Supplements can be very useful if they are treated as supplements. They should be supplemental to other lifestyle considerations such as a good diet, controlling stress, appropriate exercise for age and situation, and ensuring that we obtain adequate sleep and live in accordance with our circadian rhythm. Given all these lifestyle interventions already being in place, then supplements may offer the chance of fully realising our potential. Nootropics are no different from any other form of supplements in this sense.
It seems that each month another miracle supplement comes to the fore. No sooner has the furore over that month’s sensation died down than another takes its place. The supplements industry is very good at raising false hopes and offering miraculous cures that turn out not to be the case. Having stated that fairly obvious caveat, there are, in point of fact, a range of cognitive supplements that are tried and tested and do actually have worthwhile effects. Here at ketopensioner, we would only wish to recommend those that we consider to be based on solid science rather than wish fulfilment.
Enough of the preamble, on to the recommendations….
Nootropic 1: Omega-3s
There have been a host of studies that demonstrate the necessity of DHA ( docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) found in Omega-3 fatty acids for the healthy development of a baby’s brain (1). This may apply even before birth; several more studies linked women who supplement with fish oil or eat fish directly having more intelligent children, though the evidence is by no means conclusive (2).
There have been other findings that indicate DHA and EPA are also effective in protecting us from cognitive decline as we grow older. Science is still trying to work out just how effective such an intervention is, but it is reasonably well established that it would be wise to either take an Omega-3 supplement or at least ensure that you consume sufficient amounts of oily fish (3).
Nootropic 2: Vitamin B12
Obviously, this site does not recommend a vegan or vegetarian diet, but if you feel you must, then it is vital that you supplement with Vitamin B12 (4). It is an absolutely essential vitamin in regards to cognitive well-being. Given the content of many modern diets, and the fundamental need for B12 for cognitive health, it would be wise for the majority of people to supplement unless completely sure they are getting sufficient amounts in their diets.
To be clear, although there is ample evidence that regular intake of Vitamin B12 offers a degree of protection from the dangers of various maladies associated with cognitive decline, there is no such support for the idea that it will actually boost brain function in normal adults. We do need to start from a solid base, however. In that sense, a lack of B12 is clearly a fundamental danger to our cognitive health. Vegetarians and vegans need to be clearly aware of this and avoid being deficient. Fortunately, such a deficiency is easily avoided.
Nootropic 3: Vitamin D
It has only become readily apparent in recent years that the role of Vitamin D extends well beyond merely calcium absorption. It has now been clearly demonstrated that Vitamin D has neuroprotective properties, plays a role in neurogenesis and the expression of neurotrophic factors, and the clearance of amyloid-beta (the plaques seen in Alzheimer’s disease) (5).
Again, the evidence for cognitive boosting properties beyond the above is not so readily available. It does seem, from recent studies that took place at the University of Queensland, that Vitamin D plays a fundamental role in supporting what are known as Perineuronal Nets. These form a strong, supportive mesh around certain neurons. By doing so, they stabilize the contacts that these neurons make with other cells. This supportive process aids brain plasticity (6).
Nootropic 4: Vitamin E
Vitamin E is another example of a vitamin that plays a key role in neuroprotection. It seems to do this via its effect on limiting free radical damage. Vitamin E, and other antioxidants, protect cells from harm brought about through free radicals formed when the body converts food to energy. A deficiency in this vitamin is associated with a doubling of the risk of developing dementia. On the other hand, taking Vitamin E seems to offer a good measure of protection against the aging process as far as cognition is concerned (7).
Oxidative damage is a profound problem as we age. The body not only forms its own damaging free radicals endogenously (from within the body) but also when exposed to free radicals from the environment in the form of such things as pollution, radiation and industrial chemicals such as glyphosate (commonly used in agriculture). Because of such factors, we constantly need to be aware of the need to reinforce the body’s own antioxidants. Vitamin E is one of the most powerful weapons available to us to achieve this purpose (8).
Nootropic 5: Glutathione
Moving on from one form of antioxidant to perhaps the chief antioxidant utilised endogenously we arrive at Glutathione. Many experts in the field of cognitive decline, and cognition in general, believe that Glutathione levels play an absolutely critical role in our brain’s defences (9). Unfortunately, levels of Glutathione diminish dramatically as we age. Fortunately, there are measures we can take to increase our endogenous production this vital antioxidant.
Glutathione cannot be supplemented directly because of the digestive process itself. The supplement would be broken down in the stomach into its constituent parts. Because of this, a wiser course to follow is to supply the body with the nutrition it needs to help restore its levels of Glutathione. This can be achieved by eating sufficient sulfurous foods such as meat, eggs, poultry, and cruciferous vegetables. Vitamin C helps reprocess Glutathione so it is wise to ensure that you consume sufficient amounts each day. Selenium is a co-factor in the production of Glutathione. Fortunately, this is found in many of the foods recommended above. Of course, you can supplement as well if you so wish.
Nootropic 6: Acetyl L-Carnitine
Acetyl L-Carnitine is known to aid us to metabolise fatty acids but it also may be involved in several aspects of brain health. It is believed Acetyl L-Carnitine can improve mitochondrial function, the basis for cellular energy. This supplement is a precursor for acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that plays a vital role in brain and muscle function. Acetyl L-Carnitine supplementation has been shown to positively affect Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s patients where imbalances of acetylcholine were thought to be a contributing factor (10) (11).
