In a world where cognitive performance is considered a clear advantage to succeed—whether as a student or a busy professional—it’s not surprising the idea of popping a pill to enhance your brainpower is appealing to many. And marketers have noticed: the market for cognitive enhancers is a multi-billion dollar industry.
Between drinks supplemented with “adaptogenic extracts”, “cognitive enhancing supplements”, “nootropics” and “brain foods”, it’s hard to tell genuine science from snake oil. Let’s take a quick dive into the complex and often confusing world of nutritional neuroscience.
Obligatory disclaimer: I’m not a doctor, this is not medical advice, and if you have any health concerns or want to significantly change your diet, you should consult with a professional.
What really qualifies as a nootropic
These days, if you go to a health-oriented store, everything seems to qualify as a nootropic. These supplements often claim to help with memory, creativity, and even motivation. However, there are strict criteria that define what a nootropic is and what it isn’t. The term “nootropic” was coined by psychologist and chemist Corneliu Giurgea in 1972. The researcher defined precise standards for nootropics:
- Enhancement of learning acquisition. A nootropic should help with improvement in working memory and learning.
- Improved cognition under stress. A nootropic should still manage to xsupport brain function under adverse conditions such as low oxygen at the tissue level.
- Enhanced resistance to brain aggressions. A nootropic should protect the brain from chemical or physical toxicity.
- Demonstrated biological activity. A nootropic should show actual bioactivity rather than a placebo effect.
- Facilitation of transfer of information. A nootropic should help information flow better across the brain.
- Absence of usual pharmacological effects of neuro-psychotropic drugs. A nootropic should not be toxic to humans and not have any significant side effects.
As you can imagine, very few so-called nootropics do fit these standards. The queen of nootropics which fits all criteria is caffeine: one of the very few substances that has been demonstrated to improve cognitive function without significant side effects, with actual bioactivity rather than a placebo effect. In contrast, an interesting one is nicotine: studies suggest improved cognitive and motor functions, but it’s highly toxic and addictive, so doesn’t fit the bill as a nootropic as envisioned by Corneliu Giurgea.
There are many drugs that have proven modest efficacy in people with cognitive impairment—such as Alzheimer—but extremely few nootropics provide any benefits for healthy adults. Some studies show that L-theanine may be more effective in combination with caffeine. Some other studies suggest potential contenders such as ginkgo biloba, but most have failed to demonstrate a clear cognitive improvement and safety in humans.
That’s a lot of guesswork for unpredictable results. In short, if you do need a little bit of a cognitive boost, stick to caffeine. And remember it can also be addictive and disturb your sleep, so try to not go overboard with the daily cuppas.
Adaptogens or the darlings of marketers
While there are very few nootropics worth the hard work of figuring out the right combination and dosing, at least the concept of nootropic has been defined in such a way that you can apply some criteria to decide which are worth your curiosity. Not so much with adaptogens, which have a muddier origin story.
The concept of adaptogens was coined in 1947 by Nikolay Vasilievich Lazarev, a Russian toxicologist, to describe substances that may increase resistance to biological stress. The former Soviet Union invested in research to discover such substances. Subsequently, most of the studies conducted on adaptogenic substances were performed in the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea, and have been mostly dismissed because of methodological flaws.
As a result, the term “adaptogen” is currently banned in the European Union for pharmacological products, and product manufacturers have to be particularly careful when using the term in combination with any health claims. Similarly, in the United States, companies have received warnings from the Food & Drugs Administration for using the term “adaptogen” to claim their product could prevent or treat numerous disease conditions.
Despite the lack of evidence, the concept of adaptogens is well and alive—maybe because the term has a nice ring to it and may lend authority to products that claim to be evidence-based.
A good rule of thumb is to stay away from products labelled as adaptogenic, or to buy them just because you like the taste, without any expectations in terms of health improvements. Instead of adaptogenic products, go for well-established herbal products that are more evidence-based, extremely safe, and have been used for a long time for their benefits. These include:
- Chamomile. Consumed for centuries for its calming properties, chamomile can be used as a natural sleep aid. Other uses with early but promising results include soothing an upset stomach and reducing anxiety. In any case, chamomile is extremely safe to consume and many people drink chamomile tea just for its enjoyable taste.
