The word ‘nootropic’ combines two ancient Greek words for ‘mind’ and ‘turning’ to refer to supplements and nutrients that support cognitive health – especially for memory, focus, and creativity.
DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids are best known as the key ingredients in fish oil, but there are also vegan, algae-sourced options on the market. Besides supporting cardiovascular health, they also play key roles in brain health.
A 2015 meta-analysis of 28 studies looking at the effects of DHA and EPA on memory found that these omega-3 fatty acids improved episodic memory (related to remembering personal experiences at a specific time, place, etc.) for seniors with mild memory impairment.1
The MIDAS study found that algal DHA at 900 mg per day for 6 months resulted in nearly double the reduction in errors on visual memory and learning tests than those who took the placebo. According to the study authors, this is a benefit equivalent to having the learning and memory skills of a person three years younger.2
DHA also seems to benefit middle aged adult brain health. According to a study of 280 thirty-five to fifty-four-year olds, higher DHA blood levels are associated with better cognitive functioning, including: nonverbal reasoning, mental flexibility, memory, and vocabulary.3
EPA has specifically been found to positively influence mood and support cognitive health.4,5
Ginkgo biloba is usually found as a standardized extract made from the leaves. It’s well known for its benefits in brain health. The cognition enhancing properties of Ginkgo are attributed to the flavonoids, which are responsible for:
- Enhancement of the release of catecholamines and other neurotransmitters
- Increasing the tone of abnormally relaxed vessels
- Protection against increases in capillary permeability (so these tiny blood vessels aren’t damaged)
- Increases in blood flow to improve tissue oxygenation and nutrition
- Antioxidant effects to help prevent free radical damage
In studies related to memory impairment due to aging, Ginkgo was able to help improve short-term visual memory and speed of cognitive processing.1 Ginkgo also showed positive cognitive benefits (memory, speed of cognitive processing, attention) for healthy, non-memory impaired people.2
BDNF is a growth factor the brain produces to help protect and encourage growth of neurons. It plays an important role in long term memory formation and overall cognitive health. It is also important for continued neuroplasticity throughout our adult life and low levels are associated with various diseases like Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, and depression. Exercise is known to increase production of BDNF and is one mechanism by which aerobic exercise supports cognitive health. Ginkgo biloba has also been shown to increase BDNF levels in both animal and human studies.3,4
Astaxanthin is both a fat and water soluble antioxidant in the carotenoid family. It has been shown to have a much stronger antioxidant activity than many other types.
Astaxanthin, like other carotenoids, gets absorbed like fats do and is transported to the liver, where it is bound with proteins (lipoproteins) and then carried throughout the body to protect tissues from inflammation and oxidative/free radical damage.
A 2011 double blind, placebo controlled study of both men and women found that 20 mg daily for 12 weeks increased antioxidant capacity of the blood by 34.5%, reduced lipid peroxidation by 32.7%, reduced LDL cholesterol by 10.4%, and increased Superoxide Dismutase (one of the body’s own natural antioxidant enzymes) by 30.3% relative to placebo.1
A second 2011 study had a similar design with similar results: after 3 weeks, using 5 mg and 20 mg astaxanthin daily, people had reduced lipid peroxidation (by 35%), increased Superoxide Dismutase (by 194%), and improved total antioxidant capacity of the blood (by 125%) compared to their baseline amounts.2
Small human trials found that astaxanthin can also help to reduce mental and physical fatigue as well as significantly improve psychomotor speed and cognitive processing speed.3,4
1. Yurko-Mauro K, Alexander DD, Van Elswyk ME (2015) Docosahexaenoic Acid and Adult Memory: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. PLoS ONE 10(3): e0120391.
2. Yurko-Mauro K, et al.; MIDAS Investigators. Beneficial effects of docosahexaenoic acid on cognition in age-related cognitive decline. Alzheimers Dement. 2010 Nov;6(6):456-64.
3. Muldoon MF, et al. Serum Phospholipid Docosahexaenoic Acid Is Associated with Cognitive Functioning during Middle Adulthood. J Nutr. 2010 Apr;140(4):848-53.
4. Sublette ME, Ellis SP, Geant AL, Mann JJ. Meta-analysis of the effects of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) in clinical trials in depression. J Clin Psychiatry. 2011 Dec;72(12):1577-84.
5. Grosso G, et al. Role of omega-3 fatty acids in the treatment of depressive disorders: a comprehensive meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials. PLoS One. 2014 May 7;9(5):e96905.
1. Tan MS, et al. Efficacy and adverse effects of ginkgo biloba for cognitive impairment and dementia: a systematic review and meta-analysis. J Alzheimers Dis. 2015;43(2):589-603.
2. Kennedy DO, Scholey AB, Wesnes KA. The dose-dependent cognitive effects of acute administration of Ginkgo biloba to healthy young volunteers. Psychopharmacology (Berl) 2000;151:416-23.
3. Sadowska-Krępa, E., et al. Effects of Six-Week Ginkgo biloba Supplementation on Aerobic Performance, Blood Pro/Antioxidant Balance, and Serum Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor in Physically Active Men. Nutrients 2017, 9(8), 803.
4. Sangiovanni E, Brivio P, Dell'Agli M, Calabrese F. Botanicals as Modulators of Neuroplasticity: Focus on BDNF. Neural Plast. 2017;2017:5965371.
1. Choi HD, Youn YK, Shin WG. Positive effects of astaxanthin on lipid profiles and oxidative stress in overweight subjects. Plant Foods Hum Nutr. 2011 Nov;66(4):363-9.
2. Choi HD, Kim JH, Chang MJ, Kyu-Youn Y, Shin WG. Effects of astaxanthin on oxidative stress in overweight and obese adults. Phytother Res. 2011. Dec;25(12):1813-8.
3. Imai A, Oda Y, Ito N, et al. Effects of Dietary Supplementation of Astaxanthin and Sesamin on Daily Fatigue: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled, Two-Way Crossover Study. Nutrients. 2018;10(3):281.
4. Ito N, Saito H, Seki S, Ueda F, Asada T. Effects of Composite Supplement Containing Astaxanthin and Sesamin on Cognitive Functions in People with Mild Cognitive Impairment: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trial. J Alzheimers Dis. 2018;62(4):1767–1775.
Robert Dadd is a Master Herbalist (Dominion Herbal College) with a BA in Communications from Simon Fraser University. His areas of research include adaptogens, probiotics, and essential fatty acids. He is currently the Product Information Supervisor for Flora Manufacturing and Distributing.