What Should I Look For In A Nootropic Stack?
We Keep You Up-To-Date With The Best Nootropic Substances Around Today
The best nootropics utilise safe yet potent herbal extracts and other natural compounds to deliver real, tangible improvements in cognitive function.
Good nootropics can enhance memory function (retention and recall), increase attention and focus, and help you stay calm during times of peak stress. They can increase mental energy, facilitate clarity, and promote verbal fluidity. The best products do all of these things while also promoting long-term brain health. A small number actually stimulate physical brain development.
Essentially, good nootropic stacks get the brain firing on all cylinders, increasing the fuel supply to the brain in order to sustain that performance enhancement, while also supporting brain health, which allows the grey matter to become adapted to its new level of functioning. The best supplements will always look to put the brain in a position to grow in the long-term while enhancing performance in the shot-term.
Importantly, genuinely good nootropics will take a long-term approach to cognitive enhancement. They will provide a blend of ingredients which promote brain function over months and years. Ideally, they will deliver lasting, permanent improvements in mental performance – few products do this, but some of the best do.
This is a much healthier approach to improving cognitive performance than simply plying the brain full of stimulants or synthetic brain drugs.
But there are so many products out there, and they’re all claiming to be the best on the market. Every nootropic supplement says that it provides a blend of the best, most effective brain boosting substances. They all claim to be able to do amazing things for your brain.
But in reality, very few even come close to delivering.
There’s so much misinformation out there, it’s almost impossible for the average consumer to make a good, informed decision when choosing a natural nootropic.
That’s where we come in!
Listed below are the best ingredients for any brain boosting, memory enhancing supplement. If you’re looking for a high quality, safe, and effective natural nootropic, then some combination of the below ingredients is vital.
The exact formula you are looking for will very much depend on whether you’re looking for memory enhancement, improved focus, or all-over brain health. But if you see a formula full of the ingredients below and very few of the ingredients on this list, you know you’re dealing with a quality product representing good value for money.
The Best Nootropic Ingredients (According To Science!)
This herb (also known as Brahmi to Hindus) has long been used as a nootropic and general tonic by people around the world. It is found naturally in temperate wetlands, meaning it is relatively common in Southern India, Northern Australia, parts of Europe, Africa, and South America. However, it is most commonly associated with traditional Hindu medicine (Ayurveda), as it grows most abundantly in India.
Traditional uses have ranged from treating anemia to tumors, but careful study is revealing that it has some potentially powerful neuro-protective and cognitive enhancing properties.
Some recent studies have identified Bacopa monnieri as having strong anti-oxidative properties, and several, more focused studies have demonstrated the importance of the herb’s anti-oxidant function on promoting brain health.
Bacopa is now undergoing closer study to asses whether supplementation brings a number of impressive benefits, including: reducing anxiety, enhancing your ability to retain memories, reducing the strain of stress on the central nervous system, and increasing neuron communicative capacity.
Bacopa is now essentially accepted as being a memory enhancing supplement. A number of well-respected studies have found that it significantly improved memory acquisition and retention. Some participants in these studies did experience mild side effects, but at lower dosages this should not occur.
The mechanism by which Huperzine A supports cognitive function, memory, and overall mental well-being is both well-documented and easy to explain. Huperzine A inhibits the creation of acetylcholinesterase; an enzyme responsible for the breakdown of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. The absence of this enzyme means more acetylcholine is available for use in the brain, which means improved focus, enhanced memory function, and more efficienct brain cell maintenance.
While it does have multiple nootropic properties, the main way that greater acetylcholine benefits you is by improving memory function.
This is all very well documented in the scientific literature. Clinical trials in China have shown that Huperzine A “significantly improved memory deficits in older people with benign senescent forgetfulness, and patients with Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia”, all without any unwanted side effects or toxicity. In short, a must for any memory enhancer.
Cholinergics (Citicoline, Alpha-GPC & Choline Bitartrate)
Choline has well established nootropic and neuro-protective properties. It is a water-soluble nutrient found naturally in food, but serious users of nootropics, or those interested in enhancing brain function to the highest possible degree, will invariably need to supplement.
In terms of cognitive enhancement, choline is the precursor for acetylcholine; an essential neurotransmitter for the function of memory, both long and short term, concentration, and also for muscle control. Acetylcholine, when in abundant supply, will also facilitate lucid dreaming.
