There are a lot of blogs out there on nootropics.
A quick Google for things like ‘biohacking’ and ‘cognitive enhancement’ will return thousands upon thousands of blogs.
Obviously, the information put out by these blogs varies wildly. Some claim that the best way to enhance cognitive performance is to use the pharmaceutical study drugs like Modafinil and Aniracetam. Others tell you that the real way to boost focus and memory is to meditate and eat a raw food diet.
With such a variety of information out there, it’s pretty hard to know who you can trust.
So, I’ve decided to draw up a list of every nootropic with proven, scientifically-verified effects. This list can help you make better decisions when it comes to constructing your own brain supplement. It can also serve as a good guide when buying a pre-made nootropic stack.
This is very much a continuous project – this is not an exhaustive list. It will grow over time. If there’s a substance not here that you think definitely should be, then let me know in the comments!
The Complete List Of Nootropics
Here is my complete list of nootropics. Obviously, this is and always will be a work in progress. We are discovering new nootropic compounds all the time. As new research becomes available, I will be amending this list – either removing substances found to be ineffective after all, or adding substances proven to work.
I am only going to include substances which have a substantial amount of evidence backing them up. For a compound, herbal extract, or amino acid to make it onto this list, I need to see proof. By proof, I mean several independent, robust, conclusive clinical trials in which it was found to work. Animal trials will be sufficient for consideration, but if we only have animal trials, I’ll make that clear in the explanation.
So, without further ado, here’s the complete nootropics list!
I have broken the list down into more easily-manageable sections based on the specific purpose of the substance in question.
The categories are focus, memory, brain development, antioxidants, and mood. These are very rough categories of course – there is lots of overlap. But this will help you navigate the list better.
I have included a brief explanation for what each ingredient does, how it works, and how robust the evidence is supporting its use as a cognitive enhancer. I have included links to further reading where possible (my site is still very much under construction).
If you have any questions, please post them in the comments section at the end. If you have any in-depth questions – or you want some tailored stack advice – please just send me an email!
The following substances are primarily used for increasing focus, heightening concentration, and lengthening the attention span. You will often hear people talking about certain substances helping them get into a ‘flow state’. This is a state of extreme, all-consuming focus. These substances are typically what people use to reach such a state.
They have slightly different mechanisms of action, and of course many have more effects than simply improving focus. But their primary, over-riding effect is to heighten attention.
L-Alpha glycerylphosphorylcholine is a naturally-occurring choline compound. It is found in the human brain. Alpha-GPC crosses the blood-brain barrier much more readily than regular choline. Once there, it donates its choline content, allowing the brain to synthesize considerably more acetylcholine and phosphatidylcholine depending on what it needs more at that time.
This is easily one of the most efficient ways to raise acetylcholine availability in the human brain. Alpha-GPC works reliably well for the vast majority of users. it is fast-acting and there are rarely any side effects.
Sometimes called Citicoline or Cognizin™, CDP-Choline is a cholinergic like Alpha-GPC. CDP-Choline readily crosses the blood-brain barrier. It spikes choline levels in the brain, which subsequently leads to significantly higher acetylcholine levels. As acetylcholine is the brain’s ‘executive neurotransmitter’ (sometimes called the learning neurotransmitter), having more of it is a very good way to boost all-round cognitive function.
CDP-Choline’s effects usually register within 3 hours. Typical effects include sharpened focus, greater attention span, heightened attention to detail, and faster information processing. Users often report entering a ‘flow state’ while using Citicoline. Learn more on VAGA.
A choline compound used to raise acetylcholine levels in the brain. Using analogues like this is more effective than taking regular choline, but less effective than Alpha-GPC or CDP-Choline. Larger doses are needed. Learn more on VAGA.
This compound is also naturally-occurring in the human brain. It is not a choline compound, as is sometimes reported. Rather, it prevents choline uptake by cells, raising acetylcholine levels as a result. An incredibly unreliable and unpredictable nootropic in my opinion.
A extract taken from Huperzia Serrata, or Chinese Clubmoss, Huperzine A is an extremely powerful nootropic. It inhibits the enzyme acetylcholinesterase. This enzyme is responsible for destroying used acetylcholine. By inhibiting this enzyme, Huperzine A allows acetylcholine concentrations to steadily build up in the brain. Cycling is needed to allow levels to return to normal after a few weeks. This is a fast-acting, potent nootropic.
The substances in this section are usually taken to improve memory function in the short to medium term. They may have some other benefits, such as reducing stress, promoting brain health, or sharpening focus. However, they are first and foremost memory-enhancers.
This plant has been used for centuries as a mainstay in Ayurverdic medicine. Today we know that it has extremely powerful memory-enhancing effects. Bacopa contains compounds called bacosides. These compounds readily cross the blood-brain barrier and set about reducing the effects of stress, preventing cells from damage, and enhancing memory function.
