Nootropics: Uses, Benefits, Side Effects, Safety & More
At this point, striving for health and well-being doesn't just mean avoiding health concerns; it means supporting our bodies in ways that help them thrive. And in a society continually motivated by productivity and striving for superb mental performance, it's no wonder why brain-boosting nootropics are on (or, quite literally in) everyone's minds as of late.
"As a neuroscientist and working mother, I'm deeply interested in how nutrients, botanicals, and bioactives with nootropic actions impact cognitive health," says cognitive health scientist Milene Brownlow, Ph.D. And Brownlow isn't alone—nootropics are popular with myriad demographics, from students and entrepreneurs to working professionals and, yes, mothers trying to keep up with their kids.
Despite the word "nootropics" becoming more mainstream recently, some of these compounds have been called upon for centuries in ancient medicine, and others are consumed regularly in our modern society (looking at you, caffeine!).
Let's dive into the intrinsic abilities of nootropics, the ones you might have heard of and the new ones you'll be wanting to leverage for more brainpower starting tomorrow.
What are nootropics?
Nootropic is a category used to describe a variety of unique compounds that support diverse facets of brain health and cognitive function—things like mental clarity and sharpness, memory, neuronal function, neurotransmitter balance, and cognitive performance. In the supplement space, nootropics can be nutrients, botanical phytonutrients, other bioactives, and even things like peptides, probiotic strains, and more.
Certain prescription drugs are sometimes dubbed nootropics as well. The media has uncovered people (often college students) using specific pharmaceuticals to improve mental performance, but it's even controversial if such compounds should be considered nootropic at all. Nonetheless, that type of nootropic use is not what we're covering here, and anyone with specific medical considerations should partner with their doctor.
Brain nutrition for cognitive performance and mental clarity*
At mbg, when we discuss nootropics, we're talking about brain-supporting ingredients found in high-quality dietary supplement formulas. This realm of nootropics features a wide variety of some pretty amazing plants—including roots like ginseng, berries like guarana and coffee cherry fruit, fungi like adaptogenic mushrooms, lesser-known (yet ancient) succulents like kanna, and even brain-essential neuronutrients like citicoline.*
So, now that you know these compounds are famed for generating Jimmy Neutron–like brain-blasting abilities, let's talk about their exact mechanisms and how they affect the brain.
Each nootropic—whether a nutrient, botanical, or bioactive—imparts unique nootropic mechanisms and actions in our body and brain. For example, some nootropics affect neuronal health and neurotransmitter balance, while others increase concentration and mental sharpness. Some literally increase blood flow to your brain (think resveratrol), allowing for nutrients and oxygen to flow throughout your central nervous system and maintain adequate energy.*
Nootropics have also been shown to exhibit antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and adaptogenic properties, which are neuroprotective at their core. Other neurocentric actives help protect the brain against toxins, improve executive functions like cognitive flexibility, enhance memory, and nurture neuroplasticity and brain span (aka brain longevity).
Even others bolster resilience to stressors and balance mood, ushering in calm and serenity (we see you, kanna).* All in all, these unique compounds help keep your brain in tiptop shape.
Types of nootropics.
There are a variety of adaptogenic herbs, plants, mushrooms, bioactives, and phytonutrients that act as nootropic superchargers for your brain.
Adaptogens have taken the spotlight recently—and for good reason! These stimulating plants and herbs help enhance our resilience to stressors. Thanks to their effects on the central nervous system and neurotransmitters, certain adaptogens are also nootropics.
That means the same compounds that help you manage your mental and physical stress will also enhance your cognitive function. (I don't know about you, but that mix of relaxation and focus is exactly what I need when I'm working on a challenging task.) Some examples of plants, fungi, and herbs lucky enough to exist in this epic crossover are ashwagandha, Ginkgo biloba, lion's mane mushroom, Panax ginseng, kanna (Sceletium tortuosum), and Rhodiola rosea.*
Phytonutrients, aka phytochemicals, are natural compounds found in plants that benefit human health. Many phytochemicals have intrinsic antioxidant properties (which, as we know, support whole-body health and longevity) but many also promote other areas of health—such as immune resilience, hormone balance, and how well your brain functions.
As with adaptogens, some phytonutrients act as nootropics by stimulating the central nervous system and optimizing cognitive performance.
