Boost Your Brain: A Guide to the Best Nootropics

When you dive into the world of health supplements, you quickly realize it’s vast and diverse. It seems like there is a “magic pill” for almost any issue you may face.

In the last couple of years, nootropics have become one of the most popular supplements in the wellness industry.

And for good reason.

The truth is, nootropics have been around for a long, long time. Traditional Chinese Medicine and its Indian counterpart, Ayurveda, have been using these natural herbs and extracts for thousands of years to promote optimal brain function and cognitive performance.

If you're curious about these natural and mighty brain supplements, this comprehensive guide is for you. No matter if you’re expanding your supplement knowledge or  considering using them personally, we’re here to help you learn more. 

We'll explore what nootropics are and how to select them based on your goals. Then, we’ll dive into nootropic stacks, the best nootropic supplements, and how each one enhances your mental powers. 

Let's begin.

What Are Nootropics?

Nootropics are substances that improve your cognitive function, especially when it comes to memory, learning, motivation, and focus.

They sometimes also go by the names "cognitive enhancers" or "smart drugs." They can be extracted from a natural source, such as a plant, or chemically synthesized. Nootropics are often classified as either:

  1. Dietary supplements: These typically contain natural extracts and compounds.
  2. Prescription drugs: These include popular synthetic drugs like piracetam, noopept, modafinil, Adderall, and other amphetamines. Most of these are controlled substances since they are extremely powerful and carry a high risk of side effects and abuse.

How to Choose the Best Nootropic for You

When it comes to nootropics, there's no one-size-fits-all solution. The best nootropics for you are the ones that support the areas you desire (e.g., mood, focus, and energy). 

If your goal is to boost your memory capacity and learning, focus on supplements that have been shown to help with memory retention and recall, like Bacopa monnieri or ginseng.

If you wish to prevent neurodegenerative conditions, you might consider adding Ginkgo biloba and phosphatidylserine. Don't worry if you've never heard these names — we will cover each one later. 

The best way to choose the right nootropics for you is to learn about the different options and how they work. However, there are a couple of things you should keep in mind when selecting your brain supplements:

  • High-quality: Try to find out where the ingredients are sourced from and if they're thoroughly tested.
  • No shady ingredients: Check the labels for things like preservatives, artificial coloring, artificial sweeteners, or GMO-based compounds. Avoid supplements that include these ingredients.
  • Specific needs: If you follow a particular diet or have any food sensitivities, keep an eye out — some supplements may contain traces of gluten or other allergens. If you're vegan, consider looking for a supplement that includes vitamin B12, as it is one of the most common vitamin deficiencies in those following a plant-based diet.

Nootropic Stacks: What Are They?

Best nootropics: Handful of colored capsules

Each specific nootropic gives your central nervous system (CNS) nutritional support to improve your brain health, targeting areas where it is most needed. 

However, most people don't want that specificity. They want total brain optimization.

If this is your case, then a nootropic stack may be the way to go. It consists of a combination of multiple substances, which work synergistically to enhance your cognitive function and mental performance. 

All your goals in capsule form.

The best nootropic stacks are usually made with high quality standards and have solid scientific research to back them up. The ingredients complement one another to create a collective whole greater than the sum of its parts. 

The 13 Best Nootropics for Better Cognitive Function

The main goal of natural nootropics is to efficiently support your current cognitive functions and strengthen the areas that need a little help, such as memory or concentration. Below you'll find a list of the 13 best nootropics which are widely available over-the-counter today.

1. Acetyl-L-Carnitine (ALCAR)

Acetyl-l-carnitine (ALCAR) is an extraordinary amino acid-like molecule naturally produced by your liver and kidneys. It can stabilize nerve cell membranes and support mitochondria — the organelles that power your cells.

Doing so helps to maintain your neurotransmitter activity and boost your mental alertness, memory retention, and promotes a clear mind.

A study published in Medical Science Monitor found that ALCAR's anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties provide neuroprotection against free radicals and promote proper blood flow to the human brain.

