The WORST Nootropic Supplement Ingredients Used Today
For pretty much any substance you can think of, we guarantee you that there is someone out there claiming that it can reverse cognitive decline, supercharge learning capacity, or cure stress.
But we know that this simply isn’t true – very few substances deliver a meaningful, tangible improvement in cognitive function. Only a small number enhance cognition without causing serious side effects.
The fact of the matter is, most so-called nootropic substances actually do diddly-squat.
We find ourselves writing about the same ingredients week-in, week-out, and it is incredibly frustrating. We see the same list of bogus, over-hyped substances being used in supplements old and new, and we are compelled to explain to people that they are total crap. They have often never been tested on humans, or they have never been shown to improve cognition, or in some cases, they just aren’t safe.
Yet these companies still make millions of dollars every single year!
They get away with selling untested, unproven, low quality stacks to unsuspecting customers – people like you – simply because they can.
After all, the supplement industry has a slew of hired shills that they use to spread false information. They have an army of bloggers, Instagram personalities and YouTubers who purposefully misinterpret studies to suit their needs.
The average consumer today is pretty defenseless in the face of this misinformation campaign. As a result, companies continue to sell cheap, ineffective supplements for $40 a bottle.
What Can YOU Do?
Is there a way out of this mess?
Can you objectively tell whether one supplement is better than another?
Of course you can!
You just have to take a very methodical, scientific approach. If you use the latest scientific literature as your guide, and judge each ingredient on its track record, then you can do a good job of telling quality supplements from cheap garbage.
We’re going to try to help you with this process. Below you will find a list of the worst ingredients commonly used in nootropic supplements today.
These are the ingredients that we come across time and again. They all either lack real scientific proof, are totally unreliable, or are downright dangerous. In each case, we’ll tell you why it’s made the list.
Got some substances you think should make the cut? Let us know in the comments! Looking for a list of the nootropic ingredients that actually do work? Check out our complete nootropic supplement guide.
The Worst Of The Worst
The ingredients listed here are all commonly found in nootropic supplements today. Some are only used by one or two supplements, but their popularity warrants their inclusion on this list. The one thing all of these ingredients have in common is a total lack of real scientific proof.
This is not an exhaustive list. We are not saying “if it’s not on this list then it works”; not by any means.
These are just the ingredients that need to be dealt with most urgently because of their ubiquity, their potential for harm, or their popularity. We’re always adding to this list, but if you think there’s something that really deserves to be included then let us know in the comments. We’re sure you’ll all enjoy arguing with one another on this topic!
These ingredients are not listed in any particular order because it doesn’t make much sense to say that something is more useless than anything else. If something’s useless, then it’s useless – end of story!
We will say that some of these ingredients are here because they pose relatively serious side effect risks. Where applicable, we’ve tried to make this abundantly clear.
Oat Straw extract is not a very common ingredient in nootropic supplements today. Only a handful of supplements reviewed on this site actually use this stuff. However, they are some of the most popular nootropic stacks on the market today, so we definitely need to put Oat Straw on this list.
According to some supplement manufacturers, Oat Straw is a potent anxiolytic and adaptogen. It significantly reduces stress, alleviates anxiety, and helps the body better deal with the physical symptoms of chronic fatigue.
But like so many other substances, this seems to be all hype and no bite. As far as we can tell, there are no reliable scientific studies backing up the claims about Oat Straw being a powerful anxiolytic.
We could only find one study purporting to show that Oat Straw has any nootropic properties at all. And yet, the researchers in this study only concluded that “oat herb extract might be effective in healthy subjects, resulting in a positive impact on cognitive performance”.
That’s might be effective.
The improvements in cognitive performance mentioned here were not particularly impressive.
This is also the only study of its kind that we can find. Evidence that Oat Straw is as reliable and effective a nootropic as some manufacturers make out is few and far between.
Until we see more human studies, and more impressive results, then we’re forced to conclude that Oat Straw is an over-hyped, under-performing nootropic substance.
Bottom Line: Lacks scientific proof, and effects are very limited
If you’ve heard of this stuff before, it’s probably because of Prevagen. As far as we know, this is the only product on the market currently hawking this stuff. If a new nootropic comes onto the scene using apoaequorin, we’ll update this page accordingly.
Aequorin is a protein isolated from jellyfish. It is a calcium-binding protein partly responsible for the phenomenon of luminescence in jellyfish. Apoaequorin is a constituent of aequorin; it is actually an enzyme used to break down the other half of the protein, coelenterazine. But that is kind of irrelevant for us right now.
