There are plenty of good reasons to want to enhance your focus and memory–studying for a big test is a great one. You'll find lots of studying tips online, like listening to video game music or chewing bubblegum while you read–but what about something that's a little more direct?
Nootropics, a class of "smart drugs" known to enhance all areas of cognitive function, may be exactly what you're looking for. But what are nootropics and how exactly do they work? And what are the best nootropics for studying?
Here's what you need to know:
Table of Contents
Nootropics may improve focus and memory by altering neurotransmitter levels.
Different nootropics have different mechanisms, similar to how prescription medications may work by increasing and decreasing different neurotransmitters.
You can stack different nootropics to create a unique, personalized dosing regimen for studying.
What are nootropics?
Nootropics are a class of substances, not natural and synthetic, that act on the nervous system to enhance brain function. One common example is Adderall–a prescription drug designed to help enhance executive function and focus in people with ADHD. Of course, there are many natural nootropics that may help to improve brain function without the same side effects associated with many prescription drugs.
And it's not just about focus–nootropics work on a molecular level to help regulate neurotransmitter production or alter the way your nervous system interacts with certain neurons to regulate all areas of the brain. People take nootropics for many reasons, like to improve memory, reduce anxiety, and yes, to enhance focus while studying.
So, which nootropics help you study? It depends–but typically you'll want to go for a stack of nootropics designed to enhance memory, focus, and cognitive endurance, which are all things that you need to get through a long study session. Oh, and some nootropics have fast-acting, instantaneous effects, while others need to be taken daily for the most benefit.
For the purposes of this article, we are going to stick to only natural, research-backed nootropics that have a positive impact on processing speed, memory, focus, and endurance. Here's the round up:
10 Best Nootropics for Studying (& Research)
Disclaimer: We focused on supplemental, natural nootropics for this list, which means these substances have not been clinically evaluated for their ability to treat any mental or physical conditions, nor are they approved as a treatment for ADHD or related conditions. Always talk to your doctor before making changes to your wellness routine.
The most common nootropic supplements for studying include:
Caffeine is the most common nootropic used to enhance focus–and the most common nootropic consumed across the world. Caffeine promotes alertness and energy by blocking adenosine, the hormone that makes us feel tired.
Caffeine use, especially consistent use or overuse, is linked to side effects and dependence. Pairing caffeine with other nootropics may be a good way to cut down your caffeine dosage and avoid side effects while still reaping its benefits.
- May improve focus
- May boost energy
L-theanine is one of the primary amino acids found in tea leaves. It’s thought to have a few therapeutic benefits, acting both as a nootropic (cognition enhancing) and adaptogenic (stress regulating) compound.
In the body, theanine acts like glutamine, an amino acid used to build essential neurotransmitters, including serotonin, dopamine, and GABA. All of these play a role in your ability to focus and remember the things you study in some way. For instance, dopamine plays a large role in motivation and focus, and most people who suffer from ADHD are likely dopamine deficient.
By regulating these neurotransmitters, L-theanine may also help the body adapt to stress. It’s most commonly known for the sense of calm it provides, and it pairs well with caffeine to negate some of its side effects, like jitteriness or anxiety.
There’s some research to help us understand how this calming effect is beneficial for studying. A small 2011 study found that L-theanine had a pronounced effect on attention and reaction time response in healthy adults who are prone to anxiety. Another 2019 randomized controlled trial involving 30 healthy adults concluded that L-theanine was safe and well-tolerated as a “nutraceutical ingredient for improving mental conditions in a healthy population.”
Specifically, L-theanine supplementation was found to decrease stress-related symptoms (involving depression, anxiety, and sleep) and increase cognition scores (involving verbal fluency and executive function).
- May help to reduce stress
- Pairs well with caffeine
- May improving focus
Lion’s Mane is a medical mushroom that’s often called the “mind mushroom” thanks to purported benefits surrounding memory and focus. This is one potential nootropic for studying that may help both in the short term and in the long term.
