Smart Supplements For: Sharper, Calmer, Happier

Smart Supplements For: Sharper, Calmer, Happier
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The brain is arguably the body’s most complex and hungry organ. Densely packed with approximately 86 billion cells and a delicate super-highway of whisper-thin neural synapses, this cognitive hub consumes 20% of the body’s energy supply, keeping everything from memory and metabolism to sleep and energy running optimally—and what we feed the brain has a significant impact on how well it functions. “Your brain is involved in everything you think, feel and do. If you eat a fast-food diet, you will have a fast-food mind that is less capable of quick thinking and reliable decision making,” asserts clinical neuroscientist psychiatrist Daniel Amen, M.D., author of the forthcoming The End of Mental Illness and Founder of BrainMD. “Enhancing brain health is the foundation for all other goals, whether that’s achieving a healthy weight, reaching your personal best in sports or having more energy.”

A brain-healthy diet and certain lifestyle tweaks can go a long way toward nourishing and protecting the brain for peak cognitive performance (read on for strategies), notes Dr Amen. But consumers are increasingly looking to “feed” the brain more targeted fuel to help buffer against the attention-depleting effects of the digital age, keep up with the demands of our go-go-go lifestyles and optimize mental energy for peak cognitive performance. “At BrainMD, we are finding that our customers want to gain a competitive edge,” says Dr. Amen, “and they’re looking to research-based, smart supplements as a way to do it.”

Smart supplements or nootropics are gaining interest across generations, says Trisha Sugarek MacDonald, BS, MS, Senior Director of R&D/National Educator for Bluebonnet Nutrition Corporation. “Brain health is not just a concern for aging individuals; it is actually among the top five health concerns of consumers aged 18 to 75,” she notes. “2018 Gallup data shows the use of cognitive health supplements has increased significantly from 17% to 25% over the past two years, particularly among Millennials and Gen Xers. Now more than ever, individuals are looking for not only memory, retention and cognitive support, but also for focus and attention enhancement products.”

That said, baby boomers also offer room for growth. The number of Americans age 65 or older is projected to nearly double by 2050 (1). And in the new National Poll on Healthy Aging, 73% of respondents age 50-64 reported they are already taking some kind of brain health vitamin or supplement and/or doing brain teasers to help maintain or improve their memory (2). “We are dealing with a large number of baby boomers who are looking to try and reverse what was often an adult life of high stress, not enough sleep and not the best of diets—all factors impeding healthy brain function,” notes Mark J. Kaylor, Founder of the not-for-profit Radiant Health Project and Consultant and Educator for Mushroom Wisdom.

All told, this growing interest across demographics have sales of cognitive health supplements soaring, and they stand to soar even higher: Recents data from Research and Markets estimates that the global brain health supplement market will reach $11.6 billion by 2024—a 19.6% increase from 2016 (3).

This boom has led to an explosion of new nootropic supplements and functional food products on the market. But as exciting this segement is, it can be challenging for consumers to navigate. Steve Holtby, President & CEO, Soft Gel Technologies, Inc., cautions, “There are many nootropics available, made from different sources—from plant extracts to synthetic powders made in a lab—which means safety and effectiveness can widely vary.”

15 brainpower boosters

To help you steer your customers in the right direction, we tapped industry experts for the inside scoop on the science-backed ingredients that deliver noticeable results and the best ways to choose formulations, plus the nutrition and lifestyle tips that will keep your customers sharp and vibrant through their twilight years.

Amyloban. This patented extract from Lion’s Mane mushrooms stimulates production of new neurons and strengthens existing ones. “It holistically supports healthy brain function, while also improving overall mood, energy levels and sleep quality,” notes Kaylor. “Based upon personal experience and with numerous clients, Lion’s Mane Amyloban is the fastest acting brain supplement, with most noticing thinking becoming sharper and quicker in anywhere from one to three days.”

Andrographis extract. HP Ingredients’ proprietary compound NeuroActin works to support brain integrity and enhance learning and memory via “five mechanisms of action, including stimulating neurogenesis and reducing tau hyperphosphorylation [plaque build-up in the brain],” notes Annie Eng, CEO, HP Ingredients. In the company’s clinical trials, these effects were powerful enough to prevent and even reverse neuropathy caused by Alzheimer’s disease in mice.

Ashwagandha. “Nootropic herbs like this one demonstrate real benefits in human clinical studies for cognitive enhancement. It boosts recall, short and long term memory, executive function, thought formation and capacity to perform mental work without fatigue,” says Kartikeya Baldwa CEO, Ixoreal Biomed Inc. Case in point: A double-blind, placebo controlled study published in the Journal of Dietary Supplements found that subjects given 300 mg standardized ashwagandha twice daily over 8 weeks showed significant improvements in memory, attention and information-processing speed (5). The herb has also been shown to be beneficial in treating anxiety and depression. For best results, Baldwa recommends looking for a supplement with the company’s KSM-66 ashwagandha—a standardized dose shown to be efficacious in clinical studies.

