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5 Best Nootropics: Review & Buyer’s Guide

By on February 5, 2018 in Focus Supplements with 0 Comments

Five best nootropics graphic

The hype surrounding nootropics and smart drugs has been inescapable in recent years. Almost all of us looking for a competitive edge at work or school have now heard about this class of mind-boosting supplements and their potential benefits in improving cognition, memory, and creativity.

As with many hyped supplements, questions remain regarding the quality and effectiveness of various popular nootropics on the market.

In this article we explore these questions and look to scientific studies to validate and debunk claims that have been made for the market-leading nootropics.

We’ll explore the chemistry of these products; the pros and cons of each nootropic, and help inform your decision as a buyer by identifying and reviewing the ten most proven nootropics available.

When making this list we considered an enormous amount of data on the safety, quality, and efficacy of each popular nootropic. The list is separated into subheadings because the best choice for one individual may well be different for another person with different needs.

Some people look to nootropics for an edge in social situations while others are seeking a boost in motivation. Still, others turn to these supplements for help with memory or creativity.

One thing’s for sure: more and more people are looking to gain a brainpower advantage and this list will help you tailor your choices according to your needs as well as the best science currently available.

Here are your top nootropics summarized:

1. Best Nootropic For Mood Enhancement

Handful of colorful supplements

Verdict: S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe)

S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe) is a compound that is naturally produced in the liver. It combines with enzymes present in the body to bring about a process known as methylation. These chemical reactions are believed to be linked to depression (1).

When combined with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) class drugs in depressed patients, SAMe appears to enhance the benefits of treatment (2). However, if you already take an SSRI it’s important to talk to your doctor before starting on SAMe as the two drugs may simultaneously act on the mood-related neurotransmitter serotonin.

In another trial, researchers compared SAMe, escitalopram (an SSRI antidepressant), and a placebo control in patients with depression. At the end of the 12-week trial, remission rates were 34%, 23%, and 6% for SAMe, escitalopram, and placebo, respectively (3).

An analysis of clinical studies sought to compare the effectiveness of SAMe in treating depression with tricyclic antidepressants and concluded that the compound works about as well the prescription alternative. The researchers also noted that SAMe has relatively few side effects (4).

In addition, SAMe is reported to exhibit its mood-enhancing properties faster than conventional antidepressants, which often take several weeks to start yielding noticeable benefits (5).

Pros

  • SAMe has relatively potent effects on depression — roughly equivalent to the effectiveness of tricyclic antidepressants.
  • It may also produce the desired benefits faster than commonly prescribed pharmaceuticals.
  • SAMe is naturally present in the body and is produced by the liver. People with low mood appear to have lower levels of SAMe on average than non-depressed people (6).

Cons

  • There are relatively few large studies available. For this reason, a Cochrane review described the need to “[further] investigate the efficacy of SAMe for the treatment of depression in adults” (7).
  • The studies that are available have mostly been conducted on people with depression or depression related to another disease (e.g. Parkinson’s). More research is needed to understand how SAMe affects people who aren’t suffering from mental health issues.
  • Creatine supplementation appears to increase SAMe levels indirectly and so may offer similar benefits at a lower price.

How To Take S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe):

The usual dose of SAMe is 1,200mg per day, split into up to three doses of 400mg each and taken with food.

It may take two weeks or longer in some cases before the effects become apparent.

High-Quality Alternatives:

  • Ashwagandha — adaptogens like ashwagandha lessen the negative physical and emotional fallout of stress. For this reason, they’ve been linked to improvements in anxiety symptoms and mood.
  • Tyrosine — this amino acid and neurotransmitter precursor improved the response to stress and mental well-being of members of the military in a trial (8).
  • Rhodiola Rosea — another adaptogen, this supplement leads to improvements in self-reported wellbeing in stressed and tired individuals (9).

2. Best Nootropic For Long Work or Study Sessions

We’ve all been there — a deadline is beckoning on an important project or assignment and you’ve decided to go full throttle in order to finish, perhaps even working all night. But what is the best nootropic to take in this situation?

First, we need to decide what exactly defines an optimal nootropic for long and productive work sessions. What is really required is a versatile choice capable of acting on several aspects of cognition, be it motivation, alertness, memory formation or focus. Our pick comes closest of all nootropics to excelling in all these key areas.

Verdict: Modafinil / Adrafinil

Modafinil is a prescription drug in the USA that is intended to treat narcolepsy by increasing alertness and warding off sleepiness.

It has become widely known as one of the foremost ‘smart drugs’ around, touted for its ability to extend focus and enhance cognitive function, including memory.

Meanwhile, adrafinil is what’s known as a precursor to modafinil. In effect, adrafinil is metabolized by the liver after ingestion to produce modafinil. Both adrafinil and modafinil are stimulants but while modafinil is a controlled prescription-only drug, adrafinil is widely available as a nootropic supplement.

Military personnel deprived of sleep for two nights don’t suffer sleep deprivation related cognitive decline when supplementing 300mg modafinil daily (10).

