The brain is a very busy organ that needs to process a lot of information every single day. As such, it can do with a little help from substances called nootropics that have been scientifically researched and proven to amplify cognitive function and help the brain deal with this sensory overload. When used in the right dosage, these nutrients can change how the brain performs. In this post, we will share the best nootropics of 2020 with you.
Are nootropics the same as smart drugs?
Many people may say yes since nootropics and smart drugs, also known as cognitive enhancers, are two terms that are often used interchangeably. But neurohackers may beg to differ since they consider both these things to be very different from one another.
While it is true that both aim to improve concentration, learning memory, and mood, among other things, nootropics must also be neuroprotective and relatively nontoxic. This makes nootropics a safer option than smart drugs.
Natural nootropics are typically sourced from natural ingredients such as plant sources or plant extracts along with other nutrients sourced from nature. Smart drugs, on the other hand, can include many synthetic ingredients within.
Where smart drugs can be prescribed medications to treat some kind of mental or cognitive disorder, nootropics are considered something that improves cognition without any considerable side effects. Nootropics aim to support peak brain performance, protect against long-term risk, and provide a daily boost.
Given the synthetic nature of smart drugs, there is a chance of habit formation and reliance. Plus, smart drugs can act as hormonal stimulants creating sparks in dopamine and norepinephrine, which may come with side effects such as irritability, mood swings, anxiety, sleep issues, and other forms of emotional or cognitive problems.
Although both produce similar cognitive benefits, they don’t have the same cognitive effect, safety, or side effects. And that is why it’s essential to realize the difference between the two. Nootropics boost the brain without the side effects of stimulant or chemical-laden drugs.
Nootropics work by improving mental functions while doing no harm. In fact, any nootropic should leave the brain in better shape than it was before you used it.
However, saying that nootropics provide cognitive benefits is too general a classification. There are many things nootropics can do for the brain and many areas they can cover. This can include helping with issues like improving circulation to the brain, providing essential nutrients to the brain that are often missing in the average diet, and neutralizing free radical damage to brain cells.
At the same time, nootropics will also help increase energy, oxygen, nutrient, and blood flow to the brain. Some may even help reduce brain inflammation and minimize the effects of brain aging. About brain regeneration, nootropics may also stimulate the formation of healthy new brain cells and increase neuroplasticity.  This refers to the brain’s ability to remodel itself and respond to new learning and experiences.
Many of the nootropics mentioned below work by increasing levels of essential neurotransmitters in the brain. Of these, dopamine is a key player since increased dopamine production has a significant impact on the brain. Certain nootropics also act as precursors to neurotransmitters called catecholamines, which are integral to improved mental health, cognition, behavior, and the stress response. These include dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine.
Here we have compiled a list of the best nootropics available and what they can do to help, protect, and support your brain.
Ever wonder how some people easily remember the name of their 1st-grade teacher from 50 years ago, yet when they walk into a room, they forget why they’re there?
Cognitive performance starts to recede as the brain ages. Often, this can be noticed as mild symptoms of age-related memory issues. When the symptoms aggravate, other brain-related health issues can start to appear, which may manifest themselves as mood issues, poor memory, or overall cognitive decline.
For the most part, this decline is believed to be triggered by free radicals. Free radicals are unstable molecules that damage membranes of brain cells over time. When an overload of such free radical activity cannot be stopped, it gives rise to a phenomenon called oxidative stress.
This mechanism is instrumental in the development of chronic and degenerative diseases, including aging and neurodegenerative diseases. Various mechanisms in the body can counteract oxidative stress by generating its own antioxidants. While some antioxidants can be produced naturally, others can be sourced through foods or supplements.
Nootropics contain antioxidants that can stop this process and stabilize and halt cellular damage. Those with antioxidant benefits to shield the brain against anti-aging include:
1. Pine Bark Extract
Pine Bark crosses the blood-brain barrier where their antioxidative properties reach the brain and modulate the effects of free radical-induced oxidative stress and inflammation.
2. Bacopa Monnieri
This adaptogenic herb contains antioxidant compounds that can wield neuroprotective effects in the brain. Research suggests Bacopa’s antioxidant potential may have a part to play in enhancing cognitive performance.
