Rachel Gregory is a Board-Certified Nutritionist specializing in the science/application of the ketogenic diet for weight loss, performance and overall health
Various studies show the ketogenic diet can be incredibly effective for boosting overall brain power and productivity.
Ketones can provide up to 70% of the brain’s energy needs[*][*]. It can also lower inflammation and oxidative stress, which have been associated with overall decreased brain function[*]. Finally, ketosis helps improve focus and reduce brain fog by balancing glutamate and GABA — two important neurotransmitters in the brain[*][*].
New research shows that a particular type of supplement may further heighten these benefits. Nootropics — or smart drugs — along with a ketogenic diet, can help maximize mental function and concentration. But what exactly are nootropics, and how do they work?
In this article, you’ll learn:
- What Are Nootropics?
- The Different Classes of Nootropics
- The Effect of Nootropics on the Brain
- How the Ketogenic Diet Acts as a Natural Nootropic
- Supplementing With Nootropics on a Keto Diet
- 5 Tips for Using Nootropics for Beginners
- Popular Nootropic Benefits and Supporting Research
- Common Nootropics and Stacks to Consider
Also known as “brain boosters,” “smart drugs,” or “cognitive enhancers,” nootropics are compounds that enhance mental functions such as mood, focus, memory, motivation, and attention span[*].
Although somewhat new to mainstream society, nootropics have been around for decades, mostly used in the tech world by computer programmers and entrepreneurs to increase focus and concentration, improve memory formation, and become more efficient at problem solving.
The word nootropic was coined in the early 1970s by a Romanian doctor named Corneliu E. Giurgea. It comes from the Greek root “noos” meaning “mind” and “tropein” meaning “toward”[*].
Some common nootropics used in the tech world include:
- A combination of caffeine and L-theanine to improve focus while maintaining a calm state
- Bacopa Monnieri (also known as brahmi or water hyssop) to improve memory formation
- Ashwagandha to decrease stress
- Plus many others that we’ll discuss throughout this article
The popularity of nootropics has skyrocketed in recent years, with companies popping up left and right selling all sorts of brain-stimulating supplements[*].
The cool thing about nootropics is that they have a wide range of potential uses depending on what you’re looking for. Whether it’s to enhance focus, motivation, memory, or mood — or even just to decrease stress and improve sleep — nootropics have the potential to benefit pretty much everyone.
Let’s dive a little deeper into the different types of nootropics.
There are two different categories that nootropics fall into: synthetic (created in the lab) and natural (found in nature). Other nootropics can be considered “in-betweeners” and therefore fall within a spectrum of these two categories.
Category #1: Synthetic or Man-Made Nootropics
On one end of the spectrum there are the synthetic (made in the lab) compounds.
Common synthetic nootropics include piracetam, aniracetam, oxiracetam, pramiracetam, and phenylpiracetam, which all come from the racetam family (meaning they all share a similar chemical structure). They’ve been studied for their broad range of applications, from improvements in general cognition and working memory to protection against the breakdown of neurons in the brain[*][*][*][*][*][*].
The most popular nootropic from this family is piracetam, thanks to its proven neuroprotection and mild side effects. Research finds it can[*] :
- Significantly improve memory and attention in people with age-related or heart surgery-related cognitive deterioration. For example, in one trial, it increased the ability to recognize and shift numbers and letters.
- Severely mitigate depression in people with chronic cerebrovascular disorders.
- Improve color discrimination in people who’ve suffered brain trauma.
Piracetam is rarely associated with side effects. When they happen, they’re transitory and mild, and include anxiety, insomnia, drowsiness, and agitation.
Other synthetic nootropics commonly known for their stimulant properties are only distributed as prescription drugs, and include Adderall (amphetamine), Ritalin, and Modafinil.
Adderall is prescribed to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but it’s commonly abused by college students and workers to boost their focus and energy so they can stay up longer, get better grades, finish more tasks, and simply get more done.
However, it’s highly addictive and comes with serious side effects, which now run rampant on college campuses. These include anxiety attacks, insomnia, blurred vision, headache, and stomach issues, not to mention the withdrawal symptoms when trying to quit it.
Adderall is now ubiquitous in American colleges, and it plays a significant role in the growing opioid epidemic[*][*]. Ritalin is also prescribed to treat ADHD, and it can become as addictive as adderall when over-consumed[*].
Modafinil is an “energy” drug prescribed to treat sleep disorders like narcolepsy and hypersomnia. When taken for enhancement purposes, it’s used to suppress the pesky symptoms of sleep deprivation and retain mental energy and clarity. It’s less addictive than Adderall and Ritalin[*][*].
