One day, we may be able to make ourselves superintelligent with futuristic biotechnology. We're not there yet, but for the impatient among us there are still some things we can do to give us that little extra bit of brain power. By supplementing with so-called 'nootropics,' you may not become the next Stephen Hawking, but you may experience some noticeable improvements to your learning abilities, memory, mental clarity, and mood. Here are ten supplements you can take today to boost your intelligence.
Before we get started, a disclaimer: consult with your doctor prior to taking any of these (except the dark chocolate — feel free to eat that with reckless abandon). While most of the supplements listed in this article are fairly benign, you still need to make sure that you're healthy enough to take them, and that you're not susceptible to any allergic or negative reactions. Cool? Cool.
Similarly, while we make some dosage recommendations, you must adhere to the dosage instructions as described on the package of your particular product.
Also, it's crucial that you not blindly go ahead and start consuming all of these supplements at once. Unless otherwise noted, all studies cited in this article assessed the cognitive benefits of these compounds in isolation. By combining two or more of these supplements, you risk creating a cocktail effect in which the benefits may not work — and you might actually start to feel worse.
And lastly, you'll also want to measure and track any potential benefits you glean from these supplements. We are all different, so some may not work in the way described. Keep a log and see which supplements works best for you.
Alright, with that out of the way, here's the list (in no particular order):
Creatine, a nitrogenous organic acid that occurs naturally in animals, is quickly becoming a popular supplement — and not just because it boosts muscle power (which it does by helping to supply energy to cells in the body and assisting in the growth of muscle fibres). Physiological benefits aside, creatine has also been shown to improve memory and attention span. Scientists have discovered that it plays a pivotal role in brain energy homeostasis, acting as a buffer for cytosolic and mitochondrial pools of cellular energy. Start by taking about 5,000 mg per day, or better yet, follow the dosage instructions specified by your specific product.
Caffeine on its own is not a great cognitive enhancer. In fact, studies show that it doesn't usually improve performance in learning and memory tasks, though its stimulant properties may occasionally have beneficial effects on cognitive performance and mood (though temporarily — what is usually accompanied by jitters and a crash). Now that said, when consumed in conjunction with L-theanine, a common amino acid found in green tea, it does in fact create more long-lasting and beneficial effects, including a boost to working memory, rapid visual information processing, and especially attention switching (i.e. reduced distractibility). The reason this works is that the L-theanine, which can cross the blood-brain barrier, counteracts the negative stimulant effects of caffeine, including anxiety and increased blood pressure. Researchers have found that this effect can be achieved with 50 mg of caffeine (that's about a cup of coffee) and 100 mg of L-theanine (green tea only contains about 5-8 mg of it, so you'll want to supplement — though some people follow a 2:1 rule in which they drink two cups of green tea for every cup of coffee).
Dark chocolate — or more accurately the cocoas found in chocolate — contain flavanols, a phytochemical that has cognitive enhancing effects (as well as impacting positively on mood and cardiovascular health). It works through the action of antioxidant molecules, what stimulates brain perfusion and an array of other neurological processes in regions that involve learning and memory. Though not as powerful as some of the other supplements listed here, dark chocolate is readily accessible and a treat to eat. That said, be sure to avoid super-sweet dark chocolate, otherwise the sugar will counter many of its benefits (so start getting used to 90% cacao). Go ahead and eat about 35 to 200 grams a day, but divide it out evenly.
This combination is probably the most popular stack used by nootropic buffs. Piracetam, what is also known as Nootropyl or Lucetam, works by improving the functioning of (ACh) transmitters and receptors. Though primarily prescribed by doctors for people suffering from Alzheimer's, depression, and even schizophrenia, it is used off-label by healthy adults as a way to boost acetylcholine function — what is an important neurotransmitter. But in order to experience its benefits, including increased mental clarity, spatial memory, and an overall boost in brain functioning, choline needs to be ingested along with it. Choline, as a water-soluble essential nutrient, works with the Piracetam and is often used to prevent headaches that is sometimes associated with its use (see, this is why we told you to see a doctor before trying any of this stuff). An effective dose would be 300 mg of Piracetam plus 300 mg of Choline three times per day (about every four hours or so). Those willing to step it up a bit can also try the Focus XT + Piracetam stack. And interestingly, Piracetam is a popular supplement in the subculture of lucid dreaming.
