It’s a relatively new category of nutrition supplement, and it seems a lot of different brands and formulas pop up every month.
We’ve sifted through the research to determine which ingredients work, and which don’t.
Table of Contents
Ingredients That Work
Its most effective as a relaxant, without sedation. So it reduces stress but not alertness (1).
This makes it a great supplement to take before an exam or mentally stressful task where peak focus is required.
L-Theanine is often paired with caffeine to take the “edge” off the stimulant effect, preventing anxiety or loss of focus.
In one study, participants undertaking an arithmetic test observed significant decreases in two major stress markers when L-Theanine was taken, compared to a placebo (2).
How to take it: The standard dose is 100-200mg, often taken with caffeine 30-60mins before performance.
Bacopa Monnieri is a nootropic herb containing bacoside. This compound is shown to reduce anxiety and improve memory formation.
Research shows memory improvement across all age groups, with one notable study showing significantly improved performance on the working memory of the majority of its participants (3).
Bacopa Monnieri also acts as an antioxidant that further stimulates the activity of other antioxidants in the brain (4).
How to take it: The standard dose is 300mg assuming a 55% bacoside extract, and must be taken with food. Consistent supplementation is required over several weeks for effects to be seen.
L-Tyrosine is an amino acid that has been shown to improve memory and cognitive performance under stressful conditions.
It decreases the production of stress hormones and restores compounds in the brain that are drained by stress (5).
L-Tyrosine appears to be a good supplement to take when there is a need to focus under stress, such as lack of sleep. One double-blind trial in adults found L-Tyrosine to have a large counteracting effect on the usual decline in performance from a sleep-deprived state, compared to a placebo (6).
How to take it: The standard dose is 500-2000mg, taken 30-60 minutes before performance.
Rhodiola Rosea is a herb that decreases the effects of fatigue and exhaustion.
Similar to L-Tyrosine it increases focus and cognitive performance under stressful situations (7).
One double-blind study found Rhodiola Rosea had strong anti-fatigue effects after 2 weeks, with subjects able to increase their performance on work tasks by 20% (8).
How to take it: The recommended dose is 288-680mg for immediate effects, or as little as 50mg daily for long-term benefits.
Vinpocetine is a synthetic compound made from periwinkle leaves.
Vinpocetine has been shown to improve blood flow and oxygenation of the brain and improvement in reaction time when taken in high doses (9).
It has also shown promise in memory enhancement and preventing cognitive decline.
How to take it: Examine.com suggests that a dose of 30-45mg may boost mental performance in adults.
Citicoline is a compound used to boost focus and mental energy.
It helps to heal brain cell membranes by producing more of the materials needed for repair (10), allowing brain cells to communicate more efficiently.
How to take it: An effective dose ranges from 500 to 2000mgs in individuals, taken in two divided doses.
Phosphatidylserine is an important compound for the proper function of cell membranes; especially in brain cells.
Healthy, flexible brain cell membranes allow better cell-to-cell communication and the more efficient use of nutrients. This means better attention and memory, and an overall increase in brain energy.
How to take it: The effective dose for attention improvement is 200-400mg, whereas three doses of 100mg per day are recommended to combat cognitive decline.
Huperzine-A is a compound that is lab-synthesized from the Chinese Club Moss plant.
It increases levels of acetylcholine in the brain – an important chemical for mental performance and memory. It also acts as an antioxidant and protects brain cell mitochondria – the cells’ powerhouses – boosting mental energy (16).
In a clinical trial it was shown to increase the memory test scores of adolescents compared to a placebo group (17).
How to take it: The effective dose is 50-200mcg daily, and this can be taken in a fed or fasted state. Huperzine-A may need to be cycled.
Turmeric is a plant whose root has long been used as a spice in Indian cuisine.
It contains a compound called Curcumin, which has been shown to have powerful antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and brain-disease fighting properties. These properties make turmeric ideal for optimising brain health and cognitive function.
One study in healthy older adults showed increases in both attention and memory just one hour after administration, as well as long-term improvements in mood, alertness, and memory after 4 weeks (18).
How to take it: Absorption of Curcumin is low unless assisted by an absorption enhancer. For best results, take 80-500mg with Piperine (black pepper).
It also has consistent effects in reducing cognitive decline in the elderly (21).
One study on young adults showed a significant improvement on accuracy and speed of arithmetic tasks, and even greater improvement when taken in a Ginkgo/Ginseng combination (19).
How to take it: The effective dose for a short-term cognitive boost is 120-240mg, taken 1-4 hours before performance. For reducing cognitive decline in older adults, three doses of 40-120mg should be taken daily. All doses should be taken with food.
Ingredients That Might Work
Lion’s Mane is a Chinese mushroom, which may have nootropic benefits by boosting nerve growth factor (22).
Nerve growth factor promotes the health and function of brain cells, and is essential for memory and learning (23). Studies on humans are limited.
How to take it: The recommended dose is 1000mg daily.
Vitamin B6 is plays an important role in brain health, and has concentrations 100 times greater in the brain than in the bloodstream.
It is vital for the production of a neurotransmitters, making it critical for mood and brain function.
Although it has been shown to improve memory in elderly men (24), studies are uncommon in younger adults.
How to take it: It is recommended to have at least 5mg per day.
Pterostilbene is a neuroprotective antioxidant, found in blueberries.
In animal studies it has been shown in to protect neurons, maintain higher dopamine levels, and promote the health of brain cells and blood vessels (25). The expected benefit of this in humans is a reduction in anxiety and improved brain health.
How to take it: Although not yet tested, the estimated effective dose for cognitive effects in humans is 10mg or less.
NADH is an antioxidant coenzyme, which supports the production of energy in brain cells.
Studies have suggested it’s an important compound in brain processes, including learning and memory (26). It has also been linked to increases in dopamine and nonrepinephrine, resulting in improvements in both mood and sharpness of thinking (27).
More studies need to be done to determine effectiveness in healthy subjects.
How to take it: NADH appears to be useful in fatigued subjects, where 20mg has proved to be an effective dose.
Acetyl-L-Carnitine is an amino acid derivative claimed to increase alertness and support the health of mitochondria and neurons.
It’s synthesised in the body, so supplementation may be more beneficial in older adults where its production declines, or in those who are otherwise deficient.
Studies have shown increases in attention with supplementation in those with ADHD and chronic fatigue syndrome (28, 29). Acetyl-L-Carnitine may also work for the healthy population, however more research needs to be done.
How to take it: The standard dose is 630-2500mg daily.
Oatstraw is the name given to the green oat plant, and is used in some nootropic supplements.
Very limited research shows that Oatstraw extract may improve cognitive performance in terms of attention and focus in older adults of varying mental health (30).
Further research is needed to determine its effectiveness in young, healthy subjects.
How to take it: The study above found best results with 1600mg of Oatstraw extract.
Ingredients That Probably Don’t Work
We all know caffeine has benefits in temporarily increasing energy and alertness.
But it’s classified a stimulant rather than a nootropic.
Caffeine boosts mental alertness and perceived energy levels by blocking adenosine from calming the nervous system (31). An extra adrenaline release provides a short-term boost of attention levels, reaction time, and mental energy.
This effect is very short-term, however, and all but disappears as caffeine tolerance increases.
Cat’s Claw is an under-researched herb that has only been tested in test tube and animal studies to date.
It may reduce anxiety and social aggression, but Examine.com state it’s very unreliable and cannot be recommended.
PQQ is a less-studied nutrient that may enhance mitochondrial health.
The optimal dose is also unknown.