It’s recommended you avoid these synthetic nootropics unless you have a prescription, as they may cause more harm than good in the long-term.
Category #2: Natural Herbal Nootropics
On the other end of the nootropics spectrum, there are natural herbal compounds that have been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine.
There’s a subset of natural nootropics called adaptogens, which are substances that excel at increasing your body’s resistance to biological stress, such as ashwagandha and ginseng (also called Panax ginseng).
The best nootropics from herbal sources have been shown to improve cognition, reduce stress, combat fatigue, enhance memory, and provide overall human brain protection include:
- Lion’s mane mushroom: A medicinal mushroom traditionally used to improve cognitive function, prevent cognitive decline, and lower anxiety[*].
- Ashwagandha: An adaptogen herb from the nightshade family used to lower stress and anxiety and boost memory[*].
- Ginseng: Panax ginseng is a root popularly used to lower fatigue, enhance cognition, improve mood, and enhance immune function[*].
- Rhodiola rosea: Also known as golden root, it’s a flowering plant used to reduce mental fatigue, enhance performance, and fight stress, anxiety, anger, and depression[*].
- Ginkgo biloba: The leaves of ginkgo biloba tree, native to China, are used to improve memory and attention[*].
- Cordyceps: A medicinal fungus used to improve physical performance, lower fatigue, and prevent disease[*].
- Eleuthero: Also known as Siberian ginseng, it’s an Asian adaptogen herb used to fight stress, boost energy, and prevent depression and anxiety[*].
- Guduchi: Tinosporo cordifolia, also called guduchi or heart-leaved moonseed, is a vine native to southeast Asia and it’s used as an adaptogen (reducing stress) to improve cognition and prevent disease[*].
- Butterfly pea: Clitoria ternatea, a flowering plant from Thailand and Malaysia, is used as a memory enhancer to lower stress, anxiety, and depression[*].
- Schisandra berries: The berries from the herb Schisandra chinensis, native to China, are used to enhance memory and learning as well as to reduce anxiety[*].
- Luobuma: Apocynum venetum, commonly known as luobuma, is an Asian shrub. Its leaves are used to make tea to lower anxiety, stress, depression, and blood pressure[*].
These forms of herbal nootropics come from existing plants and are commonly sold as tinctures (liquid extract), teas, or compressed into pill or capsule form.
The In-Betweener Nootropics
Then there are the “in-betweeners” — compounds that come from nature but are only available through specific laboratory processes. These compounds have been studied for different health-enhancing functions such as treating insomnia and depression, preventing cell death, and cognitive enhancement[*][*][*].
Some of the common ones include:
- Caffeine: The compound that gives coffee its magical powers, and increased short-term focus[*].
- 5-HTP: 5-Hydroxytryptophan is extracted from the seeds of the African plant Griffonia simplicifolia, and it’s also a by-product of the amino acid L-tryptophan. It’s a direct precursor of serotonin — a mood stabilizing neurotransmitter. It’s used to lower depression, anxiety, and improve sleep quality[*].
- Huperzine-A: A compound extracted from the Chinese herb Huperzia serrata. It’s used to accelerate learning because it increases the learning neurotransmitter acetylcholine[*].
- Alpha GPC: A compound rich in choline, extracted from either eggs or soy lecithin. It crosses the brain barrier easily, and choline later turns into acetylcholine, an important brain neurotransmitter[*].
- L-Tyrosine: A non-essential amino acid that is synthesized from an organic acid called phenol. It’s a precursor for the hormones dopamine and adrenaline, and is used to fight fatigue, reduce symptoms of stress, and improve cognition during stressful situations[*].
- L-Theanine: An amino acid found in the leaves of green and black tea. It’s used to reduce anxiety and stress and improve focus, especially when paired with caffeine.
- GABA: A sedative neurotransmitter created from the fermentation and biosynthesis of microorganisms in a lab. It’s also produced naturally by your body. It’s used to promote a faster and deeper sleep[*].
Many people want to know exactly how nootropics work on the brain. Unfortunately, there isn’t one simple answer to that question. As discussed earlier, there are many different types of nootropics and they all have individual methods as to how interact with your brain.
Here are just some of the different mechanisms of action through which nootropics work on your brain:
Mechanism #1: Regulating the Activity of Neurotransmitters
Nootropics alter the concentration of existing neurotransmitters, meaning they can enhance the activity of mood-boosting neurochemicals in your brain, such as dopamine, acetylcholine (the learning neurotransmitter), serotonin, GABA, glutamate, adrenaline, and epinephrine.
