You’ll never become a productive and focused person solely from nootropics. But I figure if I can squeeze out an extra 1% per day, even that is worth the ticket price.
I’m always trying to be more efficient. I want to accomplish a ton of shit in my lifetime, and we all have a limited amount of time.
So of course, I’ve spent my fair share of time researching productivity porn.
The basics for brain health are simple:
- Eat well
- Sleep lots
- Work on the right problems
These are the fundamentals, and you can’t do anything without them. They probably cover 70% of the variance in terms of productivity.
Next up, intermediate level productivity warriors can start worrying about systems, processes, and routines. Basically, developing the right habits makes productivity close to automate – at the very least it makes it the default setting.
Here’s where things come in like:
- Waking up early and/or optimizing your morning routine
- Batching email work
- Only taking meetings certain days of the week and scheduling heads down time
- Working via systems like from The Checklist Manifesto or Getting Things Done
- Using a Pomodoro (even though I fucking hate those things)
These things maybe cover 20% of the variance of productivity, perhaps more if you’re of the neurotic phenotype and need lots of structure to get work done (I’m not one of them – a clear calendar and no routine is my bliss).
Finally, you have the top of the pyramid, the sugary and saccharine sweet nootropics (aka smart drugs) and other “productivity hacks.” I’ve tried most of the mainstream ones and many of the off-the-beaten path brain drugs. I’ve learned a lot through trial and error and feel like I’ve got a good grasp on what works and what doesn’t (and for what purpose).
Clearly, that’s where we’ll focus on this article. In addition to covering the basics and explaining natural nootropics, I’m going to periodically link to my favorite products (because that’s the easiest way to buy and get started, most available over-the-counter or online, and also because I’m going to use affiliate links, so I’m hoping to make some cheddar on this article).
Also, none of this is medical advice. Don’t be dumb. Talk to a doctor. Do your own research. I’m not telling you to do anything, just what I like.
The 12 Best Nootropics for Focus and Memory
- Bacopa Monnieri
- N-Acetyl L-Tyrosine
- Forskolin and Artichoke Extract
- Modafinil and Adrafinil
To start, there’s absolutely nothing as pleasurable as a good cup of clean black coffee in the morning.
Caffeine is the most widely used psychoactive drug in the world. It’s considered a natural nootropic for obvious reasons (it helps you get shit done), but more technically speaking, it “improves reaction time, alertness, memory and mood.”
To get even more technical, caffeine “is an adenosine antagonist which influences acetylcholine, epinephrine (adrenaline), serotonin and boosts the use of dopamine.” It also increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which has a protective effect for the brain. And it improves your mood by means of dopamine potentiation and increasing the density of GABA receptors.
Most importantly, coffee tastes good and you should never trust someone who doesn’t drink coffee (unless they have a good reason, like they’re allergic to it or something).
L-Theanine is an amino acid, and although it’s somewhat uncommon in a normal diet, it comes in high quantities in certain types of tea (especially green tea).
According to examine.com (the best website for investigating nootropics in my opinion), “the properties of L-theanine can be summed up as being a relaxing agent without sedation (relative to something like lemon balm which relaxes but may also sedate), and is also implicated in reducing the perception of stress and slightly improving attention. While L-theanine does not appear to induce sleep, it may (quite weakly) help with sleep although its potency suggests it may not be a good first line treatment for this.”
In other words, it’s a calming agent. Particularly useful to us focus fiends, though, is its combined effect with caffeine.
Caffeine + L-Theanine — I’ll say it — is my favorite go-to nootropic.
Essentially, you get the alertness and focus commonly brought on by caffeine, but you blunt the anxiety-inducing effects. It puts me in a calm state of flow, one that seems to last longer than caffeine by itself.
You can drink green tea (particularly matcha) to get the caffeine + l-theanine combo, or many nootropics have both of these ingredients in them. You can also just buy l-theanine in powder form and add it to your cup of coffee in the morning.
I find l-theanine particularly nice for tasks like meditation, reading, or other focused and quiet work.
Creatine, while primarily known for its muscle-building effects, can also be considered a nootropic.
Here’s the examine.com summary:
“Creatine is among the most well-researched and effective supplements. It can help with exercise performance by rapidly producing energy during intense activity. Creatine may also provide cognitive benefits but more research is needed in that area.”
It’s hard to cover every benefit of creatine that has been studied since there are so many, but even if it were just effective at muscle growth and fatigue reduction, I’d take it. It has very few to no side effects for most people, and has even been shown to improve longevity.
Creatine is primarily found in animal protein, especially red meat and fatty fish. If you’re a vegetarian, though, it’s super easy and cheap to get creatine in powder form. My favorite brand is Muscle Pharm. I take one scoop (or 5g) every morning when I wake up.