3. Lion’s Mane Mushroom
Lion’s Mane is like other medicinal mushrooms, which are chock full of antioxidants, including beta glucoxylan and other polysaccharides and polypeptides.
Another area where nootropics can wield brain-protective benefits is neuroprotection. Just as antioxidants shield brain cells from free radical activity, certain other nootropics are believed to offer protection from different kinds of damage, including the following:
Neuroinflammation is inflammation in the brain that causes brain cells to die. Unlike other types of inflammation, neuroinflammation doesn’t hurt but tends to slow down communication between neurons. This causes the person to become dull and slow feeling experiencing brain fog, slow thinking, fatigue, and even depression.
Mitochondrial Dysfunction – Mitochondria are specialized structures within cells that generate energy. When problems with mitochondria occur in neurons, it can lead to conditions such as depression, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and ALS, among others. 
Excitotoxicity – Nerve cells can die in the brain if they become over-excited. Known as excitotoxicity, this is a form of neuronal death induced by increased Glutamate signaling. Glutamate excites the interaction between nerve cells, but too much can result in cell destruction. 
A buildup of brain proteins – Dementia is caused by neurodegeneration, which is the damage and death of the brain’s neurons. Although there are varying types of dementia, a buildup of toxic proteins is a key part of brain degeneration and neural damage. This buildup causes a loss of contact points between neurons as well as the loss of the neurons themselves.
Iron accumulation – Neurodegeneration with brain iron accumulation is believed to play a part in degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and ALS as a result of excitotoxicity and cellular death.  Researchers are now looking for substances such as nootropics that may help remove excess iron from the central nervous system and restore balance in these areas.
Nootropics may support neuroprotection by increasing the brain’s antioxidant capacity, fight the formation of irregular protein clusters, clear brain tissue of neurotoxins , and protect the brain against the adverse effects of stress.
Nootropic brain protectors that are distinct from antioxidant brain protectors include:
Citicoline in animal studies has shown to exert a neuroprotective effect by quickening the pace of brain regeneration. It may stall brain degeneration by amending the structure of brain cells.
2. Lion’s Mane Mushroom
Lion’s Mane in animal studies presents the potential to shield the brain from unhealthy proteins. It can also promote NGF, which maintains optimal brain structure and offers protection for nerve myelination.
3. Phosphatidylserine (PS)
PS helps administer immune system cleanup by disposing of dying or damaged brain cells. This mechanism helps protect the remaining brain cells from toxic damage.
The brain remains in a constant process of regeneration. This involves the growth of new brain cells and the repair and maintenance of brain cell membranes in a process called neurogenesis.
Initially, it was believed that adult neurogenesis or the ability to regrow brain cells for the mature brain was impossible. However, research has established that neurogenesis does exist in the adult brain as well. It’s now known that the brain can make thousands of new neurons every day and maintain this ability well into old age . One way nootropics enhance neurogenesis is by boosting the production of nerve growth factors NGF and brain-derived neurotrophic factors BDNF.
NGF is responsible for healing and protecting nerve cells and stimulates the growth of new ones in both the brain as well as the nervous system. BDNF is one of the most active substances involved in neurogenesis. It encourages the growth of new brain cells and helps keep existing brain cells healthy via several mechanisms.  It also increases brain plasticity, suppresses brain inflammation, counters the adverse effects of stress on the brain, and protects the brain against degenerative diseases.
Many nootropics double as neuro-regenerators and neuroprotectors. As such, supplementing with nootropics for neurogenesis can help improve damaged cognition while also protecting cognition against future damage. 
Some research-backed nootropics for neurogenesis include:
It supplies both raw materials and energy for brain development. It acts as a brain regenerator by increasing neural building blocks needed to create, repair, and maintain brain cells.
2. Maritime Pine Bark Extract
Its flavonoids show the potential to improve neural connections, to boost brain growth factors such as BDNF.
3. Lion’s Mane Mushroom
It boosts NGF, which helps neuroplasticity and remodeling that takes place amid brain regeneration.
For cognitive enhancement, nootropics are perhaps best known for boosting and improving memory. This does not mean that they are only used by adults who experience memory impairment due to aging. Instead, nootropics, as memory enhancers, are way more versatile. Along with assisting age-related memory issues, they can also provide short-term perks that can benefit people of any age, including students, teachers, motivational or public speakers, actors, and so on.
