Nootropics 101: Boosting Brain Health for Longevity and Vitality
Discussing brain health can get technical with terms like "executive performance," "recall," and "cognitive function" that may not be relatable to everyday benefits. But the truth is, prioritizing your brain health profoundly impacts daily joy, fulfillment, and purpose — far beyond simply remembering where you left your keys.
It means that instead of leaving your best days behind you, you extend the years ahead of you to make memories with loved ones, nurture relationships, and connect to the world around you. Instead of sitting in the corner at family parties, barely able to recognize your grandkids, you’re in the kitchen teaching your great-grandkids how to make your famous chocolate chip cookies.
Reasons like these are driving a surge of interest in nootropics (AKA smart drugs) to improve long-term brain function and health. But do nootropics really work, and are they safe?
We’ll cover all of this and more in this article so that you feel confident about your options for protecting your brain for the many happy years ahead.
What Are Nootropics?
Nootropic is a broad term covering any substance that impacts brain function, including medications, supplements, and even foods.
Many people regularly consume these substances. The caffeine in your morning coffee is a widely recognized nootropic that boosts alertness and focus.
Nootropics can be naturally or synthetically derived, each having unique effects on the body. For example, many medications are available to treat mood and memory disorders. While specific vitamins, minerals, nutrients, and herbs may help energize and protect brain cells and function.
How Do Nootropics Work To Protect Brain Health?
When it comes to sustaining optimal brain function over the lifespan, nootropics may help:
- Fuel your brain. Your brain needs a lot of energy, accounting for about 20% of your daily energy needs. It requires a constant fuel supply for neuron (brain cell) turnover and to transmit information throughout your body. Nootropics can facilitate energy delivery to the brain and enhance each neuron’s ability to generate energy within the mitochondria to meet these demands.
- Improve brain cell communication. Neurons communicate via neurotransmitters. Acetylcholine (ACh) is a neurotransmitter involved in memory, learning, and cognition. Some nootropics may boost ACh synthesis and receptor sensitivity and inhibit breakdown, leading to improved cognitive function.
- Enhance blood flow to the brain. Healthy circulation in and out of the brain is required to deliver oxygen and nutrients to brain tissue and remove waste. Cerebral blood flow tends to diminish relative to age. Over time, this can lead to the deterioration of brain tissue. Some nootropics enhance and protect the brain's vascular system, maintaining optimal blood flow.
- Protect your brain from age-related functional decline. Harmful exposures, nutrient deficiencies, and the production of free radicals during metabolism are regular occurrences in life. These factors can accumulate and contribute to reducing brain function over time. Nootropics can protect the brain from this decline by boosting antioxidant capacity and neuron resilience to stress.
7 Promising Nootropics For Long-Term Brain Health
Although no supplement can compensate for an unhealthy diet, these seven promising nootropics may help boost brain health when combined with a balanced diet.
Keep in mind this is an active area of research, and more studies are needed to form a scientific consensus on their effectiveness and long-term safety. Consult your doctor before considering these options to determine the best course of action to meet your goals.
Rich in omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, fish oils are one of the most studied supplements for boosting brain health.
DHA is vital for building neuron cells, while EPA protects brain tissue from stress-related damage with its anti-inflammatory properties.
Although evidence is mixed on the direct long-term benefits of fish oil for brain health, a deficiency in DHA is linked to age-related brain shrinkage, a marker of cognitive decline. Moreover, these fatty acids protect cardiovascular function, which can help promote proper blood flow to the brain.
Experts recommend eating two servings of fish weekly to meet EPA and DHA requirements for good health, which some people find difficult to achieve. In these cases, supplementation can fill this gap.
Magnesium plays a crucial role in regulating communication within your nervous system. In doing so, magnesium protects brain cells from excitotoxicity, a condition that results from the overstimulation of neurons, leading to cell damage and death in the brain.
Magnesium deficiency is linked to inflammation and cognitive decline. Yet, roughly 50% of adults are estimated to fall short of meeting dietary magnesium requirements, and the risk of deficiency increases with age.
Lab studies have shown boosting magnesium levels in the brain enhances the number, strength, and flexibility of neuronal connections throughout brain tissue responsible for learning and memory. However, it’s challenging for most magnesium supplements to impact the brain due to their poor absorption and inability to cross the blood-brain barrier.
Magnesium L-threonate is a supplement that is well absorbed and effective at raising magnesium levels in the body, though it’s unclear if this translates to increases in brain tissue. Still, small human studies have reported improved cognitive function after supplementation with magnesium L-threonate.
While more research is needed, meeting daily magnesium intake requirements is crucial for supporting brain health. Magnesium L-threonate may be valuable for meeting these recommendations and protecting cognitive function in aging populations.
The golden spice turmeric is considered a superfood due to its main ingredient, curcumin.
