Can You Really Improve Your Brainpower With Supplements?
Some companies claim their nutritional products can boost your brainpower, but is this a legitimate claim? Is it possible to add a daily supplement into your daily routine and suddenly become better capable of remembering, solving complex problems, or using logical reasoning? Or can you take a pill before a major exam and increase your chances of passing it?
You might instinctively believe that these supplements (known as nootropics) are absurd in principle, but there may be a scientifically demonstrable effect for some of them.
The Complexity of Measuring Effects
Part of the difficulty in determining the real effectiveness of nootropics is the complexity of their potential effects—and how challenging it is to measure them. For example, how can you measure overall cognitive performance? There are several factors you could consider here, including attention, focus, short-term memory, long-term memory, logical reasoning, and ability to learn something new. You could even consider long-term brain health as a type of cognitive boost from these types of supplements.
As you might suspect, there’s no supplement or pill that can make you learn a new subject or a new skill overnight; this is more a factor of knowledge than it is intelligence or cognitive performance. However, the right supplements could have a measurable effect on other areas of your cognitive abilities.
Potentially Effective Supplements
While the science isn’t completely in on these supplements, there is some evidence to suggest they have a significantly positive effect on your brain:
- Omega-3 fish oil. Fish oil supplements provide you with omega-3 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat that most of us don’t get in a standard Western diet. These fatty acids are shown to improve cognitive function in people with mild forms of cognitive impairment. They may also be able to delay or reduce the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Taking a fish oil supplement daily can therefore keep your mind healthy for longer.
- Gingko biloba. Ginkgo biloba supplements come from the gingko tree, and are shown to increase blood flow to the brain. Some patients with Alzheimer’s disease are supplemented with ginkgo biloba to decrease the severity of their cognitive impairment. These supplements may also be helpful in building and maintaining cognitive function in completely healthy people.
- Vitamin B-12. B-complex vitamins may all be good for brain health, but vitamin B12 is especially effective. There are multiple studies showing vitamin B12 to be positive associated with both brain volume and cognitive performance. In other words, getting a sufficient amount of vitamin B12 can increase the size of your brain.
- Ashwagandha. Ashwagandha comes from a tree, like gingko biloba, and is an herb used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine. It’s been used as a form of stress relief for thousands of years, and recent studies suggest it may serve a neuroprotective function. In other words, it can protect the brain from getting damaged from Parkinson’s disease, different types of dementia, and other kinds of cognitive diseases.
- L-Theanine. Sometimes called theanine for short, L-theanine is found in tea leaves and has a relaxing effect on the brain, stimulating alpha band activity. This produces a kind of “relaxed alert” state in your mind, giving you the ability to focus for longer while still feeling inherent relaxation effects. People who take this supplement often report lower levels of anxiety, higher attention, and better working memory.
- Caffeine. Though you may not think of it as a supplement, caffeine can have a significantly positive effect on brain performance. Whether you take a caffeine pill or have a cup of coffee, caffeine can make you feel more alert, increase your focus, and improve your cognitive performance overall.
A Note on Prescription Medications
It’s also worth noting that certain types of prescription medications may also be able to improve your brain’s potential, especially if you suffer from a specific mental condition. For example, low-dose amphetamines are frequently prescribed to people suffering from ADHD, giving them increased attention, better focus, and the ability to recall more information. Methylphenidate is also used for ADHD, and may be used for narcolepsy as well; it’s a benzylpiperidine that can improve inhibitory control, episodic memory, and working memory in affected individuals. However, most of these medications are not designed for use by otherwise healthy individuals.
So can you really improve your brainpower with the help of nutritional supplements? Yes and no. You can’t turn yourself into a genius overnight by taking a pill, but there are several prescription medications that can improve your cognitive symptoms, and many nutritional supplements that can improve your brain’s size, health, and functional capacity. Just make sure you do your research before you buy a supplement that claims to be a nootropic, because not all nootropics are equally supported by empirical evidence.