Medically reviewed by Mary Lucas, RN
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 3/31/2022
We’ve all had those days where we could use a little extra mental horsepower, whether it’s to make it through a long and demanding day at work or complete a tough assignment before its deadline.
Brain supplements, or nootropic supplements, are dietary supplements that promise just that — additional brainpower, neuroprotective properties and other mental benefits whenever you feel like you need them.
Below, we’ve explained what brain supplements are and shared several active ingredients that may help to improve your focus, mental performance and other aspects of brain health.
We’ve also looked at the science behind several common brain health supplement ingredients to help you know what’s worth considering when it comes to cognitive enhancement.
Finally, we’ve shared some other ways that you can boost your brain function and enjoy better cognitive health and performance throughout your life.
“Brain supplements” is a broad term that’s used to describe all sorts of natural products that are promoted for their cognitive benefits. Some are neuroprotective, meaning they protect the brain from damage, while others are promoted as performance boosters for mental focus.
Many brain supplements are also referred to as nootropics, or cognition enhancers. They work in different ways to improve mental function and help your brain function better.
It’s important to understand that, as dietary supplements rather than drugs, the brain-boosting supplements available over the counter and online aren’t designed or tested to treat cognitive disorders or diseases, such as dementia or Alzheimer's disease.
Instead, they’re mostly intended as supplements for use as needed, such as when you need a little extra focus before a major exam or deadline.
It’s also important to understand that research on many brain supplements is limited. While we know that some ingredients might work to boost brain health and function, it’s worth keeping in mind that most supplements for mental function haven’t been studied in much detail.
Put simply, while lots of brain supplements may offer benefits, it’s best to take any major claims — such as overnight improvements in mental function or immense gains in productivity — with a grain of salt.
While lots of people associate the term “brain supplements” with capsules, tablets and powders that provide an immediate boost in mental function, many brain supplements work by protecting what you’ve already got.
Rather than providing a jolt of energy or mental focus, these ingredients may help to shield your brain cells from issues such as inflammation and oxidative damage.
Try to look for the following ingredients in brain supplements designed to protect your brain cells and improve your cognitive health.
Fish oil supplements are well known for their effects on triglycerides — lipids that play a key role in the development of heart disease. Research suggests that they may also offer benefits when it comes to long-term brain health and wellbeing.
Supplements containing fish oil are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, including docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).
Some research suggests that these acids may help to protect the brain against damage that can happen as part of the aging process. This protective effect may help to keep your brain healthy throughout your life and slow down age-related decline in brain function.
Other research suggests that docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which is found in fish oil, may boost cerebral blood flow during certain cognition-focused tasks.
As well as fish oil supplements, other dietary supplements that contain seafood-based oils, such as cod liver oil, algal oil and krill oil, are also rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids that can help in promoting cognitive health and brainpower.
Try mixing these supplements with a healthy, balanced diet rich in natural omega-3 fatty acids to promote optimal brain health and function.
Vitamin B12 is an essential water-soluble vitamin that’s found in certain foods, including animal proteins, yogurt, cheese, eggs and fortified cereals. It’s also widely available as an ingredient in dietary supplements, including many multivitamins.
As an essential nutrient, vitamin B12 plays a key role in the functioning of your central nervous system.
Research is mixed on the potential brain health benefits of vitamin B12, but some studies have found that low levels of vitamin B12 may be associated with reduced brain size and some level of cognitive impairment.
Groups at risk of vitamin B12 deficiency include elderly adults, vegetarians, people affected by pernicious anemia, people who’ve undergone gastrointestinal surgery and people with immune or inflammatory gastrointestinal disorders, such as celiac disease or Crohn’s disease.
If you’re at risk of vitamin B12 deficiency, adding a multivitamin or men’s health supplement to your daily routine may help to improve your cognitive health and overall wellbeing.
Phosphatidylserine is a phospholipid — a type of fatty substance that’s involved in the function and protection of your brain cells.
Some research suggests that phosphatidylserine may help to reduce the severity of age-related cognitive decline.
For example, a review published in the journal Nutrition found that use of phosphatidylserine is involved in slowing down, stopping and potentially reversing some biochemical alterations and structural deterioration in nerve cells.
Research also suggests that phosphatidylserine supports important cognitive functions, such as communication, information learning and recall and the ability to form short-term memories and consolidate long-term memory.
Other brain supplements work by increasing your mental energy and performance, giving you a mental edge in the short term. These ingredients may help you to complete tasks efficiently and deal with issues such as a lack of concentration.
