As I explain below, aging takes its toll on your cognitive abilities as well as your physical ones. Memories become fuzzy, you find yourself misplacing your keys on an all-too-regular basis, and your work performance isn’t as on point as it used to be. Luckily, there are things you can do to mitigate this mental deterioration. In addition to the brain supplements on my initial list, you can also experiment with nootropics, or “smart drugs.” What can these so-called cognitive enhancers potentially do for your brain health? Let’s take a look.

According to the Washington Post, a Romanian scientist named Corneliu Giurgea combined the Greek words for “mind” and “bending” to coin the term “nootropic” in 1972. The Post summarized the history of nootropics as part of a recent article on the use of these substances in Silicon Valley, where some of the best and brightest will do whatever it takes to get a leg up on their competitors—including taking smart drugs. Nootropics are also becoming increasingly common on college campuses, where students use (or, according to Consumer Reports, misuse) substances like the prescription ADHD medication Adderall to help them study. As the Harvard Business Review reported in 2016, nearly 20% of Ivy League students have tried smart drugs. The Review cited a 2014 survey showing nearly one in five students at Ivy League colleges admitted to deliberately misusing prescription stimulants to help them study, and one-third of students didn’t view this misuse as cheating. Given the prevalence of smart drugs in school, the Review extrapolates it’s likely these cognitive enhancers are also being used in the office—perhaps by one of your coworkers.

Interested in learning more about how to give yourself a mental edge? I obviously can’t condone inappropriate use of prescription medications, but I can tell you a little bit about some natural nootropics. Here are a few of my favorites.



You may recall this one from my list of top supplements for brain health, but I’m mentioning it again because it’s so great for improving focus without the jittery (and potentially serious) side effects of stimulants like Adderall. That said, L-theanine combines well with a decidedly milder and more common upper, caffeine. A compound found in black and green tea, L-theanine on its own can bring about a state of relaxed alertness. When paired with caffeine, it works synergistically to increase memory and improve reaction time. One systematic review found L-theanine simultaneously reduced anxiety and increased attention.



According to Dr. Andrew Weil, this herb (also known as Brahmi) has long been used in Ayurveda, the traditional Indian system of medicine, to enhance memory and learning. Modern research supports this use, making bacopa a popular nootropic herb. An extensive neuropharmacological review found bacopa “demonstrates immense potential in the amelioration of cognitive disorders, as well as… cognitive enhancement in healthy people.” In another study conducted over 12 weeks in Australia, volunteers who took 300 mg of bacopa every day showed improvement in visual information processing, learning rate, and memory consolidation compared to those who took a placebo. Based on these findings, researchers concluded that bacopa “may improve higher order cognitive processes that are critically dependent on the input of information from our environment such as learning and memory.”


Phosphatidyl serine (PS)

You may not have heard of phosphatidyl serine (PS), but Dr. Axe says it’s present in every one of your body’s cells and is a vital building block for your brain. Research indicates supplementing with PS derived from cows may help reduce the cognitive decline that often accompanies aging. In a study examining the effects of PS on 494 elderly subjects with cognitive impairment, “statistically significant improvements in the phosphatidylserine-treated group compared to placebo were observed both in terms of behavioral and cognitive parameters” after 3 and 6 months. Want to up your PS intake? Dr. Axe suggests soy lecithin—100 grams of this soybean derivative contains 5,900 milligrams of PS.  


5 Top Supplements For Brain Health (01/16/18)


Do you find yourself struggling to recall information that used to come easily? Are you starting to have trouble keeping track of details? You’re not the only one. Aging takes a toll on the brain as well as the body. But just as you can maintain peak physical condition through exercise and diet, so too can you take steps to stay sharp. Here are my 5 top supplements for brain health.


Fish Oil

I’ve written a lot about the benefits of fish oil for your heart, but it’s also great for your brain. Fish oil contains the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA, which are critical for neurological development and function. Many studies have looked at the ability of omega-3s to mitigate age-related deterioration of the brain, with interesting results. In one animal study, DHA and EPA supplementation reversed changes related to aging and maintained learning memory performance. Another study of older adults found that people who took a DHA supplement for six months showed improvements in learning and memory, indicating “a potentially beneficial role for DHA in preventing or ameliorating cognitive decline” in adults. I like fish oil so much I put it on my list of top 5 supplements everyone should take, and I usually tell my patients to aim for 2000 mg total of EPA and DHA combined.



This is another one of my favorite supplements. L-carnitine is an often-depleted enzyme that plays an important role in the Krebs cycle, which powers everything in our body by converting food into energy. According to Dr. Andrew Weil, preliminary research suggests supplementing with acetyl-L-carnitine may help slow down cognitive decline associated with aging. A meta-analysis of studies looking at supplementation with acetyl-L-carnitine for periods ranging from 3 to 12 months showed beneficial effects for people with mild cognitive impairment as well as those with early Alzheimer’s disease. Make sure to get the acetyl-form when taking this for brain health.


Ginkgo Biloba

An herbal supplement with a long history of use, ginkgo biloba is believed to enhance cognitive function. While results have sometimes been mixed, research indicates ginkgo can improve your memory. One study looking at the effects of ginkgo on elderly participants over the course of eight months showed improvements in cognitive function. In another study, middle-aged volunteers were given either ginkgo biloba extract or a placebo every day for six weeks. At the end of the study period, those who took ginkgo were better able to perform the demanding recall task of remembering a list of appointments. We could probably all use a little help with that!


This one also features on my list of top 10 best anti-aging supplements for men. A compound found in red wine and dark chocolate, resveratrol is sometimes called “the longevity molecule” because it has been shown to lengthen the lifespan of many different animal species. Research suggests resveratrol may enhance plasticity of the hippocampus, a part of the brain associated with memory. In one promising study, older individuals who took 200 mg per day of resveratrol for 26 weeks experienced an improvement in memory performance compared to a placebo group.


To really boost your brain power, try taking an L-theanine supplement with your morning joe. A compound found in black and green tea, L-theanine on its own can bring about a state of relaxed alertness. When paired with caffeine, it works synergistically to increase memory and improve reaction time. The beauty of L-theanine lies in its ability to relax you while helping you focus. One systematic review found L-theanine simultaneously reduced anxiety and increased attention.

Bonus Brain Supplement: Caffeine

This one is probably pretty obvious, but there’s no denying caffeine’s ability to improve focus. Chances are you have ample anecdotal evidence proving caffeine’s power to amp up your mental prowess, but plenty of studies support your experience. In one experiment looking at the effects of coffee consumed at different times of the day and night, caffeinated coffee had a beneficial effect on alertness and improved performance on a variety of tasks no matter when it was consumed, and “the effects were often very large.”

Those listed here are general recommendations, but your own individual situation (risks and goals) may necessitate other interventions.


Wondering what others areas of your health could use your attention? Consider taking my Optimal Men’s Health quiz. It’s designed to help you determine your next best step to getting healthier and closer to winning.
Myles Spar, MD, MPH is board-certified in Internal Medicine and in Integrative Medicine. As a clinician, teacher and researcher on faculty of two major medical centers, he has led the charge for a more proactive, holistic and personalized approach to care that focuses on cutting edge technology and preventative care. Dr. Spar has traveled with the NBA, presented a TEDx Talk, appeared on Dr. Oz, and been featured in publications such as the Men’s Journal and the Los Angeles Times.