Being smarter and having a higher functioning brain is something we could all arguably benefit from (and some more than others certainly). To this end, many people turn to brain-enhancing drugs much as others turn to performance enhancing drugs like steroids. These 'steroids for the brain', known as 'nootropics', are then alleged help to improve attention span, IQ, memory, focus and wakefulness among other things and even to improve our mood.
However while we'd all like to be smarter and quicker off the mark, many of us are not willing or happy to 'mess' with our brain chemistry by ingesting chemicals that do just that. This is particularly true as many of the nootropic pills (in fact the majority) have barely noticeable results that could easily be put down to a placebo effect.
The good news is that you can get many of the chemicals and substances used in nootropics more naturally from foods that you eat every day. At the same time many of these ingredients are actually more effective when you consume them in your diet and can be better utilised by the body (not to mention how much cheaper they are). It may then be that the best nootropics are really just the best foods for the brain. Here we will look at what those are, how they work, and how to get more from your food.
Antioxidants work by protecting our cells from 'free radicals' and radiation. This means that our brain is protected from damaging particles that float around inside the body and collide with the cell walls. This process occurs all over the body – including in the brain – and this means that it can be used to protect the brain from the kind of cell damage that can lead to early dementia. Eating antioxidants then will not result in any immediately noticeable enhanced intellect (which is what most nootropics aim to offer), but rather will protect the brain over time preventing age related decline. Likewise antioxidants can protect against things like brain tumours. You can get antioxidants from a range of foods such as oily fish and many fruits and vegetables (vitamin C is high in antioxidants).
Resveratrol is a substance found in red grapes (and red wine) which is particularly good for the brain in two different ways. Firstly, resveratrol is a powerful antioxidant and that means that it can protect the brain cells from damage. This is further the case as it also improves the function of the mitochondria – the cell walls that protect them from damage – meaning that resveratrol is actually much more powerful than most other antioxidants (which work by neutralising free radicals on contact (which resveratrol also does)). The other effect of resveratrol however also comes from the improved mitochondria – and the fact that their job is to utilise ATP for energy. Thus by improving their function you can greatly improve the energy efficiency of your whole body – including that of your brain.
Dopamine has a range of positive effects on the brain. One reason it is so important is that it is a neurotransmitter meaning that it helps the brain cells to communicate at higher speeds which can result in your feeling more alert and being able to think much faster. It is particularly abundant in the motor cortex which demonstrates the crucial role it plays in our motor movements – without dopamine we would lose muscle control, hand-eye coordination and potentially finally any movement. At the same time dopamine is the 'reward' chemical used in the brain which is released whenever we eat, exercise or have sex in order to encourage those behaviours. As such it has effects similar to an anti-depressant as it quite simply makes you feel good, and can also help us to feel motivated and inspired to work toward goals (due to the association we've formed between dopamine and achievement). The best place you can get dopamine is from bananas and particularly slightly ripe bananas – the black spots represent areas with an abundance of dopamine. If you don't like your bananas too ripe then try mashing them with sugar and milk, or freezing them.
The brain uses up a remarkable amount of energy (blood sugar) and uses 20% of the carbs you consume. Of course as your supply of energy wanes then, so too does your cognitive performance and it is highly important that you provide your brain with a steady supply of energy throughout the day. Complex carbs (such as whole grain bread, pasta, rice or potatoes) are best as they take longer for the body to break down into ATP (usable energy). This is as opposed to simple carbs (such as cake, sweets or sugar) which the body uses very quickly – these aren't as good for the brain as they release a sudden rush of energy meaning that the supply fluctuates and meaning that you feel 'low' after the effects wear off.
All vitamins and minerals are important for the brain in one respect or other, but vitamin B6 is particularly important for the energy supply as it enables the body to better extract energy from carbohydrates. For this reason it is included in many supplements in order to make them feel as though they are 'doing something'. It's also important for your nervous system and is crucial for healthy nerves and motor movements much like dopamine.
