Forget your shopping list? Can’t remember where you placed your house keys? Can’t recall whether you have taken your pills/supplements? Being forgetful on trivial things is normal for everyone. However, struggling to remember an event or incident happened sometimes ago that everyone else can still recall vividly can be unsettling. Worst of all, your poor memory is affecting your work performance, your relationship with the closed one and eventually leads to diminishing of self-confidence level.
Ageing process is declining the brain function, attention, and memory via the changes in the brain’s cellular, vascular, and structural characteristics. Genetic factors, unhealthy lifestyle, physically inactive, underlying health conditions such as high blood sugar, high cholesterol level are all closely related to poor brain function. Nonetheless, the mental illnesses and stressful environment that we are living in are worsening the condition.
Many pieces of evidence suggested that declined brain function mainly affected the ageing population. However, findings from a study conducted in 2014 by Thompson et al. told us otherwise. Gradual deterioration of cognitive and intellectual ability begins as early as the age of 24 years.
What is Nootropic?
With rising concern on ageing-related memory loss and mental illnesses, the use of “smart drugs” or “cognitive enhancer” is surging in popularity. The term “nootropic” refers to drugs, supplements, or substances that can enhance memory, creativity, motivation, mood, alertness, or attention. Different nootropic agents work differently. Some nootropics act on the neurotransmitters (chemicals in the brain that send messages between nerve cells) in stimulating a specific neural pathway to boost brain activity. Some will regulate the hormones that are responsible for human emotions, behaviour, and moods.
The Natural Nootropic Supplements
The demands for medicines with fewer side-effects and similar efficacy has resulted in attention shifted to supplements from natural sources for the prevention and management of cognitive decline. Here are the 5 known nootropic supplements for boosting your brain health.
1. Ginkgo Biloba
Ginkgo biloba has a long history of being consumed as a food for its health benefits. In the last few decades, the extract of ginkgo biloba from the dried leaves of its plant has widely studied as a potential nootropic herbal supplement for enhancing cognitive performance in healthy young individuals as well as those suffering from age-related cognitive impairment.2,3
Most of the studies demonstrated the beneficial effects of ginkgo biloba extract on improving attention and memory.4,5 One of the possible mechanisms is its ability to increase the blood flow to the brain area. Ginkgo biloba extract also contains active compounds such as ginkglolides, bilobalide, and proanthocyanidins, some potent antioxidants that help to protect the nervous system from oxidative damgae.6
With at least 2,000 years of historical use as a health tonic, ginseng is well known for its cognitive-enhancing effects. Numerous clinical evidence supported the beneficial effects of ginseng in improving memory, behaviours, and mental health.
In 2019, a study found that the intake of ginseng for six months improved the visual memory function of 90 volunteers with mild cognitive impairment.7 Similar improvements are showed in healthy participants. At dose 200mg and 400mg, ginseng has shown positive impacts on memory performance, social functioning, and mood.8,9
The extensive studies of ginseng in boosting brain functions had shed some light on the use of ginseng as an alternative treatment for Alzheimer’s (an irreversible and progressive brain disorder that deteriorates memory and thinking skills) patients. A number of studies linked the active compounds in ginseng, namely ginsenosides Rb1 and Rg 1, with the enhancement of cognitive functions and behavioural symptoms in Alzheimer’s patients.10,11
3. Green Tea
Caffeine, l-theanine and epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) are the three main components in green tea found to play significant roles in enhancing brain function. The caffeine content in green tea is relatively lower as compared to coffee. However, as a stimulant, caffeine activates the dopamine neurotransmitter that is responsible for making you feel pleasure and blocks the inhibitory adenosine neurotransmitter that makes you feel sleepy.12
L-theanine is an amino acid present in green tea. It helps in alleviating stress-related symptoms and improving cognitive functions through the regulation of neurotransmitters that control our mood, memory, attention and learning.13 Also, theanine can increase the alpha wave activity in the brain, which makes you feel relatively calm and relaxed.14,15