For example, L-theanine is a phytochemical found in green tea that's both a nootropic and an adaptogen, thanks to its ability to generate a relaxed, focused mental state. Antioxidant powerhouse resveratrol is a polyphenol with anti-inflammatory properties found in a variety of foods (e.g., grapes, blueberries, cranberries, peanuts, pistachios, and even chocolate) that promotes brain blood flow and cognitive task performance.* As it turns out, L-theanine and resveratrol are also found in certain nootropic supplements, too.
And, of course, there's ever-energizing caffeine, which can be found in chocolate, tea, and coffee and is known for its ability to enhance mental performance (i.e., focus, attention, executive function skills, and more).
When it comes to caffeine in supplemental form, mbg's resident nutrition scientist Ashley Jordan Ferira, Ph.D., RDN, explains, "You'll want to look for the real stuff (i.e., not synthetic caffeine): Seek out caffeine sourced from plants, like whole coffee fruit, green coffee beans, tea, and guarana—and preferably in a sustained-release formula so you reap the benefits minus the infamous caffeine crash."*
Nootropic brain-health benefits.
As we've begun to cover already, nootropics can help support a range of cognitive tasks and functions.
"Specific mechanisms of action of nootropic ingredients vary, and thus support different cognitive benefits," shares Emma Engler, M.S., mbg's nutrition research scientist. "For example, caffeine (arguably the most widely used nootropic) works on adenosine receptors supporting mental and physical energy, while citicoline (a potent neuronutrient) supports phospholipid synthesis and neuronal health."*
Let's review how nootropics deliver certain brain-health benefits—plus the specific nootropics to reach for if you're looking for a specific blast of brainpower.
Some of the best nootropics for promoting focus are plant-derived caffeine, citicoline, and L-theanine.* Citicoline, aka CDP-choline, is a natural nutrient-bioactive hybrid found in every cell of the body. In a study published by Food and Nutrition Sciences, citicoline in the clinically researched form Cognizin® was shown to improve focus and attention in healthy women who took it for a month.*
Interestingly, the combination of caffeine and L-theanine has been found to provide a powerful, energized focus superior to the use of caffeine alone. When consumed together—in matcha and other green teas, or a premium, targeted focus supplement like mbg's focus+—this unique duo is found to increase individuals' speed and accuracy of tasks and reduce susceptibility to distractions.*
This breakthrough focus+ formula features six synergistic active ingredients in clinically useful doses and is dominated by plants (hello, coffee cherry, coffee beans, ginseng, and guarana)—to ultimately enhance mind and body energy, concentration, and all-day productivity.* This strategic combo works thanks to its strong science roots.
Of course, you're familiar with caffeine and its effects on energy—or, more technically, its ability to make us forget that we're tired. In addition to a sustained-release caffeine like Xtenergy that's backed by robust clinical trial research, another science-backed energizing nootropic is guarana, which is a fruit native to Brazil that also happens to be a concentrated source of caffeine.*
According to a 2014 study from Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, the Indigenous South African botanical kanna (aka Sceletium tortuosum as Zembrin®) supports executive function, which encompasses a wide range of critical brain functions that allow us to plan our days, manage multiple tasks, and just generally get things done.*
A foundational aspect of executive functioning, cognitive flexibility is the ability to easily adapt to our constantly evolving environment. It also refers to the brain's ability to switch between different tasks or think about multiple concepts at the same time.
"For a wide range of life essential activities and feelings, cognitive flexibility is at the core," explains mbg's VP of scientific affairs Ferira. "These include things like empathy, debate, impulse control, stress regulation, changing directions, strategic planning, creative writing, problem-solving, and multitasking. Even simply reading a book and understanding what you're reading at the same time requires our brain to tap into our cognitive flexibility skill set." (Talk about a brain function you want to really nurture!)
Out of all neurocognitive domains tested in the 2014 Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine clinical trial, kanna's displayed ability to improve cognitive flexibility—a unique subset of executive function skills—is arguably the most impressive.* One of the many reasons this ancient plant has been leveraged for a very long time.
Stress resilience & mood balance
While a number of nootropics are beneficial for helping our brains accomplish cognitively demanding tasks, their mental health benefits don't end there. Many nootropic botanicals and phytonutrients assist with stress management and mood support.