Bacopa monnieri. This has potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, and according to information on Sabinsa’s website, it has been used by Ayurvedic medical practitioners in India for almost 3,000 years. Sabinsa offers the branded ingredient Bacopin, which is a standardized triterpene glycosides (Bacosides A & B) extract from leaves of the Bacopa monniera plant. It is available from American’s Finest, Inc.—information on the company’s website notes that results of a randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind trial showed that “Bacopa significantly improved memory acquisition and retention in healthy older Australians.”

It benefits the youngest generation, too. “Bacopa monnieri is a plant revered in Ayurvedic medicine, with an age-old reputation for being effective for memory and cognition,” says Lauren Clardy, VP branded ingredients, AIDP. “BacoMind [a patented form of the herb Bacopa monnieri] is clinically tested to support learning and memory in adults and children and has strong scientific support for brain and cognitive health. It has been shown to improve memory acquisition and retention in the elderly, as well as improved verbal memory. Clinical studies with children age 6 to 12 years also showed a reduction in restlessness and improved self-control and attention.”

Choline. “The growing body of research on choline suggests that people of all ages need more than they are getting to support and improve cognition,” asserts Tom Druke, Marketing Director, Human Nutrition & Health, Balchem, suppliers of VitaCholine. He explains that this essential nutrient is best known as a precursor to acetylcholine (a neurotransmitter that benefits memory, attention and motor skills), but it also plays another key role in boosting brain function: “Free choline in the body is also converted to phosphatidylcholine, a primary component of cell membranes.” These dual mechanisms help cells communicate more efficiently for big short-term benefits. “Researchers examined the role that choline plays in activities requiring focus and accuracy in a 2015 clinical study published in the journal Nature,” notes Druke. “Subjects supplemented with choline showed significantly better performance than the control group by optimizing the brain’s balance between speed and accuracy.”

Choline also has neuroprotective effects for long-term brain health. Druke points to a recent study at Arizona State University that looked at choline supplementation in dementia-prone mice. “The researchers discovered that mice in the choline supplemented group had a reduced load of amyloid-tau plaque, a key marker in Alzheimer’s disease,” notes Druke. “They also discovered that choline helped to attenuate the activity of microglia, cells that have a neuroprotective function in brain maintenance and repair, but can be over-activated into doing more harm than good.”

Alert: These OTC drugs sap choline

Over-the-counter allergy medications, including Benadryl, and other commonly used OTC meds like Tylenol PM, come with an alarming downside. “These drugs deplete choline in the body, and that’s a huge risk factor for cognitive disease,” cautions Europharma’s Cheryl Myers. “There’s over 100 of these anticholinergic drugs on the market. The greater your exposure to these drugs, the greater your risk for Alzheimer’s disease. One study showed that three years of consistent use of cholinergic drugs was associated with a 54% increased risk of dementia.” For those who can’t avoid these meds, Myers notes, supplementing with choline can help protect cognitive health long-term.

Citicoline. This compound is a building block of cell membranes. “Studies show that citicoline works to protect and restore important fats, such as phosphatidylcholine, within brain cell membranes, which naturally decline as we age,” notes Ken Redcross, M.D., founder of Redcross Concierge. “Citicoline was originally developed in Japan for stroke treatment. In many European countries, citicoline is frequently prescribed for cognitive problems related to circulation issues in the brain.”

Improving the integrity of cell membranes also enhances brain cells’ ability to communicate with each other, which can help sharpen thinking. “Citicoline has demonstrated significant benefits toward memory and recall, executive functions and mood/mental energy,” adds Cai Berg, Founder of Berg Nutrition. He recommends looking for products that use Xerenoos, a specific form of citicoline that has been studied in nearly 100 clinical trials. “Just 250 mg can be effective for maintenance and prevention, while higher doses of up to a gram can be useful for advanced needs.”

Collagen. Best known for skin and joints, this ingredient can be a cognitive help, too. Longevity by Nature offers kollaJell, a blend of food-grade jellyfish collagen intended to support cognitive health and memory.

Curcumin. “Curcumin is the best compound I know of for tackling inflammation, and chronic inflammation is associated with both major depressive disorder and the development of Alzheimer’s disease,” says Cheryl Myers, Chief of Scientific Affairs and Education at Europharma/Terry Naturally. In addition to curbing inflammation, Myers notes, curcumin is an incredibly potent antioxidant, so it can reduce the damaging effects of oxidative stress on the brain, and it also stimulates neurogenesis. “Curcumin actually helps the body make new brain cells, which is incredibly important to preventing cognitive decline and helping the brain recover after you’ve suffered any level of brain damage.”