The EGCG is the most active and abundant flavonoid in green tea. A study found that 300mg of EGCG increased the alpha, beta, and theta brain waves activity. The higher self-rated calmness and lower self-rated stress in the participants were associated with the improvements in brain wave activity.16 Besides, EGCG also possesses antioxidant properties that help prevents oxidative stress-induced brain ageing that is beneficial for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.17
L-carnitine is a naturally-occurring compound found in human tissues, including the brain. It plays a pivotal role in producing energy from long-chain fatty acids in the powerhouse of our body cells. The acetyl form of L-carnitine is known for its neuroprotective effects.18-20 One of the studies proved that acetyl-L-carnitine improves age-related memory and learning impairments by enhancing the communication between nerve cells in the ageing brain.21 Acetyl-L-carnitine was also shown to provide neuroprotection by acts as an important source of energy and protects the brain cells from oxidative stress.22
Moringa is an edible plant widely consumed as food and medicine, mostly in Asian and African countries. The plant provides a good source of minerals, vitamins, essential amino acids, and antioxidants from its fruits, seeds, and leaves.23
Several studies reported the ability of moringa in improving cognitive impairments attributed to its antioxidative, anti-inflammatory, and neuroprotective effects.24,25 Moringa also prevents memory loss by enhancing the cholinergic system in the brain and regulating the neurotransmitter that is crucial for learning and memory.26,27
Take Home Message
Pairing your choice of nootropic supplements with lifestyle modifications is a good idea for maintaining brain health regardless of your age. A healthy and balanced diet with fruits, vegetables, and high omega-3 fatty acids (deep-sea fish, nuts, and seeds) are good choices for the brain. Physical activities such as brisk walking and jogging can improve blood circulation and pumping more oxygen to your brain area. It also releases hormones for the healthy growth of brain cells. Other activities that stimulate the brain include crossword puzzles, reading, meditation, playing with musical instruments, and activities involved socializing with others. Besides, maintaining a healthy brain can also be as simple as getting enough and quality sleep.
Nevertheless, if your symptoms of poor memory are affecting your daily life or worsening to the extent of worrying yourself and people around you, consulting a doctor or healthcare professionals is the right thing you should do.
- Thompson JJ, Blair MR, Henrey AJ. Over the hill at 24: persistent age-related cognitive-motor decline in reaction times in an ecologically valid video game task begins in early adulthood. PLoS ONE. 2014;9(4):e94215.
- Rigney U, Kimber S, Hindmarch I. The effects of acute doses of standardized ginkgo biloba extract on memory and psychomotor performance in volunteers. Phytother Res. 1999;13(5):408-415.
- Elsabagh S, Hartley DE, Ali O, Williamson EM, File SE. Differential cognitive effects of ginkgo biloba after acute and chronic treatment in healthy young volunteers. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2005;179(2):437-446.
- Kennedy DO, Scholey AB, Wesnes KA. The dose-dependent cognitive effects of acute administration of ginkgo biloba to healthy young volunteers. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2000;151(4):416-423.
- Stough C, Clarke J, Lloyd J, Nathan PJ. Neuropsychological changes after 30-day ginkgo biloba administration in healthy participants. Int J Neuropsychopharmacol. 2001;4(2):131-134.
- Silberstein RB, Pipingas A, Song J, Camfield DA, Nathan PJ, Stough C. Examining brain-cognitive effects of ginkgo biloba extract: brain activation in the left temporal and left prefrontal cortex in an object working memory task. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2011;2011:164139. doi: 10.1155/2011/164139.
- Park KC, Jin H, Zheng R, Kim S, Lee SE, Kim BH, et al. Cognition enhancing effect of panax ginseng in Korean volunteers with mild cognitive impairment: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial. Transl Clin Pharmacol. 2019;27(3):92-97.
- Ellis JM, Reddy P. Effects of panax ginseng on quality of life. Ann Pharmacother. 2002;36(3):375-379.
- Reay JL, Scholey AB, Kennedy DO. Panax ginseng (G115) improves aspects of working memory performance and subjective ratings of calmness in healthy young adults. Human Psychopharmacology: Clinical and Experimental. 2010;25(6): https://doi.org/10.1002/hup.1138.
- Heo JH, Lee ST, Oh MJ, Park HJ, Shim JY, Chu K, et al. Improvement of cognitive deficit in alzheimer’s disease patients by long term treatment with Korean red ginseng. J Ginseng Res. 2011;35(4):457-461.
