If you’ve seen the movie Limitless, Bradley Cooper’s character gives us a taste of what it would be like to have perfect recall, excellent interpersonal skills, and optimized brainpower.
It sounds too good to be true, but is it? In the past few years, the variety of formulations claiming to be nootropics (brain enhancing supplements) has exploded. From mushroom powders that claim to eliminate stress and make your skin glow to pills that supposedly boost focus, navigating these products can be overwhelming. Do you need these supplements? Will they give your brain the edge? What exactly are the benefits and potential downsides of all the ingredients?
The problem with brain supplements
As a neuroscientist, I see one glaring problem with these “full of promise” nootropic products. Most of the time, they don’t contain the base vitamins that you need to have a healthy, functioning brain. These supplements were designed with the assumption that their customers are already getting those base vitamins—whether it be from their diets or from multivitamins.
Look at it this way: “cognitive enhancers” won’t fill any of the nutritional gaps you might have that are fundamental to a healthy brain. Doctors have used modafinil and Adderall, for example, to treat narcolepsy and ADHD. Both have been touted as a “smart drug,” but they do little to enhance cognition. While they may make you seem more alert (and awake) in the short-term, nootropics aren’t making you any smarter.
Limitless ends with the protagonist weaning himself off the wonder drug without side effects and having retained the benefits of his fully integrated brainpower. This is a natural state we can aim for with a few top tips, as long as we have the basics in place. Think hydration, nutrition, and daily movement. And if you still want to level up, I recommend adopting the following habits over taking a brain supplement.
1. Increase good fats and hydration
The brain is an organ made up mostly of fat and water. It should come as no surprise that it needs a ready supply of good fat and adequate hydration to thrive. There is a wealth of research on the benefits of omega oils from fish sources (vegans can get similar benefits from algae). Avocado, nuts, and seeds contain plenty of micronutrients, vitamins and minerals, and are rich in high-quality, unrefined omega 6. Research shows that coconut oil can boost cognitive performance, so try adding a spoonful to your morning tea or coffee.
2. Drink green tea
Many nootropic supplements contain L-Theanine. You can also find a high concentration of this ingredient in green tea and up to 10 times as much in matcha green tea powder. It increases the activity of the neurotransmitter GABA, which has anxiety-reducing benefits. When you combine it with caffeine (which green tea has), studies show that it can improve focus and concentration. Matcha also contains high levels of the catechin EGCG, which has massive antioxidant benefits for the brain, boosting cell longevity.
3. Add more antioxidant-rich foods to your diet
Antioxidants combat free-radical damage. You’ve probably heard it in the context of aging and cancer prevention, but it’s just as relevant to age-related decline in the brain. Antioxidants include flavonoids and vitamins C and E, and research shows that they combat oxidative stress caused by free radicals. Consuming these nutrients can help you slow down the neurodegenerative decline. Berries and beans (the darker, the better) are both excellent and rich sources of antioxidants.
4. And up your intake of B vitamins
B vitamins (particularly B6 and B12) are essential for healthy brain function. Studies show that deficiencies in these nutrients have a negative impact on cognition, mood, and neuroplasticity. Eggs, carrots, sweet potatoes and spinach are rich in B6, as are whole grains. In this age of stress and overload, it may also make sense to take a good quality B complex supplement to avoid fatigue and burnout.
5. Decrease your stress
While I try to do many of these brain-boosting activities as possible, I also try my best not to stress about it. While a certain level of stress is good for you, too much can hamper your brain function and exacerbate cognitive decline. There are many effective ways to reduce stress (or make it work in your favor), but one thing you can do to ease it is to take a magnesium bath twice a week, or use a spray at bedtime. Magnesium is a mineral that up to 75% of people in the modern world are deficient in. The more stressed we are, the more magnesium we leach from our system. At the same time, it’s the very substance that helps regulate cortisol, the hormone that is responsible for our stress.
6. Practice transcendental meditation
Many high performers make meditation a regular part of their morning routines. I recommend 20 minutes twice a day of transcendental meditation, where you find a phrase that works for you and repeat it. It reduces stress levels, regulates emotions, and increases levels of the hormone oxytocin, which contributes to our sense of belonging and identity. When this feeling is present, it becomes much easier to thrive (or at least feel that way). When it isn’t, it can seem like we’re just barely surviving.
Our brains might not hold limitless cognitive resources, and we shouldn’t put our hopes on a pill or supplement to turn it that way. However, we can all benefit from adopting habits that helps us access the untapped parts of our brains. The key is to focus on the basics and to introduce small but effective changes that can help our brain function in the best way possible.
Tara Swart is a neuroscientist, executive adviser, author, and medical doctor. Her book, The Source: The Secrets of the Universe, the Science of the Brain, is available to pre-order on Amazon.