How many mornings have you woken to the sound of the alarm inexplicably confused by how it could be time to wake up?
Bleary-eyed and foggy headed, you stumble to the bathroom to get ready for work and head out the door. Breakfast is a mere afterthought.
Walking into your office building, you head straight to the break room for your morning cup of salvation (coffee), praying it will clear the cobwebs and make you feel somewhat human again.
But alas, as the day progresses, you continue to find yourself stuck in a malaise, unable to focus, discern, or communicate. That strong cup of coffee (or six) can't do much to "nudge" the brain into action.
The unfortunate truth is that sometimes the brain decides that it doesn't want to do much of anything in the way of productivity. It would prefer to wander, daze, and (worst of all) focus on things that you shouldn't be wasting your time with.
While the above scenario might seem like a rare occurrence for you, for a lot of adults it's the norm, with some people spending over half of their work day in this never-ending haze.
Now, don’t get us wrong. The blank stare, fidget, or daze is necessary sometimes to help process and learn new, complex information, but if you find yourself staring at the wall more often than actually getting work done, then it might be time to upgrade your circuitry.
And that brings us to the point of today’s article, what supplements can you take to improve focus, mental clarity, productivity, and cognition?
We'll answer that very question ahead, but first, let's discuss what exactly cognition is, and why boosting it is an excellent thing.
What is Cognition?
The dictionary defines cognition as:
“the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses.”
In other words, cognition is the collection of mental processes that allow us to acquire, process, manipulate, store, and retrieve information.
The word is derived from the Latin word cognoscere, which means "get to know," and essentially, cognition is essential for our day-to-day life.
It helps us understand information about our surroundings as well as interact with it safely. Furthermore, since our senses are constantly inundated with new information, cognition also helps us distill and extract the “useful” or relevant bits of information to perform whatever tasks we’re currently doing and discard the portions of information not needed.
As you can imagine, cognition is vital to successfully navigate just about any situation imaginable, whether it be a high-level business meeting or a get-together with friends. Being able to observe, listen, understand, and extract the useful bits of whatever information is being thrown our way, and then use that information to carry the situation forward meaningfully all involves our cognitive function.
And, without it, we might as well not even be present at all.
That being said, let’s now look at what supplements you can take to improve your information processing skills if you’re in a bit of a cognitive deficit.
3 Supplements to Boost Cognitive Function
While the concept of improving human cognition might seem like a relatively new trend, people have been using drugs and other techniques to enhance cognition for centuries. Caffeine has been used as a stimulant for at least a thousand years by individuals seeking to increase energy, mood, motivation, and focus. <1>
Given the enormous popularity of nootropics and biohacking these days, finding a cognitive enhancing supplement has never been easier, or more confusing for that matter. Walk into any supplement shop, and you’ll come face-to-face with a wide array of natural supplements advertised as cognitive enhancers, including:
- amino acids
- And even mushrooms!
As with just about anything in life, some compounds are more thoroughly understood and proven effective than others, which brings us to this list of the best supplements to boost cognition, beginning with one of the oldest brain boosters on the planet -- caffeine.
Caffeine merely is magical and often gets far harsher treatment than it deserves.
Simply put, next to creatine monohydrate, it is the single most studied, and proven active ingredient on the planet for boosting performance both mentally and physically.
The way caffeine works is multi-faceted, but it's pretty simple to explain.
First and foremost, caffeine blocks adenosine receptors. <2> Adenosine is a neurotransmitter that causes us to feel tired, lethargic, and fatigued. By blocking the adenosine receptors and preventing adenosine from acting, caffeine promotes alertness and wakefulness. <3>
But that's not all; caffeine also can increase dopamine signaling. <4> Dopamine is often referred to as the “reward” molecule in the brain, but it is also heavily involved in motivation and decision-making. <5>
Now, caffeine boosts dopamine secondary to antagonizing adenosine receptors. Additionally, this increase in dopamine does start to dwindle the more tolerant you become to caffeine. In other words, caffeine goes from being a compound that wakes you up and makes you happy to something you "need" to feel alive in the mornings.
Caffeine can also cause a variety of cognitive benefits <3>, all related to improved attention, focus, and concentration. Most notably, caffeine increases:
- Arousal (awareness to stimuli) <6>
- Vigilance <7>
- Reaction time <8>
- Concentration <9>
As if that wasn't enough reason to supplement with caffeine, it may also help combat cognitive decline. <9> So, not only can caffeine improve your brain function, but it may also help keep it running better for longer.
How much caffeine do you need to experience its benefits?