Clinical trials on humans show significantly better scores on memory tests in as little as 6 weeks of Bacopa supplementation. Effects are particularly pronounced in people with age-related, mild, cognitive impairment, and in younger people with ADHD. This is probably the best natural memory booster in the world.
Ginkgo biloba is easily one of the most popular nootropics in the world today. It is regularly used as a natural, complimentary treatment for people noticing the earliest signs of age-related cognitive decline. Clinical trials have shown that – while being far from a cure or protection – Ginkgo biloba is effective at improving mental performance in people with mild memory loss.
Ginkgo biloba works by simultaneously reducing the viscosity of your blood and opening up your blood vessels. By doing this, it increases blood flow in the brain without raising systemic blood pressure. This means more oxygen and nutrients reaching your brain cells, which means better brain function overall.
Vinpocetine is a great natural nootropic. It has several different mechanisms of action. It is an anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, and a blood vessel dilator like Ginkgo biloba. Supplementing with vinpocetine increases blood flow to the brain, improving brain health, longevity and functionality in the process. It reduces oxidative damage, further lengthening brain cell life span. It also reduces inflammation, promoting good brain health going forward.
Sadly, vinpocetine is not widely used any more. It has simply fallen out of fashion. But in my book, this is still a top-notch nootropic. Most stacks could benefit from adding in some vinpocetine. Due to its multiple different mechanisms of action, most people will see benefits from vinpocetine.
The nootropics listed in this section are primarily used to support proper growth, development, and maintenance of the brain. Some work in very similar ways – for instance, providing the raw materials for the construction of new brain cells. others work in very unique ways – the promotion of neurotrophic factors is a prime example.
However, these substances all share one thing in common; they optimize brain development and maintenance over the long-term. In my opinion, these are the substances which make the biggest difference to cognitive function over a lifetime.
Lion’s Mane Mushroom
Lion’s Mane Mushroom has been used in traditional Chinese medicine (and cuisine) for a very long time. However, it’s only recently that it has started become a mainstream nootropic supplement. At present, only the best brain supplements will contain Lion’s Mane Mushroom.
Lion’s Mane Mushroom is prized for its ability to increase Nerve Growth Factor (NGF) in the brain. Supplementing with LMM has been shown to spike NGF expression in humans. NGF is a neurotrophic factor which regulates the growth, differentiation, and proliferation of neurons. Having higher baseline NGF levels means more efficient and rapid neuron growth. It means more neurons in total. It means more raw brain power. In my opinion, any full-spectrum nootropic supplement needs to contain LMM or another substance to boost neuropeptides.
Generally speaking, you don’t need to use a large dose of Lion’s Mane Mushroom because it is such a slow burner. However, larger doses will return better results. Studies have shown great improvements in brain function using 400-600mg of Lion’s Mane Mushroom per day for prolonged periods.
Phosphatidylserine is a phospholipid – these are plant-derived, fat-like substances needed by the body to carry out a range of vital functions. Phosphatidylserine is a necessary constituent of cell membranes. It is found in very large quantities in the brain as it makes up such as high proportion of brain cell membranes.
It is also needed for cell signalling. Phosphatidylserine acts as the signal for apoptosis – the process of programmed cell death. Basically, when a cell has reached the end of its life cycle, phosphatidylserine moves from the inside of the cell membrane to the outside. This signals to passing immune cells that it is time for that cell to be destroyed. Once it has been eliminated, a new cell can be made in its place.
Supplementing with phosphatidylserine is a fantastic way to maximize brain health and functionality going forward. We do get enough from food – the body can synthesize it from various fatty acids. However, if you want to maximize brain cell health, and optimize cell recycling, supplementing is a good way to go. Studies have shown improved cognitive performance from relatively low doses of phosphatidylserine.
You’re probably all familiar with fish oil and the cognitive benefits associated with it. But some of you might not properly understand why cod liver oil is prescribed as “brain food”. DHA – or Docosahexaenoic acid – is a principle structural component of the human brain, retina, and skin. DHA actually makes up a staggering percentage of the brain’s mass – DHA compirses ~40% of all fatty acids found in the brain. As the brain is mostly fat and water, that is a lot of DHA!
Most people consume far too little DHA. This is especially true with people in the US who consume lots of omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids; the ratio of omega-3:6:9 fatty acids in your diet can have a massive effect on your health. Supplementing will support proper brain growth, not to mention good cardiovascular health. I recommend using a plant-derived DHA supplement, because that’s where the fish get it from and it cuts out the pollutants you get from fish oil!
