Lifting weights might seem like a physical pursuit, but your mind has a massive influence on your muscles. In addition to supplements for your body, you can take brain supplements to power up your training from the top down.
What Are Nootropics?
If you've ever had a cup of coffee or a Red Bull before a workout, you know the positive impact caffeine can have on your focus, drive, and overall training session. Caffeine is just one ingredient in a broad category of supplements called nootropics that may boost your brainpower, affecting things like focus and fatigue.
Nootropics provide major training benefits, but many of them have benefits outside the gym, too! These cognitive enhancers are known for their positive effects on mental performance, and some have even been suggested to support memory, the recall of information, energy, and focus. Think of them as gains for your brain!
Benefits of Brain SupplementsAdding nootropics to your supplement stack can provide the following benefits:
Nootropics may help support normal memory, making it easier to go about your daily activities. Creatine, choline, and piracetam are commonly used as normal memory promoters.Enhanced Focus
Most of us probably turn to caffeine—a popular nootropic—to enhance focus and attention, so it makes sense that this class of supplements can be used to improve alertness and are stimulatory in nature. Furthermore, some evidence suggests that acute ingestion of a cocktail of nootropic supplements may prevent declines in reaction time usually associated with fatiguing exercise.1
Nootropics can help prevent fatigue by providing a more efficient production of energy. By reducing fatigue, you can work longer and more efficiently. Creatine and rhodiola rosea are two effective agents for this.
Lightens Occasional Stress
An intense bout of exercise is sure to increase cortisol levels, which we all know can be detrimental to your gains. However, nootropics—specifically phosphatidylserine—can support a normal cortisol response, preserving your hard-earned muscles. We typically see the highest cortisol response with prolonged exercise, so if you've amped up your cardio, this can be a positive addition to your stack.
Supplements for Optimal Brain Power
Nootropics are typically single compounds, and while one ingredient on its own may offer brain-supporting benefits, some of them can be combined (or "stacked") to offer even greater effects! Here's a look at the most potent ingredients and combinations.
Phosphatidylserine is an important chemical with widespread functions in the body. It's key in the maintenance of cellular functions, especially within the brain. There's a decent amount of literature showing its positive effects in elderly individuals both with and without cognition and memory impairments.2,3
Phosphatidylserine has also been shown to improve cognitive function before a bout of exercise.4 By supplementing with phosphatidylserine, individuals may potentially be able to obtain better results from exercise (by staying focused and alert) and at the same time improve mood and mental function.
And for all of you struggling through calculus, supplementing with phosphatidylserine has been shown to increase cognitive function during math problems (faster times completing calculations and increased number of correct answers). As mentioned above, phosphatidylserine can also blunt the cortisol response following aerobic activity.5 So, not only will you be able to answer the question, "What is the square root of 2 to the negative 9 plus 3 power?" without the use of a calculator, you'll be able to maintain your muscle mass!
2. L-Theanine + Caffeine
L-theanine, a nonprotein amino acid common in green tea leaves, can have a significant impact on reducing normal everyday stress levels. Add caffeine to the mix, and you may experience a support in mood, perception of stress, and focus.
Studies looking at the effects of both L-theanine and caffeine have found a rise in focus, motivation, and mood, improved alpha wave levels (a sign of relaxation), and reduced heart rate and blood pressure.6-8 It seems as though adding theanine (not to be confused with theacrine) to the mix negates many of the side effects of excessive caffeine usage while enhancing the positives.
My all-time favorite supplement comes up with another win! For the same reasons we take creatine to improve muscle mass and strength, creatine can also support normal brain function.
Sound strange? It's really quite simple: Your brain, just like your muscles, uses ATP for energy. So it makes sense that increasing the availability of PCr (phosphocreatine) in your brain would help with ATP synthesis and energy formation.
Studies have demonstrated creatine supplementation as an effective way to support both short-term memory and reasoning skills, suggesting its use as both a brain and performance booster.9
4. Huperzine A
This popular herbal nootropic can help promote levels of acetylcholine within the brain. Increasing this important neurotransmitter means supporting memory and cognitive functions. Because you don't need a large dose of this ingredient to see beneficial effects, you'll start to note its presence in more pre- and post-workout blends.
Plus, huperzine-A may also give you better muscle contractions, which is why it’s a great ingredient to look for in a pre-workout. In fact, Hunter Labrada includes it in his list of must-have pre-workout supplement ingredients.
Choline is found in a lot of the foods we eat, but typically not in a large enough dose to have any meaningful benefit. Supplementing with choline can be a powerful nooptropic because it serves as a direct precursor to acetylcholine—which can support memory.
Acetylcholine also helps fuel your workouts because it powers the process by which your nervous system talks to your skeletal muscles. So supplementing with choline could be good for your physical performance as well as your memory.