So why is this stuff used as a nootropic?
Why would luminescence mean it helps with cognition?
Well, a few years ago, the makers of Prevagen started pushing the idea that apoaequorin helps reverse cognitive decline and improve various aspects of mental performance. To back up these claims, they cited this study. They claim that this study proves a positive correlation between apoaequorin use and cognitive function.
Bit it doesn’t at all…QUITE THE OPPOSITE!
The study concludes the following: “No statistically significant results were observed over the entire study population”.
The guys behind Prevagen then conducted a post-hoc analysis, which is where you go back and trawl through data until you find a correlation, and found that there was some tenuous link between apoaequorin use and cognitive improvements in certain groups.
You wont be surprised to learn that post-hoc analysis isn’t good science – it’s not a valid form of reasoning. If you go looking for a correlation, you’ll find one.
There aren’t any follow-up studies, or similar trials showing the same results. In other words, it’s a total scam!
Bottom Line: A total scam – purposefully misleading science – SHAME!
You’ll usually find glutamine in proprietary blends. It is listed quite innocuously, but we know that it almost definitely makes up 90% or more of the blend. After all, glutamine doesn’t really have any other business being in a nootropic supplement.
L-Glutamine is an amino acid. It is definitely important for a healthy human body. You need it to build new muscle, and you need it for proper immune system function.
It is an incredibly common amino acid at that. Lots of foods contain large amounts of glutamine. Here is a list of foods you might eat on a day-to-day basis and their glutamine content per 100g:
- Pasta (6g)
- Wheat flour (5g)
- Oats (3.8g)
- Beef (1.2g)
- Tofu (0.6g)
As you can see, it really isn’t much of a stretch to get plenty of glutamine every day. You really don’t need to think about it. Leafy green vegetables and nuts contain lots of glutamine too (the amounts are smaller given the lower calorie count of these foods, but they are more efficient).
We think it is ridiculous when supplements contain glutamine. There is absolutely no need to be supplementing with this stuff.
It doesn’t have any effect on cognition.
Even if it did, you’d need to take an enormous amount for your body to even register it, since you probably had 5g from your lunch. People using it to promote muscle growth take 5-6g at a time.
If you did want to, it would be much more cost-effective to just eat more pasta.
So why do so many nootropics contain glutamine? We think you can work out the answer. Since it doesn’t provide any extra nootropic benefits to speak of, and it’s very cheap to buy in large amounts, we think Glutamine is almost always used as a ‘filler’ ingredient; something to bulk out the formula to let the manufacturer cut back on the expensive ingredients.
That is why Glutamine is always found in prop blends – it probably makes up 95% of the damn blend!
Bottom Line: Classic ‘filler’. No nootropic properties, easy to get from food
GABA, or gamma-Aminobutyric acid (sometimes written with with the Greek gamma symbol as γ-aminobutyric acid) is a neurotransmitter. It is actually quite an important neurotransmitter; it is the principle inhibitory neurotransmitter in the mammalian central nervous system. To put that another way, when your CNS becomes depressed, it is probably GABA doing it.
People like to supplement with GABA because they think it will help reduce performance anxiety, promote calmness, and aid clear thinking. The logic is understandable: GABA lowers our inhibitions and makes us feel more confident, so supplementing with GABA will make me feel calmer, more confident, and less highly strung, right?
GABA does not cross the blood-brain barrier.
The blood-brain barrier is the thin membrane separating the blood from the cerebrospinal fluid. It is semipermeable; it lets some things through and blocks others, thereby protecting the brain from nasty contaminants, germs, and so on. Well, GABA is one of the things that it doesn’t seem to let through. At least not in any appreciable amount.
Instead, your brain makes all the GABA it needs. It doesn’t need to get it from food at all.
As this study points out, it has long been known that GABA does not cross the blood-brain barrier. The paper authors suggest that it may exert an effect via the enteric nervous system (the gut’s ‘second brain’ – read more on the gut-brain axis). They say that more work needs to be done to understand how GABA moves through the human body. But they are far from convinced that it crosses the blood-brain barrier.
GABA supplementation is just never going to work how you think it might, and supplement manufacturers must know this. Anyone telling you that their GABA-laden stack will promote relaxation or clear thinking is either unaware of basic biochemistry, or they’re outright lying to you!
Bottom Line: GABA doesn’t cross the blood-brain barrier
This one is a really popular ingredient right now. It crops up in every other supplement these days, and we have absolutely no idea why.