One study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, concluded that “ higher concurrent choline intake was related to better cognitive performance” among the dementia free cohort of just under 1400 participants. Suffices to say, choline is a necessary ingredient for any professional-grade natural nootropic supplement.
There are multiple compounds capable of quickly raising choline availability in the brain, and by extension, raising acetylcholine levels. Some of the more basic, like Choline Bitartrate, need to be dosed relatively high to have the desired effects.
Others, like Citicoline or Alpha-GPC, can be used more sparingly since they are much more efficient and potent. Citicoline, or CDP-Choline as it is also known, works quickly, visibly improving focus and working memory in a matter of days. Alpha-GPC works just as fast, and only needs to be taken in doses of around 200-300mg.
In our opinion, the top choice of cholinergic is CDP-Choline. This stuff is incredibly effective at elevating acetylcholine availability in the brain, and it has the added benefit of being a precursor to uridine.
Rhodiola rosea is easily one of the most effective, reliable, and safest natural nootropic substances in existence. If we were constructing a stack with just 3 ingredients, and we wanted to cover as many bases as possible, we would take Bacopa monnnieri, a powerful cholinergic, and rhodiola rosea.
Rhodiola rosea is known to significantly reduce feelings of stress, anxiety and depression. It enhances focus and memory function while you are under acute mental stress, and it drastically reduces mental fatigue. Studies have actually shown significant improvements in test scores in subjects using rhodiola rosea when they were placed under stress. It is thought to also contribute to better overall health, and some studies even suggest it has life-prolonging properties.
Some preliminary studies have suggested that it encourages neurogenesis; the proliferation of new brain cells. More research is needed here, but for now it is clear that rhodiola rosea’s power as a nootropic is well established. If a memory or focus supplement lacks rhodiola rosea, then it is, in our opinion, incomplete.
When you see vinpocetine listed on an ingredients list, it is most likely a straight periwinkle extract. It is thought to act as an anti-oxidant, ridding the blood of toxins and protecting brain cells from damage, as well as preventing inflammation. Its main use when supplementing orally is therefore neuroprotection.
More interestingly, one study observed that vinpocetine improved blood flow to the brain without raising blood pressure systemically.
It is used as a nootropic and memory enhancing supplement around the world, with popularity in Europe on the up, judging by how often it is included in formulas there.
While it has been used for decades as a herbal medicine and general brain supplement, claims that it can improve memory and focus have recently been vindicated by several clinical studies.
Tyrosine is an often overlooked ingredient, as it at first seems to be just a humble amino acid. We do indeed consume Tyrosine in our natural diet. When that is the case, it is rare for something to have any serious potential with regards to boosting performance.
But Tyrosine has some real nootropic power if used correctly.
More specifically, Tyrosine is known to support cognitive function during acute physical and emotional stress. Consuming Tyrosine significantly improves cognitive function in people subjected to serious mental strain, be it from exercise, lack of sleep, or emotional pressure, compared to baseline.
Tyrosine has been used by athletes for a long time to aid with performance on the playing field. However, we are now learning that Tyrosine has just as much efficacy when deployed in the examination hall, the board room, and so on.
If used correctly, meaning on a daily basis, coupled with the right ingredients, and in the right amounts, Tyrosine can help you stay mentally sharp, focused, and effective during times of peak physical and mental strain.
Maritime Pine Bark
Maritime Pine Bark is a relatively uncommon ingredient in nootropic supplements today. However, as the current market leaders start to introduce it into their formulations, we expect many other premium pre-made nootropics to follow suit in the near future.
Maritime Pine Bark is quite simply a superb source of potent anti-oxidants.
Many stacks do have some kind of anti-oxidant component. In fact, we’d be very disappointed if a daily brain supplement didn’t provide some kind of anti-oxidant like pterostilbene or resveratrol. However, Maritime Pine Bark seems to be particularly suited to supporting long term brain health, and by extension, functionality.
The anti-oxidants in Maritime Pine Bark Extract seem to be able to easily cross the blood brain barrier. It is postulated that this extract has the added benefits of promoting cerebral blood flow, as well as having an extremely high concentration of anti-oxidants by weight. That means you don’t need to consume much to get a powerful, free-radical killing kick.
