5 Supplements to Increase Concentration and Cognition
In recent years, brain-boosting supplements, or nootropics, have become quite popular. These supplements, herbs and drugs often claim to help increase concentration, memory, creativity or intelligence in healthy individuals who are not suffering from dementia. Some individuals swear by their brain-enhancing supplements, while others do not seem to notice a difference.
When we look at the research for these supplements, unfortunately the evidence is not solid quite yet. It is very difficult to change a young healthy brain by taking certain supplements. However, by focusing on keeping the brain healthy and functioning optimally, we may be able to improve cognition and focus, both in real time and over the years. When looking to increase brain health, we want to focus on reducing inflammation, increasing blood flow to the brain, decreasing the damage to our brain cells and increasing neurogenesis (brain cells growth).
The following supplements all have some research in increasing brain function through the actions explained above
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are one of the most popular supplements for brain health. These polyunsaturated fatty acids are highly anti-inflammatory, which provides benefits to the brain, but also the body as a whole.1 Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is a form of omega-3 fatty acid which is needed for brain development and repair after damage.2
Omega-3 fatty acids may be especially helpful for individuals who struggle with focus. In a 2018 study, the role of omega-3 fatty acids were examined for the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).3 The study was a systematic review and meta-analysis which assessed controlled trials completed on the role of these fatty acids in ADHD. In 7 of the randomized control trials, omega-3 fatty acid supplementation demonstrated a reduction in clinical symptoms of ADHD.3 In 3 of the trials, supplementation was associated with increased cognition and focus. The authors summarized that omega-3 fatty acids can improve cognitive performances those with ADHD.3
L-theanine is an amino acid which is naturally found in green tea. This compound is the reason that green tea does not often cause the nervousness associated with coffee. It enhances the mental effects of caffeine, but counteracts the anxious feeling too much caffeine can induce.4 L-theanine creates a calmness which can be helpful when trying to focus. It has also demonstrated an increase in alpha waves in the brain which create a calm, yet attentive mental state as well as increased creativity.4 This amino acid can be ingested through its natural form in green tea or in a supplement form. The effects of L-theanine work synergistically with caffeine, so it can a good supplement to take along with your morning coffee.
This brings us to our next supplement, caffeine. Caffeine is perhaps the most popular nootropic in the world. It is found in several food and drink products, coffee and tea being the most popular form. Caffeine can also be taken as a supplement. At a dose of approximately 0.5mg per kg, caffeine increases alertness, attention, reaction time and attention.5
Caffeine can decrease reaction time, increase in alertness and attention to detail. However, there are some downfalls with too much caffeine or in those who are sensitive such as: heart palpitations, nervousness, GI upset and insomnia. Relying on caffeine to keep us alert and wake up to study can also be damaging to our adrenals after chronic use.
Rhodiola is a type of adaptogenic herb. This herb has evidence in improving mood, reducing stress and decreasing mental fatigue. Rhodiola can be helpful for individuals who are burnt out and it is impacting their cognition or focus at work.6
In a study looking at the impacts of rhodiola along with other adaptogenic herbs, authors found a significant difference in attention, speed, and accuracy between the treatment vs. placebo group.6 The individuals given rhodiola had improved attention and increased speed and accuracy during stressful cognitive tasks, in comparison to placebo.6 There was also a reduction in errors of the treatment group and there were no major side effects reported.
Creatine is an amino acid found in animal products. This amino acid works to fuel our cells, which is why it is commonly used as an athletic performance enhancer. But creatine also can increase the energy output in brain cells and lead to improved cognition.7 Although those who eat animal products regularly most likely get an adequate amount of creatine, those who eat a vegan or vegetarian diet may notice a significant difference in cognitive function when taking creatine.7
In a randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled crossover study, assessing the impact of creatine on intelligence and working memory, individuals were given 5g per day of creatine powder7. Authors found that when individuals were given the creatine supplement, they had significantly improved memory and intelligence scores compared to a placebo.7
Creatine has also been studied for its use in those with high stress- increasing short term memory and problem solving.
Although we may not be able to drastically change our cognitive function with supplementation, we may be able to improve our brain health overall and create slight increases in our focus, attention, efficiently and accuracy with the addition of some herbs and supplements.
Never start a new supplement without checking in with your healthcare provider.
- Fritsche KL. The science of fatty acids and inflammation. Advances in Nutrition. 2015 May;6(3):293S-301S.
- Mulder KA, Elango R, Innis SM. Fetal DHA inadequacy and the impact on child neurodevelopment: a follow-up of a randomised trial of maternal DHA supplementation in pregnancy. British Journal of Nutrition. 2018 Feb;119(3):271-9.
- Chang JP, Su KP, Mondelli V, Pariante CM. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in youths with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: a systematic review and meta-analysis of clinical trials and biological studies. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2018 Feb;43(3):534-45.
- Nobre AC, Rao A, Owen GN. L-theanine, a natural constituent in tea, and its effect on mental state. Asia Pacific journal of clinical nutrition. 2008 Mar 2;17.
- McLellan TM, Caldwell JA, Lieberman HR. A review of caffeine’s effects on cognitive, physical and occupational performance. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. 2016 Dec 1;71:294-312.
- Spasov AA, Wikman GK, Mandrikov VB, Mironova IA, Neumoin VV. A double-blind, placebo-controlled pilot study of the stimulating and adaptogenic effect of Rhodiola rosea SHR-5 extract on the fatigue of students caused by stress during an examination period with a repeated low-dose regimen. Phytomedicine. 2000 Apr 1;7(2):85-9.
- Rae C, Digney AL, McEwan SR, Bates TC. Oral creatine monohydrate supplementation improves brain performance: a double–blind, placebo–controlled, cross–over trial. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences. 2003 Oct 22;270(1529):2147-50.