Studies investigating the potential of caffeine to boost attention, memory, and cognitive performance note that benefits can be obtained with doses as low as 60 mg -- about as much as a cup of strong black tea.<10>
Interestingly, while caffeine tolerance is a well-known side effect of its continuous usage, there is some research showing that even if you are tolerant to caffeine, you may still obtain some attention-boosting benefits from it. <11>
Based on this information, it appears that the attention-promoting properties of caffeine aren’t solely due to stimulating dopamine receptors. It also occurs by antagonism (“blocking”) of adenosine receptors.
The take-home message from this is that daily caffeine consumption is excellent for purposes of increasing cognitive function, and you wouldn't need to cycle it for this purpose.
Does Caffeine Need to Be Cycled?
As we just stated above, daily usage of caffeine is safe and appears to work for boosting cognitive function. It does not need to be cycled. One reason you may want to cycle caffeine though is if you miss the "stimulatory" component to caffeine.
L-theanine is a non-protein amino acid naturally occurring in green tea leaves. On its own, Theanine is a pretty common focus and cognition-boosting supplement. However, when paired with caffeine, as it is in SteelFit® Steel Pump, some pretty cool things begin to happen.
The combination of caffeine and theanine is highly synergistic for boosting focus <12> and sustaining it. <13> This occurs even though the two compounds exert opposite effects in the brain. <14>
Essentially, caffeine increases mental alertness, wakefulness, and arousal, while theanine promotes feelings of calm and relaxation due to its effects on GABA -- the main “downer” (inhibitory) neurotransmitter in the body. <15>
So, how does combining an “upper” and a “downer” improve focus, attention, and cognition?
Well, caffeine increases alertness and arousal, meaning you pay attention to things better, but the downside is this attention is a bit too expansive. You see, when people take caffeine, they get focused, but they tend to focus on anything and everything, not necessarily the most important thing they should be focusing on.
Adding theanine into the mix helps tame some of the arousal brought on by caffeine, but not so much to the point where you feel tired. More importantly, even though it reduces some of the stimulatory effects of caffeine, it does NOT reduce the improvement in focus you get from caffeine.
In other words, combining caffeine and theanine improves focus and helps prevent your mind from wandering or focusing on things it doesn't need to be at the time. <16>
This is one of the main reasons Steel Pump contains both caffeine and theanine -- to provide an increase in energy and “dial in” focus, while at the same time helping mellow out the harsh “kick in the face” high doses of caffeine can often bring.
Lastly, there is no significant body of research noting that Theanine on its own improves focus or cognition. Most of the studies on humans to date have used the caffeine + theanine combination. So, while it may be possible that theanine exerts some cognition-boosting properties on its own, we don't know.
L-theanine is a perfect option for those who tend to feel a bit too "over stimmed" from caffeine or those who tend to have a wandering mind when trying to focus on a single topic for prolonged periods of time.
Choline is an essential nutrient for optimal brain development, healthy brain cells, and neurotransmitter synthesis. It’s also required for the production of phosphatidylcholine and sphingomyelin, two major phospholipids critical for cell membranes. <17>
While choline is readily available in a number of foods (egg yolks in particular), it does not effectively enter the brain. However, choline-based nootropic supplements offer a solution to this “problem.”
Alpha-GPC (Alpha-glycerophosphocholine) is a synthetic form of choline that readily crosses the blood-brain barrier brain where it's used to create a host of neurotransmitters, most prominent among these is the "learning neurotransmitter," acetylcholine. <18>
But that's not all, acetylcholine also plays a vital role in muscle contraction, and it's believed that the neurotransmitter plays a prominent role in establishing a strong "mind-muscle connection." In other words, when supplementing with Alpha GPC, you may "feel" stronger contractions from your muscles during training, which helps make for a more productive workout.
One of the most important benefits of supplementing with Alpha GPC is in the areas of brain health and cognition. Studies note that Alpha GPC may be able to improve memory formation, enhance learning ability, as well as potentially restore memory. <19,20>
In regard to exercise performance, Alpha GPC has been noted to increase Growth Hormone secretions as well as strength and power output. <21>
Alpha GPC also supports neurotransmitter synthesis of dopamine, serotonin, and GABA.
And, as we discussed above, increasing dopamine can benefit brain function significantly.
Additionally, much like theanine, there is some unique synergism between caffeine and Alpha GPC. In particular, research notes that Alpha-GPC alongside both caffeine and increased attention and reaction time when individuals experienced acute stress. <22>
The Bottom Line on Cognition Enhancing Supplements
In today’s world of increased reliance on productivity, efficiency, and expediency, cognitive function has never been in greater demand by employers or needed more by employees. And with the increased demand for our attention and even greater amount of distractions, supplements that improve cognition and focus are a gold mine.