- Lavender. Not everyone likes the smell, but lavender has also been used for a long time as a traditional remedy for stress and anxiety. Some of the chemicals in lavender essential oil may indeed interact with chemical receptors in the brain to produce a calming effect.
- Passionflower. With a good safety profile and a long history of being used for insomnia and stress, passionflower is also a great option. Research suggests passionflower can indeed help with stress and anxiety symptoms. Another infusion to add to your cupboard instead of highly processed so-called adaptogenic drinks.
More recently, some research suggests that CBD may have a calming effect on the central nervous system, but it’s extremely early and probably better to stick to the good oldies—even if they don’t work for you, they at least won’t cause any unexpected adverse effects.
Brain food is just healthy food
Compared to the rest of the body, the brain consumes an immense amount of energy. It’s not surprising that specific nutrients can affect cognitive processes. In essence, what you may call “brain foods” are foods that contain more of these useful nutrients.
Our brain needs vitamins such as vitamin D, A, B1 (thiamin), B3 (niacin), B9 (folate), as well as zinc, iron, copper, magnesium, and manganese. It also needs a source of energy, which can come from carbohydrates or ketones. And a few other things such as glutamate and some lipids. Sounds complicated?
The good news is: you probably don’t need to get out of your way to get all these nutrients, as a generally balanced diet should provide your brain with everything it needs, and many food manufacturers are supplementing their products with all the basic nutrients.
For instance, research shows that these easily-available foods should give your brain all the nutrients it needs: green vegetables, fatty fish, meat, eggs, dairy products, berries, citrus fruits, olives, almonds, walnuts. If you have dietary restrictions, there are even better news: you can mix and match most of these and there are probably foods that can replace some of the ones you can’t eat.
Again, food manufacturers are often fortifying their products with whatever nutrients your diet may be lacking. For instance, it’s common for plant-based milks to be supplemented with vitamin B12, which we usually get from meat and dairy products. (manufacturers use synthetic vitamin B12 so the product is still vegan)
A little bit of an outlier when it comes to “brain foods” is mushrooms. For instance, some early studies suggest that lion’s mane may help with symptoms of depression, and many mushrooms have psycho-active properties which may be used as cognitive enhancers. This is a fascinating area of research which may yield many great discoveries in the near future.
However, many studies so far have been only conducted on animals, and using psychedelics to enhance creativity and productivity is not currently encouraged by health administrations. For now, it’s probably safer to stick to mushrooms for their delicious taste and versatility rather than as a way to improve your cognitive function.
A summary of nutritional neuroscience
Nutritional neuroscience can be confusing, and many marketers are making the most of its complexity to promote products based on dubious health claims. When looking for products that increase your brain power, remember:
- Nootropics. Nootropics have very specific standards, and caffeine is probably the only one you can currently use with confidence. (and it’s not even necessary for normal cognitive function, but can be used as a little boost when needed)
- Adaptogens. There is very little conclusive research around adaptogens, which is a popular term to make a product sound more serious. Instead of adaptogens to reduce stress, go for your good old traditional herbs such as chamomile and lavender. The evidence is more-or-less established, but at least they are known to be extremely safe—and they smell nice!
- Brain foods. Don’t overpay for foods labelled as “brain foods”. Instead, stick to healthy foods and try to have a balanced diet so your brain gets all the nutrients it needs. Don’t worry too much about it: if you make sure to have a balanced diet with enough green vegetables, proteins, and healthy sources of fat, you should be all good. (mushrooms are an outlier, but more research is needed)
And remember: beyond what you ingest, there are many other lifestyle decisions you can make that can have a massive impact on your brain health, such as getting enough sleep, drinking enough water, not drinking too much alcohol, and regular exercise. The reality of nutritional neuroscience is a bit more boring than some marketers would like you to believe, but it’s a good thing: it means you don’t need to break the bank to take good care of your brain.