Odds are that if you’ve landed on this page, you’ve already heard a thing or two about nootropics. And if you’re like us, you’re probably sitting somewhere between justifiably skeptical and cautiously optimistic that maybe, just maybe, there’s a quick fix for that Monday morning lull.
And who wouldn’t be? With all these bold claims that nootropic brands make about cognitive enhancement, on-demand creativity, and laser focus in a bottle, it’s hard not to want to believe the marketing buzz around these “smart drugs”.
So around two months ago, our team buckled down and started digging into the real research behind “cognitive enhancing supplements” to better understand what actually qualifies as a nootropic, how (if?) they work, and (if so) which ones have the most scientific support for efficacy. We also tested two of the market leaders for a bit of anecdotal experience. Buckle up!
What exactly is a nootropic?
A precise definition in today’s context is a bit elusive, but the term was originally coined in the 70’s by psychologist and chemist Corneliu Giurgea to designate a new class of psychoactive substances that can increase cognitive function in the human brain. His definition states that, “These substances work by altering the balance of brain chemicals in order to induce some improvements in human cognitive faculties.” 123
Today, a wide range of products are marketed as nootropics and, colloquially speaking, the term has come to mean any naturally derived or synthetic substance that may improve cognitive function or memory. This includes a wide range of dietary supplements, synthetic compounds and prescription drugs.45 While there is no definitive list out there – due to how broadly the term is used coupled with sparse research – a quick search for nootropic shows 100’s of ingredients claimed to improve cognitive function and memory.67
A lot of these substances are well studied and undeniably effective; prescription amphetamines, for example, like Adderall 8 or Ritalin have been used to treat ADHD since the middle of the 19th century.9 Other common nootropics, like caffeine and ginseng, have been consumed for their nootropic properties for thousands of years. 10 Even fish oil 11, yes plain old fish oil, is considered a nootropic and has plenty of research to back up the claim.
So, it’s not all BS. We don’t need much convincing that caffeine and prescription stimulants have the power to impact cognitive functioning. But what about lesser known ingredients? And how do they work?
So how do nootropics actually work?
It’s genuinely hard to give an absolute, definitive answer to this question. Some people respond positively to certain amino acids, for example, while others don’t feel a thing. But in general, there are promising findings that call for optimism.
Despite huge strides in understanding the brain over the last few decades, we’ve still barely cracked the surface. As neurobiologist Lu Chen puts it, “We know very little about the brain.”
And, while there are some smaller studies supporting the efficacy of particular nootropics, we just don’t have the science to point to how they actually work. Until we learn more about how our brains function and more research dollars are poured into studying nootropics, we have to lean on hypotheses about how nootropics may work in the brain.
These hypotheses are grouped into six main categories:
- Nootropics may support brain energy by enhancing the metabolic activity of mitochondria, helping transport essential fatty acids to the brain and increasing the brain’s uptake of oxygen and nutrients.
- Nootropics may balance neurotransmitters, like dopamine & norepinephrine.
- Nootropics may increase cerebral blood flow and deliver more oxygen to the brain.
- Nootropics may affect brain waves – alpha waves for example – that are associated with increased alertness.
- Nootropics may support neuroprotection, an effect that may result in the protection of the nervous system, its cells, structure and function.
- Nootropics may support neuroregeneration, the grown of new neurons. 12
So, as you can see, nootropics may work in a lot of different ways. The likely reality is that caffeine impacts the brain differently than ADHD meds which work differently than fish oil. How exactly they work, however, we still can’t say with certainty.
One important term that’s worth mentioning is bioavailability: the proportion of a drug or other substance which enters the circulation when introduced into the body and so is able to have an active effect.
Ever heard of adaptogens? One popular class of nootropics on the market today, functional mushrooms, are a great example of why bioavailability matters. 13 In their cell walls, all mushrooms contain a long carbohydrate polymer called chitin that cannot be broken down or digested by humans. 14 If the chitin isn’t chemically broken down through processing, then the claimed beneficial nootropic compounds aren’t bioavailable and we can’t efficiently absorb them into our bloodstream.
When shopping for nootropics, it’s worth doing some research into the bioavailability of the product that you’re buying. If you’re going to give functional mushrooms a try, make sure you’re buying a product that has been processed for bioavailability. If not, you risk buying an expensive powder that has no chance of delivering the effects you’re after.
Another example, curcumin, the nootropic anti-inflammatory compound in turmeric, has notoriously poor bioavailability. 15 If you’re going to buy a turmeric product for it’s claimed nootropic benefits, you’re going to want to buy a product that also contains piperine. Piperine – a compound found in black pepper – has been shown to substantially increase the bioavailability of curcumin when taken along with turmeric. 16 One study showed that curcumin bioavailability was increased by 2,000 percent when co-administered with piperine.
All we’re really saying here is that if we can’t know for sure how nootropics work in our bodies, we wan’t to at least give them their best shot at working by selecting products that are bioavailable.
Which nootropics have the most scientific support for efficacy?
Specifically, which of the naturally derived nootropics – you know, the ones you’re probably getting Instagram ads for – have enough science to support their claimed benefits?