They also found that this nootropic could naturally boost brain-derived nerve growth factor (BDNF) — a protein which promotes neuron growth, maturation, and survival.

Best for: Decision-making, mental processing, focus, thinking, brain regeneration, and cognitive maintenance

2. Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) has been getting more and more attention nowadays, as several clinical trials on the remarkable properties of this ayurvedic plant are emerging. For thousands of years, it has been used in Asia as a powerful tonic for many health issues. 

According to a study published in Cureus Journal, the Mumbai University and Prakruti Hospital found that this adaptogen is a natural alternative to synthetic anxiolytics — the medication traditionally prescribed for anxiety and depression cases.

They learned that taking ashwagandha quickly lowers cortisol (the primary stress hormone), improves mood, and lowers blood pressure as well as blood sugar levels. 

By reducing stress, this adaptogenic herb helps you focus and gives your brain a boost of energy to go after your goals. 

Best for: Mood-boosting, energy, mental fatigue, motivation, and brain repair

3. Bacopa Monnieri

Best nootropics: Cup of ground Bacopa monnieri

Bacopa monnieri — also known as Brahmi — is a staple of Ayurvedic medicine. It is commonly given to young children in India to help with brain development and immunity.

It is considered one of the best nootropics for cognitive enhancement. This is due to the presence of bacosides — the main active compounds found in this plant. They are potent antioxidants that protect your brain from oxidative stress and balance brain chemicals. 

In a study published in the Journal of Phytomedicine, results showed that Bacopa monnieri was effective for anxiety management. They also concluded it boosted cognition, lowered the resting heart rate, and supported memory and learning.

According to the International Journal of Environmental Science and Technology, Bacopa monnieri supplements have also been found to encourage dendrite branching.

This is the process by which your brain creates more synapses. In order words, the neurons gain more connecting points and communicate better, leading to enhanced memory function and recall.

Best for: Learning, memory, mood-boosting, mental fatigue, brain regeneration, and cognitive maintenance

4. Caffeine

If you're a caffeine lover, you'll be happy to know that it is considered the number one nootropic for stimulation and one of the best overall nootropics — when used correctly. 

Just 100 milligrams of caffeine is enough to reduce fatigue, boost motivation, and increase your energy. It's hard to beat that feeling of wakefulness from a good dose of coffee. 

In fact, a study published in the National Academies Press showed that caffeine improves the quality of your focus and your power of concentration. It eliminates fatigue, makes you more alert, and helps with productivity. 

Research — conducted by the International Life Sciences Institute and published in their Nutritional Reviews Journal —  also shows that caffeine can positively affect serotonin transmission. This neurotransmitter plays an important role in stabilizing mood and enhancing feelings of happiness and well-being.

However, when taken in large doses, caffeine can lead to insomnia, jitters, and other undesirable effects. So, when you're preparing your third cup of coffee, look for signs of too much caffeine in your system and adjust accordingly.

When selecting your nootropic stack, pay close attention to the quantity of caffeine present. If you're sensitive to caffeine, opt for a supplement without any.

Best for: Energy, motivation, mood, brain regeneration, and cognitive maintenance

5. CDP-Choline

Best nootropics: White medical capsules

In the nootropic universe, CDP-choline is often called "the multitasker." 

Also known as citicoline, this compound is truly remarkable. A study published in CNS Drugs found that it: 

  • Improves cognition and brain function
  • Encourages focus and boosts motivation
  • Reduces fatigue
  • Helps to repair brain cell membranes

It seems that there's nothing that CDP-choline can't do. It works by supporting the synthesis of acetylcholine and phosphatidylcholine — two neurotransmitters involved in learning, memory, and the creation of new brain structures.

It is so essential to nerve function that without it, we simply couldn't move, sleep, think, or remember a thing.

So when you find your own nootropics stack, make sure it includes CDP-choline. It is considered to be the fundamental element of any proper full-spectrum brain supplement.