A one-off dose of 200mg modafinil in healthy young people was linked with improved memory and cognition. These individuals also reported greater enjoyment during a mental test than the control group. This study was conducted with subjects in a non-sleep deprived state (11).

Daily supplementation of modafinil for six weeks was found to bring about rises in attention span in young people with ADHD. Around half of the users reported improvements compared to just 17% taking a placebo. The study also uncovered benefits in controlling hyperactivity and boosting cognition (12).

Meanwhile, adrafinil (precursor to modafinil) is known to substantially boost nocturnal activity when administered to monkeys. Researchers hypothesize that this increase in activity is brought about by the wakefulness-promoting effects of adrafinil (13).

Pros

  • Modafinil packs the punch of a true smart drug but with very limited potential for dependence or addiction (14).
  • Strong evidence-based effects on a range of cognitive processes including memory, attention, and wakefulness.
  • Although modafinil is a controlled substance in many countries, its precursor adrafinil is widely available to purchase.

Cons

  • Modafinil is not available as an over-the-counter nootropic supplement in many jurisdictions and therefore requires a prescription to obtain.
  • Adrafinil is less potent than modafinil and takes longer to kick in — this is because only a portion of an adrafinil dose is converted to modafinil in the body. Because this nootropic must be processed by the liver before taking effect, its levels peak in the blood around two hours after ingestion (in comparison to approximately one hour with modafinil).
  • Adrafinil use poses a small risk to the liver, the organ responsible for metabolizing this substance. However, this concern is primarily linked to long-term, high-dose usage.

How To Take Modafinil/Adrafinil:

A typical dose of modafinil is 100-200mg. Some studies have been conducted using 4mg/kg bodyweight (15).

Modafinil can be taken in a state of sleep deprivation to prolong wakefulness. Alternatively, it can be taken in the morning as an all-around cognitive booster.

Remember, adrafinil takes around one hour longer to exert its maximum effect than modafinil.

High-Quality Alternatives:

  • Noopept — with daily use this nootropic appears to bring about an increase in neurotrophin factors (16). Neurotrophins are known to play a key role in memory enhancement (17).
  • Tyrosine — this supplement may help to preserve memory under stressful physical conditions like cold weather (18).
  • Oxiracetam — significantly reduces cognitive decline in the elderly (19). Animal evidence suggests possible improvements in memory.

3. Best Nootropic For Social Situations and Social Anxiety

Flowering ashwagandha plant with leaves

Verdict: Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha (Withania Somnifera) is a well-studied and highly regarded plant-based supplement that is frequently categorized as an ‘adaptogen’. In essence, this means the supplement is able to reduce the myriad negative manifestations of stress on both mental and physical health.

Although the scientific evidence is not yet at an advanced stage, early investigations have yielded very promising results.

Ashwagandha has been selected as our best choice for sufferers of social anxiety because human studies conducted so far have shown substantial anti-anxiety benefits.

In addition, rodent studies have demonstrated increases in social interaction in rats supplemented with ashwagandha (20, 21). Scientists have hypothesized that these benefits may stem from the effects of the supplement on serotonin signaling in the brain.

Studies in humans have so far noted increases in self-reported feelings of well-being, as well as improvements in social situations including those in a romantic context.

Participants with diagnosed generalized anxiety disorder took 250mg of Ashwagandha twice daily in a 2000 study. Researchers noted significant benefits in both anxiety and depressive symptoms (22).

In another trial, anxiety disorder patients were given 300mg ashwagandha twice daily for 8 weeks alongside counseling. In comparison to a group receiving counseling alone, the individuals taking the supplement saw their symptoms reduced by almost double (23).

An additional placebo-controlled study also using 300mg ashwagandha for 60 days was conducted on people with what researchers defined as chronic mental stress. By the end, blood levels of cortisol had fallen by over a quarter (24). This is significant because cortisol is a steroid hormone released in response to stress. Chronically elevated cortisol is linked to a range of negative health outcomes.

Pros

  • Chronic stress is known to have deleterious effects on the body in the long term. If ashwagandha can indeed reliably lower stress hormones then the supplement may have benefits far beyond anxiety-reduction.
  • Ashwagandha has a long tradition of use in herbal medicine and appears to be very safe at normal dosages. The trials conducted so far, although small, have used gold-standard randomization and placebo-controlled methods.

Cons

  • The body of research regarding ashwagandha is still small and we require more (and larger) studies before we draw firm conclusions about ashwagandha’s benefits and its actions within the body.
  • It is not clear if the benefits of ashwagandha in reducing social anxiety are secondary to a reduction in general anxiety or whether a separate mechanism of action exists.

How To Take Ashwagandha:

You may intend to supplement ashwagandha for a one-off event that triggers your anxiety. For instance, a presentation or first date! If this is the case then try 2-5g of powdered root beforehand.

For daily use, take around 300-600mg of root once per day.

In general, supplementation in the morning is preferable to the evening as ashwagandha may cause insomnia in some people.

High-Quality Alternatives:

  • Rhodiola rosea — another adaptogen, rhodiola is thought to exhibit effects on serotonin signaling in the brain. A small study found improvements in symptoms in patients with generalized anxiety disorder given rhodiola supplements (25).
  • Panax ginseng — may lower anxiety secondary to its ability to improve mood and feelings of well-being. A study carried out with 30 participants found panax ginseng to improve aspects of mental health including social functioning (26).

