It seems like ever since Bradley Cooper starred in Limitless, there’s been a massive increase in supplements claiming to enhance our cognitive abilities and boost overall productivity. They are often referred to as “Nootropics”. The popularity of these supplements may generally be a good thing—it shows a trend toward people wanting to achieve more, get more done, live better lives—but there’s just one problem…
Most “Nootropics” Don’t Work!
They’re just a bunch of pseudo-scientific herbs that may support cognitive function in people who are sick or getting so old they’re losing it, but won’t help you if you’re a healthy, young person just looking for a mental edge.
That said, there are a few supplements that can actually improve cognitive function in initially healthy individuals, so if you’re that person looking for a cognitive edge, you may be in luck.
Just to be clear, there is no magic pill out there that will make you feel and perform like Bradley Cooper in Limitless. It’s a fictional tale. What does exist, however, are supplements that can enhance your cognitive abilities slightly, but noticeably. If you optimize certain aspects of cognitive function, over time, you’ll become more intelligent.
Measuring Intelligence Is Tough…
Measuring overall intelligence is pretty difficult. Certain people are better at certain things. That’s just the way it is. What we can measure, however, are things like memory and attention. Much of what we consider to be “intelligence” is actually just a combination of these two components.
Many so-called “geniuses” simply have photographic or near photographic memories. Remember everything you see, hear, learn, etc. and you’ll be smarter. Is that really so surprising? Any supplement that can improve your memory, in effect, can make you smarter.
If memory is one half of the equation, attention is the other half. You can’t remember things you don’t pay attention to and much of what we learn is limited by our ability to pay attention. Sometimes our brains just don’t feel like accepting information and if we don’t receive. Improving the brain’s ability to pay attention to things would be a simply way to improve your intelligence over the long-term.
CDP Choline, otherwise known as Citicoline, is a highly bioavailable cholinergic compound which is comprised of Choline and Cytidine. Upon ingestion, it is easily able to cross the blood brain barrier where it’s converted into Acetylcholine and Uridine.
Uridine may be useful for optimizing brain health, but Acetylcholine is generally the target of CDP Choline supplementation. It is the neurotransmitter most closely associated attention and processing information. Many Nootropics supposedly work by increasing Acetylcholine levels, but very few have actually been shown to do so in a living model.
CDP Choline is one of those few that has actually been shown to raise Acetylcholine in a living model. This is entirely consistent with the results of a recent study in which CDP Choline supplementation (250mg/day) resulted in notable improvements in attention in normal, healthy adults.
Bacopa is an adaptogenic herb which has been used pretty extensively throughout various systems of ancient medicine, mostly as a stress reliever and cognitive enhancer.
Contrary to most herbs that are touted as cognitive enhancers, research indicates that Bacopa actually works. Not only can this amazing herb reduce stress, but it also increases the speed at which neurons communicate with each other, leading to improvements in brain function.
Bacopa has been shown to reliably increase memory formation. Not just in elderly/demented subjects, but in perfectly healthy individuals as well. This makes it one of the few herbal supplements that’s actually deserving of the title “Nootropic”.
Phosphatidylserine is a phospholipid which is found throughout various tissues in the body and is particularly concentrated in the brain where it serves as a major component of cell membranes. For this reason, it has long been suspected to play a vital role in cognitive health.
In mice, Phosphatidylserine has been shown to increase memory formation, not just in elderly mice with declining cognitive ability, but also in young mice.
In humans, Phosphatldylserine has been shown, in several studies, to reduce cognitive decline and improve memory in the elderly. Naturally, because of the amount of research that occurs in the area of age-related cognitive decline (alzheimers, dementia, etc.), most of the studies involving Phosphatidylserine and cognitive ability are in subjects with some sort of cognitive issue, but this doesn’t mean it isn’t worth supplementing with if you’re healthy.
It has been shown to enhance the cognitive improvements seen with Gingko Biloba supplementation as well as synergistically enhance the cognitive benefits of Fish Oil. Beyond cognitive enhancement, Phosphatidylserine also has powerful anti-stress and Cortisol-lowering effects which may translate into better mental performance.
Are These 3 Supplements Stackable?
Although no studies have actually been conducted using these three supplements individually vs together, it makes sense that they would work well together because each has an entirely seperate—though perhaps equally important—mechanism of action. Most multi-ingredient Nootropics make the mistake of using redundant ingredients that work the same way. A better approach would be to select ingredients that support different aspects of cognitive function.
The Bottom Line On Nootropics
Most supplements promoted as cognitive enhancers don’t actually work. Many of them utilize ingredients that may help preserve healthy cognitive function in instances of decline (like old age or certain diseases), but if you’re a healthy person looking for a mental edge, most of these products are a waste of money.
That said, there are a few supplements (ingredients) which have actually been shown to improve cognitive function in healthy individuals and are therefore worthwhile for healthy individuals looking for a brain-boost. As with any supplement, managing expectations is important. Are you going to be Bradley Cooper from Limitless? No, of course not, but isn’t a slight mental edge better than nothing?
- Kataoka-Kato, Akito, et al. “Enhanced learning of normal adult rodents by repeated oral administration of soybean transphosphatidylated phosphatidylserine.” Journal of pharmacological sciences 98.3 (2005): 307-314.
- Richter, Yael, et al. “The effect of phosphatidylserine-containing omega-3 fatty acids on memory abilities in subjects with subjective memory complaints: a pilot study.” Clin Interv Aging 5.313 (2010): 6.
- Kennedy, D. O., et al. “Acute cognitive effects of standardised Ginkgo biloba extract complexed with phosphatidylserine.” Human Psychopharmacology: Clinical and Experimental 22.4 (2007): 199-210.