In the age of endless push notifications and news updates, some days it feels like the only time we really slow down is when we take a bathroom break. This go-go-go lifestyle can be exhausting, so it’s no wonder 85 percent of Americans turn to caffeine to get them through the day—and many end up feeling even more strung out.
That’s where a newly-hot category of supplements—sometimes referred to as ‘nootropics’—comes in. “Nootropics are broadly defined as anything that enhances your cognitive capacity, from memory to mental agility to concentration,” explains Maggie Moon, M.S., R.D.N., author of The MIND Diet. Biohackers, workaholics, and wellness junkies alike turn to these natural substances to give their brains a boost.
If the following six natural brain and memory supplements aren’t on your radar yet, they should be.
The herb ginseng has been used in Eastern medicine for thousands of years for everything from stomach upset to brain fog, explains Sumeet Sharma, Emory University M.D./Ph.D. candidate and head of Medicine and Science for Nootrobox—but it’s been used primarily for its cognitive benefits in recent decades.
Ginseng is an ‘adaptogen,’ a type of herb that helps protect our body from the negative effects of stress. Studies suggest these herbs can help modulate fatigue and low mood, and enhance attention and stamina.
Ginseng, in particular, seems to work its magic by boosting blood circulation and neurotransmitter activity in our brain, with one study finding that it helped people feel calmer and improved their performance on a math test.
You can find ginseng extract in capsule or tablet supplements (200 to 400 milligrams) and herbal teas. Just talk to your doc first if you take blood-thinners or diabetes medications, which may interact with the herb, says Jonathan Valdez, R.D.N., owner of Genki Nutrition and spokesperson for the New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
MCTs, or ‘medium-chain triglycerides,’ a type of fatty acid found in fats like coconut oil, are not only known for their weight management benefits, but also for their ability to support cognitive function.
Much of the research on MCTs and cognitive function looks at people with cognitive decline. Why? The brain’s ability to use glucose (sugar) for energy can decline over time, which contributes to cognitive decline by essentially starving brain cells to death. Meanwhile, the brain’s ability to use ketones (the energy source made from MCTs) remains intact, leading researchers to believe that using MCTs for fuel may help to promote brain health.
Research on healthy adults also suggests MCTs to be a viable and sustainable energy source for the brain, with one study finding that taking 20 to 30 grams of MCTs per day increased ketone levels enough to contribute to almost 10 percent of the brain’s total energy use.
Coconut oil is rich in MCTs, but you can also find pure MCT oils and supplements, says Valdez, who recommends shooting for about 20 grams a day.
The amino acid l-theanine, a major component of black and green tea, increases levels of two hormones that help us feel less stressed and more balanced: GABA and dopamine. It’s no wonder a big mug of tea has such a soothing effect!
Interestingly, a study published in the Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that 50 milligrams of l-theanine (about two cups of black tea-worth) stimulated something called ‘alpha activity’ in the brain, which is associated with mental calm (but not drowsiness), alertness, and focus. Other research suggests l-theanine is especially helpful when taken alongside caffeine.
Sharma recommends taking l-theanine with your coffee or tea at a two-to-one ratio of l-theanine-to-caffeine—so if you’re drinking a mug of tea that packs around 50 milligrams, take 100 milligrams of l-theanine. Up to 200 milligrams of l-theanine a day appears to be a-okay, but talk to your doctor before taking it if you’re on blood pressure medication, says Valdez.
The name of this plant may be difficult to say five times fast, but its many syllables come with many benefits. The root of the ashwagandha herb has long been used in Indian Ayurvedic medicine for cognitive function and overall well-being, and is now a popular supplement among biohackers and wellness influencers alike.
Like ginseng, ashwagandha is also considered an adaptogen, and is specifically known for its ability to modulate cortisol production and ease feelings of anxiety, says Sharma. Studies also support its mental performance benefits, with one finding that people with mild cognitive impairments performed better on attention and information processing tests (and reported improved overall memory) after supplementing with 600 milligrams daily for eight weeks.
You can find ashwagandha supplements in capsule or powder form in dosages between 300 and 500 milligrams.
Maca root is another adaptogen that’s been getting a lot of buzz lately. Not only has this root herb been shown to help us adapt to stress and support overall vitality, but it’s also been shown support reproductive health and libido.
There isn’t a ton of research on Maca out there yet, but early studies suggest its potential for boosting energy. Maca is popular in both capsule supplements and powders—typically in doses between 1.5 and three grams.
6. Fish Oil
In fact, one study found that older adults with age-related cognitive decline performed better on memory tests after supplementing with 900 milligrams of omega-3s every day for 24 weeks. A second study also suggests that omega-3s support overall mood stability and feelings of wellness.
Experts recommend eating eight ounces of fish per week to stock the body on ample omega-3s, but if you’re not regularly consuming fish, you likely need a supplement (they often provide about a gram of omega-3s), says Valdez.