Researchers are investigating curcumin's potential to protect the brain and improve mood. Its effects are linked to its potent antioxidant properties that can fight inflammation and preserve brain cell function.
Laboratory studies have even shown that curcumin may prevent the abnormal accumulation of proteins, a key characteristic of cognitive dysfunction.
While not all studies agree, there is clinical evidence supporting the effectiveness of curcumin. A review of several studies found that curcumin supplementation improved memory and processing speed in healthy older adults. However, long-term curcumin supplementation may negatively impact adults with existing cognitive impairment.
The effectiveness of curcumin may come down to the quality of supplements used, as products with the highest bioavailability appear to show the most significant promise.
Ginkgo biloba extracts, which are derived from an ancient Chinese tree, have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for a long time. Today, ginkgo supplements are best known for their potential memory-boosting benefits.
Ginkgo leaves contain potent neuroprotective antioxidants — flavonoids and terpenoids — that repair and protect brain cells and may also protect your cardiovascular system, allowing for healthy blood flow to and from your brain.
Several studies have shown that supplementation with ginkgo biloba is well tolerated and can improve memory, learning, social behavior, and mood. However, there’s conflicting evidence regarding the dosage and efficacy of this supplement in healthy individuals compared to those with cognitive impairments.
As deeper research continues, we’ll likely discover the full potential of this time-tested natural remedy.
Huperzine A is a natural compound found in certain mosses, which may positively affect brain health.
Laboratory studies show it works by inhibiting the activity of an enzyme that breaks down acetylcholine, an essential neurotransmitter for learning and memory. It also acts to enhance antioxidant activity, offering neuroprotective benefits. Finally, it may improve energy production within the mitochondria of neurons.
Clinical evidence suggests that huperzine A can improve cognitive function in people with diagnosed cognitive dysfunction. Continued research is underway to assess the full breadth of benefits.
Bacopa monnieri is a traditional Ayurvedic herb used to enhance brain function for centuries.
Studies have demonstrated that bacopa monnieri supplements can improve cognitive processing and memory. These actions are due to the presence of bacosides, active compounds in the herb that protect the brain from oxidative stress and enhance signaling in the hippocampus, an area of the brain responsible for processing memories.
The effects of bacopa monnieri are not immediate, and it may take several months to achieve maximum benefits.
Pomegranate juice may positively affect brain health, as it is rich in ellagitannins.
Studies have shown that daily consumption of pomegranate juice can protect cognitive function, specifically visual learning and retention in adults over 60. A 2019 year-long study found that a daily 8-oz serving of pomegranate juice prevented declines in visual learning functions in adults with an average age of 60.
Pomegranate may work through the gut microbiome, improving the health of gut bacteria, which in turn affects brain function.
Nootropics To Avoid For Long-Term Brain Health
The growing interest in protecting brain health and societal expectations for high achievement has created a ripe market for nootropic supplements.
While some products show promise, many have no effect — or worse, may hurt the long-term health of your brain. These include:
- Nootropic stimulants. Excessive caffeine intake or abuse of stimulant herbs or medications can interfere with healthy sleep patterns and cardiovascular health, causing high blood pressure and rapid heart rate. These effects negatively impact long-term brain health.
- St. Johns Wort. Often touted for its ability to treat depressive symptoms, St. Johns wort impacts neurotransmitter uptake resulting in a calming effect. The trouble is this natural remedy also interacts with the function of multiple medications, including common anti-depressants. Interrupting the ability of necessary medicines can lead to poor long-term health.
- Supplements with propriety combination ingredients. Skip any products that are not transparent about the exact ingredients and precise amounts included. You should also be wary of products with a long list of combination ingredients. Very little research has been done on the effect and interactions of taking these medications together.
Safety and Risks of Using Nootropics For Brain Health
Nootropic products' transparency, purity, and potency are top safety concerns.
Supplements are loosely regulated, and testing by consumer watch groups has shown the contents of even well-known products can vary drastically. For this reason, purchasing products from a reputable brand is critically important.
Look for products from companies that are transparent about the ingredients and dosages used and show documentation of their manufacturing practices. You should ideally only purchase products that have been third-party tested to verify purity and potency.
Medication, food, and supplement interactions are another major concern. Nothing lives in isolation in your body. Many of these supplements significantly interact with certain medications, impact the absorption and utilization of certain nutrients, and interact with each other. Your doctor can help guide you on the safest choices for your health.
Keeping your brain healthy tremendously impacts the number and quality of years in your life. Maintaining a healthy diet full of foods rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, and healthy fats is among the best ways to protect your brain health.
However, certain nootropic supplements may help boost your brain health efforts, though research is ongoing in this area. Discuss these options with your doctor to create a strategic plan to optimize your brain health.
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