Ginseng. All types of ginseng have been linked to improved cognition. At SupplySide West, Naturex was discussing Cereboost, an American ginseng root extract that has been shown to help support cognitive function, cognitive performance, working memory and alertness.
Myers swears by Asian or Panax ginseng, which is the star ingredient of the company’s HRG80 Red Ginseng Energy. “Asian ginseng has a higher density of active compounds,” she notes. “This botanical can have a huge benefit on energy, focus and mental stamina. It delivers an immediate, feel the difference kind of benefit.” How? The herb is thought to stimulate blood flow, helping to pump more energizing oxygen to brain cells for an immediate boost in alertness, plus it dials down inflammation and improves blood sugar control for sustained mental energy. Myers notes that while the company has a study underway that’s looking specifically at Asian ginseng on mental focus and mental fatigue in adults, previous research has shown it can deliver immediate and noticeable results. For instance, in a study in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, just one 200 mg dose of Panax ginseng significantly improved subject’s mental performance and reduce fatigue during a 10-minute test (4).

Huperzine A. A standardized extract of Chinese club moss that has been specially formulated to cross the blood-brain barrier, this compound prevents the breakdown of acetylcholine to help maintain adequate levels of that neurotransmitter in the brain, notes Neil E. Levin, CCN, DANLA, Senior Nutrition Education Manager, NOW Foods. This in turn can help support alertness, attention and learning.

Lutein. This powerful carotenoid may be best known for its eye health benefits, but research shows it also works to enhance cognitive performance and stave off cognitive decline, says Brian Appell, Marketing Manager, OmniActive Health Technologies. “In one study, Lutemax 2020 supplementation [the company’s proprietary lutein derived from marigold extract] significantly reduced serum cortisol levels—up to 50%—as well as improved physical and emotional health compared to placebo. In another, it improved sleep quality in subjects who had been exposed to high-energy blue light.”

Magnesium. “In our fast-paced society, consumers are looking for both an edge and a way to find calm. Ironically, these two are interconnected. When brain neurons are healthy and functioning properly, one has a better ability to focus and has less cognitive stress,” says Samantha Ford, Business Development Director at AIDP. She notes that magnesium plays a key role in delivering this focused calm, thanks to its ability to moderate the electrical switches that control neural cell communication.

For the most targeted benefits, she suggests considering a supplement with Magtein, AIDP’s patented form of magnesium that is formulated to be able to cross the blood-brain barrier for optimal efficacy. Not only does it deliver calm energy in the short-term, it also supports long-term cognitive health, notes Ford. She points to a 12-week randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled human clinical trial published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease in 2016. “The effect of Magtein on cognitive ability was evaluated in four major domains: executive function, working memory, attention and episodic memory. Significant improvements were observed in each of these domains and Magtein was shown to reduce brain age by 9 years.”

Phosphatidylserine (PS). “This phospholipid is a crucial building block of cell membranes, ensuring their fluidity and structure, and ultimately, their function protects the function of brain cells by stabilizing the membranes of the cells,” explains Holtby. “PS has been demonstrated in clinical trials to improve memory, concentration, word recall, and mood in middle-aged and elderly subjects with dementia and age-related cognitive decline. For older adults with moderate cognitive impairment, PS has produced consistently modest increases in recall of word lists.”

Polyphenols. At SupplySide West, Diana Food was showcasing science on Cerebelle, a blend of extracts from polyphenol-rich grape and wild blueberry, clinically proven to prevent age-related cognitive decline in healthy older adults. In one human clinical trial, it was shown to help improve episodic memory and learning skills.

Pyrroloquinoline quinone. BioPQQ, a branded ingredient that is a natural, purified, water-soluble pyrroloquinoline quinone disodium salt has been shown to activate mitochondria and enhance nerve growth factor. In human clinical studies, BioPQQ has been shown to enhance short-term memory and attention. For more on this nutrient, listen to Steve Lankford’s Health Quest Podcast “BioPQQ Has Clinical Benefits for Your Brain, Memory and Energy – My Interview with Dr. Michael Murray.”

Vitamin E. Bryan See, Business Development Manager for ExcelVite Inc., Malaysia, says this potent antioxidant nutrient, especially natural full-spectrum tocotrienol complex (such as EVNol SupraBio), helps prevent oxidation of fat in the brain and improve brain cell signaling to support healthy cognitive function. “It has also been shown to attenuate the progression of brain white matter lesion load in humans, which is linked to the development of neurodegenerative diseases and to an increased stroke risk.”