Memory enhancement with the help of nootropics can be divided into the following types:
- Long-term memory refers to the memory of everything that makes up your experiences from over the years. Such memories can last for a few days or many years, and some may be stronger than others. Examples of long-term memory include remembering important days in the distant past, such as an early birthday, graduation, your first day of school, or how much you loved or hated your first job.
- Short-term memory: This type of memory is responsible for storing information temporarily only. It also determines if the memory will be dismissed or transferred onto long term memory. Examples of short-term memory include where you parked your car this morning, what you had for breakfast yesterday, and remembering details from a book that you read a few days ago.
- Working memory: Closely related to short-term memory, working memory is a newer concept. It is a thinking skill that focuses on memory-in-action or the ability to recall and apply relevant information amidst an ongoing activity. Working memory is also crucial for things that are meaningful to you in the present moment, but not 20 years from now. 
As you get older, the duration of your short-term memory becomes shorter. This makes people more likely to forget the details of recent events. Although this is a natural part of aging, with the help of the following nootropics, you can work toward slowing down this process.
PS helps optimize the formation and function of brain cell membranes. It provides brain support by promoting the formation of fluid healthy brain cell membranes, optimizing brain cell membrane function, and is required for the production of the brain cells myelin sheets.
It helps form acetylcholine. This is linked to learning, memory, and mental processing. Since acetylcholine levels fall as you age, low levels are linked with brain degeneration. Experts suggest that citicoline might help address cognitive decline due to aging. 
3. Bacopa Monnieri
This Ayurvedic herb that has been used to sharpen the brain by protecting cells and increasing chemicals associated with learning and memory. It’s used to treat Alzheimer’s and improve various aspects of memory performance. Human studies show that this nootropic can increase the chance of acquiring and remembering new information, increase free memory recall, and increase the ability to convert short-term memories into long-term memory. 
It increases dopamine availability, which can enhance cognitive performance in different age demographics. This makes it an exciting choice for nootropic use. It seems to work best under short-term stressors that can affect cognition, such as exposure to extreme heat or cold, exams, and car accidents, to name a few.
The capacity to focus and attend to a task means ignoring other surrounding stimuli. Now, this may seem like a simple thing to do but requires several different brain mechanisms. Not only does the brain need to filter out things that are happening around you, but it needs to give the task on hand its complete attention.
When people turn to nootropics for improving attention, it typically means that they want to have better support for improving performance. This can include tasks like studying, enhancing work productivity, or improving performance in competitive events.
- Nootropics can help with different aspects of attention, such as improve the ability to stay focused on one specific sensory stimulus. This is called focused attention.
- Nootropics can also help maintain focus on a single stimulus against distraction in the background, which is called selective attention.
- It can also improve cognitive flexibility or the potential to switch from one task to another seamlessly. This is called alternating attention.
- And finally, nootropics can also help with divided attention, which basically means multitasking. In this case, improved attention can make it easier to take on many cognitive tasks all at once.
Different nootropics that have been studied to assist with improving attention span include the following:
This amino acid makes a second appearance on our list of the best nootropics for brain performance. Alongside boosting memory, L-Tyrosine is also helpful for improving attention. Once it converts into dopamine that gets used up, the unused dopamine gets converted into norepinephrine which is important for attentiveness and focus among other things.
It energizes the brain by wielding an ample supply of oxygen and nutrients that can give it an instant boost of attention and focus. 
It is sourced from green tea and is believed to improve attention by tuning the brain’s Alpha waves. This creates calm, mental clarity. One study that investigated its part in attentional processing showed that participants using L-Theanine supplementation exhibited longer-range cognitive processes linked to maintaining better attention during lengthy and challenging mental tasks. 
The ability to think quickly, make the right decision on the spot, and vocalize your thoughts into coherent speech quickly are all examples of mental agility. Say, you’ve just given a presentation and need to answer the audience’s questions. Or, you have to skim over a proposal and extract its pros and cons right away. If you are a quick thinker, you can easily pick up new information and process it swiftly.