A 2017 study, for instance, found Lion’s Mane to increase object recognition and memory in mice. Further animal research found that the medicinal mushrooms may even help prevent cognitive decline caused by neurodegenerative conditions like Parkinson's and Alzheimer’s.
Human evidence is limited, but one older study did evaluate the benefits of the medicinal mushroom on cognitive performance in older adults. This research concluded that daily consumption of mushroom extract for 4 months improved cognitive performance in adults between 50 and 85 years of age compared to the placebo control group. The cognitive performance scores decreased after discontinuing the extract.
In the long term, when taking lion’s mane daily, it may help to promote neurogenesis, or the growth of new neurons. This may help improve many aspects of mental and cognitive health, improving focus and mood over time.
Most significantly, though, Lion’s Mane may help to promote neurogenesis by increasing the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). In other words, it may stimulate the growth of nerve cells in the brain, which may help to improve memory from a less direct angle by improving overall brain function.
- May supports nerve growth
- May enhances memory and focus
Cordyceps is another functional mushroom that’s well known for its medicinal effects, but it may help you study in a totally different way. Cordyceps is most often linked to its ability to enhance blood flow in the body, which may have several physical benefits. This is why cordyceps are sometimes taken by athletes, like the Chinese Olympic female running team who gained global attention in 1993 when they achieved world records in 1500 m, 3000 m, and 10,000 m events after taking a cordyceps preparation.
How does that translate to studying? Well, improved blood flow may be associated with faster cognitive processing. Furthermore, cordyceps are usually linked to increased endurance, which may also translate to cognitive endurance that can help you maintain focus for longer periods of time.
Plus, cordyceps may also have some memory-enhancing benefits according to one animal study that found it capable of improving memory and learning in mice by “scavenging oxygen free radicals, preventing oxidative damage, and protecting the nervous system."
- May improve endurance
- May enhance memory
Alpha-GPC is a choline supplement known to promote the release of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that helps facilitate learning and memory. It is actually approved as a treatment for dementia in some countries, but evidence suggests that increased choline levels may also be linked to improved cognitive performance in healthy adults.
In this particular study, researchers saw improvement in four areas in dementia-free adults: verbal memory, visual memory, verbal learning, and executive function. Another study comparing the impact of caffeine and alpha-GPC found that alpha GPC supplementation was associated with an 18% overall increase in the performance speed of young adults carrying out various physical and mental tasks.
- Increased performance speed
- Improved memory functions
Ginkgo Biloba is another traditional medicinal herb associated with cognitive improvements. Most commonly, this herbal remedy is associated with increased blood flow, which may be linked to multiple physical and mental benefits.
Research regarding Ginkgo’s benefits centers mostly around its positive impact on memory, especially in patients with dementia. One study found that a standardized extract of ginkgo biloba called EGb 761 was clinically effective in treating dementia, and another study furthered these results, suggesting that EGb 761 was safe and effective for stabilizing cognitive and social functions in dementia patients.
Researchers aren’t sure why Ginkgo may have this effect, but they suspect that its ability to increase blood flow has something to do with it. It may even help Ginkgo to prevent and repair neuronal damage, as Ginkgo has been found to be capable of reducing brain damage in both animal models and test-tube models.
More research is needed to fully understand its potential impact, but ginkgo is usually well-tolerated and can be found in many nootropic stacks designed to enhance concentration.
- May improve memory and focus over time
Daily consumption of MCT oil, or medium chain triglycerides, is associated with an 8 to 9% increase in brain energy. it may even have a positive impact on gut health. All in all, taking MCT oil may help to prevent cognitive fatigue and promote focus. Plus, it aids the absorption of other fat-soluble vitamins, minerals, and other supplements that may otherwise be poorly absorbed.
- Acts as energy for the brain
Omega-3 is another fatty acid that can be divided into several groups, including alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). All of these fatty acids are associated with some aspect of brain health. DHA, for instance, is added to baby formula to support brain health.
