Many of our family, friends, and customers are looking to get an edge or generally improve cognitive function whether it be memory, focus, or overall cognitive performance. We believe that nootropics (aka pharmacological cognitive enhancers) can help individuals achieve these goals; however we strongly believe that most people should start with basic non-nootropic measures (aka non-pharmacological cognitive enhancers) that, for many, can drastically improve cognitive function. In this guide, we’ll talk about some of the easiest ways to improve cognitive function before considering nootropics. In fact, at least one study has suggested that things like sleep and exercise are just as effective as pharmacological cognitive enhancers like methylphenidate (aka Ritalin) and modafinil.
Lack of sleep has been studied and is shown to impact cognitive function. The conclusion of the study linked above is that sleep deprivation “impairs attention and working memory, but it also affects other functions, such as long-term memory and decision-making.” This is true of both total sleep deprivation (which applies to anyone that has stayed up more than 24 hours), and partial sleep deprivation (which still impairs cognition, but not to as great a degree).
Sleep is important for a variety of reasons; cognitively speaking sleep is required for the brain to consolidate memories (Ref, Ref). Additionally, losing sleep can affect mood and performance (Ref). Therefore getting the proper amount of sleep is a great place to start in terms of optimizing cognition, as “sleep can improve memory beyond the normal condition in rested/non-sleep deprived individuals … [and] the effects on procedural and perpetual memory can be very large.” (Ref).
Just recently the scientists that discovered the body clock (aka circadian rhythm) were awarded the Nobel prize because their findings have “vast implication for health and wellbeing”. Disruption of the circadian rhythm affects memory in the short term and increases risk of cancer, and heart disease in the long term. The circadian cycle is actually closer to 25 hours (although this varies for each individual).
“Most of us are able to entrain this 25 [hour] circadian rhythm into a 24-hour cycle by using factors that reset the oscillation. These factors include intense morning light, work, exercise, etc. German scientists have named these factors zeitgebers (i.e. factors that give time). As a result of the influence of zeitgebers, in a well-adjusted individual, the cycle can be set back by 30-60 minutes each day.” Reference.
Failure to reset the 25-hour circadian rhythm to the 24-hour daylight cycle can explain a great deal of sleep disorders. It has been suggested that the amount of sleep needed may be associated with the amount of learning (or activity) on preceding days; it has also been suggested that this is why retired individual require less sleep. (Ref).
Check out our guide to a great night sleep for tips on how to get to sleep and stay asleep. These tips include non-pharmacological methods of improving sleep quality, as well as some suggestions for natural sleep supplements. Here’s a couple things to note about sleep (ref):
- Slightly less sleep (even 1 hour less than normal) can affect your ability to think properly and respond quickly.
- Sleep quantity is important, but so is sleep quality; 8-9 hours may not be enough if the sleep quality is poor.
- Sleeping more on the weekends will not (completely) offset a lack of sleep during the week, and can throw off the normal sleep-wake cycle.
Lately the link between physical activity and cognitive function has received lots of attention, so much that we recently wrote about it on our blog. To summarize, exercise increases life span, can help improve creativity, and generally improve cognition; check out the above link for more information on why exercise is important.
Having proper nutrition and diet is another area where cognitive optimization can be achieved. Certain diets have been linked to improved cognitive function; the Mediterranean diet, for example, is associated with better cognitive performance (Ref, note that in the study linked this conclusion is based on correlation, however the casual effect is not known). Another diet, the MIND diet, which is a variation of the Mediterranean diet, has been associated with reduced incidence of Alzheimer Disease (Ref).
Conversely having a high fat diet, for example, has been shown to reduce cognitive function due to inflammation of the brain (Ref). Having the right diet is therefore recommended as part of a preventative measure in reducing risk of cognitive decline. One study showed that those with healthier diets were less likely to have cognitive decline when compared to people with the least healthy diets (Ref).
Likewise getting the proper amount of key nutrients and vitamins can also have a drastic impact on cognitive function. Physical activity and good nutritional status are important determinants of physical and cognitive function (Ref). The link between nutrient deficiency and cognition is strong with vitamins, and especially B vitamins (thiamine, niacin, folate, B12) in general. (Ref, Ref).
Vitamin D is one key vitamin that many people are deficient in (this is especially true depending on where you live). Vitamin D plays an important role in many bodily functions, which we write about extensively in our blog post over Vitamin D – The Sunshine Vitamin, check it out for a more comprehensive look at why this vitamin is so important.
Omega-3 fatty acids docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) are arguably one of the most important nutrients for the brain. We talk about the benefits of Omega-3’s in our blog post regarding the difference between fish oil and krill oil (hint: they’re both good, although krill is a more expensive alternative). Low Omega-3 levels have been correlated with depression, ADHD, and even ASD, and are generally lower compared to average levels (see graph below). Omega-3’s are important through all stages of the aging process, which we talk about more extensively in our blog post over the benefits of fish oil.
Choline (formerly known as Vitamin B4) intake is strongly associated with better memory performance, and verbal memory. In fact, choline is so important that it was officially recognized as an essential nutrient by the Institute of Medicine nearly 20 years ago (ref), and is even found in baby formula (Ref) due to its important role in brain function. More specifically, Choline is needed for “neurotransmitter synthesis (acetylcholine), cell-membrane signaling (phospholipids), lipid transport (lipoproteins), and methyl-group metabolism (homocysteine reduction).” (ref). Check out our guide to choline for more information about Choline.
A large number of individuals may not be getting proper amounts of Magnesium as current intake levels (in the US population at least) are below recommended levels. Magnesium is involved in more than 300 essential metabolic reactions (Ref), and is required by the ATP synthesizing protein mitochondria. Magnesium can also serve to protect NMDA receptors from activating due to calcium or glutamate, which can damage neurons, eventually leading to cell death (Ref). Magnesium has been touted as a possible depression treatment due to its protection of NMDA receptors (Ref); this also seems to be evidenced by many anecdotal reports found throughout the internet.
We could go on and on about several other key nutrients, but the point remains the same: correcting a nutrient/vitamin deficiency can have profound health implications. Many of the above nutrients levels can be improved with diet, fortunately it is rather easy to supplement these items. A simple multi-vitamin is a good measure as it can be difficult to get the proper amount of nutrients through diet alone.
We’ve previously wrote about the health benefits of meditation. There continues to be research into the benefits of meditation, overall it appears to make the brain age better when compared to those who don’t meditate. Meditation is good to reduce stress, increases relaxation and calmness, and can help individuals enter the “flow state”.
When our family, friends, and customers ask us how to improve cognition we always start by suggesting the above, as those measures cumulatively will often outperform nootropics. Legal disclaimer: we also make sure to note that we are not doctors and nothing we say should be construed as medical advice. With a good diet/nutrition, proper sleep, and exercise, nootropics can provide an extra edge and sometimes help make up for the cognitive deficiencies associated with a lack of one/multiple of these measures.
Feel like there’s something that we should include. Let us know by commenting below.