The claims made about Ginseng (whether Siberian, Korean, or Panax) vary considerably. Some say that it improves mood, others say that it improves energy levels, while others still claim that it helps balance hormone levels.
But we aren’t buying it. The number of studies showing Ginseng supplementation as having a positive effect on cognitive function is very small; there are only a handful of trials were a positive result was found, and even then, results were pretty weak.
This is one of the only studies looking at Ginseng as a nootropic that we’re aware of; researchers found that both Panax Ginseng and Glucose enhanced the performance of a mental arithmetic test. A total of 24 people took part, with 6 being given just Ginseng, 6 given just Glucose, and 6 given both (6 more used as control given neither).
As far as we’re concerned, 24 people doesn’t constitute a very compelling trial, especially since these results haven’t been replicated since. We also aren’t impressed by something that has the same cognitive enhancing properties as glucose.
Some other studies have seen good results, but they have used up to 9g daily, and they have invariably been conducted on older people with cognitive impairment.
We are just not convinced that Ginseng – any ginseng, before you tell us how special yours is – can enhance any aspect of cognitive function. At least, no more than pure sugar can!
Bottom Line: Lacks substantial scientific backing
St. John’s Wort
This one comes up a lot, usually in the generic white label blends we see being re-branded and sold through Amazon all the time.
St. John’s Wort is usually taken for its supposed ability to reduce stress and anxiety. This isn’t an obscure substance used exclusively in nootropics; it is sold in health food and vitamin stores around the world. If you go into an “alternative medicine” or “naturopathic” pharmacy anywhere in the world, they will probably prescribe you some St. John’s Wort if you’re experiencing stress or anxiety. Some people even believe that this stuff can help cure depression, or at least some of its worst symptoms.
Sadly, none of this seems to be true. The only study we can find showing a significant reduction in anxiety from St. John’s Wort administration was this trial conducted on rats. There have been human studies, but few have found a significant effect on anxiety. This study, for example, found that St. John’s Wort “minimally improves” obsessive compulsive disorder in most participants.
Until we see some compelling human clinical trials showing dramatic reductions in anxiety, stress, and depressive symptoms, we’re not buying it.
Bottom Line: Lacks conclusive scientific evidence
This is a relatively new ingredient; you will typically find it in the more modern nootropic stacks. Few supplements made before about three years ago contain theobromine. We wish the same were true of supplements made after then too.
Theobromine is a stimulant. It is naturally occurring in cocoa, as well as in Kola nuts and tea leaves (in small amounts). It is classed as a xanthine, which puts it in the same category as caffeine. Perhaps this is why it is so often compared to caffeine.
Theobromine does indeed exert a similar effect to caffeine on the central nervous system. However, that effect is so much lesser than that exerted by caffeine that the two can barely be compared. In our opinion, it is completely unreasonable to talk about theobromine as thought it were a kind of caffeine alternative. It has the same effect in principle, but the effects are not the same from the end user’s perspective!
Theobromine is often said to be 10 times weaker than caffeine. One researcher has even gone as far as to say that it has “no clinical importance”.
Many stacks have started to use theobromine instead of caffeine. They seem to think it sounds more exotic, more unique, more scientific. Some even claim that it is a safer alternative to caffeine. That last point may be true, but it is only true because it is so weak.
Bottom Line: Not a caffeine alternative – it is many times weaker than caffeine!
Green Tea Extract
Green tea is good for you. No doubt about that.
It contains a potent cocktail of anti-oxidants and polyphenols which help keep you healthy, fit, and alive for as long as possible.
But that doesn’t mean it has any place in a natural nootropic supplement. Green tea provides many things that can help keep your brain functioning properly over the long run. Anti-oxidants prevent brain cell damage and disease, various polyphenols promote brain cell health and longevity, and so on. But there is nothing about green tea that you can really call “nootropic”.
Green tea extracts usually don’t provide anything that can make a difference to your day-to-day cognitive function. The things these extracts provide can be easily obtained by just drinking more green tea, which you should be doing anyway!
Supplement manufacturers often make a big deal out of the antioxidants and polyphenols in green tea. They definitely promote good health, but they don’t promote enhanced cognition. Nor do they do anything for you that a healthier, more balanced diet wouldn’t do too!
Some people point to the theanine content as proof that green tea is a nootropic. But the most potent source of theanine is black tea, and green tea extracts usually contain very little theanine anyway!
