Your brain accounts for only about 2% of your total body weight. But it consumes at last 20% of your daily energy supply. And that supply comes from the food you eat.
The thing is in our modern world many of the things we eat do not make good “brain food”. And in fact, cause damage to brain cells and cognition.
Nutrients in food are not nearly what they were compared to 50 years ago because of the depleted land your food is grown or raised on.[i] The influence of over-the-counter and prescription drugs, digestion problems, certain diseases, natural aging and more affect how well your brain performs.
In this post we explore the nootropic foods that can optimize brain function. And some of the nootropic supplements you can use to make up for what you do not get from your daily diet.
Table of Contents
Our Brains are Sculpted by What We Eat
“Food is like a pharmaceutical compound that affects the brain,” says professor of neurosurgery Fernando Gómez-Pinilla at UCLA. The professor analyzed more the 160 studies about the effects of food on the brain.[ii]
To put this statement into perspective, it helps to understand the composition of your brain. If you eliminated all the water from your brain, you’d be left with mostly fats in the form of lipids. The rest is comprised of various amino acids, proteins, micronutrients and glucose.
When you feel that slump right after lunch, or are wide-awaken late in the evening when you should be slowing down for sleep, it’s often because of the effects of food on your brain.
Of the lipids that make up your brain cell membranes, Omega-3’s like the essential fatty acid DHA are critical. So eating foods like fatty fish, nuts and seeds are required for the creation and maintenance of your brain cells.
One of the main problems with our modern diet is an overabundance of Omega-6’s and other fats which upset the ratio. Omega-6 fatty acids are a class of polyunsaturated fats. And are found in cookies, cakes, factory-farmed livestock like chicken, beef and pork, processed foods, salad dressings, and many vegetable oils.
The average Western meal provides a much higher Omega-6 vs Omega-3 ratio. The result is chronic inflammation in your body and brain. You feel it as brain fog, poor memory and mood, and eventually neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.[iii]
Proteins contribute to the development of brain cells, neuroreceptors and the cellular machinery that make each cell function.[iv] Amino acids are precursors to the synthesis of neurotransmitters needed for cognition, memory and mood.[v]
It’s the reason why you find yourself energized and alert after a protein-rich meal. And feel a slump and lethargic after a big plate of pasta.
The problem with amino acids is they often compete for the same transporters for travel to your brain. And why a well-balanced meal helps provide the ratio of neurotransmitters needed for optimal cognition and mood.
Micronutrients like B-Complex vitamins are cofactors and needed for the production of all your major neurotransmitters. And trace amounts of coppers, iron, sodium and zinc are crucial to the development of your brain cells. The production of neurotransmitters and the way they work for optimal memory and mood.
Nootropic Foods are Brain Fuel
Most of this energy comes from the carbohydrates you get from your diet. Your body converts those carbohydrates into glucose (blood sugar).
Dietary carbohydrates come from fiber, starch or sugar. The problem with nutrition labels on packaged food is these are all included in the total carb count. You don’t get a clear picture of the amount of sugar compared to fiber.
This ratio is critically important to the serious neurohacker. Because this ratio will affect how your brain and body will respond to that food.
A high glycemic food like regular pasta or white bread causes a rapid release of glucose in your blood. And then it drops. Your blood sugar drops right along with alertness, attention span and mood.
On the other hand, nootropic foods that have a slower glucose release like whole grains, legumes and beans provide a steadier glucose release. Which gives you a steady level of alertness, attention and overall sustained brain power.
A regular diet of various nutrient-rich foods is critical for optimal and sustained cognition. What you eat has a direct and long-lasting effect on your brain.
What You Eat Affects Cognition
A couple of months ago I tried an experiment. Rather than a breakfast of bacon and eggs, I decided to have a bowl of organic, whole grain cereal with milk. I think I may have topped it with sliced banana or a handful of blueberries.
Within an hour I felt my brain working at half capacity. I didn’t feel energized like I normally do in the morning.
This reaction to a simple breakfast surprised me at first. Until I realized that all the research and writing I’ve done on nootropics over the last few years. It should have warned me not to mess with what I knew instinctively worked well.