Most researchers agree that a diet lacking in Omega-3 may speed up brain aging. A study published in Neurology® measured the mental function of 1,575 people with an average age of 67. These tests also evaluated their brain structure, body mass, and the omega-3 fatty acid levels in their blood.
The researchers concluded that people with low Omega-3 levels had lower brain volume and scored lower on tests involving visual memory and executive function, like tasks involving problem solving, multi-tasking, and abstract thinking.
Another study looked at the impact of a fish oil diet (or a diet containing plenty of omega-3) on fruit flies’ ability to learn. In this study, fruit flies fed the fish oil had a positive impact on learning and memory compared to fruit flies fed a standard diet.
Like MCT oils, omega-3 fatty acids are harmless and can improve the absorption of other essential compounds, so they are always a good choice for a healthy supplement routine.
- Supports overall brain health
- Positively impacts learning capabilities
Rhodiola Rosea contains over 140 active ingredients–but most notably contains rosavin and salidroside, two compounds known to be potent adaptogens. Adaptogens are compounds that help the body deal with stress. Other evidence suggests that it may have a positive impact on cognitive function and memory.
One review of 36 animal studies found that “R. rosea L. can improve learning and memory function” possibly due its “antioxidant properties, cholinergic regulation, anti-apoptosis activities, anti-inflammatory, improving coronary blood flow, and cerebral metabolism.”
- May help deal with stress
- May improve learning and memory
Grapeseed extract is rich in flavonoids that are thought to have potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which researchers believe may give grapeseed extract neuroprotective properties.
In fact, the flavonoids found in grapeseed extract have been shown to delay or reduce the onset of neurodegenerative diseases, like dementia. Gallic acid, one component of grapeseed extract, has been shown to inhibit the growth of beta-amyloid peptide clusters, which are usually present in cases of Alzheimer’s Disease.
Grapeseed may also be useful in healthy subjects for improving cognitive functions in the present. One 2011 study, for instance, found that grapeseed extract can help to lower or prevent oxidative stress in the brain. Other studies may explain that this function helps to improve memory, prevent memory loss, improve cognitive status and brain antioxidant levels, and reduce amyloid clusters.
One study involving 111 healthy human subjects found that taking just 150 mg of grapeseed oil daily could improve attention, language, and short and long-term memory.
- May improve attention
- May improve short and long-term memory
Nootropic Side Effects
Although the nootropics on this list are natural substances, they may still come with a few potential side effects. The good news is that the side effects are much more rare and mild than those associated with prescription medications. Plus, most side effects stop promptly after you discontinue use.
It's worth noting that the risk of side effects is greatly I creased when using a poor quality product. See below for information on how to choose a well-made nootropic supplement.
The most common potential side effects associated with natural nootropic supplements include:
- Increased anxiety
- Constipation or upset stomach
- Insomnia or decreased sorry quality
- Increased heart rate
You may be at a greater risk for nootropic side effects and should talk to your doctor before taking new supplements if:
- You take certain medications, including blood thinners or antidepressants
- Have a history of substance abuse
- Have had a stroke
- Are pregnant or breastfeeding
Like all supplements, nootropic supplements are not regulated as strictly as pharmaceuticals in the U.S., so you should pay close attention to the quality of supplements before you buy. Poor quality formulations are much more likely to cause side effects, some of which may be severe.
When looking for nootropic supplements, check to make sure they are:
- Made in a cGMP-compliant facility
- Lab tested and free of contaminants
- Accurately labeled, including dosage information
How to Choose the Best Nootropics for Studying
There are plenty of different natural nootropics to choose from, and it can be difficult to narrow it down to just one. Because some target memory while others target focus or other facets of cognitive function, it may make more sense to stack several nootropics to build a dosing routine and that offers full coverage support for studying.
