Looking to boost your cognitive firepower? A nootropic supplement is the way to go. This broad category of supplements can increase your focus, improve your working memory, boost your abilities on verbal and reading tasks, and more.
They’re one of the most popular types of supplement among creatives, executives, researchers, students, and writers, to name just a few categories of knowledge worker that makes use of their brainpower-boosting effects.
1. Nootropics can enhance cognitive function on learning, recall, and memorization tasks
Nootropics enhance your brain’s ability to learn, remember, and solve problems.
One technical paper cites the ability of multi-ingredient nootropics to accelerate cognitive performance across multiple domains, including visual and verbal reasoning tasks, plus maintaining focus and performing in high-stress situations (1).
This wide range of potential areas of benefit explain why nootropics see benefits over such a broad range of jobs and occupations.
2. Nootropic performance can be quantified using cognitive testing
Unlike other supplements that claim to boost “well-being” or “promote a healthy immune system,” testing cognitive function is straightforward: you get a group of subjects, give them the supplement in question or a placebo, then subject them to a battery of psychometric tests to assess their cognitive function.
There are a variety of types of these kinds of tests, and different supplements seem to affect different aspects of cognitive function. Some seem to boost memory, while others influence verbal abilities or help reduce mental fatigue (the diminishing of cognitive performance after long, challenging efforts).
A good case study in how testing nootropics work can be observed in the 2016 study that validated the effects of Alpha Brain (2).
Researchers split a group of volunteers into two groups, one of which was given Alpha Brain, and the other of which was given a placebo supplement.
Both groups were tested for their cognitive abilities at the outset of the study, then took their assigned supplement for six weeks before being tested again.
The result? Significant increases in verbal memory in the Alpha Brain group (though no benefits in the other cognitive tasks).
3. Bacopa and ginkgo biloba both show promising nootropic benefits
As you might guess, the most popular ingredients among the top-ranked nootropic supplements are also among the best-studied and most effective.
Bacopa monnieri, for example, is an herbal extract that’s been demonstrated to have specific cognitive enhancing effects (3).
A 2001 study in the scientific journal Psychopharmacology conducted a similar protocol to the Alpha Brain study–a group of healthy adult subjects were given a 300 mg dose of bacopa monnieri extract or a placebo for twelve weeks, and were subjected to a battery of cognitive tests before and after the supplementation period (4).
In this case, the researchers found that the bacopa supplement increased the speed of visual information processing, learning rate, and memory consolidation.
Ginkgo biloba and vinpocetine looks to be an effective supplement when it comes to speeding up your short-term working memory.
A study published in the journal Human Psychopharmacology used a similar placebo-controlled experiment to study the effects of a combination of ginkgo biloba and vinpocetine on cognitive function, and found that the supplement combination increased the speed at which your working memory functions after being taken for two weeks (5).
4. Different nootropic supplements are geared for different types of cognitive tasks
When working on a major writing project, or attempting to work through a lot of reading material, taking something like Alpha Brain that increases verbal memory is could be very helpful.
On the other hand, something that improves visual information processing and learning rate, like a nootropic with a high dose of bacopa monnieri extract, would likely speed your ability to learn math flash cards or process on-screen visual information.
It’s clear that taking the time to analyze the specific cognitive demands of the task in question will help immensely when you are deciding what the ideal nootropic supplement is for you.
Other nootropic supplements were studied initially to help with cognitive decline and dementia in the elderly, but have been hypothesized to be effective as well in healthy people.
5. Huperzine-A could help sustain cognition in older adults
Not everyone takes nootropics for better cognition in the short-term: some people take it to protect their brain as they get older. Huperzine-A is a great example.
Early research found that it has a strong neuroprotective effect. A 1999 experiment described using a huperzine-A supplement to reverse natural dementia in elderly monkeys, as well as reversing chemically-induced cognitive decline in young monkeys (6).
Research into whether it can be used to actually boost cognitive performance in healthy humans is still lacking, but this hasn’t stopped people from betting that it will.
An entirely different strategy in nootropics is simply providing your brain with extra “building blocks” to use in the process of synthesizing neurotransmitters, which are chemicals your brain uses to think. Many nootropics simply provide high doses of the amino acids that are associated with cognitive function.
These are less well-studied, perhaps because simply keeping your brain’s amino acid reserved topped off isn’t as exciting as artificially enhancing its performance, but it’s nevertheless a strategically sound approach.
6. Nootropic supplements with ashwagandha could enhance memory
Ashwagandha is a plant native to India that has a long history in traditional medicine, but has become popular recently for increasing energy and endurance.
Modern scientific research suggests that biologically active compounds in ashwagandha could enhance cognitive performance and also reverse some of the neurodegeneration that occurs in the brain as a result of aging.
A review article published in 2016 in the journal Neurochemistry International cited a host of recent scientific experiments that attest to the beneficial neurological effects of ashwagandha, including studies that demonstrate a potential for ashwagandha to enhance memory (7).
This memory-enhancing effect suggests that ashwagandha could be a useful ingredient as a part of a nootropic formulation, especially in combination with ingredients that improved verbal reasoning.