- Heo JH, Lee ST, Chu K, Oh MJ, Park HJ, Shim JY, et al. Heat-processed ginseng enhances the cognitive function in patients with moderately severe alzheimer’s disease. Nutr Neuosci. 2012;15(6):278-282.
- Nehlig A, Daval JL, Debry G. Caffeine and the central nervous system: mechanisms of action, biochemical, metabolic and psychostimulant effects. Brain Res Brain Res Rev. 1992;17(2):139-170.
- Hidese S, Ogawa S, Ota M, Ishida I, Yasukawa Z, Ozeki M, et al. Effects of L-theanine administration on stress-related symptoms and cognitive functions in healthy adults: a randomized controlled trial. Nutrients. 2019;11(10):2362.
- Nobre AC, Rao A, Owen GN. L-theanine, a natural constituent in tea, and its effect on mental state. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 2008;17(S1)167-168.
- Lardner AL. Neurobiological effects of the green tea constituent theanine and its potential role in the treatment of psychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders. Nutritional Neuroscience. 2014;17(4):145-155.
- Scholey A, Downey LA, Ciorciari J, Pipingas A, Nolidin K, Finn M, et al. Acute neurodegenerative effects of epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). Appetite. 2012;58(2):767-770.
- Chen SQ, Wang ZS, Ma YX, Zhang W, Lu JL, Liang YR, et al. Neuroprotective effects and mechanisms of tea bioactive components in neurodegenerative diseases. Molecules. 2018;23(3): https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules23030512.
- Alves E, Binienda Z, Carvalho F, Alves CJ, Fernandes E, de Lourdes Bastos M, et al. Acetyl-L-carnitine provides effective in vivo neuroprotection over 3,4-methylenedioximethamphetamine-induced mitochondrial neurotoxicity in the adolescent rat brain. Neuroscience. 2009;158(2):514-523.
- Malaguarnera M, Vacante M, Motta M, Giordano M, Malaguarnera G, Bella R, et al. Acetyl-L-carnitine improves cognitive functions in severe hepatic encephalopathy: a randomized and controlled clinical trial. Metab Brain Dis. 2011;26(4):281-289.
- Tang S, Xu S, Lu S, Gullapalli RP, McKenna MC, Waddell J. Neuroprotective effects of acetyl-l-carnitine on neonatal hypoxia-ischemia induced brain injury in rat. 2018;38(5):384-396.
- Kobayashi S, Iwamoto M, Kon K, Waki H, Ando S, Tanaka Y. Acetyl-l-carnitine improves aged brain function. Geriatr Gerontol Int. 2010;10 Suppl 1:S99-106.
- Xu S, Waddell J, Zhu W, Shi D, Marshall AD, McKenna MC, et al. In vivo longitudinal proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy on neonatal hypoxic-ischemic rat brain injury-neuroprotective effects of acetyl-l-carnitne. Magn Reson Med. 2015;74(6):1530-1542.
- Razak Mahaman YA, Huang F, Wu M, Wang Y, Wei Z, Bao J, et al. Moringa oleifera alleviates homocysteine-induced Alzheimer’s disease-like pathology and cognitive impairments. J Alzheimers Dis. 2018;63(3):1141-1159.
- Ganguly R, Hazra R, Ray K, Guha D. Effect of moringa oleifera in experimental model of Alzheimer’s disease: role of antioxidants. Annals of Neurosciences. 2005;12(3): doi: 10.5214/ans.0972.7531.2005.120301.
- Mohan M, Kaul N, Punekar A, Girnar R, Junnare P, Patil L. Nootropic activity of moringa oleifera leaves. Journal of Natural Remedies. 2005;5(1):59-62.
- Ganguly R, Guha D. Alteration of brain monoamines & EEG wave pattern in rat model of Alzheimer’s disease & protection by moringa oleifera. Indian J Med Res. 2008;128:744-751.
- Sutalangka C, Wattanathorn J, Muchimapura S, Thukham-mee W. Moringa oleifera mitigates memory impairment and neurodegeneration in animal model of age-related dementia. Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2013;2013: doi: 1155/2013/695936.