4. Bacopa Monnieri
Bacopa Monnieri is another favorite of mine. When investigating nootropics, I often think about the risk to reward tradeoffs. If the risk is low to non-existent, I’ll typically try something even if the upside is unknown or uncertain. In this case, the risk is basically zero, and the upside is actually quite well studied.
This stuff helps your memory. It’s a long term sort of nootropic that you’ll want to take regularly. You won’t notice a flood of focus and attention, but overtime, it’s likely to have subtle and positive effects on your memory as well as anxiety-levels.
Check out this summary from examine.com:
“Supplementing Bacopa monnieri has been shown to improve cognition, by means of reducing anxiety. It is also reliable for improving memory formation. Though effects of this nature are usually studied in the elderly, Bacopa monnieri appears to affect young people as well, making it a useful nootropic.”
Because of its generally safe rating and positive effects for young and healthy people, it’s a very common ingredient in premium nootropic blends, such as Alpha Brain, Legion Ascend, and Smart Mode (three of my favorite nootropic blended products).
You can also take Bacopa separately, which is often cheaper than when ingested in premium product blends. In this case, and in others, make sure you take it with a meal. It’s fat soluble. Take it with a bulletproof coffee or some ghee.
Kava isn’t your typical nootropic. It doesn’t have well-researched memory-boosting effects and it’s not talked about on your typical nootropic blogs.
But I use it as a nootropic. Here’s how:
First, sleep is the absolute biggest factor for me in my general well-being and focus. It’s the linchpin that improves all else. If I get a good night’s sleep, I’m more likely to eat well and exercise the next day. Additionally, my mind just hums better.
Second, I actually use it as a replacement for alcohol, which is most certainly not a nootropic (it’s really the opposite of a brain booster). If I can get the same social lubricant effects of alcohol without the brain splitting hangover, disruption to sleep, and all the other negative effects, I’ll put whatever that replacement is in the category of nootropics.
If you’re just getting started with kava, try a kava tea. Or go to a kava bar – they’re popping up everywhere.
Use this stuff to relax at the end of a hard day, whether alone before bed or with a group of friends in the evening.
Here’s a controversial one: nicotine is a nootropic. That’s actually incontrovertible.
Obviously, nicotine has downsides. In its common forms (cigarettes, cigars, chew), you’re getting way more than just nicotine. In fact, you’re getting thousands of ingredients sometimes, many of which are harmful and can cause cancer.
Nicotine itself is not without harm either.
But nicotine has a myriad of of nootropic effects:
- It gives you faster, more precise motor function.
- It makes you more vigilant.
- It improves your reaction time.
- It sharpens your short-term memory.
- It also suppresses appetite.
Plus, all your favorite writers used nicotine and/or caffeine. As Dave Asprey put it, “Based on my experience with it, and on history, I predict that nicotine (not smoking) will become much more popular for performance and cognitive enhancement. After all, about 99% of great works of literature in the last 200 years (p > .05) were written under the influence of coffee and nicotine!”
For what it’s worth, I buy Lucy nicotine gum and use it when I’m writing sometimes (I’m using it right now, actually). But I always take breaks, and I don’t use it every day.
Choline is going to be at the core of most common nootropics on the market today (including Alpha Brain by Onnit).
It’s a nutrient that has tons of benefits, ranging from metabolism to cellular growth and more. Of course, what we care about is the effect it has on focus and on memory.
According to examine.com, Choline “is a molecule mostly used for either its cognitive boosting properties (turning into acetylcholine, the learning neurotransmitter) or as a liver health agent, able to reduce fatty liver buildup.”
There are tons of mechanisms to get your choline (including naturally – egg yolks are high in the substance). You may see nootropics with ingredients like citicoline, cdp-choline, or alpha-gpc. These, too, are cholinergic substances.
Your best bet is going to be a supplement with either alpha-gpc, which can cross the blood brain barrier easily, or citicoline, which also sets up a precursor to Uridine (another cognitive enhancer).
8. N-Acetyl L-Tyrosine
N-Acetyl L-Tyrosine increases the bioavailability of tyrosine, an amino acid that is used to produce noradrenaline and dopamine. It has been shown to have stress-reduction faculties as well as inhibiting memory-reduction due to stress events.
Stress adaptation is the big benefit studied here. According to examine.com, “tyrosine appears to effectively improve cognition during acute stressors (altitude and cold being tested most)”
There’s a whole class of compounds called racetams, and piracetam is one of the most popular of them in terms of brain function. Aniracetam is also a popular nootropic.
One thing to note here is that the brain boosting effects of piracetam have largely been found in older adults and those with cognitive decline. It’s not been shown to be as effective in young and otherwise healthy individuals.