DHA, more properly known as docosahexaenoic acid, is an omega-3 fatty acid found in great abundance in the human brain. It is a vital constituent of brain cell membranes. Without sufficient levels of DHA, you simply can’t make enough grey matter to ensure proper mental function. It is also necessary for the formation of the cerebral cortex, skin, and retina.
EPA is another omega-3 fatty acid. It is much less important for proper brain function than DHA, but it is still a very good addition to a daily supplement stack. EPA promotes good cardiovascular function, proper circulation, and overall good health.
We think you should try to avoid fish oil whenever possible. This is because fish oil contains a staggering amount of pollutants. Throughout their life, fish accumulate pollutants like heavy metals. These pollutants become deposited in their fat stores, where they become concentrated. They then end up in the capsules you take with your breakfast each morning.
Instead, we recommend using an algae-based DHA/EPA supplement. Algae is where the fish get their DHA from. By using a supplement that sources its DHA from algae, all you are doing is cutting out the middle man – and avoiding all those pollutants in the process! Not only that, but most algae supplements provide more DHA than cod liver oil supplements.
Lion’s Mane Mushroom Extract
This is a really exciting substance right now. While research is still in relative infancy, there is strong evidence to suggest that supplementing with Lion’s Mane Mushroom Extract can boost Nerve Growth Factor production.
Nerve Growth Factor, or NGF for short, is responsible for prompting the formation of new nerve cells in the brain.
Several studies have observed direct cognitive improvements as a result of supplementing with Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus). For example, this study found that subjects given Lion’s Mane extract for 16 weeks showing significant cognitive improvements that were not observed in the placebo group.
Most interestingly, the group given Lion’s Mane for 16 weeks were tested again 4 weeks after the end of the trial, and their test scores had lowered significantly. This is possibly because these test subjects were already suffering from age-related cognitive decline.
Lion’s Mane Mushroom is therefore thought to be effective at preventing or delaying the onset of cognitive decline, largely by ensuring sufficient nerve dendrite growth.
This can be an important property for anyone looking to ensure that their brain is performing at maximum potential. While cognitive decline speeds up as we age, it is not an ‘all or nothing’ process. Supplementing with Lion’s Mane can ensure that your brain is forming new nerve dendrites at the correct rate, in turn ensuring maximum cognitive efficiency.
Folic acid is a B vitamin, and when it comes to keeping your brain healthy and functioning properly, few nutrients are as important as this. Read this study carried out by researchers from the University of Oxford’s Project to Investigate Memory and Ageing (OPTIMA).
These researchers concluded that regular supplementation of homocystein-lowering B vitamins, of which folic acid is one, can significantly reduce the onset of physical brain degradation (or atrophy) in later life. Put simply, folic acid is able to stop your brain from physically wasting away. This is important both for the prevention of diseases related to brain atrophy (Alzheimer’s), and for improving brain function generally.
Vitamin D deficiency is a growing phenomenon around the world, probably owing in large part to the dramatic shift in our working habits over the past few decades, as more of us than ever spend our working days indoors.
The growth of the problem has led to a corresponding growth in research, providing a mountain of empirical evidence which links vitamin D deficiency with increased risk of cancer, stroke, and diabetes to name a few of the more serious conditions.
With this mounting evidence comes a growing body of work that shows, quite unequivocally, that vitamin D deficiency also increases the risk of dementia and general cognitive decline.
Once study, conducted in 2012, discusses the clear link between vitamin D and the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease, which stems from the vitamin’s function as a clearer of amyloid plaques, known to build up in the brain, exacerbating the onset of Alzheimer’s.
The study concludes “low vitamin D concentrations may increase the risk of cognitive decline”. With vitamin D so available and economical, failing to include this in a nootropic stack is questionable, if not plain stupid.
The primary mechanism by which Ginkgo Biloba aids brain function is by vasodilation; the opening up of veins and arteries, and by increasing the viscosity of blood.
While the effects are therefore not limited to the brain, extending instead to the entire body, few areas of the body can benefit from greater blood flow than the command centre. The University of Maryland Medical Centre concurs that this herbal concentrate is effective at combatting, or preventing, vascular dementia.
As if that wasn’t enough, Ginkgo, like many other nootropic herbal extracts, contains an abundance of antioxidants that help to remove free radicals from the brain, which to some extent helps prevent degenerative diseases generally.
