The go-go-go lifestyle of the current age — which has us allocating even our time on the porcelain throne to catching up on emails — can be seriously taxing on our bodies and brains.
In response, productivity warriors and creatives alike are turning toward brain-boosting aids known as “nootropics” or “smart drugs.”
According to Jennifer T. Haley, MD, FAAD, nootropics “are broadly defined as anything that enhances your cognitive capacity and performance, from memory to creativity, motivation to concentration.”
Nootropics have been around since the 1970s, according to biohacker and American College of Sports Medicine Exercise Physiologist Fiona Gilbert, but have re-emerged thanks to anecdotal evidence and online testimonials that they decrease stress and increase mental stamina.
Like stress tonics or anxiety hacks, nootropics may be the micro-boost you need to get through your work day. Keep reading to learn which may be the best smart drug for you based on your brain-boosting needs.
If you’re not familiar with this herbal supplement, now’s a good time to learn. Thanks to its brain-related benefits, it’s also categorized as a nootropic.
One 2010 study tested a 400 milligram (mg) dose on 30 participants for 8 days. Participants showed improved calmness and ability to do math.
- treatment for stress
- improved brain function
- antioxidant support
Try it in its natural form: Ginseng can be consumed as a root, which you can eat raw like a carrot or lightly steamed to soften it. The recommended amount is 2 one-centimeter thick slices. It can also be added to homemade soups or teas for an earthy taste.
Supplement form: Ginseng can be found in powder, tablet, capsule, and oil form. It’s best to start with 200 to 400 mg of the extract and gradually increase from there.
Possible side effects: For the most part, ginseng is safe to consume. However, Gilbert says, “headaches, dizziness, anxiety, insomnia, nervousness, nausea, diarrhea, agitation, dry mouth, and rapid heart rate are always a possible side effect of taking nootropics, especially if they’re taken incorrectly.”
Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) or fatty acids have been widely studied for their brain-health properties (especially in people with Alzheimer’s).
For example, according to one study from 2013, MCT supplements helped increase brain energy by 9 percent. But most notable is the research which suggests that MCTs can provide energy to dying brain cells, keeping neurons alive in the face of Alzheimer’s.
- general brain health
- brain energy
Try it in its natural form: If you want a natural version of MCT, opt for coconut oil. The recommended dose in most studies has been 2 tablespoons (or 30 ml).
Supplement form: Brew up a pot of coffee bulletproof style by adding MCT coconut oil, which is a rich source of MCTs. Dave Asprey, founder and CEO of Bulletproof recommends starting with 8 to 12 ounces of coffee and 2 tablespoons of an MCT source. “This will provide longer lasting energy rather than a drink that simply helps you wake up — all in all, clean energy without the negative effects of caffeine and sugar crashes is key,” he says.
Possible side effects: One study found that some people will experience adverse reactions such as diarrhea, dyspepsia, and flatulence. So if you begin taking MCTs and have those effects, stop taking them. MCTs are also very high in saturated fats and calories, which means it could negatively affect your cholesterol levels and weight loss initiatives. However, as long as you keep to 1 to 2 tablespoons per day and use it to replace — not add — to your normal fat intake, these negative effects are unlikely.
L-theanine is an amino acid that’s a major component of black and green tea. But on its own, research shows that it may promote anything from relaxation to arousal.
One small 2007 study found that L-theanine intake resulted in a reduction of stress responses such as in the heart rate relative to the placebo.
Another study found that consuming L-theanine can both increase mental focus and arousal.
- feeling of calm
- increased creativity
Try it in its natural form: L-theanine can be found in green, black, and white teas — with green tea containing the most L-theanine — usually with 25 to 60 mg.
Supplement form: The average recommended dosage of L-theanine is a 200 mg dose taken twice a day in either pill or powder form. Brianna Stubbs, PhD, the Head of Science of HVMN, a nootropic supplement company, recommends taking Sprint, which combines L-theanine with caffeine for an optimal brain boost without energy spikes that can come from taking caffeine alone.
Possible side effects: According to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, something called “polyphenol EGCG,” which is found in green tea can actually reduce the efficacy of some chemotherapy drugs, so it’s worth chatting with your healthcare provider before investing if you have a pre-existing condition.
“Rhodiola rosea is an adaptogenic nootropic that may improve cognitive function, enhance memory and learning, and protect the brain. It also helps with emotional calming and protects against emotional stress,” says Haley.
In fact, a 2012 systematic review found that rhodiola may be helpful at alleviating brain fog. A 2012 study with 101 people found that 400 mg of rhodiola rosea per day for four weeks produced significant improvements in symptoms of stress, such as fatigue, exhaustion, and anxiety.
Rhodiola rosea benefits:
- alleviate brain fatigue
- beat stress
Try it in its natural form: Rhodiola is available in tea form, however Haley says that they’re not typically recommended because it makes accurate dosing tricky.
Supplement form: Rhodiola supplements are available as tinctures, pills, extracts, and powders — which are believed to be equally all effective. Haley notes that whatever variety you try, you should avoid ingesting before bed because it may elicit an excitatory response. When shopping for a supplement, look for one that contains a standardized amount of 3 percent rosavins and 1 percent salidrosides, which is the ratio that these compounds naturally occur in the root.
Possible side effects: Rhodiola rosea is generally safe and well-tolerated for most people. Look for a third-party certification to make sure the product you’re purchasing has optimal effectiveness and safety.