Very few nootropics use Artichoke Extract. To my knowledge, it’s only used in one premium, pre-made nootropic. It is also difficult for individuals to source this stuff to put in their own custom nootropic stack. However, this doesn’t reflect its worth. Artichoke Extract is a fantastic cognitive enhancer. It is a slow burner, but if you supplement with this stuff consistently over a long period of time, the potential benefits are immense.
Artichoke inhibits the enzyme PDE4. This enzyme degrades cAMP, which is a key intracellular signaler. Greater cAMP levels means more effective intracellular signalling, and as a result, more efficient brain function.
Uridine Monophosphate is an another unusual nootropic. It isn’t used in many pre-made nootropic stacks these days; just a handful have it in their formula, and even then, it’s a bit of an after-thought. But some really exciting research has been published recently which suggests that Uridine Monophosphate (UMP) might drastically improve brain function, growth, and health.
UMP is a nucelotide. It is used as a monomer in RNA (in other words, it is used to make RNA). Animal studies have found that UMP supplementation leads to increased cognitive performance. However, there have been no robust human studies conducted as of yet. Plus, these animal studies have used lots of substances simultaneously, including known nootropics like choline and DHA.
These ingredients are powerful antioxidants. There are lots of antioxidants, but I expect premium brain supplements to only use the most potent.
Antioxidants protect the brain from excessive oxidative damage. Oxidative damage occurs when there is a relative abundance of free radicals in the body. By relative abundance, I mean more free radicals than antioxidants. Free radicals are reactive oxygen species. They are extremely unstable. In order to stabilize themselves, they react with your cells, damaging them in the process. Antioxidants react with free radicals before they can react with your cells.
Lots of things cause excessive build-ups of free radicals in the body: diet, environmental pollutants, stress, and so on. Consuming antioxidants helps keep free radicals in check, preventing them from causing excessive damage to your cells.
Maritime Pine Bark
Antioxidants found in Maritime Pine Bark have been found to rapidly cross the blood-brain barrier. This makes MPB an ideal antioxidant source to include in a nootropic supplement. Look for a high quality, concentrated, full-spectrum MPB extract rather than whole plant powder.
If you’ve ever heard anybody telling you that red wine is good for you, this is why. Resveratrol is a very effective antioxidant. It is found in large quantities in red fruits. If you want to minimize oxidative damage, supplementing with resveratrol is a good way to go!
This is a dimethylated form of resveratrol. As such, it is more potent than resveratrol – resveratrol 2.0 if you will. Unlike resveratrol, you will not obtain much pterostilbene from your normal diet. That’s true even if you do drink a lot of red wine! This antioxidant is not as studied as the two listed above, but if you are looking for something more powerful than resveratrol, pterostilbene is a good option.
The following substances are utilized for their potent anxiolytic properties. An anxiolytic is a substance which reduces feelings of anxiety and the main symptoms of stress. They can be very different in their mechanisms of action, and in their actual effects. However, these substances all bring about the same general end result – less stress, reduced anxiety, improved mood, and clear, calm focus.
If you’re looking for an anxiolytic for your nootropic stack, then I think rhodiola rosea is the obvious choice. Effective, fast-acting, reliable, and safe; rhodiola rosea is all benefit and no downside as far as I’m concerned. This amazing herb rapidly reduces feelings of stress and anxiety in humans within about an hour of ingesting it. Studies have found that people using rhodiola rosea in stressful situations tend to focus better and perform better mentally across multiple parameters.
Most importantly for users, rhodiola rosea does not have a sedative effect. It does not make you feel relaxed by making you feel sedated or ‘drugged up’ in any way. It just subtly calms the mind and relaxes the body. This makes it an ideal addition to a nootropic stack, especially if you plan to use it in work or college.
A staple of Ayurverdic medicine, ashwagandha has always been used for its ability to reduce feelings of stress and to cure acute anxiety. Modern clinical trials have found that ashwagandha administration causes cortisol levels to plummet. Cortisol is the body’s stress hormone – it is released when we are under threat. It causes the symptoms we associate with stress and fear; shortness of breath, inability to focus, sweating, confusion, nausea, and so on. Chronically high cortisol levels cause fat gain and muscle wastage too. By reducing serum cortisol levels, ashwagandha supplementation drastically reduces the symptoms of stress and anxiety.
You might think that an amino acid can’t have much of an effect on your physiology, but that would be a big mistake. Tyrosine supplementation – when it is above a certain dose – can significantly improve cognitive performance in people placed in acutely stressful environments. Studies have shown that Tyrosine supplementation enhances focus and memory in people with sleep deprivation, people exposed to extreme cold, and people placed under severe pressure.
If you’re a student looking for a good, natural supplement to prevent performance anxiety and the kind of brain fog that comes with sleep deprivation or intense stress, Tyrosine might be just what you’re looking for. Learn more about Tyrosine and anxiety from Brian Johnson of VAGA.org.