Best for: Processing information, thinking, focus, decision-making, learning, memory, mood-boosting, energy, motivation, brain repair, and overall mental performance

6. Creatine

Best nootropics: Creatine bottle

Creatine is probably first and foremost known among bodybuilders and high-performance athletes. So, it may come as a surprise to find out that this amino acid-like molecule is not only crucial for your muscles but also your brain.

This organic compound is naturally produced by your liver, pancreas, and kidneys. A study published in Experimental Gerontology in 2018 found that creatine can improve both your short-term memory and reasoning skills.

It also helps with brain fog by promoting healthy brain cell energy metabolism. It works by supporting well-balanced creatine stores in your brain, which encourages energy production in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) to promote  cognitive performance.

The same way it boosts strength and energizes your gym sessions, creatine also powers up your brain health and keeps you motivated.

Transparent Labs StrengthSeries Creatine HMB is made with three thoroughly researched ingredients. Not only is it gluten-free, but also free from artificial sweeteners, colored dyes, fillers, harmful additives, and undesirable GMOs. 

Best for: Mental energy, motivation, and enhanced cognitive performance.

7. DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid)

Spoon filled with clear yellow capsules

Sixty percent of your brain is made of fat. And most of this fat is, in fact, DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).

If that doesn't make you aware of docosahexaenoic acid's importance, we don't know what will. 

Even though you might have a hard time pronouncing its official name, DHA should be a part of any respectable nootropics stack. It's an omega-3 fatty acid, which is crucial for the healthy function and structure of your brain. 

According to a study published in the Journal of Neurotrauma, DHA possesses natural anti-inflammatory properties that protect the brain and improve neuroplasticity — your brain's ability to learn faster and retain information better.

It is a crucial building block of your cerebral cortex, the area responsible for higher-level cognitive functions and language. 

Since DHA is predominantly found in fish oil and algae, deficiencies are more common than you think. A scientific article published in Clinical Nutrition Journal shows a correlation between low levels of this fatty acid and a higher probability of developing neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer's disease.

So if you're not a big fish-eater or follow a plant-based diet, it might be helpful to add a DHA supplement to your diet, or pick a nootropics stack that contains this crucial ingredient.

Best for: Brain repair and management, learning, memory, mind-clearing, and quick thinking.

8. Ginkgo Biloba

Ginkgo biloba has been revered for centuries in Asia for its outstanding ability to combat cognitive decline. And get this: It is one of the oldest living tree species in the world.

This powerful nootropic is extracted from its fan-shaped leaves, which are super rich in flavonoids and terpenoids. It leads to greater blood flow throughout the body, brain included, meaning better oxygen delivery and optimally fed brain cells

A study published in the journal Neuroradiology found that Ginkgo biloba had significant benefits for older adults, especially for ameliorating memory degradation and age-related cognitive decline. As restricted blood flow is considered one of the leading causes of these issues, the venerable Ginkgo biloba and its oxygenation powers can be a great ally to prevent such conditions.

For these reasons, this is one of the best nootropics to add to your stack if you're thinking long-term. 

Best for: Prevention of neurodegenerative conditions, memory booster, and optimal brain oxygenation.

9. Ginseng

Raw ginseng roots

This oval-shaped root originated about 5,000 years ago. It is most commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine as a balancing tonic with the unique ability to both relax and stimulate the nervous system — in other words, it’s an adaptogen.

Its botanical name — Panax ginseng — means "all healer" or "panacea." In fact, this plant is known in Asia as the “elixir of life.” 

An Asian study published in the Journal of Ginseng Research concluded that this versatile  herb is packed with ginsenosides, active compounds in the root of the plant that protect the brain from harmful free-radicals. They also improve brain functions, increase memory retention, and boost your mood.

The same body of research also found that ginseng naturally fights fatigue by increasing the blood flow to the brain. This leads to the continuous delivery of oxygen, nutrients, minerals, amino acids, and vital nourishment to this organ. 

