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In the 2011 movie Limitless, the hero scaled professional mountains, made a fortune overnight, and got the girl—all by taking a simple pill. Now, dozens of nootropics—from pharmaceuticals such as Ritalin, Adderall, and modafinil, to legal but questionable Internet compounds including piracetam and adrafinil—promise enhanced mood and a smarter, faster brain. It sounds too good to be true, and it probably is. Though they’re legal and effective, chemical nootropics (called “smart drugs”) have side effects, including rapid heart rate, headaches, insomnia, and anxiety, and some have a high potential for tolerance, addiction, and withdrawal symptoms.
A better choice is herbal nootropics that enhance mood, sharpen concentration, and improve focus, without the side effects, tolerance, or withdrawal. Herbal nootropics work by increasing circulation to the brain, altering the concentration of neurotransmitters, reducing brain inflammation, stimulating the formation of new brain cells, and protecting the brain from free-radical damage.
Some of the best:
Is a highly purified and concentrated extract from the Chinese club moss plant, which has a long history of use in herbal and Chinese medicine. Huperzine A, the main active compound in the plant, is used to enhance memory and learning. In one study, huperzine A improved memory and learning ability in a group of students, compared to placebo. It may also be effective in improving cognitive function and reducing brain inflammation after traumatic brain injury. Newer studies are finding a significant improvement of cognitive function, daily living activity, and overall symptoms in Alzheimer’s patients. Typical doses are 50–100 mcg, twice per day. Check with your doctor before using.
Also called Arctic root, is an adaptogen that’s been used in traditional herbal medicine for hundreds of years. It’s been shown in many studies to prevent fatigue, reduce stress, combat mental fog, and enhance mental performance. In one study, rhodiola reduced fatigue, increased mental performance, enhanced the ability to concentrate, and decreased cortisol response to stress. Another study found that people suffering from mild to moderate depression who took rhodiola had fewer symptoms of depression than those who took a placebo. Typical doses are up to 340 mg twice daily of rhodiola extract containing 2–3 percent rosavin and 1–2.5 percent salidroside.
An extract from the Brahmi plant, has been traditionally used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat a variety of conditions, including brain function. Now, studies show that it can enhance memory and improve mood. One study found that bacopa significantly improved cognitive function and decreased depression and anxiety in older adults without Alzheimer’s. A review of nine studies showed that bacopa significantly improved memory and recall. Other studies have suggested that bacopa can help protect against age-related neurodegeneration and cognitive decline. Typical doses are 150–300 mg per day of a bacopa extract containing 50 percent bacosides.
A mushroom used in culinary applications as well as in traditional Chinese medicine has shown potential as a safe and effective nootropic. It contains compounds called hericenones and erinacines that may have neuroprotective and cognitive-enhancing effects. Other studies suggest that lion’s mane works by increasing nerve growth factor (NGF), a protein necessary for the growth, maintenance, and survival of neurons. Although most of this research has been done in Petri dishes, other studies in people suggest that lion’s mane is effective in improving mood and relieving depression. Typical doses are 500–750 mg per day.
An amino acid found in eggs, turkey, beef, seaweed, soybeans, and Swiss cheese, is necessary for the production of norepinephrine and dopamine, neurotransmitters that play significant roles in mood regulation. Low levels of these neurotransmitters are linked with depression, apathy, fatigue, and lack of concentration, and some studies suggest that supplementing with tyrosine can alleviate even significant depression. It’s also extremely effective in preventing cognitive decline in conditions of stress. Typical doses are 500–1,000 mg per day, divided into two to three doses.
A chemical that occurs naturally in the brain, is used to treat Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, as well as head injury, age-related memory loss, and attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Studies show that it can significantly improve cognitive impairments, especially those caused by vascular diseases (such as multiple small strokes and arteriosclerosis), and can improve memory and recall in elderly patients without dementia. Citicoline appears to work by enhancing circulation to the brain and improving neuroplasticity, the brains’ ability to recover and restructure. And it’s not just for the elderly. Studies show that citicoline can improve motor speed and attention in adolescents and healthy adult women. In one study, people who took citicoline showed significantly improved attention and fewer mistakes on attention tests. Typical doses are 250–500 mg per day.
A form of the amino acid carnitine that’s found in high-protein foods, is key in producing acetylcholine, an important neurotransmitter for memory, learning, and cognition. By enhancing the body’s production of acetylcholine, acetyl-l-carnitine can improve focus, alertness, clarity, and memory. Studies show a significant improvement in performance of mental tasks in Alzheimer’s patients after acetyl-l-carnitine treatment, and also suggest that it may be effective in the treatment of dementia and cognitive impairment, especially as a result of alcoholism and degenerative diseases. It also has a positive effect on mood and depression, and in one study was shown to bring relief faster than prescription drugs, with no side effects. Typical doses range from 300–1,000 mg per day. Do not take acetyl-l-carnitine with foods that contain protein.
A compound found primarily in green, white, and black teas, has been shown to promote concentration, alertness, and attention, creating a state of calm focus that’s similar to meditation. It works by increasing levels of serotonin, dopamine, and GABA, neurotransmitters that improve mood, memory, and learning. Combined with caffeine, it has been shown to improve both speed and accuracy on cognitively demanding tasks, and to reduce susceptibility to distracting information during memory tasks. L-theanine may also help protect against neurodegeneration (death or loss of function of neurons).
An amino acid naturally found in a variety of foods, is essential for the formation of serotonin, a mood-enhancing neurotransmitter. Many studies have found that tryptophan deficiencies impair memory and may depress mood, and a diet rich in tryptophan can have a positive impact on mood and cognition. In addition to diet, studies show supplemental tryptophan improves memory deficits and enhances concentration. Besides increasing memory and ability to focus, tryptophan may help improve depression, anxiety, and ADHD. Typical doses are 1,000–2,000 mg, three to four times a day.
A chemical that resembles a substance found in the common creeping plant periwinkle, is widely used in Europe as a brain booster. It’s thought to work by improving circulation, decreasing inflammation, and balancing neuro-transmitter levels. It’s also been shown to increase blood flow and oxygenation to the brain. Studies show that vinpocetine may improve attention, concentration, and memory, and may enhance cognitive function and improve long- and short-term memory, especially in patients with cerebrovascular conditions. A typical dosage is 5–15 mg per day. Because vinpocetine can cause dizziness, weakness, and uneasy feelings, check with your doctor before using.
The Silk Strategy to Maximize Memory
Can silkworms make you smarter? According to research, the answer is yes. Cera-Q is a proprietary supplement ingredient (silk protein hydrolysate complex) made from fibroin, a protein found in silkworm cocoons. And the science behind it is promising. Cera-Q has been shown to help reduce clusters of amyloid plaque (a leading contributor to memory loss and Alzheimer’s) on neuron cells. It also boosts glucose uptake to the brain, which translates to energy and nourishment for brain functioning. Studies show that the silk protein helps support memorization, cognitive function, learning ability, and short-term memory. It’s safe for adults and children. Cera-Q is available in several supplement brands.