7. Polyphenols in green tea and green tea extract could improve multiple domains of memory at once
Green tea and green tea extract are well-known for their antioxidant abilities and their potential to act as weight loss promoting agents, but some compounds in green tea and its extract also show the potential to act as broad-spectrum nootropics.
A scientific review article published in 2018 in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism reviewed the current state of supplements to enhance cognitive performance, and concluded that many lack sufficient evidence (8).
However, it noted that evidence indicates that the polyphenols that are found in green tea can have the ability to protect neurons against injury and inflammation, but more importantly, appear to promote learning, memory, and cognitive function all at the same time.
While other nootropic compounds appear to be more focused on specific areas of cognitive function, polyphenols from green tea and its extracts appear to be a versatile option for many different applications.
This means that green tea extract could be a good ingredient for pretty much any nootropic application, which is great given its crossover capabilities as a fat burning and antioxidant supplement.
Nootropics side effects
Since nootropic supplements are so new, their side effect profile is not well-studied. So far, there have been no major adverse side effects reported that are associated with the ingredients used in the best and most popular nootropic supplements.
In this regard they appear to have a safer safety profile than other categories of multi-ingredient supplements, like weight loss supplements.
The one caveat to this applies to nootropic supplements that contain caffeine. While caffeine is one of the best-studied and most effective cognitive enhancement supplements (as every coffee addict knows), it can cause side effects like jitters and nausea in people who are sensitive to it.
Further, taking it at night is a bad idea, thanks to caffeine’s ability to act as a stimulant–unless, of course, you are trying to stay up all night. There’s nothing wrong with caffeine in a nootropic supplement, but make sure you know how many milligrams each serving contains.
Only a small number of nootropics have established effective doses, and these are mostly derived from the dosages chosen in scientific studies that examined the supplement in question.
Bacopa monnieri, for example, appears to be effective at doses of 300 mg, and ginkgo biloba extract can be effective at doses as low as 40 mg.
Vinpocetine seems to require doses of 30 to 60 mg, but this comes from scientific literature using it to study cognitive decline and dementia in the elderly, so it’s not clear if boosting brain function in healthy people can be accomplished with a lower dose.
DMAE’s studied dosage range is typically about 100 mg, but this seems to come from studies looking at its use to induce lucid dreaming!
Clearly, more work is needed to establish optimal doses for nootropic supplements, but looking for dosages close to these guidelines is at least a good place to start.
Nootropics benefits FAQs
What is the definition of a nootropic? A nootropic is any supplemental or pharmaceutical compound that increases cognitive functioning.
“Cognitive function” is a pretty broad category, so nootropics can range in their effects from the creativity-increasing effects of Provigil (modafinil) to systemic increases in central nervous system activity generated by caffeine to improvements in the processing of visual information, which can be achieved using bacopa monnieri.
With so many ways to define what constitutes better brain functioning, it should not be surprising that there is a crowd of different compounds that could be useful as nootropic ingredients, depending on your goals.
What do nootropics do? A nootropic is designed to enhance your cognitive abilities. The functional side of how this works can come from many different pathways, but essentially all of them have to do with improving your brain’s ability to process neuronal information.
Some supplements based on amino acids deliver nutrients to the brain directly; others, like caffeine, up-regulate the central nervous system across the board.
Some of the more cutting edge nootropics, such as those found in medicinal mushrooms, appear to enhance cognitive abilities but the precise mechanism is not yet known.
Reducing inflammation appears to play a role in the function of some nootropics, given the neuroprotective and neuro-enhancement effects seen in well-known anti-inflammatory supplements like green tea extract and fish oil.
Beyond these examples, relatively little is known about how nootropics achieve their effects, partially as a result of how new the research on nootropics is.
What nootropic is most like adderall? Adderall is a stimulant (technically, it’s an amphetamine), so it functionally works as if it is overclocking your brain.
Adderall is an oft-used and oft-abused pharmaceutical, but ironically, the nootropic compound that’s most similar to adderall is also one that’s the most common: caffeine.
Caffeine, whether in the form of caffeine pills, a cup of coffee, or an energy drink, acts as a fairly potent stimulant. It has broad-spectrum effects on your central nervous system, and as such is used for everything from enhancing athletic performance to improving attentiveness, memory, and concentration.
While other nootropics have more sophisticated effects, like enhancing verbal reasoning or executive function, caffeine, like adderall, is a blunt and broad-spectrum tool—though not the right tool for every job.
Related: Our best nootropics picks
Nootropics boost cognitive function across a wide range of domains, including verbal and visual skills, focus and attention, and working memory and recall.
A wide range of ingredients can contribute to a successful nootropic supplement, like green tea extract, ashwagandha, and bacopa. Each of these has the potential to affect slightly different domains of cognitive function, which means that the right nootropic for you might depend on the kind of cognitive work you’re engaging in.
Some compounds, like huperzine-A and fish oil, contribute more to stabilizing your cognitive function over the long run, helping you keep your mind functioning well as you get older.
Choosing the right nootropic for the type of cognitive tasks that you’re engaging in can go a long ways towards amplifying their brain-boosting benefits.