Another study published in the American Journal of Chinese Medicine found that this ginseng extract can also reduce cortisol and strengthen the adrenal glands.

Best for: Mood-boosting, memory, protection against mental decline, and support of brain health

10. L-Theanine

If you love green tea or a nice cup of oolong, you might be familiar with L-theanine.

This amino acid is the best nootropic to combine with caffeine. Together, L-theanine and caffeine boost your thinking ability and mood, lower your blood pressure, improve focus, and help you feel more relaxed and rejuvenated.

According to a study published in the Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition, L-theanine works by stimulating alpha brain waves, which help to relax the mind without inducing drowsiness. It also protects your brain from the over-stimulation caused by glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter that can cause cell damage.

A study published in the Journal of Functional Foods shows that L-theanine can give you shorter reaction times and increase your attention span. Your cognition gets an energy boost without the jitteriness that coffee may sometimes cause.

This vital amino acid and nootropic helps you to stay calm and, at the same time, highly focused and with a clear mind.

Best for: Learning, memory, energy, motivation, focus, and mood-boosting. 

11. Lion's Mane Mushroom

Lion's mane mushroom against black background

Lion's mane is another ancient Chinese powerhouse. It has been used for generations as a tonic to improve overall health and help retain raw brainpower.

It works by stimulating the production of enzymes responsible for the release of brain-derived nerve growth factor (BDNF), which governs the growth, maturation, and repair of nerve cells in the brain.

All these actions may contribute to reducing brain fog, restoring memory and mental alertness, and lowering anxiety and depression symptoms. This ultimately leads to cognitive enhancement with long-term benefits.

In 2017, a study published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences showed taking lion's mane's extract increased neurite outgrowth by 60 percent — via the glorious BDNF.

Best for: Mental clarity, mood booster, brain repair, and memory.

12. Phosphatidylserine (PS)

This tongue twister is one of the best nootropics when it comes to cell regeneration and memory.

Phosphatidylserine is involved in the formation and transmission of signals within neurons. It also assists in the transportation of vital compounds such as proteins, enzymes, oxygen, and glucose. 

By doing so, it is a major contributor to the health of mitochondria, the energy centers of our body's cells. 

For you to have an idea of how important it is, PS is a phospholipid, which is one of the main components of your nerve cell membranes. Research conducted by the National Institutes of Health showed that one of phosphatidylserine's functions is to signal your immune system whenever a brain cell is dying.

It does this to let your body know it's time to collect it and replace it with a new one. This explains why it is so important to have PS in your nootropics stack, especially as you get older.

Best for: Memory, brain repair, alertness, memory, and mood booster.

13. Rhodiola Rosea

Rhodiola rosea in a wooden spoon

Widely used in Russia to counteract fatigue and poor concentration, Rhodiola rosea is, without a doubt, the best nootropic for students.

This adaptogen can reduce stress while increasing energy, alertness, and stamina. It's a perfect supplement for busy lifestyles, as it boosts mental performance during stressful moments. 

Rhodiola rosea can help you with attention to detail by supporting your concentration and mental acuity. 

According to a study published in the journal Free Radical Biology and Medicine — which has studied the benefits of Rhodiola rosea on oxidative stress, — this plant has a protective effect on neurons. Scientists also realized it is a natural anxiolytic that helps improve mood. 

This nootropic not only helps to calm your mind and relax your system but also keeps your brain sharp during challenging situations.

Best For: Mental performance, alertness, brain repair, mood booster, and stress management.

Hack Your Brain With the Best Nootropics

Man pouring out capsule of nootropic supplement

Though we've only recently begun to understand the power of nootropics, these supplements have been tried and tested for thousands of years in many cultures.

The 13 nootropics we've explored are all-natural options which come with minimal side effects compared to other synthetic compounds. They help to gently “nudge” your brain towards its optimal state, so you feel fresh, sharp, and mentally prepared for the day’s tasks.

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