“Focus pills” has become a common Internet search, and with good reason. Our increased use of technology and more demands on our time and mental energy is leading many people to seek out the best supplements for focus.
Enter nootropics. Psychology Today defines nootropics as “compounds or supplements that enhance cognitive performance.” These brain booster compounds are thought to address brain fog and increase mental clarity; the best nootropics may improve daily efficiency along with elevating mood.
It’s key to note that nootropics don’t make us smarter: They actually help the physical organ of your brain to operate better.
Some nootropics you may be very familiar with: caffeine is an immensely popular and widely used nootropic, while common herbs like rosemary and eucalyptus are increasingly popular as brain boosters. But what’s the best nootropic?
The short answer: It depends. There’s a great deal of variation in how different people respond to nootropics—and scientists concur that we need more study to develop a better understanding of which nootropics are most effective, for whom, and why. But after doing extensive research into brain boosters and creating supplement formulas specifically for focus, here are our choices for the five best nootropics:
Vitamin B12. This essential vitamin plays a key role in the functioning of the central nervous system, and is involved in numerous essential processes of healthy brain function. B12 is found in meat, eggs, milk and other dairy products—but according to Harvard Health Publishing, the older we get, the more difficulty our bodies have absorbing B12. Low B12 levels in the blood can lead to fuzzy thinking and other problematic symptoms—in fact, memory loss or confusion is a known symptom of B12 deficiency.
Some research also indicates that B12 deficiency is implicated in the development of many neurological conditions, such as Alzheimer’s and brain volume loss. A blood test can ascertain if you have low B12.
CBD. CBD (a.k.a cannabidiol) is a non-intoxicating compound found in the hemp plant. Well known for its calming properties, CBD also acts as a neuroprotective. According to a 2018 study published in the journal Surgical Neurology International, CBD research “has shown numerous therapeutic properties for brain function and protection, both by its effect on the ECS directly and by influencing endogenous cannabinoids.” CBD’s efficacy with neuropsychiatric disorders like epilepsy also indicates it may have a calming effect on the central nervous system—and few things are more helpful for our mental focus than calm.
Niacin. Niacin (also known as Vitamin B3) is found naturally in some foods (avocado, liver, chicken, turkey, ground beef, fish, and brown rice). Like its fellow B vitamins, niacin plays an important role in brain health and memory retention, as it aids in the growth and repair of both nerve cells and DNA. Several studies have found that patients with dementia had lower levels of vitamin B3 than patients without it, and that confusion and dementia are two of the symptoms of vitamin B3 deficiency.
A 2004 study published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry found that those who consumed more vitamin B3 were less likely to experience cognitive decline or to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers concluded that “Dietary niacin may protect against AD and age-related cognitive decline.”
L-theanine. Tea drinkers, prepare to be affirmed! L-theanine is a naturally occurring amino acid found in tea alongside caffeine. Research shows that the combination of L-theanine and caffeine improves cognitive performance and increases subjective alertness. In the words of one research team, the evidence “suggests that L-theanine and caffeine in combination are beneficial for improving performance on cognitively demanding tasks.”
Pinenes. Pinenes are a specific type of terpene (naturally occurring compounds found in plants that give them their distinctive scents). Terpenes have a wide range of pharmacological activities in humans. Pinenes, which are found in pine trees, rosemary, parsley, basil, and orange peel, have been shown to increase memory retention. Even Shakespeare mentioned pinene’s neurological properties in Hamlet (“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.”) That feeling you get when you take a deep breath in a pine forest, that feels like your head is clearer? It’s for real.
Most experts are quick to remind us that quality sleep, adequate exercise, and a healthy diet are actually the tried-and-true focus pills—even the best nootropics can’t replace nutrients or rest. But in a fast-paced, quickly changing, demanding world, nootropic plant compounds and vitamins can support our often-overloaded brains. Perhaps best of all, many of the nootropics listed above may be neuroprotective as well as supportive, meaning they may help preserve optimal brain function as we age and aid in preventing neurological disease.