Beyond its place as an aid and adjunct to treating age-related cognitive decline, many people believe that Acetyl L-Carnitine is a nootropic. This powerful supplement has also been linked to improvements in cognition, learning and memory, probably via its role in enhancing the function of acetylcholine. As stated above, it has clearly been shown to improve these factors in people suffering from various forms of cognitive decline but we do not yet have the studies to demonstrate similar gains in otherwise completely healthy adults. Having said that, and given its role in supporting acetylcholine, it would be somewhat surprising if it didn’t have any effect as a nootropic. In a 2012 study on mice, Acetyl L-Carnitine demonstrated some promise for its role in upregulating noradrenaline and serotonin whilst simultaneously decreasing levels of GABA, which otherwise would play an inhibitory role (12).
Nootropic 7: Phosphatidylserine
Technically speaking, phosphatidylserine is a type of phospholipid which is found in the membrane of our cells. Phospholipids are made up of two fatty acids, a phosphate group, and a glycol molecule. When many of these lipids line up they form the double layer that is characteristic of cell membranes. In the brain, phosphatidylserine affects signalling pathways used for communication and cell apoptosis. The latter is the pre-programmed, and necessary, death of a cell. Trials supplementing phosphatidylserine have demonstrated some degree of improved cognitive function, though others have shown little or no benefits.
As seems to be a regular pattern with supplementation in regards to cognition, many of the studies demonstrate a positive effect on people already suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s (13). On the other hand, evidence for improvement in people who are not in those categories is harder to come by. Some studies are compromised by mixing phosphatidylserine with DHA (from Omega 3s), hence the results are confounded to some extent (14). Research is ongoing but, at the time of writing, it would seem likely that, although such supplements are useful for treating people whose cognitive abilities are already somewhat compromised, the benefits for the rest of the population are less than clear.
Nootropic 8: Alpha Lipoic Acid
Alpha Lipoic Acid (ALA) is believed to play a key role as a neuroprotectant. It is a natural compound that can be found in cow’s hearts, brains, livers, and spleen. Good vegetable sources are spinach, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, and tomatoes. Of course, one can also simply take supplements directly. Its effect is mainly achieved through its role as an antioxidant. ALA is a very adaptable antioxidant as it can work in both fat and water, and easily crosses the blood-brain barrier, thus allowing it to work within the brain.
Much of what we understand as aging in the cell involves the health of mitochondria. This whole area is becoming the focus of much attention of late, some people even believing that rather than a keto diet in future, we may be more concerned with a ‘mito’ diet, ie one that focusses on the health of our mitochondria. ALA could be considered a fundamental part of such a diet because of its role in protecting mitochondria from the ravages of free radicals. In this sense, ALA can be thought of as a mitochondrial nutrient. It prevents the generation of oxidants, repairs damage, and elevates the activity of cofactors for enzymes that will stimulate the mitochondria (15).
Nootropic 9: Co-Enzyme Q10
Ubiquinone, otherwise known as Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) is a natural substance found in organ meats, fatty fish and some vegetables. It is converted into ubiquinol in the body. Cells utilise CoQ10 to convert food into energy. Our body also naturally makes this compound and stores it within the mitochondria of its cells. In particular, it stores CoQ10 in the brains, heart, lungs, and liver. Again, we are coming back to mitochondrial health, an ongoing theme it seems. This is yet another supplement that has shown some promise for treating people suffering from age-related cognitive decline (16). However, evidence for cognitive gains in younger, healthy subjects is much harder to come by.
Nootropic 10: Resveratrol
Resveratrol is a very powerful antioxidant that is much in vogue at the moment. This is probably due to the work of David Sinclair linking it to possible effects on longevity. Indeed, it is much discussed as one of the key supplements in this regard. The jury is still out on that one, although the signs are encouraging. In regards to cognitive enhancement though, there is some evidence that supplementing with Resveratrol can have positive effects on mood and disposition. Beyond that, however, the evidence is not so clear. We have some people who believe that it has a positive effect but others who point out that no clinical trial has demonstrated anything significant beyond mood enhancement. This is itself, of course, can render a person more productive, but in and of itself is a little disappointing if this is all we have to show.
Resveratrol is found in low levels in red wine and, at least to some extent, in grapes, chocolate, and berries. According to David Sinclair, Resveratrol may play a key role in the activation of sirtuins (Silent Information Regulator – 2, an enzyme that is fundamental to gene expression). Resveratrol is readily available as a supplement. This is perhaps the wiser way to administer the substance as the amount of red wine one would have to consume to benefit from its presence is gargantuan (because of this, any cognitive gains are likely to be negated by the ensuing drunken stupor).
A common technique in the field is the use of ‘stacking’. This means to take these cognitive supplements in groups of four or five in order to achieve the desired effect. The notion is that such a technique may have a synergistic effect, thus rendering the whole more than the sum of the parts.
In this article, we have tried to point the reader to cognitive supplements that appear to have the most support from the science. There are many, many other possibilities other than those included in the list above. To write the article, I have researched several books, many videos and seemingly countless online blogs. At the end of this process, I was left with the feeling that, although there are many supplements that could help stave off cognitive decline, there is not really that much that actually improves cognition. Many times, those taking such and such a nootropic will swear by its effects. Clinical studies do not seem to support such an assertion though. What we may be looking at in reality is a placebo effect: the more we believe, the more likely we are to see such effects in our lives.
As far as intelligence goes, it may be that we all have a certain potential. Good nutrition, a healthy lifestyle, a lack of stress, and enough good-quality sleep are likely to help us to fulfil this potential, at least to a reasonable extent. Beyond this level though, I think that it is unlikely that these supplements are likely to improve one’s underlying degree of intelligence. It may turn out to be much like height. There is a maximum potential that you may reach but no amount of good nutrition, or other factors, is going to allow you to grow beyond that potential.