This is widely used and reliable stuff, and while it isn’t the most powerful or immediately noticeable brain booster, it certainly plays its part in improving brain function over the long term.
We can’t really overstate the importance of Phosphatidylserine when it comes to guaranteeing long term brain health and functionality.
Phosphatidylserine is a phospholipid. That means it is a fat similar to other lipids in the human body. It is consumed naturally in most people’s diets. However, it is highly unlikely that you consume enough on a regular basis to ensure that your brain is getting all it needs (especially since these days everybody is frightened of soy, which contains huge quantities of phosphatidylserine).
Phosphatidylserine, or PS for short, is found in the cell membranes of almost all living things, both animals and plants. It is a basic component of brain cell membranes. In fact, a surprising amount of your brain is composed of phosphatidylserine.
It is, in that regard, vital for brain cell growth. It is also vital for the proper maintenance of existing brain cells, such as synapses and neuron dendrites. Supplementing with PS has been repeatedly shown to be effective at slowing down the onset of mental decline. It has been shown to significantly improve cognitive performance in otherwise healthy individuals (though this has usually been in relation to athletes).
Uridine is a relatively unknown nootropic substance, but we expect that to change over the next few years. This stuff is rarely used in today’s pre-made nootropic supplements, but a growing number of enthusiasts are adding it to their own, custom-made supplement stacks.
Uridine has a number of known benefits. It is a precursor to CDP-Choline, one of the best cholinergics in existence; it seems to improve working memory and spatial awareness in the short term; it may help mitigate the effects of cognitive decline; perhaps most interestingly (as we have human studies on this one), it may help with symptoms of depression.
Uridine’s multiple methods of action make it a fascinating ingredient. The only problems are the almost total lack of extended human studies, and the fact that many of its benefits can be achieved through the use of other ingredients (all found on this page). These ingredients are more readily available and predictable than uridine. One may ask, why bother? In any case, Uridine Monophosphate is one to keep an eye on!
If I am truly honest, I think any health supplement worth its salt should provide some sort of B vitamin. Although Western diets are absurdly meat and dairy-centric, most people fall well short an optimal intake of vitamins B6 and B12.
This systemic B vitamin deficiency adversely affects our health in a number of ways; one of the more serious and lasting effects is to do with out brain function.
Not only does vitamin B6 play a central role in energy synthesis, literally giving your brain more energy to do what it does best, but B12 is responsible for the synthesis of myelin; a fat-like substance that forms a protective “wrapping” for your nerves, both protecting them and facilitating the transfer of information.
Without B12, you would not be able to synthesize sufficient amounts of myelin, and in turn, your central nervous system would lack a component that it needs in order to function properly.
Magnesium positively influences cognitive function and brain health in many ways. The way in which it acts to support your brain is nebulous rather than direct, but it is certainly powerful. For instance, magnesium concentration in the blood is related to testosterone levels, which, in men at least, influences your mood, sleep quality, and cardiovascular health. That said, the mineral does have some very direct mechanisms for improving brain function, memory, and mood.
Magnesium supplementation has been shown to substantially strengthen the synapses in the hippocampus; the part of the brain largely responsible for memory storage.
The mineral is also essential for the formation of the ions that are used to transmit information between nerves and synapses. This same study found a high correlation between high magnesium supplementation and improved memory capacity, recall speed, and cognitive skills generally.
It is important to note that most of the population does not get even the basic minimum requirements for magnesium to maximize their brain function. If you’re looking to increase your brain’s functioning capacity, then your magnesium requirements will increase in kind. Supplementation is therefore highly recommended.
Everyone eats the artichoke’s heart, yet the leaves of the artichoke contain the vast majority of its nutrients. Concentrated artichoke leaf extract is incredibly nutrient-dense; it provides a sizable dose of vitamins A, B, and C, along with other key brain-boosting minerals such as magnesium, iron and zinc, each of which I will come to later.
Nutritional density is certainly a major benefit of supplementing with artichoke extract, but the presence of vitamins is not what makes this substance so special.
Rather, it is the myriad other benefits that have been scientifically proven to result from regular artichoke extract supplementation. These include; cholesterol reduction (see this study for details) and improved digestive health.