A lifestyle for long-term cognitive health

“To keep your brain active and in good condition in your twilight years, the best things you can do by far are exercise regularly, eat a healthy diet and sleep well,” says Holtby. And even your oldest customers can reap benefits from incorporating some brain-boosting lifestyle tweaks, promises Myers. “Strategies to prevent cognitive decline work a lot like a 401K. If you start saving even just $10 a month when you’re 18 years old, you’re going to have more money when you retire than somebody who starts when they’re 35 or 40. However, it’s never too late to start putting money in that account. You can always improve your condition.” To start investing in your cognitive, try these “dos.”

Lean into whole grains. Omega-3 rich fatty fish (like salmon, sardines and tuna) is well established as a brain booster, and for good reason: It supplies the brain with the DHA it needs to maintain its structural integrity. But steering customers away from sugar and refined carbs and toward more whole grains may be even more important for their long-term cognitive health, asserts Myers. “High blood sugar drives up inflammation in the brain. Research shows people with type 2 diabetes have a greater risk of cognitive decline than those who don’t have the disease. The association is so strong that some experts are calling Alzheimer’s ‘type 3 diabetes.’ But when your blood sugar levels are healthy, you feel better and you think better and you focus better.”

Move a little. “Low blood flow in the brain is the number one brain imaging predictor of Alzheimer’s disease, so anything that boosts blood flow to the brain, such as exercise, helps protect cognitive performance,” says Dr. Amen. But happily it doesn’t take much to benefit the brain, adds Dr. Redcross. “Exercise doesn’t have to be particularly strenuous. Just 20 minutes of moderate yoga will do.”

Try something new. Older adults spent close to $2 billion on brain training apps in the past years, but there’s limited evidence that these puzzles and games do much in terms of preserving memory, cautions Myers. Instead, she recommends thinking outside the box. “The brain craves novelty and you can get that just doing things a little differently,” she says. “Try writing notes with your non-dominant hand, or hold onto the railing and walking down a few stairs backward. Try learning a few words in a new language or picking up an instrument and learning a few notes.”

While single ingredients can deliver big benefits, many consumers choose to “stack” ingredients to get their desired benefit. It can take some trial and error to find an ideal formulation, notes Dr. Amen. “What works for one person may not work for another. It’s important to know your brain and your individual needs.”

Many brands offer nutrients blends that make it easy to start reaping benefits, says Sugarek MacDonald. For instance, Bluebonnet’s Targeted Choice BrainPower Vegetable Capsules contains a mix of bacopa, lion’s mane, phosphatidylserine and wild blueberries rich in anthocyanins. And NOW Foods’ Brain Elevate combines huperzine A with the ginko biloba, phosphatidylserine and the energizing amino acid L-glutamine.

No matter what products and blends you choose to stock, take care to opt from trusted brands. “Some bad players contaminate or spike their products and can be potentially dangerous,” cautions Holtby. “The FDA maintains a list of dietary supplements that have been reported to be adulterated. Some of the hidden ingredients include prescription drugs like Prozac, steroids, painkillers, and tranquilizers.” To keep your customers safe (and maintain their trust), he recommends using brands that provide information about GMPs and third-party testing and regularly audit their contract manufacturers.

Education is key. “Running a ‘Brain Health Week Campaign’ is a good way to raise consumer awareness and attention toward the selection of products targeted toward supporting healthy brain and cognitive functions,” advises See.

“This can be an exceptionally imaginative category for marketing. Who doesn’t love a good brain teaser?” adds Eng. She suggests using social media and in-store promotional materials to actively challenge customers with a game or puzzle, then tie their answers to a discount on cognitive health supplement. “Here’s where the game can get interesting: the harder it is, or the worse the score, the better the discount—because they need the cognitive support!” WF


  1. Ken Langa, Donovan Maust, Preeti Malani, “Thinking about brain health,” Published 5/15/19. Accessed 11/1/19.
  2. Mark Mather, Paola Scommegna, Lillian Kilduff, “Fact sheet: Aging in the United States,” Posted 7/15/19. Accessed 11/1/19.
  3. “Global $11.6 Billion Brain Health Supplements Market to 2024,” Published 4/17. Accessed 11/1/19.
  4. Reay, JL et al. “Single doses of Panax ginseng (G115) reduce blood glucose levels and improve cognitive performance during sustained mental activity,” Journal of Psychopharmacology. 19(4). 357-65(2005). Accessed 11/1/19.
  5. Choudhary D. et al. “Efficacy and Safety of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera (L.) Dunal) Root Extract in Improving Memory and Cognitive Functions,” Journal of Dietary Supplements. 14(6). 599-612(2017).
  6. Sarah Toy, “People spent $1.9 billion last year on apps to keep their brain sharp as they age,” Published 8/16/19. Accessed 11/1/19.
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