4. Best Nootropic For Memory Optimization

A flowering bacopa monnieri plant

Verdict: Bacopa monnieri

Bacopa monnieri is a nootropic herb that has been used in Asian forms of traditional medicine as a cognition and memory enhancer.

Supplementing with this herb on a consistent daily basis boosts working memory — the short-term ability to “keep things in mind” while performing various cognitive tasks. Working memory is also related to the ability to focus and excel at mental tasks.

A study conducted in a group of healthy adults over the age of 55 led to improvements in memory formation and verbal learning (27). Forgetfulness appeared to improve but this outcome didn’t reach statistical significance. The participants were given 300mg daily for up to 6 months.

Other studies among groups of older individuals have reached similar conclusions regarding improvements in working memory (28, 29, 30).

Studies supplementing a combination of younger and older adults with 300mg of bacopa monnieri have also shown improvements in working memory and learning capacity (31, 32).

However, another trial with 66 adults found no change in a range of cognitive tests after 3 months of daily supplementation (33).

Pros

  • The great majority of high-quality trials that met our standards for inclusion in this article have found benefits from bacopa monnieri in a range of cognitive areas including working memory, attention and mood.
  • While some seek out fast-acting nootropics with a rapid onset of effect, bacopa is a good choice for this looking for steadier and longer-term improvements.

Cons

  • It is essential to consult your doctor before beginning bacopa supplementation because interactions with other pharmaceuticals haven’t been ruled out.
  • A large amount of the research conducted so far has involved older people and it appears that supplementation may help them more than younger individuals.
  • A study conducted with older participants found a higher rate of cramps and nausea in the group supplemented with bacopa.

How To Take Bacopa Monnieri:

Before choosing a supplement, check the label for the quoted bacoside content. To take 150mg bacosides per day, take a 300mg supplement with a 55% bacoside content. If you are using powdered leaf the bacoside content will be lower. 1.5g of the leaf at 10% bacoside content will deliver the target of 150mg.

Bacopa can be taken with food, once each day. The herb is absorbed better in the stomach in the presence of fats.

High-Quality Alternatives:

  • Blueberry — compounds known as anthocyanins in blueberries are responsible for the rich blue color of this popular fruit. They are also known to promote the activity of a neuropeptide that helps neurons grow, in turn making it easier for neurons to communicate (34).
  • Theanine — naturally present in green tea alongside caffeine, theanine is an amino acid that promotes relaxation. When taken alongside caffeine, theanine can reduce the “jitters” without undermining caffeine’s focus and attention-boosting properties.

5. Best Nootropic For Restorative Sleep

The goal of nootropics is to boost our brain power and cognitive abilities in a range of situations. We may be looking to boost our creativity, our memory, our motivation or our mood.

However, restorative peaceful sleep is perhaps our best tool in promoting optimal cognitive performance. Supplements that improve sleep quality are therefore essential in boosting mental ability, particularly among people who regularly suffer sleep disturbances.

Verdict: Melatonin

While not strictly a ‘nootropic’ by conventional wisdom, melatonin is a powerful sleep-promoting hormone produced naturally in the brain. Dark surroundings naturally trigger the brain to up its melatonin production and promote feelings of sleepiness.

Unfortunately, the glut of artificial lighting in modern life from electronic devices and other electrical sources can inundate us throughout the day and interfere with our natural sleep-wake cycle.

Melatonin supplements, by helping you fall asleep faster, can improve overall sleep quality by reducing the amount of time we lie awake in bed. It is not likely to help those individuals who have no problem falling asleep straightaway.

Dosing 2mg of the prolonged release form of melatonin appears to help insomnia patients fall asleep faster while improving overall sleep quality (35, 36).

Pros

  • Melatonin is a natural sleep-promoting hormone with a strong body of scientific evidence backing the supplement’s ability to help people fall asleep more quickly.

Cons

  • Studies have mostly focused on insomnia sufferers and on older patients.
  • The benefits will be experienced primarily by those people who struggle to fall asleep quickly. There are limited benefits for people who always fall asleep fast.

How To Take Melatonin:

Take 500 micrograms (mcg) to begin with and gradually up your dose to 1mg. Thereafter, increase in increments of 500mcg until you find the smallest effective dose for you.

It is best to consume the supplement around 30 minutes before sleep. Prolonged release melatonin is available and may offer longer lasting benefits throughout the night.

High-Quality Alternatives:

  • Lavender — supplementation appears to have benefits in the treatment of both anxiety and sleep quality.
  • Magnesium — deficiency of this mineral is found relatively often in the general population and in athletes in particular due to loss through sweat. Supplementation in deficient individuals can significantly improve sleep quality.

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About the Author

About the Author: Tom Andrews BSc is the editor of MentalWellnessToday.com. He devotes his time to psychology and mental health research and also enjoys climbing, hiking, and team sports. Tom is a contributor to several other highly regarded health magazines and blogs.

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