Organic, free-range, pastured, cage-free eggs are the ultimate brain food. Eggs come with:
- choline – helps produce acetylcholine which boosts learning and memory
- tryptophan – an amino acid that is a precursor to serotonin, melatonin and Vitamin B3 (niacin) which helps anxiety, depression, insomnia, and memory
- tyrosine – an amino acid directly involved in creating dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine in your brain
- vitamin B12 – essential for the synthesis of DNA, RNA and neurotransmitters, the maintenance of myelin sheaths protecting axons, and red blood cell formation
- lutein & zeaxanthin for eye health
Bacon has been demonized by all the health gurus. But here’s the good news about our favorite breakfast meat. The saturated fat in bacon raises HDL-cholesterol (the good cholesterol). 25% of your body’s cholesterol is found in your brain. Where it improves brain cell function and provides antioxidant protection.
A typical thick slice of bacon is around 4-5 grams of protein. Providing the amino acids needed for optimal brain health. Bacon also provides Vitamin B1 (thiamine), Vitamin B2 (riboflavin), Vitamin B3 (niacin), Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid), Vitamin B12 (methylcobalamin), Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine), iron, magnesium, phosphorous, and zinc.
Bacon is loaded with sodium. So keep your consumption down to 2 slices per day. And while I try to avoid nitrites and nitrates, cooking bacon at the relatively low temperature of 400 in the oven prevents the majority of the carcinogenic risk. But it’s best to find grass-fed bacon cured without nitrates.
Why We Need Nootropics
By becoming familiar with what foods provide the most brain benefit, you can specifically target every area of brain health and optimize cognition. Including alertness, concentration, focus, learning, memory and mood.
But this is assuming we live in an ideal world, with the best, nutritious food grown on virgin land without pesticides and herbicides. Produced by a local farmer. So none of the nutrients are lost during travel to your supermarket.
We’re also assuming you chew your food adequately, have enough stomach acid to start digestion, your body produces enough digestive enzymes, have perfectly functioning bile ducts, and have no gut inflammation. Inflammation can be caused by Celiac disease, food allergies, ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease.
You also require enough time for digestion to take place in your gut. Digestion can be interrupted and cut short by drugs, laxatives, high anxiety, excessive exercise, nervous disorders or excessive thyroid hormones.
Then we have nutrition absorption problems associated with aging. Research shows that older adults’ ability to absorb and utilize many nutrients becomes less efficient.[ix] Meaning nutrient requirements increase. Including the need for specific nootropics to not only optimize, but actually maintain optimal brain function.
I cringe every time I hear or read a statement by a so-called “health professional” who says vitamins and supplements are a waste of time and money. That you get all the nutrients and fuel your body needs from a ‘healthy diet’.
Many of the full reviews for individual nootropics on the List of Nootropics here on Nootropics Expert include the natural food sources where that nootropic supplement can be found in our food supply.
Scan through the table below and you’ll begin to see a pattern. Most food-derived nootropics can each be found in several foods. Many from foods we should be eating every day. And are included in the general categories of beans, leafy greens, nuts and seafood.
Beans, Greens, Nuts & Seafood
|Choline||cognition, brain function, focus, motivation and fatigue||fish, beef steak, liver, chicken liver, eggs, cod, broccoli, peanut butter and milk|
|CoQ10||energy, cognition, memory and recall||fatty fish, beef, poultry, nuts, seeds and oils|
|Creatine||cognition and mental fatigue||wild game, red meat, eggs and fish|
|DHA||cognition, learning, memory, inflammation, brain cell repair, and neurogenesis||fish, fish oil, Krill and other crustaceans, and algae|
|Iodine||cognition, energy, memory and mood||seafood like kelp, saltwater fish, seal meat, whale meat, oysters, mussels and lobster, beans, milk and milk products, eggs, spinach and vegetables|
|L-Carnosine||cognition, energy, memory, brain cell repair||red meat and poultry|
|L-Glutamine||alertness, concentration, focus, memory, mood and anxiety||beef, pork, fish, eggs, milk and dairy products, wheat, cabbage, beets, beans, spinach and parsley|
|L-Theanine||anxiety, cognition, memory and sleep||green tea|
|Magnesium||antioxidant, brain fog, cognition, learning, memory, recall, neurotoxicity||green leafy vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains, poultry, beef, salmon and water|