Protein is important for the brain just as it's important for the whole body – simply because we are made of protein and it's protein that makes up our brain cells. Unfortunately protein deposits on the neurons are also what cause amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles – the cause of dementia. Despite this though protein is still crucial and the fact remains that without it our body would be unable to make new neurons (neurogenesis) or repair cell damage in the brain. Particularly important is tryptophan which is an essential amino acid and the substance from which all neurotransmitters are made. Protein can be obtained from many foods such as fish or chicken and is best consumed from 'lean' (generally white) sources. Egg is a great brain booster (and everything else booster) as it's the only source that provides all 27 amino acids.
Omega 3 Fatty Acid
The majority of the brain is made up from 'good' fats (essential fatty acids) and these form the protective membranes around our brain cells which allow signals to pass through; and omega 3 fatty acid is the best known of these. In many studies the ingredient has been shown to help improve mood, recall, focus and drive. At the same time omega 3 is also a great antioxidant. The best sources are oily fish such as salmon or tuna.
Additional Natural Nootropics
Additionally there are one or two other naturally occurring 'substances' that can enhance brain performance.
Nicotine – the chemical used in cigarettes – is actually quite useful as a nootropic and can stimulate the hippocampus in order to improve memory. As such many students will chew nicotine gum intended to help with quitting cigarettes before exams while revising to improve their chances of remembering the vast amounts of information necessary. Of course this should be handled with care if you do try it as nicotine is also highly addictive and if it leads to smoking then that is highly damaging for your lungs and the rest of your body. Nicotine on its own can also damage the body in a number of ways so this particular nootropic should be avoided as a general rule.
You can take caffeine as a supplement yes, but it also occurs in many natural foods – coffee and tea for instance are of course naturally occurring and both high in caffeine. Caffeine is also present in many processed foods and drinks including CocaCola and chocolate.
Caffeine has many positive effects on the brain. For one it stimulates the pituitary gland to release dopamine and this results in all of the benefits listed above. At the same time though it also triggers the adrenal gland to release noradrenaline and other 'fight or flight' hormones. This then increases wakefulness and awareness/focus while increasing the heart rate and your general energy levels and speed of thinking.
Caffeine is highly useful in the short term for its nootropic effects and is essentially the only nootropic to fall into widespread use. However it is important to recognise that caffeine also has its share of weaknesses. For instance the increased production of adrenaline can place strain on the body and on the immune system, and the increased heart rate can similarly tax the circulatory system. At the same time the surge of dopamine can sometimes be similar to the surge in sugar that comes from simple carbs – in that you feel the high but also the 'trough' afterwards. If you have difficulties sleeping, or get headaches, then caffeine can also exacerbate these issues.
Guarana is a herb that is used in many foods purported to boost energy, such as the aptly named 'Boost' bars. Essentially it works the same as caffeine but on a much slower basis – gradually releasing energy into the body throughout the day. This means it doesn't give you quite the sudden 'kick', but it does give you a steady release that will give you more energy and concentration without keeping you awake all night.
Foods to Avoid
Just as there are many foods that can boost your brain power, there are also a good number of those that can sap it or damage it. Increasing your brain power then is not just a matter of eating some extra things you wouldn't have otherwise, but rather changing your whole diet in order for it to be more conducive to allowing your brain to function quickly and effectively. Following then are the foods you would do well to leave out of your diet.
As mentioned earlier, the brain functions best on a steady release of energy which it can get from complex carbs. Conversely, consuming simple carbs causes the sudden release of lots of energy which results in heightened brain function until that energy is used up – at which point you would notice a 'slump' with very low energy. At the same time simple carbs can also reduce the amount of dopamine in your system.
Saturated fats take a lot of energy to digest and can clog up the arteries as arterial plaque. Both these things cause the body to run more slowly and leave your brain sluggish as a result. Like simple carbs, saturated fats will also result in the reduction of dopamine in your body.
Alcohol damages your brain short term resulting in the short term by robbing us of our 'higher brain functions' from the frontal lobes of the brain resulting in emotional and reward-driven behaviour, lack of reasoning and spatial awareness and poor memory. In excessive amounts it can result in the shutting down of the entire brain and even its basal functions such as regulating breathing.
However on a long term basis it can also cause damage and can kill brain cells by constricting the capillaries and cutting off blood flow to certain brain areas. This can then result in reduced performance in a range of tasks, and in severe cases Korsakoff's syndrome which is very similar to dementia and even death.