Most natural nootropics are safe to take together, but you should always discuss changes to your health routine with your doctor. If you’re looking to take advantage of the nootropics from this list (and enjoy the convenience of a pre-made, full-coverage nootropic stack) check out our Lucid nootropic stack, which contains:
- Lion’s Mane
- Ginkgo Biloba
Want to learn more? Read “Why We Chose Our Ingredients? What’s in a Lucid Stack?” Or, check out one of our three flavor varieties:
- “Effects of L-Theanine Administration on Stress-Related Symptoms and Cognitive Functions in Healthy Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6836118/
- “Effects of l-theanine on attention and reaction time response” https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1756464611000351
- “Dietary Supplementation of Hericium erinaceus Increases Mossy Fiber-CA3 Hippocampal Neurotransmission and Recognition Memory in Wild-Type Mice” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5237458/
- “The Neuroprotective Properties of Hericium erinaceus in Glutamate-Damaged Differentiated PC12 Cells and an Alzheimer’s Disease Mouse Model” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5133811/
- “Improving effects of the mushroom Yamabushitake (Hericium erinaceus) on mild cognitive impairment: a double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18844328/
- “Lion's Mane, Hericium erinaceus and Tiger Milk, Lignosus rhinocerotis (Higher Basidiomycetes) Medicinal Mushrooms Stimulate Neurite Outgrowth in Dissociated Cells of Brain, Spinal Cord, and Retina: An In Vitro Study” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26853959/
- “Effect of Cs-4® (Cordyceps sinensis) on Exercise Performance in Healthy Older Subjects: A Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trial” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3110835/#:~:text=Cordyceps%20gained%20world%20attention%20in,m%2C%20and%2010%2C000%20m%20events.&text=Their%20coach%20attributed%20their%20success,these%20athletes%20via%20antioxidant%20effects
- “Improvement of Learning and Memory Induced by Cordyceps Polypeptide Treatment and the Underlying Mechanism” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5874985/
- “The effects of alpha-glycerylphosphorylcholine, caffeine or placebo on markers of mood, cognitive function, power, speed, and agility” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4595381/
- “The relation of dietary choline to cognitive performance and white-matter hyperintensity in the Framingham Offspring Cohort” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3252552/
- “Proof of efficacy of the ginkgo biloba special extract EGb 761 in outpatients suffering from mild to moderate primary degenerative dementia of the Alzheimer type or multi-infarct dementia” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8741021/
- “An Updated Review of Randomized Clinical Trials Testing the Improvement of Cognitive Function of Ginkgo biloba Extract in Healthy People and Alzheimer’s Patients” https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fphar.2019.01688/full#B51
- “Stimulation of mild, sustained ketonemia by medium-chain triacylglycerols in healthy humans: Estimated potential contribution to brain energy metabolism” https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0899900712003656
- “Gut Microbiota and Metabolic Health: The Potential Beneficial Effects of a Medium Chain Triglyceride Diet in Obese Individuals” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4882694/
- “Red blood cell omega-3 fatty acid levels and markers of accelerated brain aging” https://n.neurology.org/content/78/9/658
- “Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Fish oil Improve Learning and Memory in Drosophila melanogaster” https://jbs.camden.rutgers.edu/content/omega-3-fatty-acids-fish-oil-improve-learning-and-memory-drosophila-melanogaster
- “Rhodiola rosea L.: an herb with anti-stress, anti-aging, and immunostimulating properties for cancer chemoprevention” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6208354/
- “Rhodiola rosea L. Improves Learning and Memory Function: Preclinical Evidence and Possible Mechanisms” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6288277/
- “Flavonoid-Based Therapies in the Early Management of Neurodegenerative Diseases” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4288281/
- “Gallic acid is the major component of grape seed extract that inhibits amyloid fibril formation” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24157371/
- “Grape seed proanthocyanidin lowers brain oxidative stress in adult and middle-aged rats” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21871550/
- “Improvement in Memory and Brain Long-term Potentiation Deficits Due to Permanent Hypoperfusion/Ischemia by Grape Seed Extract in Rats” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24171080/
- “Effects of grape seed-derived polyphenols on amyloid beta-protein self-assembly and cytotoxicity” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18815129/