We’ve written about green tea – and whether it can be considered a nootropic – extensively in this article. Check it out if you want to learn more about what green tea can and can’t do for you.
Bottom Line: Good for health, but not much of a nootropic
We’ve been ranting and raving against DMAE for a long time on this site, so we think it’s right that it gets its own section on this list.
More properly known as Dimethylethanolamine, DMAE is a cholinergic. That means that it is used to raise choline levels in the brain. However, unlike substances like Citicoline or -Alpha glycerylphosphorylcholine, DMAE does not actually contain any choline. It therefore does not work by conferring or donating any choline to the brain.
Contrary to popular belief, DMAE is not metabolized into choline in the brain.
Instead, DMAE raises choline levels in the brain by inhibiting the use of existing choline to make phosphatidylcholine or phosphocholine.
It is therefore much ore similar to Huperzine A in its method of action than any of the ‘proper’ cholinergics (e.g CDP-Choline).
We really don’t like DMAE. We don’t like it for lots of reasons.
The main reason is that it is nowhere near as reliable as Alpha-GPC, CDP-Choline, or even Choline Bitartrate.
DMAE is extremely unpredictable. It seems to work quite well for some people, while for others it causes pretty serious side effects. Check out some of the top comments taken from this LongeCity thread on DMAE use:
Clearly, DMAE is incredibly unreliable.
Many users report experiencing side effects. People seem to find that DMAE is a coin toss; they might get heightened focus, and they might get hyperactivity.
This is just completely unacceptable as far as we’re concerned. Lots of substances are able to raise acetylcholine production in the brain reliably and with predictable results. Things like CDP-Choline do not usually cause side effects; certainly not as often as DMAE seems to. Cholinergics like Alpha-GPC have predictable results across almost all users.
We don’t know why anybody would choose to use DMAE when they could use a more effective cholinergic that doesn’t regularly cause so many side effects.
DMAE doesn’t even deliver the same kind of effects as CDP-Choline when it does work well, but you have the risk of it causing hyperactivity, headaches, and other side effects when it doesn’t work so well.
Bottom Line: Unreliable and side effect prone – use a real choline analogue to raise acetylcholine levels
We often see Carnitine added to natural nootropic stacks. It is a common addition to the low cost, generic stacks you’ll find everywhere on Amazon. But we have absolutely no idea why!
Carnitine has no nootropic properties at all.
It has absolutely no effect on focus, memory function, motivation, mood, or long-term brain health.
Some manufacturers make a big deal out of the fact that they use N-Acetyl-L-Carnitine instead of regular Carnitine. But that doesn’t mean anything really; it simply means that it is more easily absorbed – it doesn’t mean that it does anything important for your mental performance.
There have been some studies conducted on Carnitine have found that it may have a beneficial effect on young Alzheimer’s patients. However, the cited study was based on post-hoc analysis, which is not a sound scientific method of reasoning. No follow-up studies have been conducted, and there aren’t any other convincing studies showing Carnitine as having a positive effect on cognitive function.
We think Carnitine is usually used either as a ‘filler’ ingredient or to jazz up an otherwise lackluster ingredients list. It cannot possibly be because a manufacturer genuinely believes that it will make a meaningful difference to your cognitive function.
Bottom Line: Doesn’t do anything; classic ‘filler’
Cat’s Claw is a vine native to Central and South America jungle regions. It is also sometimes referred to as Uncaria tomentosa, or as vilcacora. While it is sometimes called “Amazonian Cat’s Claw”, it is not exclusively found in the Amazon, and it is actually unlikely that the Cat’s Claw found in your supplement is sourced from the Amazon – that would just be too expensive for most companies.
According to some supplement manufacturers, Cat’s Claw has been used by “traditional cultures” for its anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, immune system boosting, and general healing properties. It is said to do all sorts of amazing things, from promoting DNA repair to increasing energy levels.
To listen to some manufacturers, you’d think that Cat’s Claw can do it all!
The problem is, we’ve never actually seen any proof for any of these claims. Plenty of people tell us that Cat’s Claw can do these things, but when we look at pages like this one on Onnit’s website, we see that no scientific studies are referenced. This is true of every manufacturer we’ve looked at who sells Cat’s Claw in some way.
We assume that the claims about DNA repair stem from this study, published in Phytomedicine in 2001. Here, researchers found that some Cat’s Claw extracts were able to slightly promote DNA repair rates in mice.
Until we see some more studies, or at least a follow-up trial conducted on humans, we’re not buying it!
Bottom Line: Totally unproven – needs human clinical trials!