For that reason, I’m not huge into taking piracetam, though obviously if you’re older and/or suffering cognitive decline, it could be worth looking into.
I believe TruBrain was one of the earlier mainstream brands to be based on racetams (they also include oxiracetam in one of their formulas).
A similar one you may want to look into if you’re interested in piracetam and preventing cognitive decline is noopept — very similar effects.
10. Forskolin & Artichoke Extract
This is a new one I’ve been experimenting with. It’s traditionally used in ayurvedic medicine for testosterone improvement. I learned about it from Dave Asprey at Bulletproof, and it seems to provide a nice spark to my mornings. Still early stages of experimentation from me, though.
What the research says is a little less structured. According to examine.com, “supplementation may increase testosterone, and protect against cancer and inflammation.”
I haven’t read as much on the cognitive benefits, though here’s what Asprey says about it:
“In addition to being fun to say, forskolin increases cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP), a molecule essential to learning and memory formation. 
I have used forskolin for more than a decade.
Forskolin is especially effective if you combine it with artichoke extract. Artichoke extract inhibits PDE4, an enzyme that breaks down cAMP. PDE4 inhibitors make cAMP more available, and when you add in artichoke extract’s cAMP-enhancing effects, you get a significant boost to learning, memory, and motivation.”
Seems worth a try at least. His company, of course, makes two different supplements in order to get both of these things (the forskolin and artichoke extract). Figures. Anyway, I buy them and take them, so it might be worth a test:
Anyone who makes a list of nootropics and doesn’t put adderall on it is being politically incorrect, or benignly naive.
Outside of caffeine and perhaps nicotine, I would wager that this is the most commonly used nootropic on the list. Well, it’d be close with creatine anyway.
Okay, so adderrall is an amphetamine that is typically (over)-prescribed for attention deficit disorder. If you’re not on it, your little nephew probably is.
I’m not sure why, but there’s very little talk of adderrall on all these nootropic blogs I follow. Of course, it’s a much riskier smart drug than the others on this list. It’s also common and clearly effective.
I’ve used it from time to time in the past. I don’t use it much anymore. Makes me too jittery and I feel crappy the next day. Plus, the downside on my body and health isn’t worth the upside in a little bit of extra focus (that is typically wasted on ‘grunt work’ anyway – it’s not necessarily something that will boost your creative brainpower).
Anyway. I won’t recommend that you take adderrall without doing your own research because that seems irresponsible. You gotta get a prescription anyway, so talk to a doctor if you’re in want and, if you’re in America, you’re pretty likely to get that prescription.
12. Modafinil and Adrafinil
Modafinil is awesome. It’s also in the class of prescription drugs, but I love this one. I don’t take it all the time, but I do use it occasionally, especially when I’m giving a presentation or when I’m flying internationally.
It’s basically an alertness drug. They used to give it to fighter pilots who would need to go days on end with little to no sleep. You can get like 2 hours of sleep or switch 6 time zones with virtually no cognitive impairment.
It’s also seemingly quite safe, some say less toxic than tylenol. Actually, instead of giving all the science and Q&A here, just read this post from Dave Asprey, it’s really good and comprehensive.
Bonus: a Million Other Nootropics and a Note on Experimentation
How you define a nootropic can be quite broad, but even in the narrow definition of “something that can improve focus or working memory or cognitive function” I’ve left a few out. Here’s a list of some more common ones:
- Ginkgo biloba
- Rhodiola rosea
- panax ginseng
- B vitamins
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Lion’s mane
I also credit tons of non supplements with improving my mental performance, like ice baths, sauna, sunlight, meditation, reading Dostoevsky, and thought provoking conversations. Anti-nootropics that mess up my cognitive performance would be things like Facebook scrolling, modern country music, and seeing 10 meetings scheduled on my calendar.
Also, everyone’s body chemistry is different, so experimentation is key. I take a low risk/high reward ratio. Basically, even if something has little positive evidence, but it’s quite unlikely to be harmful, I’ll probably try it. The upside of memorizing one additional German word per day is worth the cost to me there.
But if something has a known downside, the upside has to be substantial. That’s why I’ve periodically taken adderall, and why I’ll sometimes mess up my sleep to take modafinil. The tradeoff, to me at least, is worth it sometimes.
Finally, most people, after experimentation, end up coming up with a ‘nootropic stack’ of several of these together. You can do that yourself by buying in bulk, or you can just buy one of the many popular nootropics like Alpha Brain, TruBrain, Qualia, etc.
Nootropics are awesome and can improve your cognitive function. We just get one life, and I want to get a lot of cool shit done, so I choose to try and figure out what will help me get more out of life. This list is an attempt at reviewing my favorite ones so far. Please, though, if you have any I’ve missed, comment below!