As we mentioned earlier, there are some studies examining the efficacy of naturally derived nootropics in humans. So, we’re not working from nothing here but the hard truth is, again, that the scope of quality research pales in comparison to the claims being made. A 2015 review of nutrients and dietary supplements – several of which are now touted as nootropics – concluded that, “Much of the research demonstrating a potential link between nutrition and cognition is observational, done on animals, or in vitro and may not be relevant to clinical practice”. 17
Does this mean nootropics don’t work? Not really. It just means that, for the most part, we don’t know for sure if (or how) they work. For one thing, a lot of the claims of cognitive enhancement are based on observation. Of the studies that do exist, many were conducted on animals or have relatively small human sample sizes. (We talked about it a bunch in our article: Best Nootropics for ADHD). And, while research that proves efficacy in animals is often followed by similar findings in human trials, it’s not always the case. 18
There is, of course, the placebo effect which is not to be ignored. Consider this: in a 2014 study examining medication for migraines, researchers found the placebo to be 50 percent as effective as the real drug in reducing pain associated with migraines. 19 Our point here is that if the nootropic Instagram ad has you sold, you may not need clinically proven efficacy for real results. The placebo effect is real and it just may be enough to achieve the desired nootropic benefits regardless of conclusive human trials.
Which ingredients make for the best nootropic supplement?
When we began this research, we were hoping that there’d be more conclusive evidence to make some recommendations from. We really wanted to be able to tell you that, for sure, XYZ ingredients are 100 percent worth your while. But, as you may have already come to realize, based on the available evidence, nothing is as conclusive as an FDA-approved medication.
So it’s really up to you, as a consumer – and with everything we’ve discussed in mind – to decide whether or not you’re still willing to set some money aside to try nootropics for yourself.
With that being said, we took a look at the biggest players in the nootropics game and put together a short list of our top picks. We’ve highlighted a few ingredients with the most promising research and tried to vet out shady brands with big price tags and too much hype (there are a lot of them).
Commonly known as Golden Root, Rhodiola Rosea is a flowering herb native to the mountainous regions of Europe and Asia. For centuries, its roots have been used in eastern medicine to treat fatigue and depression. Today, you’ll see Rhodiola sold on its own as a supplement and as a common ingredient in nootropic products. It made our list thanks to promising research linking Rhodiola consumption with decreased fatigue and increased cognition. Of the nootropic ingredients ranked by Nootralize – a great resource for your own nootropic research – Rhodiola shows some of the strongest positive effects for problem solving, energy, memory and focus. 20
The only ingredient here you probably HAVE already heard of: Ginseng. Panax Ginseng has a rich history in eastern medicine as an anti-fatigue elixir.
But as comforting as thousands of years of human use may be, that’s not why we’re recommending it. Rather, it’s the modern studies showing that Panax Ginseng may improve working memory and reduce feelings of mental fatigue in healthy adults that caught our attention. 21
Fun fact: Ginkgo Biloba trees were among the only plants to survive the 1945 bombing in Hiroshima, Japan. 22 Six trees still standing today were less than half a mile from the explosion. Relevant? Not really. But still pretty cool.
What makes Gingko a viable nootropic ingredient is research linking supplementation with positive effects on learning, focus, energy and memory.
In one placebo controlled study, Ginkgo Biloba was found to have a moderate positive effect on cognitive performance in healthy adults. 23
Another study concluded that, “Significant differences between the groups of subjects treated with GBE for different periods of time (4-10 months) suggest that the extract has a demonstrable effect in improving mood and the self-assessed performance of the tasks of everyday living.”
All in all Ginkgo Biloba is one of the better studied nootropic ingredients that we reviewed and is worth considering if you’re going to give nootropics a try.
Last but not least, Bacopa Monnieri is an herb traditionally used in Ayurvedic medicine to improve memory. It grows naturally all around the world and has been shown to have a positive impact on working memory, problem solving, learning, focus and energy.
In one study, researchers administered 300 mg of Bacopa Monnieri daily for 12 weeks to healthy adults and observed significant improvements in learning rate, memory, and the speed of processing visual information compared with a placebo group. 24
Soooo… which is the best nootropic brand out there?
Tough call, for sure. We live in an age where any 13-year-old can create a brand from his room and dropship sketchy supplements from China to unsuspecting customers. That’s partially why we’ve done all this research into nootropic ingredients and “smart drugs”. First, to determine which (if any) ingredients add legitimate value to users. And second, to highlight the brands who are actually delivering on their marketing claims.
So without further adieu, let’s take a quick look at a couple of the most popular nootropic brands out there, and dig a bit into their products and pricing. Specifically, we’re going to look at two of the major nootropics that I’ve been testing out: Plato and Onnit’s Alpha Brain. I also recently published a full review of Thesis, an exciting “newcomer” to the space that offers personalized nootropic blends – Thesis Nootropics Review.
Plato stands out from the crowd as a nootropics brand with pure intentions and transparent practices. They spent 3 years developing a straightforward, science backed, nootropic supplement that includes three of the ingredients we highlighted above plus L-Theanine.
Remember the bit about bio-availability we mentioned before? Well, with Plato you don’t need to worry about that. They’ve carefully sourced their ingredients and use only branded, standardized extracts selected for their potency and bioavailability. Oh, and they run every bath through 18 rounds of testing to make sure you’re getting exactly what you’re paying for. If you’re going to go for a blended nootropic product, we think Plato is a top notch choice.