Crucially, it has also been shown to be a powerful cognitive enhancer through the promotion of dopamine, and the suppression of PDE4. It is hypothesized that the suppression of PDE4, an enzyme, allows for greater cyclic adenosine monophosphate concentrations, which in turn helps improve focus. We will talk in more detail about all of this in a blog post.
The benefits of fish oil supplementation are well known. Cod liver oil is generally considered to be good for your heart, bones, and brain, and plenty of people claim that it does wonders for your skin as well. These claims are well supported by scientific research.
However, for people who are serious about dramatically improving their brain function, not to mention their general health, krill oil is probably the superior alternative.
Krill oil contains plentiful amounts of the two crucial omega-3 fatty acids; DHA and EPA. In your standard fish oil supplement, these fatty acids are arranged in a triglyceride form.
In krill oil, these same fatty acids are arranged in a double-chain phospholipid form, making it identical to the lipid arrangement of your cell membranes, meaning that it is absorbed and put to use with far greater ease than the fatty acids derived form standard fish oil. This has immediate relevance to krill oil’s special brain promoting characteristics; the fatty acids derived from krill oil seem to be incredibly efficient at repairing and building brain cell membranes.
While the supplement has many positive health effects, such as lowering cholesterol and improving joint function, its ability to improve brain growth and maintenance is significant enough to make krill oil an essential nootropic supplement.
Theanine doesn’t have a particularly powerful effect on cognition by itself. However, it makes an excellent addition to a comprehensive nootropic stack.
Theanine works in synergistic fashion with caffeine. It amplifies all of the good effects of caffeine, such as the increase in mental energy, and attenuates the worst side effects of caffeine, such as jitters or anxiety. To get the best results, you need to take theanine and caffeine on a 2:1 dosing ratio – take twice as much theanine as caffeine to get the largest reduction in caffeine side effects and the most pronounced amplification of its benefits.
Theanine does have some nootropic properties of its own, too. Studies have shown that taking 250mg of theanine is able to reduce both psychological and physiological responses to stress. Another study has found that 250mg of theanine promotes attention and focus in the short-term.
Ashwagandha is a natural anxiolytic. Like Rhodiola rosea and L-Tyrosine, it significantly and rapidly reduces feelings of stress and anxiety.
Several studies have found that ashwagandha supplementation can have a sizable impact on anxiety levels. For example, this study showed that 500mg of ashwagandha was able to reduce subjective measures of anxiety in people with a diagnosed anxiety-related disorder. Another study ambitiously claims that ashwagandha supplementation can have better results than standard psychotherapy when it comes to treating anxiety.
We’ve looked at dozens of studies on ashwagandha, and none of them report users having serious side effects or adverse reactions. There is no reason to believe that there are any long-term side effects either.
The only thing to consider with ashwagandha is that it is nowhere near as effective as rhodiola rosea, or even L-Tyrosine when used properly. It is slightly less reliable than these two potent anxiolytics, with some users reporting little to no effects. You seem to need to take far more ashwagandha than rhodiola rosea to get the same results.
We don’t need to spend much time justifying why caffeine is on this list. You are all no doubt familiar with caffeine’s effects; it is an incredibly potent stimulant. It puts your mental energy levels through the roof, enhances focus, and increases motivation. It works reliably well for pretty much everybody, and you don’t need an awful lot of the stuff to get some profound effects. As little as 100mg of caffeine is enough to reduce the perception of fatigue and help you stay focused and energized through a night of frantic work. Caffeine is a real nootropic in every sense of the word.
The only drawback of caffeine is, of course, the side effects. As we said, caffeine is an incredibly powerful natural stimulant. It is habit-forming, addictive, and it has some serious physiological effects. It raises blood pressure, causes anxiety, and causes jitters. Caffeine overdose can actually be fatal, if acute. Bottom line: BE CAREFUL WITH CAFFEINE!
This is one of the most common anti-oxidants you will come across in your day-to-day life. It is the thing that supposedly makes red wine so good for you (or one of them at least), and it is widely available in supplement form. Head down to your local health food or supplement store, and you’ll probably find some concentrated resveratrol tablets on sale.
Like the anti-oxidants found in Maritime Pine Bark, resveratrol helps protect your brain cells from oxidative damage. This guarantees that they remain healthy and functional for the long-term. Resveratrol makes a great addition to any nootropic stack that doesn’t already some kind of anti-oxidant content.