
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.
Known as the dopa bean, it contains high levels of naturally occurring L-dopa, which is the precursor to dopamine. Dopamine is an important neurotransmitter essential for sleep, memory, a positive mood, mental functions, and calming the nervous system. It’s used as a nootropic because dopamine itself cannot cross the blood-brain barrier.
This legume, native to the tropical regions of India, Africa and the West Indies, has been used in Ayurveda medicine since 1500 B.C.
Panax Ginseng (aka: Asian Ginseng)
This one is described as the “king herb” and has an important position in traditional Chinese medicine. In studies, the active constituents in panax are found to be the main reason it’s good for memory and cognition. They also support the release of neurotransmitters in the brain, including uptake of dopamine, serotonin, and GABA.
Panax Ginseng also possesses adaptogenic properties, which means it helps the body adapt to stress and support the body’s ability to cope more effectively with stress. Adaptogens work to modify the body’s reaction to stress and alter the release of stress hormones in the body, particularly from the adrenal glands. They do this by affecting the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis).
Derived from the her Rhodiola rosea, it’s often used in Chinese medicine to promote well-being and healthy brain function. It’s thought to support mental processing by supporting healthy, normal levels of the major neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine. Like Panax Ginseng, it’s also highly regarded for its adaptogenic properties.
For proper brain function, our Central Nervous System (CNS) requires several amino acids, which come from protein-rich foods. Many amino acids are required for creation and function of neurotransmitters in our brain. Epinephrine (adrenaline), serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine assist in supporting mental performance. Some examples of amino acid nootropics are:
Mitochondria are the energy producers residing within every cell in the human body. As we age, mitochondria deteriorate in quantity and effectiveness which hastens cell death. This doesn’t fair well when it comes to aging. Acetyl -L-Carnitine is a form of the amino acid carnitine, and a necessary part of mitochondrial health and ensures energy production and cellular function within the body. Restoration of mitochondria is crucial for maintaining physical vitality and peak cognitive function. Acetyl-L-carnitine is also used to support brain function, particularly alertness and memory.
Theanine, also called L-theanine, is one of the most unusual brain enhancers. It’s found almost exclusively in tea (green, matcha, black, white, and oolong) and helps you enter an optimal state of relaxed concentration, with no drowsiness.
Theanine supports healthy, normal levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine and GABA to support mood, recall, and learning. It actually alters your brainwave patterns, putting you in the same brainwave state experienced during meditation.
This is an ideal supplement for achieving a state of calm focus, especially if you don’t drink tea or practice meditation.
B-vitamins will not make you smarter on their own, but they do support a wide array of cognitive functions. Most B-vitamins assist with brain activity in some way, shape or form. Vitamin B12 (methylcobalamin) is the most critical B vitamin for mental health.
Nootropics in Neuro-Adapt
A significant body of research points to the benefits of dietary supplements – including various botanicals and nutrients – for supporting cognitive function, memory, focus, productivity, creativity, and neurological health.
I love using Neuro-Adapt, which contains natural ingredients, specific amino acids, B-vitamins and key plant extracts that support a healthy balance of the stimulatory neurotransmitters, mood, energy and focus.
L-Phenylalanine, DL-Phenylalanine, N-Acetyl L-Tyrosine, L-Tyrosine, NN-Dimethylglycine and Acetyl L-Cysteine support healthy balance of the stimulatory neurotransmitters, promotes balanced moods, supports energy and focus, and assists with healthy responses to oxidative stress.
The plant extracts Mucuna Pruriens, Phenylethylamine and Green Tea support a healthy balance of the stimulatory neurotransmitters, healthy brain and nervous system function. Mucuna Pruriens has antioxidant activity and supports brain health, probably due to the presence of L-dopa, a precursor of the neurotransmitter dopamine.
The B-vitamins Riboflavin (B2) and Pyridoxine (B6) support healthy energy metabolism and are required for the brain and the body to successfully utilize the amino acids and plant extracts to support healthy mood, energy and focus.
Dimethylglycine (DMG) is an amino acid that helps the body cope with physical stress by promoting oxygen utilization to support the rate of muscle recovery after strenuous exercise. It supports the healthy removal of lactic acid from the body, which promotes muscle recovery and optimal training performance.
Cheers to More Focus and Concentration!
Kelly Harrington, MS, RDN
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for Healthy Goods