For example, ginseng (specifically the Panax ginseng variety) acts as a natural actoprotector, meaning it demonstrates an ability to enhance mental work capacity (and physical performance, as well!) without increasing oxygen consumption.*
If it's Zen-like relaxation and balance you're looking for, L-theanine might be your guy: According to clinical research, L-theanine modulates alpha brain wave activity, helping us enter a calm yet relaxed state of focus (even when paired with stimulating caffeine).*
Kanna also has a powerful impact on calming the mind and mood regulation, via unique brain mechanisms: "Specific to serotonin, kanna has serotonin reuptake inhibition actions in the brain," Engler explains. "This sounds technical, but this basically means that kanna delays the body (neurons, specifically) from reabsorbing serotonin, extending serotonin's availability and activity in our brain and body."*
Since serotonin has been dubbed the "happy hormone," you can imagine how beneficial extending its beneficial effects are for our mind. Indeed, clinical trial evidence has shown kanna delivers mood-balancing effects and promotes stress resilience, demonstrating a positive (resilience-boosting) impact on emotional brain response, Engler adds.*
In addition to the cerebrovascular actions (blood flowing to your brain!) and antioxidant benefits we mentioned earlier, resveratrol also supports learning, memory, and recall.* In a 2014 study from the Journal of Neuroscience, resveratrol supplements were shown to improve memory performance and functional connectivity of the hippocampus in healthy older adults ages 50 and 75.*
"Honing in further on this polyphenol powerhouse, a 150-milligram daily dose of resveratrol in the Veri-Te™ form (a unique fermentation-derived source) has been clinically shown via robust research to increase cerebrovascular responsiveness to stimuli and improve verbal memory tasks and overall cognitive performance,"* shares Ferira.
Resveratrol can't steal all the memory-benefit limelight, though. It turns out citicoline is helpful for way more than just focus benefits, as well: It's actually more famous for its significant impact on memory.* For example, in a 2021 clinical study in the Journal of Nutrition, citicoline (as Cognizin®) was found to improve overall memory performance, especially episodic memory, in healthy older adults.*
When it comes to working memory (i.e., the brain's ability to hold on to and process multiple pieces of information at once) and speed of memory, guarana seed extract can be of great assistance, according to a 2019 scientific review from Global Psychiatry.
Clinical research demonstrates guarana's ability to improve memory performance on its own, and in combination with ginseng, the speed of memory tasks goes up. Additionally, evidence from the Journal of Psychopharmacology suggests ginseng can improve memory, even after just a single dose.
Sources of nootropics.
Although nootropics are found in food sources—including coffee, green tea, leafy greens, and even eggs—evidence suggests these sources are certainly helpful but not always as targeted (and thus impactful) as supplementation. If you're hoping to holistically support your brain health with nootropics, taking a universal approach that includes both brain-supporting foods and targeted nootropic supplements is your best bet!
Dietary supplements like mbg brain guard+ can help you take full advantage of all of the brain-boosting benefits of cutting-edge nootropics.* This unique formula uses premium nootropic ingredients—i.e., citicoline (as Cognizin®), resveratrol (as Veri-Te™), and kanna (as Zembrin®) to comprehensively protect and bolster your cognitive performance—from neurotransmitter production and processing speed to mental clarity, memory, and blood flow to the brain, this bioactive trio embodies nootropic brainpower.*
Are nootropics safe?
According to William Cole, IFMCP, DNM, D.C., functional medicine practitioner, most nootropics are generally considered safe. This assumes you are consuming nootropic ingredients from respected brands and high-quality products, of course. That said, it's important to educate yourself if you're planning on introducing nootropics to your well-being routine.
"My advice is to start slow, listen to your body, adjust accordingly, and always tell your doctor about your supplement use," Cole writes in a previous mbg article. Other tips for the safe use of nootropics include being aware of the appropriate dosage and again, obtaining them from a reliable, trustworthy (and preferably sustainable) source.
Side effects of nootropics.
Overall, most nootropic ingredients are backed by decades of use and clinical research (or sometimes millenniums of historical use) and well tolerated by healthy adults. These compounds can be incredibly helpful in promoting overall brain health. "Most plant botanicals with high safety profiles at scientifically backed doses don't commonly have significant side effects," shares Engler.
She adds that everyone is unique, and certain individuals might be more sensitive (or responsive) to various nootropic ingredients. As with any dietary or lifestyle change, working with your health care practitioner is best when adding something new to your well-being routine.
If you're looking to boost your brainpower, intensify your focus, expand your creativity, or enhance your memory—nootropics offer the perfect blend of benefits and targeted brain health support. Smartly designed supplements rooted in clinical science can be a great way to take advantage of the natural brain-blasting abilities of these compounds and sharpen your mind.*
Brain nutrition for cognitive performance and mental clarity*
Brain nutrition for cognitive performance and mental clarity*