But there is no denying that many people lack this ability to think, decide, and do on-the-spot innately. There is usually some degree of panic when faced with a demanding or difficult situation. Now, you may associate fast thinking with higher intelligence, but this isn’t necessarily true. But what is true is that quick thinking can help you in many aspects of life.
It can enhance skills critical to success, such as planning goals, problem-solving, and the ability to stay focused on a task. For those who may not be able to do so, it may be because their brain is starved of oxygen and glucose, resulting in slower thinking, or it could be the effect of a traumatic brain injury or stroke. Likewise, slow thinking is also associated with depression just as prescription medications an anti-anxiety drugs can also impact your ability to think quickly.
Nootropics that have shown promise in improving or enhancing thinking speed include the following:
This is a molecule that allows the brain to store energy in brain cells for later use. This extra energy can mean it will enable you to use it as soon as you need it and may assist with quick thinking and mental vitality. Given this effect on working memory, it is no surprise that creatine supplementation can accelerate the mental speed of processing.
2. Lion’s Mane Mushroom
As a nootropic, it is known to optimize brain performance by eliminating brain fog, restoring memory and boosting mental alertness.
Energy and Motivation
Providing a consistent supply of energy to the brain is very important. This can be assessed from the fact that while the brain weighs only 2% of body weight, it actually consumes 20% of the body’s energy.  This constant source of energy keeps the brain running optimally, which can be seen as providing healthy cerebral circulation, optimizing mitochondrial performance for efficient energy production, and strengthening the brain’s defiance to stress.
The overload due to demanding, fast-paced, and multitasking activities experienced by the brain can leave it feeling exhausted. When you use nootropics as an energy booster, it comes with the benefit of no stimulants. This eliminates the possibility of any unpleasant-stim related side effects.
Much of this energy gets used up in brain cell maintenance, repair, and regeneration, which all add to the brain’s power demands. This brain energy is also linked to overall brain health. A brain that receives the right amount of energy optimizes its capacity to think quickly, presents mental agility, and maintains a high level of alertness.
Nootropics can help in this regard as they can potentially regulate the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is mainly responsible for the sensation of reward and pleasure upon achievement. In individuals with low motivation, dopamine deficiency is seen as fairly common. Such people experience low mental energy, a lethargic mood, and slower cognitive processing.  By boosting dopamine levels, nootropics can help regulate many such negative issues.
Nootropics that can help with dopamine and improve motivation include:
This amino acid restores brain chemical balance and supports dopamine levels linked to a healthy mental drive. As a supplement, it may be helpful under stressful conditions that deplete catecholamines, which are central to mental health and behaviors, including motivation and drive.
2. Vitamin B9
B9 is needed for dopamine synthesis and may help support motivation.
3. Rhodiola Rosea
Rhodiola can optimize dopamine and offer clarity, stimulation, and benefits that enhance motivation.
Best Nootropics 2020
Here is the list of best nootropics 2020:
- Lion’s Mane mushroom
- Bacopa Monnieri
- Rhodiola Rosea
- Maritime Pine Bark
- Vitamin B9
If we compare this list to the best nootropics 2019 and best nootropics 2018, you will see it is pretty much the same.
Best Nootropics 2019
- Lion’s Mane mushroom
- Bacopa Monnieri
- Citicoline as Cognizin
- Rhodiola Rosea
When nootropics work, they can offer the benefits of improved productivity, a more alert mind, and can even assist with improved habit formation such as better sleep patterns. But when they don’t work, you may end up staying awake all night, feeling unnecessarily fatigued, experiencing constant headaches, or even cause a potentially dangerous overdose.
What counts for improving productivity and cognitive performance is to eat healthy, exercise, and sleep well. Nootropics come in second and can assist you with all of these to improve your overall quality of life. The trick is to use nootropics as an addition to, and not as a replacement for, living a healthier lifestyle.
As long as you eat well, exercise, and get plenty of sleep, nootropics can help improve your mood, lower anxiety, and enhance productivity. However, if you don’t follow these basics, then nootropics won’t work nearly as well.
Spela Bednjanic has a Bachelors in Psychology and is currently doing her Masters. She is passionate about nootropics, supplements and skilled in nutrition. Being an ex-professional volleyball player, she has been involved with supplements since her early childhood. Currently, she is studying the effects of nootropics on the human brain and cognition.