Caffeine, theanine, and Alpha GPC are three of the best and safest options to consider when looking to improve mental performance in the gym or at work.
This is why we've included all three of these cognition-boosting supplements in every serving of Steel Pump.
Steel Pump is a high energy, high-performance pre-workout that support performance, stamina, focus, and muscle pumps. Take one scoop 30 minutes prior to training and get primed for the pump of a lifetime!
- "Cognition-Enhancing Drugs." PubMed Central (PMC), www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2690227/.
- Ribeiro JA and Sebastião AM. "Caffeine and Adenosine. - PubMed - NCBI." National Center for Biotechnology Information, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20164566.
- Snel J and Lorist MM. "Effects of Caffeine on Sleep and Cognition. - PubMed - NCBI." National Center for Biotechnology Information, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21531247.
- Nall AH, Shakhmantsir I, Cichewicz K, Birman S, Hirsh J, Sehgal A. Caffeine promotes wakefulness via dopamine signaling in Drosophila. Sci Rep. 2016;6:20938. Published 2016 Feb 12. doi:10.1038/srep20938
- Friston K, Schwartenbeck P, FitzGerald T, Moutoussis M, Behrens T, Dolan RJ. The anatomy of choice: dopamine and decision-making. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2014;369(1655):20130481.
- Giles GE , et al. "Caffeine and Theanine Exert Opposite Effects on Attention Under Emotional Arousal. - PubMed - NCBI." National Center for Biotechnology Information, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28044450.
- Kamimori GH , et al. "Caffeine Improves Reaction Time, Vigilance and Logical Reasoning During Extended Periods with Restricted Opportunities for Sleep. - PubMed - NCBI." National Center for Biotechnology Information, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25527035.
- Kahathuduwa CN , et al. "Acute Effects of Theanine, Caffeine and Theanine-caffeine Combination on Attention. - PubMed - NCBI." National Center for Biotechnology Information, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26869148.
- A, Nehlig. "Is Caffeine a Cognitive Enhancer? - PubMed - NCBI." National Center for Biotechnology Information, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20182035.
- Wilhelmus MM , et al. "Effects of a Single, Oral 60 Mg Caffeine Dose on Attention in Healthy Adult Subjects. - PubMed - NCBI." National Center for Biotechnology Information, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27649778.
- Lanini J , et al. "Acute Personalized Habitual Caffeine Doses Improve Attention and Have Selective Effects when Considering the Fractionation of Executive Functions. - PubMed - NCBI." National Center for Biotechnology Information, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26621326.
- Haskell CF , et al. "The Effects of L-theanine, Caffeine and Their Combination on Cognition and Mood. - PubMed - NCBI." National Center for Biotechnology Information, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18006208.
- Foxe JJ , et al. "Assessing the Effects of Caffeine and Theanine on the Maintenance of Vigilance During a Sustained Attention Task. - PubMed - NCBI." National Center for Biotechnology Information, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22326943.
- "Caffeine and Theanine Exert Opposite Effects on Attention Under Emotional Arousal. - PubMed - NCBI." National Center for Biotechnology Information, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28044450.
- Nathan PJ , et al. "The Neuropharmacology of L-theanine(N-ethyl-L-glutamine): a Possible Neuroprotective and Cognitive Enhancing Agent. - PubMed - NCBI." National Center for Biotechnology Information, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17182482.
- Kahathuduwa CN , et al. "L-Theanine and Caffeine Improve Target-specific Attention to Visual Stimuli by Decreasing Mind Wandering: a Human Functional Magnetic Resonance Ima... - PubMed - NCBI." National Center for Biotechnology Information, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29420994.
- "Office of Dietary Supplements - Choline." Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS), 26 Sept. 2018, ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Choline-HealthProfessional/.
- The role of acetylcholine in learning and memory. Curr Opin Neurobiol. 2006;16(6):710-5.
- De Jesus Moreno Moreno M. "Cognitive Improvement in Mild to Moderate Alzheimer's Dementia After Treatment with the Acetylcholine Precursor Choline Alfoscerate: a Multicenter,... - PubMed - NCBI." National Center for Biotechnology Information, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12637119.
- Canal N , et al. "Effect of L-alpha-glyceryl-phosphorylcholine on Amnesia Caused by Scopolamine. - PubMed - NCBI." National Center for Biotechnology Information, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2071257.
- "Acute Supplementation with Alpha-glycerylphosphorylcholine Augments Growth Hormone Response To, and Peak Force Production During, Resistance Exercise." Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1550-2783-5-S1-P15.
- Hoffman JR, et al. The effects of acute and prolonged CRAM supplementation on reaction time and subjective measures of focus and alertness in healthy college students. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. (2010)