Whether you haven’t chugged an energy drink since cramming for college exams or crack one open before every workout, you probably associate these colorful cans with one thing: caffeine. And, sure, caffeine does play a leading role in pretty much every popular energy drink—but it’s not the only starring attraction these days.
More and more, big brands and new kids on the block are powering up their energy drink formulas with ingredients that target your mental game, promising to ramp up focus, mental clarity, and cognition. Many of these ingredients are known as nootropics, which influence neurotransmitters, hormones, and/or enzymes in the brain, explains The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Brittany Michels, M.S., R.D.N., L.D.N., C.P.T.
Calling all gamers, gym-goers, and everyone in between: If you’re on the hunt for an energy drink that’ll boost your brain power, look for a can that incorporates one or more of the following ingredients.
L-tyrosine, an amino acid, is a go-to amongst gym-goers who want perform at their best, gamers looking to get in the zone, and biohackers striving for “flow state” at work. And, unsurprisingly, it’s become a popular ingredient in energy drinks that promise to boost brainpower as much as energy.
The magic behind l-tyrosine is the fact that it’s a must-have for the production of multiple neurotransmitters, including epinephrine (which you probably know as adrenaline), norepinephrine (which is a buddy of epinephrine), and dopamine (which is associated with pleasure).
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By supporting these important brain chemicals, l-tyrosine helps us to feel razor-sharp and laser-focused. In fact, research suggests it can boost memory in those working on a mentally challenging project.
“Tyrosine can potentially preserve memory, boost mental clarity, and help you deal with symptoms of acute stress, such as sleep deprivation or working through a challenging task,” explains The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Rebekah Blakely, M.S., R.D.N. So, if you want support as you race towards a big work deadline, are looking to crush a gaming tournament, or need to freshen up your mind after a night of crummy sleep, look for this mighty amino acid in your energy drink’s ingredient list.
2. Alpha GPC
Ready for a mouthful? Alpha GPC is short for L-alpha-glycerylphosphorylcholine, which is a natural choline compound found in the brain that, when taken in supplement form, supports cognitive function, according to Michels.
Here’s how it works: In general, choline compounds are crucial for cellular structure and function. Alpha GPC, in particular, works to increase levels of acetylcholine, a compound important for memory and learning functions, Michels explains. Plus, unlike some other choline supplements, Alpha GPC is able to cross the blood-brain barrier, meaning it can really get to work in your noggin effectively.
Though there’s more research to be done, studies suggest that Alpha GPC has legit mental and physical performance benefits.
A familiar face in supplements designed to promote memory and focus (such as ONNIT’s Alpha Brain and True Athlete’s Focus & React), Alpha GPC is becoming an increasingly popular addition to energy drinks, so look for it when you grab your next can!
Chances are, you’ve already at least heard of l-carnitine—especially if the gym is your second home. Used in plenty of pre-workouts and as a standalone sports supplement, l-carnitine is famous for supporting energy production (specifically from fat) and helping ward off physical and mental fatigue, according to Michels. Research suggests it can help level up exercise performance, which is one of the big reasons it’s so popular amongst gym-goers.
There’s more to the l-carnitine story, though. It also happens to have antioxidant activity and neuroprotective properties (a.k.a. it’s good for your brain!), Michels notes. Plus, “it influences cognitive function by indirectly facilitating acetylcholine production,” she adds. (Remember, acetylcholine is big for memory and learning.)
L-carnitine, which is technically an amino acid derivative produced by the body, is pretty easy to find in animal foods such as beef, chicken, fish, and dairy, says Michels. But, you can go above and beyond by sipping on an energy drink that contains it! Talk about a two-for-one all-star for both physical and mental performance.
You’ve probably noticed ginseng listed as an ingredient in your favorite energy drink—but its long history might just surprise you. This powerful root is a staple in Traditional Chinese Medicine, and has likely been used within that system to support energy for thousands of years. The former Soviet Union was also known for conducting extensive research on how ginseng (and other herbs) could give everyone from their Olympians to their soldiers an edge.
Clearly, there’s something special about this plant. Basically, “ginseng is an adaptogenic herb that may improve memory and mental performance, as well as help ward off cognitive decline,” says Michels. “Ginseng’s active compounds, which are called ginsenosides, possess neuroprotective properties and act as a central nervous system stimulant.” Large-scale research suggests the herb works by bolstering levels of chemicals like dopamine, noradrenaline, and serotonin, which work to regulate memory, attention, and mental energy, among other things. So, if you want an energy boost with a side of brain love, ginseng’s got you covered.
Another herb with a long history, rhodiola is a flowering plant touted for both physical and mental energy benefits. Like ginseng, rhodiola is considered an adaptogen and energizes the central nervous system while working to counteract the negative effects of stress on hormones, Michels explains.
A go-to for alertness, memory, and general mental performance, rhodiola has even been shown in research to improve mental performance on work tasks by up to 20 percent. That’s no chump change!
There are a number of varieties of rhodiola growing out there, but a specific type known as rhodiola rosea is typically considered the gold standard because it contains beneficial compounds called rosavins. In addition to focus and brain benefits, rhodiola also supports overall vitality and immune health, so it’s a winner both for short-term performance and long-term wellbeing.
3 Brain-Boosting Energy Drinks To Try
A few of our favorite energy drinks for revving both your physical and mental engines?
- FocusAid combines ginseng, rhodiola, and Alpha GPC with a slew of B vitamins (known for their roles in energy production) and a combo of yerba mate and green tea extract for a well-rounded brain boost.
- C4 Smart Energy Superbrain Performance Fuel, Cellucor’s mental performance-focused twist on their classic C4 drinks, is powered by n-acetyl-l-tyrosine, 200 milligrams of tea-derived caffeine, and vitamin B12.
- RedCon1 Energy is a high-performance formula packed with 200 milligrams of caffeine and cognition support from Alpha GPC and l-carnitine.
Whatever goal you’re charging towards, don’t underestimate the power of the right energy drink to fuel your body and mind right through that finish line.