They can also lower stress-related neurotransmitters like cortisol and glutamate. For example, 5 HTP increases the feel-good hormone serotonin, which improves mood and sleep[*]. This results in better mood, lower anxiety, faster learning, easier relaxation, better sleep, and lower stress.
Mechanism #2: Increasing Brain Growth Factors
Some nootropics also increase brain growth factors, such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and nerve growth factor (NGF), which regulate the function and growth of neurons in key areas of your brain. BDNF plays a crucial role in the growth, differentiation and maintenance of neurons in general, while NGF is vital for the survival of sympathetic and sensory neurons.
This increase in neurons also contributes to enhanced neuroplasticity — your brain’s ability to adapt and reorganize itself during stressful situations (injury or disease).
By increasing brain growth factors, nootropics help keep your brain in optimal shape. For example, lion’s mane mushroom can improve cognition by boosting NGF[*].
Mechanism #3: Improving Blood Flow
They also act as vasodilators (increase blood flow) in the small arteries and veins in your brain and throughout your whole body[*].
This contributes to:
- Lower stress
- Faster uptake of oxygen by your brain
- Higher absorption of nutrients by your brain
Overall, these factors improve mental and physical performance.
For instance, ginseng can ramp up circulation by secreting nitric oxide, which dilates blood vessels. This effect may explain the increased speed and accuracy in cognitive tasks observed in adults who supplement with ginseng[*].
Mechanism #4: Reducing Inflammation
Many nootropics improve cognitive performance by lowering inflammation in your brain.
For example, Ginkgo Biloba can lower neuroinflammation by suppressing inflammatory molecules in the hippocampus, the area responsible for learning and spatial memory[*].
Mechanism #5: Increasing Neuroprotection
Several nootropics have been studied for their ability to prevent and fight age-related neurodegeneration.
For instance, one study in adults with mild cognitive impairment found that ashwagandha significantly improved memory, executive function, sustained attention, and information-processing speed[*].
In the rest of this article, you’ll learn how the ketogenic diet itself can function as a nootropic. Plus, you’ll discover how other supplements can be added to enhance the neurological benefits of keto.
The ketogenic diet is absolutely a natural brain-boosting, cognitive-enhancing, energy-stimulating nootropic.
There is ample anecdotal evidence and numerous emerging clinical trials that support the ketogenic diet as a superior tool for optimizing mental performance.
When you follow a ketogenic diet correctly, you produce ketones. Research shows that ketones generate more ATP (energy) than glucose and are a more efficient source of energy for your brain[*]. So, just by producing ketones, you are already ramping up your brain to achieve maximum productivity throughout the day.
On top of more efficient energy from ketones, a ketogenic diet can increase the number of mitochondria (energy-producing cells) in the brain. One study found that after just one month of following a ketogenic diet, healthy people experienced a two-fold increase in mitochondrial energy in the hippocampus[*].
A ketogenic diet can also directly prevent the production of reactive oxygen species (pro-inflammatory, unstable molecules that cause damage to your brain and body)[*]. So, your brain can focus on producing more energy to optimize cognitive function instead of repairing damaged cells.
If increased brain energy, heightened productivity, and enhanced learning and memory isn’t enough to convince you, how about improving focus and reducing levels of stress and anxiety? The ketogenic diet has been shown to do just that.
Proper neurological function requires a ongoing balance of specific neurotransmitters in the brain. Two very important ones that play a key role in optimizing cognitive function are glutamate and GABA.
Elevated levels of glutamate and reduced levels of GABA can cause overstimulation of brain cells leading to brain fog, lack of focus, stress, and anxiety. But research shows that following a ketogenic diet can help to balance out these levels, giving the brain an alternate source of energy — ketones[*].
How the Ketogenic Diet Protects the Brain
Besides boosting brain power — and its well-known benefits of treating epilepsy — the ketogenic diet can protect against neurodegeneration (the breakdown and death of neurons) and its associated neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
One study found that patients with mild cognitive impairment who followed a ketogenic diet for six weeks significantly improved their verbal memory performance compared to patients following a standard high-carbohydrate diet[*].
Additionally, people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease who were given medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) to induce ketosis, had significant improvements in brain function after 90 days compared to the control group. These improvements were directly correlated with elevated levels of ketones in the blood[*].
Another clinical trial found that patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease improved disease rating scale scores by 43% following just one month of treatment with the ketogenic diet[*].
As scientists dive deeper into research, they’re beginning to uncover reasons to believe that a ketogenic diet could be used to treat other brain disorders such as ADHD, traumatic brain injury, autism, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.
