Although taking a pill to make yourself smarter and more productive like Bradly Cooper in Limitless would be a great solution, the truth is, it very difficult to improve the cognition of a young healthy person.
The closest thing to a ‘productivity pill’ would be taking pharmaceuticals engineered for those with ADHD like Adderall, Vyvanse or Ritalin. Recently there has been a huge increase in the number of students taking study drugs to improve focus and cognition and while these drugs really do increase productivity and concentration, they come with a long list of common side effects that include: heart palpitations, anxiety, anorexia, nausea, headaches, dry mouth, insomnia, dizziness, weight loss, abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea, and loss of interest in sex. There are also some more rare but serious adverse effects to these drugs such as: seizures, trouble breathing, aggressive behaviour, fainting, numbness, hallucination, uncontrolled movements, psychosis, irregular heartbeats and heart attacks. These stimulants can be very useful for those suffering from ADHD and when used appropriately under the supervision of a healthcare professional- but taken by students who are also using alcohol and other stimulants- it can get dangerous.
So, what can we add to our health regime to try and improve cognition in the short term? Well looking at supplements, unfortunately the research isn’t amazing. Like I mentioned earlier, it is very difficult to change a young health brain by taking certain supplements, however what we can do is look at brain health in general. We want to focus on increasing blood flow to the brain, alertness, and work at sites of neurotransmitters involves in learning and memory. We also want to decrease the damage to our brain cells and increase neurogenesis (brain cells growth).
The following are a list of the top nootropic supplements and herbs– but keep in mind the research isn’t quite there in general. However, if you’re gearing up for a big exam it might be good to check in with your naturopathic doctor or healthcare professional to see if these may help in your academic success.
Caffeine- the most popular nootropic in the world. Caffeine is found in several food and drink products, coffee and tea being the most popular form(see nutrition segment). It can also be taken as a supplement. Most of us are familiar with the beneficial effects of caffeine while trying to accomplish tasks, including memorizing a long list of formulas for an exam. Caffeine can decrease reaction time, increase in alertness and attention to detail. However there are negative side effects from taking too much caffeine (heart palpitations, nervousness, GI upset and insomnia). Relying on caffeine to keep us alert and wake up to study can also be damaging to our adrenals after chronic use (more on this another time).
L-theanine- an amino acid naturally found in green tea. It enhances the mental effects of caffeine and counteracts the nervous feeling too much caffeine can induce. You can get this amino acid naturally from green tea (a good combination of caffeine and L-theanine) or take a supplement along with your coffee. We know that coffee can aid in studying (see blog post here) and L-theanine can increase the amount of coffee we can handle. In research, L- theanine has demonstrated an increase in alpha waves in the brain which create a calm yet attentive mental state as well as increased creativity.
Bacopa- a traditional herb used for years to increase cognitive performance. Bacopa is known for increasing brain cell growth. It also has evidence for reducing reaction time, increasing processing speed and improving memory. Bacopa can also protect our brain cells from damage and improve signalling in the brain. The only downside of this herb is that is takes a while to start working (about 4-6 weeks) so if your exam is next week, you may want to skip this one.
Rhodiola- an adptogenic herb. This herb helps individuals cope with stress. It improves mood and decreases mental fatigue. This herb is good for those who feel burnt out and anxious (what student isn’t?!). Rhodila also has good evidence for its use in mild depression and anxiety. Rhodiloa is one of my favourite adaptogenic herbs, but it can be over stimulating for some- check with your ND to see about the correct dosing for this one!
Omega 3 Fatty Acids- essential polyunsaturated fatty acids which are found in fish oil supplements and in fatty forms of fish (see blog post here). Omega 3 fatty acids are needed for brain development and repair and can help decrease inflammation in the body. The evidence for using high dose omega 3 fatty acids is not as strong as using them in those that are deficient, however there are several health benefits beyond cognitive performance that omegas may help with (such as cardiovascular health). Therefore, indirectly assisting with bran health and performance.
Curcumin- shown to increase BDNF (brain derived neurotropic factor). BDNF which can aid in neurogenesis, and decrease brain damage. It also improves mood. More on BDNF in the exercise section of the brain series!
Creatine- an amino acid found in animal products. This amino acid works to fuel our cells, which is why it is commonly used as an athletic performance enhancer. But creatine also increases energy output in our brain cells. Although those who eat animal products regularly most likely get an adequate amount of creatine, those who eat a vegan or vegetarian diet may notice a significant difference in cognitive function when taking creatine. Creatine has also been studied for its use in those with high stress- increasing short term memory and problem solving.
Sage tea- an herb traditionally used for cognitive and neurological conditions. Recent research has demonstrated that there is evidence for the traditional use of this herb. This herb has shown some efficacy for short term use; however, it is best used for a longer period of time to have a significant impact on cognition. It is currently being studied for its use in Alzheimer’s disease.
Other supplements to keep an eye out for more research: Acetyl L Carnitine, ginkgo, rosemary, probiotics, lion’s mane, other mushrooms.
Stay tuned for the next segment on optimizing brain health- Exercise!