Let’s be clear. Before you even think about supplements to boost your focus and productivity, you’ve got to have the foundations in place.
First, do work that aligns with your strengths, you find meaningful, you’re somewhat passionate about, and rewards you sufficiently.
Second, sleep well, eat well, and incorporate movement throughout your day.
You can think of the above mentioned as the proverbial cake, with supplements being the icing on top — the one-percenters that might give you an edge.
Otherwise, all of the supplements in the world won’t make one iota of difference if you’re doing work you suck at and not really interested in and if you’re not getting enough sleep and eating junk food all day.
So if you do have the foundations in place, you’ll find 12 of my favorite brain-optimizing supplements below.
Disclaimer: When it comes to supplementation of any kind, do your own research because everybody is different. Experiment and see what works for you. Remember that just because a single study came to a conclusion, it doesn’t make its findings are conclusive. There are myriad factors at play, and you should always look for a body of reputable research that all come to similar conclusions. And of course, it’s always best to speak with your physician before taking any supplements. So with that out of the way…
The Omega 3 fatty acids found in fish have been linked to numerous health benefits, including maintaining the structure and function of your brain, and protecting the brain against damage and aging.
Not only that, but research published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health suggests that deficiencies in fish consumption, or Omega-3 fatty acids, could increase our risk of depression.
Back in my 20s — when I used to frequent summer music festivals — I used to take L-Carnitine to burn fat and get “shredded bro!”, but it turns out the amino acid benefits the brain as well as brawn.
Benefits extend to improving alertness and memory, as well as treating Alzheimer’s and depression in the elderly.
Whilst I took L-Carnitine to get shredded in my 20s, I used Creatine to get swole. But again, this substance, produced naturally by the body and found in animal products like meat, fish, and eggs, can improve memory and thinking skills — particularly for vegetarians and vegans.
In fact, vegetarians were found to experience a 25 to 50% improvement on a memory and intelligence test when taking the supplement.
But beware, much of the bulk that bodybuilders put on whilst supplementing with creatine is a result of greater water retention in the body, so while it might boost your brain, it might boost your scale reading too.
Derived from the gingko biloba tree, this herbal supplement increases blood flow to the brain and improves focus and short-term memory.
The lion’s mane mushroom has grown in popularity in recent years, buoyed on by personalities such as Tim Ferriss, Joe Rogan, and numerous others.
Research has linked in with reducing mild symptoms of anxiety and depression. It has also been said to boost cognitive functions such as memory, focus, and mood, however, existing studies have only been performed on animals.
Find powdered forms of lion’s mane here.
Like the lion’s mane mushroom, the antioxidant-rich chaga mushroom has been shown to improve learning and memory, reduce inflammation in the brain, and lowering oxidative stress on our brains.
While long linked to benefits when it comes to athletic performance, an emerging body of research is linking this sugar molecule with improved mental clarity, energy, and sleep.
Cistanches herba, which is primarily found in North Africa and Asia, and otherwise known as desert ginseng, has numerous health benefits. These extent to the enhancement of learning and memory, and protecting the brain against damage and deterioration.
It’s no secret that caffeine makes us more alert, and improves our reaction times and general brain functions. However like many things, its benefits can be mapped on an inverted-U curve.
Too much caffeine, for most people, will result in anxiety, jitters, crashes, and difficulty sleeping, which in turn will have a negative cumulative effect on mental performance.
Being from Melbourne, I love my coffee but I typically limit my daily caffeine intake to about 180mg of caffeine (three espresso shots).
I also try to contain my caffeine consumption to the AM hours because caffeine’s half-light is about seven hours, so if you consume an espresso at 5pm, you’ll still have half of its caffeine content in your system at midnight which may or may not impair your sleep.
Combine the power of caffeine with chaga mushroom with Four Sigmatic’s Mushroom Coffee.
When you move, your primitive brain sees it as a moment of fight or flight and releases BDNF, or brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which makes you more alert. This is why we often feel more focused after a short walk. It also helps the brain develop new connections (which supports creativity), repair failing brain cells and protect healthy cells.
Whilst simple activities like moving, getting sunlight exposure, and socialising with friends help to boost BDNF or keep it in check, research suggests that cascara, curcumin, cocoa, and lutein support the mechanisms responsible for the production of BDNF.
Intermittent fasting and ketogenic diets are all the rage these days, and when it comes to mental performance, such protocols have been linked with BDNF-production and an increase in epinephrine (adrenaline), ultimately making us way more alert.
Like moments of fight or flight, our evolutionary brain has been programmed to release adrenaline when we’re in a fasted state, because tens of thousands of years ago, it would have been fundamental to our survival.
Not only that, but when our bodies don’t have enough carbohydrates for energy, it reaches a state called ‘ketosis’ (typically after a 16-hour fast), burns our fat stores, and uses ketones for energy instead.
Supplementing a fast or keto diet with MCT oils is a great way to increase ketone productions, and has been said to supercharge the metabolic effects of a ketogenic diet.
The supplement that Joe Rogan swears by (note: he is a part-owner), ONNIT’s Alpha Brain is said to help you remember names and places, focus on complex tasks, think clearly under stress, and improve your reaction time.
A double-blind study published in the International Society of Sports Nutrition found significant improvement in verbal recall and executive functioning when supplementing with Alpha Brain in a group of healthy adults aged 18–35.
Finally, I want to again stress that supplements can be great, but that’s all they are… supplements.
They aren’t substitutes for adequate sleep, exercise and movement, and a nutritious diet.
Steve Glaveski is on a mission to unlock your potential to do your best work and live your best life. He is the founder of innovation accelerator, Collective Campus, author of several books, including Employee to Entrepreneur and Time Rich, and productivity contributor for Harvard Business Review. He’s a chronic autodidact and is into everything from 80s metal and high-intensity workouts to attempting to surf and hold a warrior three pose.