Supplementing with different kinds of nootropics on a keto diet may help enhance cognitive and physiological processes within your brain and body even further.
Just like there is no “one size fits all” for keto (or for any lifestyle), choosing the right nootropic for you depends on the specific outcome you are looking for — whether it be increased focus and concentration, improved mood or stress levels, or enhanced memory and overall brain health.
But nootropics offer a wide range of benefits and choosing the right ones for your specific goals can be a bit overwhelming. Additionally, there are many different nootropic “stacks” out there that can add to the confusion.
A nootropic “stack” refers to a combination of two or more dietary supplements that work together to provide even more of a benefit than taking one nootropic alone. You can buy pre-formulated stacks or you can put together your own daily regimen.
Keep reading for suggestions on what nootropics to use for specific goals and which ones stack well together.
5 Tips for Using Nootropics (For Complete Beginners)
Are you confused yet? Not to worry. Below, you’ll learn how to work nootropics into your daily routine, even if you’re a complete beginner.
#1: Figure Out Your Goals
Determine exactly what your goals are for taking certain nootropics. Are you looking to be more productive at work without overloading on caffeine, or are you looking for something to help you wind down at night after a long day?
Start with focusing on one goal at a time and finding the right nootropic to meet that goal. And as you become more familiar with what works for you, you can test out others and build your own nootropic toolbox.
#2: Review Your Budget
Consider how much you’re willing to spend on any one product or combination of products. You can purchase nootropics in one of two ways: by buying pre-formulated stacks or customizing your own stack.
Pre-formulated stacks are more convenient compared to custom stacks but tend to be more expensive and don’t allow you the freedom to test different dosages or isolate specific nootropics. Preformulated stacks can range anywhere from $20–$150, whereas buying individual nootropics in bulk to make your own custom stack can cost as little as $12 per ingredient.
#3: Conduct Your Own Research
Don’t rush into buying the first nootropic you come across. Do your research on the company selling the product and any possible adverse effects. Make sure it does not interfere with any of your other medications or supplements either. Don’t be afraid to ask your doctor if you’re unsure.
#4: Start Slow
More isn’t always better — this is especially true with nootropics! It is crucial to start with a lower dose to see how it affects you. Then you can try implementing a full dose or combining different nootropic compounds to find the “stack” that works best for you.
#5: Be Realistic
Everyone’s brain chemistry and body is different. A compound that works wonders for one person may do absolutely nothing for you. Or it might take a longer time or a larger dose to be effective. Set realistic expectations and realize that finding the right nootropic or stack for you is a process.
As discussed earlier, there are a ton of different nootropics out there and choosing the right ones really depends on your specific needs. The following is a list of widely used natural and “in-betweener” nootropics and how they can help, with research to support these applications:
Higher Energy and Cognitive Function
- Ashwagandha: A supplement that may improve cognitive and psychomotor performance in healthy adults with 500 mg/day[*].
- Huperzine A: This aids in learning and memory enhancement by increasing the production of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine[*][*].
- Caffeine: It increases alertness, well-being, and concentration, improves mood, fights depression, and prevents cognitive decline[*].
- Rhodiola Rosea: Fights fatigue and stress symptoms to optimize brain function. One study found rhodiola rosea had an anti-fatigue effect that increased mental performance — mainly the ability to focus[*][*][*][*].
- Alpha GPC: Acts as a memory enhancer and neuroprotector[*][*][*].
- Lion’s Mane: Supports overall health, reduces depression, and keeps neurons healthy. A review found lion’s mane improves the synthesis of nerve growth factor (NGF), which is critical to cognition[*][*][*].
- Ginkgo Biloba: Enhances memory and productivity and stabilizes mood[*][*][*].
- Ginseng: Improves cognitive performance and neuroprotection[*].
- Bacopa: Acts as memory enhancer, brain protector, stress-reliever[*][*]
Lower Anxiety and Depression
- Ashwagandha: Significantly reduces stress and anxiety[*][*].
- 5 HTP: Stabilizes mood by increasing serotonin levels, the happiness hormone[*].
- L-Theanine: Has powerful anti-anxiety and anti-stress effects that can also boost cognitive function[*][*].
- Eleuthero: Can lower stress by relaxing the blood vessels (vasodilation) and increasing blood flow[*].
- Luobuma: It acts as a sedative that can fight hypertension, anxiety, and depression. Studies show that consuming a dose of 50mg/day has no side effects[*].