6. Bacopa Monnieri
Similar to choline and huperzine A, bacopa monnieri improves acetylcholine release, which can help enhance your memory. The traditional Ayurvedic herb can also reduce stress on dopaminergic systems, helping to increase feelings of happiness and pleasure. Supplementing with bacopa monnieri may lead to supported short- and long-term memory, better reasoning test performance, enhanced attention, and a reduction of normal stress.13-14
Bacopa monnieri is more studied than some of the other nootropic herbs and has a lot of evidence going for it. Keep this in mind if you start taking it and don’t see effects right away. It tends to take a couple months to kick in, so be patient.
7. Rhodiola Rosea
While its traditional use may have been to prevent altitude sickness and to help cope with cold climates, Rhodiola Rosea is finding new uses as a mood supporter and antifatigue agent. Rhodiola helps to support serotonin levels, which can support your overall mood and may support reasoning skills as well.15
In addition to the cognitive benefits, this herbal supplement may help your body adapt to the stress of exercise. So it could help you physically as well as mentally as you work toward your goals.
8. Asian Ginseng
Quite possibly the most researched nootropic, Asian ginseng has been shown to support memory, focus and attention, and mood. It may even be able to improve performance (both reaction time and endurance).16-18
The fact that ginseng supports normal mood and focus alone is a powerful benefit because it increases that precious resource we all need: motivation. Having a meaningful personal motivation to work out is key, but some days it’s not quite enough to lure us off the couch. Try taking ginseng if you tend to struggle to drag yourself to the gym.
Nootropics research is a blossoming field, and as such, few well-controlled clinical trials exist. While admittedly some of the science has focused on animal models, there are still some important points to take away: Supplementation stands a chance to support higher-order thinking and cognition, focus, mood, and lighten occasional stress.
For those days when you're feeling more fatigued than usual, or having a hard time making it though your workouts, consider using this new class of "smart" supplements to give your body and mind an extra boost!
- Hoffman, J. R., Ratamess, N. A., Gonzalez, A., Beller, N. A., Hoffman, M. W., Olson, M., ... & Jäger, R. (2010). The effects of acute and prolonged CRAM supplementation on reaction time and subjective measures of focus and alertness in healthy college students. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 7(1), 1-8.
- Richter, Y., Herzog, Y., Cohen, T., & Steinhart, Y. (2010). The effect of phosphatidylserine-containing omega-3 fatty acids on memory abilities in subjects with subjective memory complaints: a pilot study. Clinical Interventions in Aging, 5, 313.
- Vakhapova, V., Richter, Y., Cohen, T., Herzog, Y., & Korczyn, A. D. (2011). Safety of phosphatidylserine containing omega-3 fatty acids in non-demented elderly: a double-blind placebo-controlled trial followed by an open-label extension. BMC Neurology, 11(1), 79.
- Parker, A. G., Gordon, J., Thornton, A., Byars, A., Lubker, J., Bartlett, M., ... & Kreider, R. B. (2011). The effects of IQPLUS Focus on cognitive function, mood and endocrine response before and following acute exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 8, 16.
- Starks, M. A., Starks, S. L., Kingsley, M., Purpura, M., & Jäger, R. (2008). The effects of phosphatidylserine on endocrine response to moderate intensity exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 5(1), 1-6.
- Juneja, L.R., Chu, D.C., Okubo, T., Nagato, Y and Yokogoshi H. (1999). L-theanine—a unique amino acid of green tea and its relaxation effect in humans. Food Science and Technology, 10, 199-204.
- Petroff, O. A. (2002). Book Review: GABA and glutamate in the human brain. The Neuroscientist, 8(6), 562-573.
- Kelly, S.P. (2006). Increases in alpha oscillatory power reflect an active retinotopic mechanism for distracter suppression during sustained visuospatial attention. Journal Neurophysiology, 95(6), 3844-3851.
- Rae, C., Digney, A. L., McEwan, S. R., & Bates, T. C. (2003). Oral creatine monohydrate supplementation improves brain performance: a double-blind, placebo-controlled, cross-over trial. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 270(1529), 2147-2150.
- Waegemans, T., Wilsher, C. R., Danniau, A., Ferris, S. H., Kurz, A., & Winblad, B. (2002). Clinical efficacy of piracetam in cognitive impairment: a meta-analysis. Dementia and Geriatric Cognitive Disorders, 13(4), 217-224.
- Bartus, R. T., Dean, R. L., Sherman, K. A., Friedman, E., & Beer, B. (1981). Profound effects of combining choline and piracetam on memory enhancement and cholinergic function in aged rats. Neurobiology of Aging, 2(2), 105-111.