|N-Acetyl L-Cysteine (NAC)||antioxidant, anxiety, memory, and mood||ricotta and cottage cheese, yogurt, pork, chicken, turkey, duck, wheat germ, granola and oat flakes|
|N-Acetyl L-Tyrosine (NALT)||anxiety, decision-making, creativity, mood and stress||poultry, fish, dairy, nuts, soy products, lima beans, avocados and bananas|
|NADH||antioxidant, alertness, energy, focus, memory, mood and neuroprotection||meat, poultry and fish|
|Omega-3||cognition, learning, memory, inflammation, brain cell repair, and neurogenesis||anchovies, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, flaxseed, soybeans, walnuts, spinach, and tofu|
|Phenylalanine||antianxiety, creativity, decision-making, memory, mood and stress||soybeans, cheese, nuts, seeds, beef, lamb, chicken, pork, fish, eggs, dairy, beans, and whole grains|
|Phosphatidylcholine (PC)||alertness, cognition, focus, memory and mood||beef, oysters, eggs and some vegetables|
|Phosphatidylserine (PS)||antianxiety, alertness, attention, cognition, memory, recall and mood||cow brains, pig spleen and chicken hearts|
|PQQ||antioxidant, cognition, learning, memory and neurogenesis||beans, breast milk, celery, cocoa, fermented foods (i.e. tempeh, natto), kiwi, papaya, parsley, potatoes, spinach and wine|
|Pterostilbene||antioxidant, cerebral circulation, energy and memory||blueberries, grapes, and in the bark of the Indian Kino Tree|
|Resveratrol||antioxidant, antianxiety, cognition, learning and memory||red wine, blueberries, cranberries, raspberries, bilberries, grapes, peanuts, pistachios, cocoa and dark chocolate|
|Tryptophan||anxiety, depression, ADHD, SAD, OCD, PMS, memory loss, and pain||oats, bananas, dried prunes, milk, tuna, cheese, bread, chicken, turkey, peanuts and chocolate|
|Tyrosine||antianxiety, decision-making, creativity, memory and stress||poultry, fish, dairy, nuts, soy products, lima beans, avocados and bananas|
|Uridine Monophosphate||learning, memory and mood||beets, beer, broccoli, fish, mushrooms, oats, parsley, sugar cane, tomatoes, and brewer’s yeast|
|Vitamin B1 (Thiamine)||antianxiety, focus, motivation, memory and mood||beef, brewer’s yeast, legumes (beans, lentils), milk, nuts, oats, oranges, pork, rice, seeds, wheat, whole-grain cereals, and yeast|
|Vitamin B3 (Niacin)||antianxiety, alertness, clarity, focus, memory, mood, neuroprotection||eggs, fish, meat, milk, peanuts, mushrooms, green vegetables, and yeast|
|Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic Acid)||antianxiety, alertness, cognition, energy, and mood||animal organs (liver and kidney), fish, shellfish, milk products, eggs, avocados, legumes, mushrooms, and sweet potatoes|
|Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine)||antianxiety, alertness, cognition, energy and mood||bananas, beef, chickpeas, pistachios, pork, potatoes, and turkey|
|Vitamin B8 (Inositol)||antianxiety, depression, panic attacks, mood, and OCD||a sugar alcohol and isomer of glucose found in nearly all animals and plants|
|Vitamin B9 (Folate)||alertness, concentration, initiative, psychomotor speed, social activity||energy, green leafy vegetables, citrus fruit juice, legumes, fortified foods and liver|
|Vitamin B12 (Methylcobalamin)||alertness, cognition, energy, vision, elevate mood, lower anxiety and pain, and relieve insomnia||fish, shellfish, meat (especially liver), poultry, eggs, milk and milk products|
Nootropics and Food for Optimal Performance
Every one of the nootropics featured above are essential for a healthy brain. The only reason you’re able to read and understand this post is you’re getting at least some of each nutrient from nootropic foods in your diet.
But if you find you’re not as alert as you should be. Concentration is more difficult. If you walk into a room and don’t remember why you’re there. If anxiety levels are higher than normal. Or your mood isn’t as light as you want it to be. You likely need the help of nootropic supplements. Because you’re not getting enough of each nutrient from food alone.
I’ve personally found that as my cognition and mood have improved from using nootropics. I’ve been inspired to make other changes as well. My diet is cleaner and healthier with a lot more organic in my grocery cart. I’ve cut out nearly all fast and processed foods. I’m exercising several times per week. And I feel healthier than I have in many years.
Start with some simple changes in your daily diet. Add a few nootropics to your stack where you think you need assistance. Use a high-quality multivitamin/mineral supplement like the Performance Lab® Wholefood Multi. And you’ll be astonished at the changes you’ll feel in as little as a couple weeks.
[iii] Patterson E., Wall R. Fitzgerald G.F., Ross R.P., Stanton C. “Health Implications of High Dietary Omega-6 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids” Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism 2012; 2012: 539426 (source)