- Ashwagandha: Can induce sleep and prevent insomnia by encouraging non-rapid eye movement sleep (NREM) — made up of stages I, II, and III of the sleep cycle, in which you drift into sleep (stage I) and then experience deep sleep (stage III) that makes you feel refreshed the next morning[*][*][*].
- GABA: GABA is a sedative neurotransmitter. Supplementation helps people fall asleep faster by slowing down the activity of neurons. It also and boosts the growth hormone[*][*][*].
- Magnesium glycinate: Can induce sleep by increasing melatonin in your blood, decreases insomnia, improves sleep efficiency, and promotes early morning awakening[*][*].
- Valerian root: Improves sleep quality with little to no side effects. Research finds that taking valerian resulted in subjective improvements in time to fall asleep, sleep quality, and number of awakenings throughout the night, in adults who consider themselves poor sleepers[*][*].
To create your own nootropic stack, try these common combinations.
#1: Relaxed Energy and Sharp Focus: Caffeine + L-Theanine
This common and simple nootropic stack that is great for beginners and could even help boost your ketone production[*].
Caffeine will give you that mental energy boost while L-theanine, an amino acid found in green tea, will take away the jitters and support your overall mood[*].
Research finds that stacking L-theanine and caffeine can significantly improve attention during demanding cognitive tasks[*][*]. One study found that combining 250 mg of L-theanine and 150 mg of caffeine[*]:
- Sped up reaction time
- Accelerated working memory reaction time
- Increased accuracy
- Boosted alertness
- Decreased headaches and fatigue
#2: Higher Productivity: Ginkgo Biloba + Ginseng
If you need to laser-focus on an important task or study for an exam, ginkgo and ginseng are great alternatives to caffeine.
Human research comparing the cognitive effects of ginseng and ginkgo biloba in healthy young adults found that[*]:
- Ginseng alone increased speed in memory tasks and accuracy in tasks that required attention.
- Ginkgo alone significantly improved mood.
- Taken together, they improved working memory performance.
Research finds that ginkgo boosts performance and stabilizes mood in stressful tasks by decreasing blood pressure spiked by stress, which allows you to remain calm and think more clearly[*].
The positive effects of ginseng on cognition can be partly explained by its ability to regulate neurotransmitters (choline and dopamine) in the central nervous system, improve vasodilation, and regulate glucose[*][*].
#3: Smart Genes: Eleuthero + Schisandra Berries + Rhodiola Rosea
Stacking the stress-fighting eleuthero, memory-enhancing schizandra berries, and brain-boosting Rhodiola rosea can increase the expression of genes responsible for brain function.
Research finds that this combination up-regulates the gene SERPINI1, which gives the instructions to make a protein called neuroserpin.
Neuroserpin is necessary for the transmission of nerve impulses, the development of synapses (the structure that lets a neuron communicate with other neurons), and synaptic plasticity — all factors that optimize memory and learning. Neuroserpin also reduces inflammation.
Pilot studies have shown that this stack can increase attention, speed, and accuracy during stressful cognitive tasks compared to a placebo[*].
#4: Sleep: Magnesium Glycinate + Ashwagandha + Gaba + 5-HTP + Valerian Root
This is one of many sleep stacks that are common among nootropic users and which you can find in supplement sleeping blends.
Some people who first start the ketogenic diet notice that they have a hard time falling asleep at night — probably due to the amazing boost in energy levels and the adjustment that comes with switching brain fuels (glucose → ketones).
Instead of popping a NyQuil or an over-the-counter sleep aid, experiment with these natural nootropics that support relaxation, helping you wind down after a long day, and promote a restorative sleep[*][*][*][*].
Additionally, you can also add in melatonin, luobuma, or L-theanine. In one study, stacking 100 mg of GABA and 50 mg of luobuma shortened the time it takes to fall asleep by 4.3 minutes and increased non-REM sleep time by 5%[*].
Just remember, everyone is different and it may take some time to find the right combination of nootropics that works for you. Be patient and don’t rush the process.
Nootropics and Keto Are Better Together
The ketogenic diet in itself is a powerful tool to boost your brain power and optimize overall health and longevity. But if you want to take it up a notch, using certain nootropics to support your ketogenic journey can be helpful.
Based on everything you’ve read so far, you should have full confidence that keto is very beneficial for brain health. But, to get heightened mental clarity, try supplementing with nootropics while on the keto diet.
You can buy nootropics in supplement form or create your own using natural ingredients. These supplements can help improve your mood, sleep patterns, and treat anxiety and depression.
Be sure to check with your health care provider before starting with any supplements. When you add them into your diet, start with minimal amounts and note any changes in mood or behavior. Before long, you will notice an incredible difference in your mental focus.