Written by Dr Sarah Brewer
Nootropics is one of the most exciting areas of nutritional medicine, and involves taking a ‘smart’ supplement to enhance brain function and mental performance. The word nootropic was first used in the early 1970s, and is derived from the Greek nous, referring to the mind or intellect, and tropos meaning to bend or change.
As well as improving your ability to learn and recall, a nootropic also aims to help you think more clearly. While nootropics won’t turn you into a genius overnight, they may help you become more productive and resilient to stress.
Did you know? If you’ve ever drunk a cup of strong coffee as a stimulant to stay awake, or taken a B vitamin complex to boost your energy levels, then you have already practiced nootropics.
Nootropic herbs are usually blended together with omega-3 fatty acids and key vitamins, minerals and amino acids that are known to enhance brain function. These combinations are known as ‘stacks’ and taking them is known as ‘stacking’ – terms borrowed from the world of elite sports nutrition. But do they actually work?
The most effective herbal nootropic
Bacopa monnieri has the best evidence as a natural nootropic. It contains at least 12 unique antioxidants, known as bacosides, which reduce inflammation, protect brain cells from damage, increase cerebral blood flow and boost the production of brain communication chemicals (neurotransmitters).
Preclinical studies show Bacopa monnieri can increase the number and density of branches (dendrites) through which brain cells communicate, as well as enhancing the number of linkages (synapses) – especially in the amygdala, a part of the brain involved in memory and learning.i
In one study, 17 healthy volunteers took part in stressful multitasking activities and showed positive improvements in speed of letter searching and attention tasks, as well as improvements in mood, reduced stress hormone levels and less anxiety.
Effects were seen within one to two hours of use.ii In another study involving 81 older Australians, Bacopa significantly improved verbal learning and memory recall when assessed after 12 weeks of treatment at a dose of 300mg per day, compared with placebo.iii
Fish were traditionally known as brain food, as they are rich in two omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA, which have vital roles in the brain. DHA is incorporated into neuronal membranes, helping to keep them fluid so electrical and chemical messages can pass rapidly from one brain cell to another. EPA is involved in the synthesis and activity of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, which regulate mood. EPA also has anti-inflammatory actions, which may protect brain cells from degeneration.
Did you know? Fish obtain their DHA and EPA oils from the marine micro-algae on which they feed. Supplements that supply these key omega-3 oils from algae are now available for those following a plant-based diet or who are allergic to fish.
The results from 28 trials involving over 6,700 people with mild memory complaints showed that consuming DHA and EPA daily improved memory function in older adults.iv Even in healthy, older adults without memory problems, taking omega-3 supplements for six months improved memory and recall of object locations better than placebo.v
Oxford scientists have also found that omega-3 fish oil and B vitamins work together and may even slow the progression of brain shrinkage in people with Alzheimer’s disease. Over the course of two years, brain scans found that taking B vitamins slowed the rate of brain shrinking by 40% compared with placebo – but only if high blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids were also present. The suggestion that Alzheimer’s-related brain shrinkage might be slowed through dietary intervention was hailed as a major breakthrough in dementia prevention.vi
Nootropic vitamins and minerals
A number of vitamins and minerals contribute to a healthy nervous system and the reduction of tiredness and fatigue. Among the B vitamins, B5 (pantothenic acid) contributes to normal mental performance, while vitamins B1, B3, B6, B12 biotin and folate contribute to normal psychological function. These key vitamins are also needed for energy production in brain cells and to improve mood and clarity of thought. Even vitamin D is now known to be important for memory, and is involved in regulating synthesis of the ‘happy’ brain chemical serotonin. What’s more, low vitamin D levels may increase the risk of cognitive decline in older people.vii
Among the minerals, iodine, iron and zinc are also needed to support cognitive function, while iron and magnesium help to reduce tiredness and fatigue.
Nootropic amino acids
Amino acids are the building blocks used to make proteins, but some have their own nootropic effects through interactions with brain receptors. L-theanine is an amino acid found in tea which has a natural calming effect to reduce stress and ‘jitteriness’.
Some other amino acids may also be included in nootropic supplements such as l-tyrosine building blocks for making the brain messenger, dopamine.
Some supplements combine the best nootropic nutrients in a single package. Healthspan’s Love Your Brain pack contains complementary B vitamins and omega-3, as well as the Bacopa monnieri natural nootropic, in three daily capsules.
If you have a health condition or are taking prescribed medicines, always seek medical advice before taking any supplement as interactions can occur. Do not take supplements if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, unless advised by your own doctor.
i Vollala VR et al. Enhancement of basolateral amygdaloid neuronal dendritic arborization following Bacopa monniera extract treatment in adult rats. Clinics (Sao Paulo). 2011; 66(4): 663–671. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3093798/
ii Benson S et al. An acute, double-blind, placebo-controlled cross-over study of 320 mg and 640 mg doses of Bacopa monnieri (CDRI 08) on multitasking stress reactivity and mood. Phytother Res. 2014;28(4):551-9. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23788517/
iii Morgan A, Stevens J. Does Bacopa monnieri improve memory performance in older persons? Results of a randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind trial. J Altern Complement Med. 2010;16(7):753-9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20590480
iv Yurko-Mauro K et al. Docosahexaenoic acid and adult memory: a systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS One. 2015;10(3):e0120391 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25786262/
v Kulzow N et al. Impact of Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation on Memory Functions in Healthy Older Adults. J Alzheimers Dis. 2016;51(3):713-25, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26890759/
vi Jerneren F et al. Brain atrophy in cognitively impaired elderly: the importance of long-chain ω-3 fatty acids and B vitamin status in a randomized controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 2015; 02(1):215–221, http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/102/1/215.abstract
vii ‘Vitamin D and cognition in older adults’: updated international recommendations. J Int Med 2014. 277(1):45-57 https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/joim.12279