Omega-3 fatty acids are a common compound that's found in fish oil (which can be consumed directly via fish oil pills), grass-fed livestock, walnuts, flaxseed, and beans. It has been a staple brain food for quite some time now, and is increasingly being used as a dietary supplement to stave off the effects of age-related cognitive decline, including neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's. And encouragingly, a recent study published in PLOS has shown that the same brain boosting effects can also work for perfectly healthy adults. Benefits of Omega-3 DHA/EPA include an improved ability to focus and it acts as a mood enhancer. In terms of dosage, about 1,200 mg to 2,400 mg per day should suffice (about 1-2 fish oil pills).
Found primarily in northern India, Bacopa monnieri is a perennial creeping herb that's been used for centuries to enhance memory, learning, and overall cognitive performance (in addition to its use as an anti-inflammatory, analgesic, antipyretic, and sedative). The active ingredients responsible for these effects include sulfhydryl and polyphenol, compounds that lessen oxidative stress. A reasonable dose would include 150 mg of bacosides each day. And for those looking to improve their long term memory, you might want to stack this with the Piracetam + choline combo.
Ginkgo Biloba extract comes from maidenhair, an extremely unique tree native to China that has no relatives — what is considered a living fossil. Extracts of Ginkgo leaves contain flavonoid glycosides and terpenoids (ginkgolides, bilobalides) which are renowned for their pharmacological benefits, including their ability to improve memory and concentration. Recently, Ginkgo biloba extract has been used to help dementia patients, although its ability to stave off Alzheimer's is contested. Recent studies have shown that it can significantly improve the speed of attention factor in healthy adults, peaking about 2.5 hours after intake. Other cognitive benefits include increased attention, faster memorization speed, and improved quality of memory. Some studies, however, suggest that Ginkgo doesn't work well as an enhancer. And dosage is critical; studies have shown that 120 mg per day is too little, so you'll want to boost it up to a single 240 mg or 360 mg dose each day. Also, Ginkgo biloba is commonly stacked with Bacopa monnieri, though its synergistic effects are contested.
Asian ginseng, what's been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years, is a remarkable supplement in that it hits virtually all the marks; it can be used to improve working memory, attention, calmness, mood, and even reduce fatigue. It's a slow-growing perennial with fleshy roots — one that can decrease fasted blood-glucose levels and modulate cognitive performance in healthy adults. Go ahead and take about 500 mg twice a day.
Rhodiola rosea can certainly be used to improve cognition and memory, but its real power comes from the way it reduces feelings of fatigue and anxiety — what can definitely improve your overall performance. It's a plant that thrives in colder climates, including arctic regions — and it has extremely beneficial phytochemicals that northern folks in Russia and Scandinavia have been taking advantage of for years; the herb has an affect on serotonin and dopamine levels due to monoamine oxidase inhibition. Studies have shown that Rhodiola rosea can improve a person's overall level of mental and stress-induced fatigue and complex perceptive and cerebral functions (such as associative thinking, short-term memory, calculation, ability of concentration, and speed of audio-visual perception). In terms of dosage, take anywhere from 100 mg to 1,000 mg each day, but divide it into two equal doses.
Found in Spain and southern France, Salvia lavandulaefolia is an aromatic herb that boosts acetylcholine function. Studies have shown that it can enhance memory and mood in healthy young adults, as well as having benefits for those with Alzheimer's. Spanish sage has other beneficial attributes, including anxiolytic (calming), antioxidant, estrogenic, anti-depressive, and anti-inflammatory properties. A reasonable dose would be 300 mg of dried sage leaf once a day.
Top image: Shutterstock/agsandrew; creatine; dark chocolate:avs/shutterstock; omega-3:nikkytok/shutterstock; Ginkgo: tihis/shutterstock; rhodiola:moritorus/shutterstock.