Who doesn’t want to improve their memory and focus? As incredible as our brains are, holding an entire grocery list in our heads or remaining focused on a task for an hour+ is tricky. While these challenges can be managed with lists, list apps, and behaviors like meditation, many people are wondering how to support their brains from a nutrition perspective.
Besides eating a balanced nutritious diet, are there any other nutrition-based steps you can take? Aging comes with increased risk of memory loss in the forms of dementia and Alzheimer’s, but research shows some supplements might be able to help. Many supplements that improve cognitive functioning, called nootropics, are gaining popularity.
10 Nootropic Ingredients to Enhance Your Memory & Focus
Blueberries are one of the safest and most powerful foods you can find in a grocery store. Their benefits go beyond boosting brain function, and they don’t conflict with any known medications.
Blueberries (and other plant products) contain multiple helpful antioxidant compounds called polyphenols. In the case of blueberries, anthocyanins and pterostilbene are likely responsible for most of the brain-boosting effects. These two compounds protect the brain by fighting inflammation and oxidation. They also directly influence the growth and connectivity of neurons.
Here is a quick sampling of studies…
- In older adults, drinking wild blueberry juice on a daily basis for 12 weeks improved memory performance.
- For older adults experiencing cognitive decline, blueberry supplementation over the course of 16 weeks enhanced brain activity during a memory task.
- In rats, supplementing blueberries or pure anthocyanins improved spatial memory.
- In a small pilot study in 8-10 year old children, even a single dose of a blueberry beverage high in anthocyanins result in memory improvements.
2. Bacopa monnieri
Practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine have been using Bacopa monnieri leaf extract for thousands of years to relieve pain and improve memory. To use it for cognitive enhancement, it must be taken consistently, however. Unlike blueberries, Bacopa monnieri’s benefits appear to primarily act on working memory. Working memory refers to how much you can hold at the front of your mind at once. Unlike other supplements in this list, many Bacopa studies show it influences healthy individuals too, instead of combating cognitive decline.
- In a highly controlled study, healthy elderly individuals who supplemented Bacopa for 12 weeks experienced improved cognitive performance.
- In rats, Bacopa supplementation supported the growth of dendrites, the signaling “branches” of neurons.
- A large 2013 literature review concluded that Bacopa can reduce oxidative damage, modulate neurotransmitters, and enhance cognition in healthy people.
3. Ginkgo biloba
While is currently one of the most popular herbs people take for brain health, it does not have as much research behind it as the two preceding items on this list. In fact, multiple high quality studies suggest ginkgo supplementation may have no effect on memory at all. Given the largely negative results from literature reviews one and two, ginkgo’s benefits may be limited than initially thought. However, because it is fairly safe, some studies have found benefits, and all supplements differ in their effectiveness for each individual, it still may be worth trying.
4. Caffeine (with theanine)
Caffeine is a stimulant that helps most people focus better in the short term. Theanine, an amino acid (protein building block) naturally found in tea and some mushrooms, may take the edge of stimulants through its relaxing properties. Through tempering caffeine’s effects, the two compounds can add up to create a comfortable alert feeling when doing demanding cognitive tasks.
5. Guarana and Yerba Mate
These two plants, often consumed in tea form, may have focus-boosting effects that go beyond their caffeine content.
Before its seeds are ground into powder, guarana is in the form of a strange red, white, and black berry. Beyond caffeine, guarana contains other stimulants like theophylline and theobromine and a whole host of antioxidants. In experiments in rats and mice, guarana intake improved memory.
Similar to guarana, South American yerba mate is another caffeine source that’s packed with antioxidants (perhaps more than green tea!). Conveniently, it appears to have caffeine levels between those of coffee and tea, and many who drink it claim it offers the energy boost of coffee without the jitters.
6. Fish oil (DHA)
Consuming fish oil, and seafood in general, provides your brain with the fatty acids it needs to continue functioning optimally.
- When non-human animals are deprived of omega-3 fatty acids like DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), their ability to learn and remember things gets worse.
- Similarly, in one study in humans, researchers found low levels of DHA in adults were associated with smaller brain size and poorer memory.
- In cases of mild cognitive decline or impairment, omega-3 fatty acids can improve memory (in less than 6 months)
Like fish oil and omega-3 fatty acids, phosphatidylserine is also found in fish. In elderly individuals with memory complaints, 6 months of soy-derived phosphatidylserine improved memory performance compared to placebo. In children, phosphatidylserine supplementation improved focus and short-term auditory memory.
While the research is still in the preclinical stage, acetyl-L-carnitine is promising as a neuroprotectant. It may protect the brain from damaging oxidation, and has increased learning abilities in aging rats.
Found in blueberries, grapes, blackberries, and wine, resveratrol is a potent antioxidant.
- In older, overweight adults, resveratrol supplementation for ~6 months improved memory.
- In late, middle-aged rats, resveratrol fought age-related declines in memory. Researchers found positive impacts both on their performance on learning and memory tasks and on the cellular level, in the form of an increase in growth of neurons.
- The negative cognitive effects of chronic stress were also lessened by resveratrol supplementation in rats.
10. Creatine (in non-meat eaters)
Supplementing creatine has lead to improvements in memory in vegetarians and vegans. Because creatine is primarily found in meat and animal products, people on plant-based diets are more likely to suffer from deficiency.
This 10th list item is an example where a supplement is likely only useful when it is repairing a deficiency. Being deficient in almost any vitamin or mineral will keep you from cognitively functioning at your highest possible level. From iron deficiency to vitamin B deficiency, a fully functioning brain requires a full bouquet of nutrients.