Maca root is another buzzy superfood that also functions as a nootropic, which Stubbs has found personally gives her a boost.
According to research in 2006, maca root works directly upon two regions of the brain (the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland) to help boost focus.
A later study found it may boost physical and mental energy, reduce stress, alleviate depression, and calm anxiety while also stimulating brain activity.
- increased mental energy
- better focus
- improved overall memory
- feeling of calm
Try it in its natural form: Maca root can be cooked the way you’d cook a potato, or added to soup or tea. While maca is categorized as a cruciferous vegetable it’s almost never consumed the way you’d consume broccoli or cabbage. Instead, the root is dried and then ground into power which people add to their food.
Supplement form: Maca is popular in both capsule supplements and powders — typically in doses between 1.5 and 3 grams. If you opt for powder, add it to your oatmeal or smoothies for a caramely taste.
Possible side effects: Maca is generally safe for most people and it may take some experimenting to feel an effect. Talk to your doctor before trying any supplements, especially if you’re pregnant, breastfeeding, or have a thyroid problem.
As Stubbs says, “[Nootropics] can be a single substance or it can be a blend. But it really is anything that improves your cognitive function, that is on the consumer level: typically not FDA-regulated, natural, and has limited side-effects.”
So while some nootropics can be found in the organic section of your local health store, others, like Bulletproof, come in a premade formula for ease.
After talking with the founder of each of the companies below and researching the ingredients and doses of each, these blends seemed worth trying.
However, keep in mind that nootropic blends are not FDA regulated and can be quite pricey. Always talk to your doctor before trying these supplements.
1. Bulletproofs Unfair Advantage for a midday pick me up
Another study found that adding dietary PQQ to participants’ meals resulted in strong evidence that it enhances mitochondria-related functions, like mental focus.
Unfair advantage benefits:
- burst of brain energy
- promotes brain health
“By increasing your body’s ability to make ATP — the energy currency of your cells — it gives you more brain energy and more body energy. Unfair Advantage provides a quick, body-friendly burst of brain-enhancing energy without the jittery caffeine vibe,” Asprey says about the product.
Directions: Take 1 to 4 ampules at a time of Unfair Advantage during the day.
Possible side effects: While the research on this blend’s benefits is lacking, what’s available suggests that these two coenzymes are low-risk to add to your diet. Though, it’s worth talking to your doctor if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.
2. Opt for Beekeeper’s Naturals B.LXR Brain Fuel brain nourishment
Beekeeper’s Naturals B.LXR claims to offer a clean, jitter-free brain boost. The supplement lists royal jelly, bacopa monnieri plant extract, and ginkgo biloba leaf as its primary ingredients.
“Royal jelly is one of the most amazing superfoods for the brain, and as a bonus it’s keto,” says Beekeeper’s Naturals CEO Carly Stein. “While bacopa monnieri plant extract and ginkgo biloba leaf are two adaptogens that [are] powerful for the brain and underrated.”
B.LXR brain fuel benefits:
- fight brain fog
- general memory and focus support
While this specific blend hasn’t been studied, there is some research on its individual ingredients.
And, royal jelly, which contains a fatty acid called 10-HDA has been linked to low mental energy in animals when we’re not getting enough. This fatty acid supports a protein called “brain-derived neurotropic factor.”
A bonus of this product: it’s liquid, which Stein says promotes the nootropics bioavailability — or how well the body is able to absorb it.
Directions: Stein personally takes half a vial every single day, which is the amount she suggests for first-timers. However, a full vial is safe.
Possible side effects: While the research on this specific blend’s benefits is nonexistent, the research available suggests that these ingredients are low-risk.
3. If you feel scatterbrained, try Neutein
“Neutein, for example, is backed by 5 human clinical studies with ages that range from 18 to 65 and up, showing that it can increase focus, attention, and working memory. The best part is that this smart drug works directly on the multitasking portion of your short-term memory,” says Dr. Mike Roussell, PhD, co-founder of Neuro Coffee and Neutein.
What’s in it? A combination of patented spearmint and marigold extracts.
- improved working memory
- sustained focus
- overall cognitive support
Try it: Roussell suggests taking two pills each morning with water for at least 45 days and tracking the mental benefits to see the daily effects.
According to Research and Markets, the brain health industry is growing, with a projected worth of $11.6 billion by 2024 — meaning even if you haven’t heard of these brain boosters (think: ginseng, L-theanine, MCTs) just yet, it’s likely they’ll start making more of an appearance on your Instagram feeds and pharmacy shelves.
So it’s best to get the facts straight before falling for the packaging.
Remember: not all of them work the same on everybody, and each one has different uses — from creativity to anti-anxiety.
While we’ve mentioned four popular go-to ones to try, there are plenty more that individuals are testing for their day to day.
To read more on how to get started, read up on our beginner’s guide. And as always, consult a medical professional before starting new supplements or medications.
Gabrielle Kassel is a rugby-playing, mud-running, protein-smoothie-blending, meal-prepping, CrossFitting, New York-based wellness writer. She’s become a morning person, tried the Whole30 challenge, and eaten, drank, brushed with, scrubbed with, and bathed with charcoal, all in the name of journalism. In her free time, she can be found reading self-help books, bench-pressing, or practicing hygge. Follow her on Instagram.