When it comes to energy-boosting substances, few are as reliable as good old caffeine. Found in coffee, tea and lots of energy drinks, caffeine is a stimulant that provides an energy boost by increasing activity in your central nervous system.
As a stimulant, caffeine appears to provide a temporary boost in mental function. In fact, some studies have found that it may have a positive impact on focus, mental alertness and cognitive performance.
Alternatively, if you don’t mind a more immediate hit of caffeine, you can also try boosting your brain function with a fresh cup of coffee.
L-theanine is an amino acid that’s primarily found in green tea. Although research on its effects is limited in scale, some research suggests that it can help to improve sleep, lower reaction time and increase performance on tasks related to short-term memory.
In one study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food, researchers evaluated the effects of an L-theanine supplement on middle-aged Japanese men and women.
They found that even a single dose of L-theanine improved certain aspects of cognitive function, including reaction time and accuracy on a series of tasks designed to measure healthy memory recall.
Another small study found that people who used an L-theanine supplement showed lower levels of anxiety, depression and improved sleep quality when compared to their peers.
Finally, another study found that L-theanine reduced people’s stress response to a multitasking framework — a performance-based, cognitively demanding stressor. However, this study didn’t find that L-theanine produced any changes in overall cognitive performance.
If you’ve ever looked into fitness and bodybuilding supplements, you’ve probably come across creatine — a natural chemical found in human muscle tissue and animal protein sources that’s best known for its effects on exercise performance and muscle mass.
In addition to its exercise-related benefits, some research suggests that creatine may also be a useful brain health supplement.
In a systematic review of randomized controlled trials, researchers found that oral creatine may help to improve short-term memory, intelligence and reasoning abilities in healthy people.
Other research suggests that creatine may help to improve cognitive processing in people with conditions caused by low creatine levels in the brain, such as acute sleep deprivation or some enzyme deficiencies.
However, the full effects of creatine on brain function in people aren’t yet known, as research on its effects is limited.
Ginkgo biloba is a herbal supplement. It’s long been promoted as a natural nootropic, and some research backs up claims that it may help to improve mental function.
For example, one study involving more than 180 people published in the journal Phytomedicine found that healthy adults who used a Ginkgo biloba supplement for six weeks showed improved performance in a free recall test.
A smaller study of healthy middle-aged men found that use of a Ginkgo biloba supplement over the course of four weeks produced a small but statistically significant improvement in blood flow to certain parts of the brain.
While these findings are promising, it’s worth noting that there isn’t any large-scale research on the effectiveness of Ginkgo biloba as a general brain function enhancer.
While brain supplements may help to prevent decline and provide some extra sharpness when you need it, research largely suggests that the most effective way to maintain a healthy brain is to live a healthy lifestyle. Try the following techniques for better brain health:
Keep yourself physically active. Research shows a clear link between physical activity and cognition. Try to keep yourself active by getting at least 150 minutes of exercise a week, even if it’s just a walk or bike ride around your neighborhood.
Eat a nutritious, healthy diet. Try to eat a balanced diet that’s built around fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat or nonfat dairy products and lean protein sources, such as lean meat, poultry and fish.
Choose activities that keep your mind active. Although research findings are mixed overall, some studies suggest that cognitively demanding activities, such as reading or completing puzzles, may help to reduce your risk of cognitive impairment.
Treat underlying mental health issues. Many mental health disorders, including major depression, can affect your cognitive function. If you think you may have depression or an anxiety disorder, consider seeking professional help.
You can get help for mental health issues by asking your primary care provider to refer you to a mental health specialist, or using our online mental health services.
Stay in control of your blood pressure. High blood pressure can harm your organs, including your brain. If you have high blood pressure, talk to your healthcare provider about your options for treating it and preventing it from causing damage.
Maintain healthy habits. Finally, try to maintain a generally healthy lifestyle by getting plenty of sleep, limiting your consumption of alcohol, getting regular health screenings and, if appropriate, quitting smoking.
In general, remember that habits and lifestyle decisions that create a healthy body tend to also produce a healthy mind.
Used effectively, brain supplements can help you to get in the zone and keep yourself focused.
When it comes to brain supplements, active ingredients can make a big difference. When you’re comparing brain health supplements, check the ingredients labels for the substances mentioned above to verify that you’re getting something with real potential benefits., not empty promises.
Above all, aim to get the best results by combining supplements for brain health with a balanced lifestyle. Our list of mental health tips shares simple but effective techniques that you can use to keep your body and mind in optimal condition for better moods and clearer thinking.