In today’s fast-paced world, we’ve become used to getting what we want quickly and easily. If you’re hungry, you don’t have to hunt or forage for food – just go to your favorite fast food chain to grab a bite to eat. And you don’t have to walk or bike there – just hop in the car or call a taxi and you’re comfortably on your way. Or, if you really wanna save time, order some take-out. With one simple phone call, you can have a full meal delivered to you without ever leaving the house.
There’s no question about it: The convenience of modern living is great, but it comes at a price. We’ve gotten so used to getting what we want, when we want it that we often overlook other ways to achieve our goals. Our brains are programmed to look for shortcuts – ways of getting results with the least amount of effort. However, sometimes it’s worth the extra effort to get the best possible results.
Nootropics are often used as a shortcut to improving various aspects of cognitive function. When people learn that they can increase their focus and motivation or reduce their anxiety by simply taking a pill, they overlook all the other ways of improving the way their brains work. And, while nootropics definitely will improve cognitive performance, you’re not gonna get the most out of them unless you take care of the following things first.
If you want to really improve cognitive function, don’t look to nootropics: Not yet, anyway. First, you need to make sure you’re doing all the things we’re gonna talk about here. Every single nootropic will work better if you follow the advice in this post. Will they work if you don’t? Sure, many of them will. But they won’t work as well as they could. This is your brain, your body, and your life – You should be willing to do whatever it takes to get the most out of it.
In this post, we’re gonna look at how to really improve cognitive function. These things won’t cost you anything, yet are worth more than all the nootropics in the world. Before you even start thinking about taking smart drugs, make sure you’re doing all of the following.
“What does exercise have to do with boosting cognitive function?” you may be asking. Honestly, it has everything to do with it. If you aren’t currently getting regular exercise, adding 30-45 minutes a day will do more for your cognitive performance than any pill, powder, plant, or potion.
It’s no secret that exercise is good for the heart and the rest of the cardiovascular system. But it’s also essential for optimal brain function. Numerous studies have shown that regular exercise can increase neurological activity1, improve memory2, enhance cognitive control of behavior3, reduce stress, and improve mood4. And, as if that isn’t enough, regular exercise will help you build muscle and burn fat. Feeling better about the way you look will improve confidence and self-esteem, which can also indirectly improve cognition.
If you’re not getting at least 30 minutes of moderate-to-strenuous physical activity every day, you’re doing your body and brain a disservice. And, if you’re serious about improving cognitive function, exercise will do more for your brain than any nootropic. That’s because exercise has been shown to influence many of the same neurotransmitters that nootropics do5. If you really want to improve cognitive function, make sure you’re getting plenty of exercise.
It’s no secret that what you eat has a direct impact on the way your body looks, works, and feels. If you eat more calories than your body uses every day over a period of time, you’ll gain weight. If you don’t get enough vitamins and minerals, you’ll develop a deficiency. And if you eat too much sugar for too long, you can develop diabetes.
We’re all aware of examples like these and know that our diets6 directly affect our bodies. But what you might not know, is that our diets have a direct impact on cognitive function. You’ve probably noticed that, when you get really hungry, it’s harder to concentrate and your mood dips a bit. Or, like most people, you’re well-aware of the “crash” that occurs a few hours after consuming coffee or high-sugar snacks. These are examples of acute changes in cognitive function that are directly related to what we eat. But, our diets also affect how we think and feel over long periods of time, too.
If you want to really improve cognitive function, you need to make sure you’re getting the proper nutrition to optimize brain function. What does this mean, exactly? Well, exact nutritional needs vary from person to person, but we’ll go over the basic things needed for optimal brain health.
Staying properly hydrated is one of the most important things you can do for your brain. When you become even mildly dehydrated, your visual-motor tracking decreases, short-term memory becomes impaired, ability to concentrate decreases7, and subjective well-being declines8. Make sure you’re drinking plenty of water throughout the day to avoid becoming dehydrated.
Another important way to optimize brain health is by making sure you’re getting all the vitamins and minerals (micronutrients) that your body needs. As many as 90% of Americans do not get the recommended daily amount of vitamins and minerals.9 Vitamin deficiencies can significantly impair just about every aspect of cognition. The best way to make sure you’re getting all the micronutrients that your body and brain needs is to regularly eat a variety of fruits and vegetables. If you can’t get all of your vitamins and minerals from food, taking a daily multivitamin can help you make sure you’re getting all the micronutrients that you need.
Lastly, you should try to eat a well-balanced diet and limit your sugar, saturated and trans fat, and sodium intake. A well-balanced diet includes lean meats, fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products. Excess sugar, saturated and trans fat, and sodium can all have a negative impact on your cognitive functioning.
Nutrition is a fascinating and complicated subject that we can’t fully explore here. But, if you follow the basic advice above, you’ll be giving your brain everything it needs to function optimally.
The last thing you need to do to really improve cognitive function is make sure you’re getting enough good-quality sleep. If you’re not getting enough sleep or you are, but often wake up without feeling rested, you’re not alone: 45% of Americans report that poor or insufficient sleep has affected the quality of their lives within the past week.10 Even mild sleep deprivation is known to impair short and long-term memory, attention, focus, vigilance, and several other aspects of cognitive functioning.11 It’s extremely important that you get enough good-quality sleep for optimal brain function.
You’ve probably heard that you need 8 hours of sleep every night. While this may be true for some people, it’s certainly not true for everyone. Different people require different amounts of sleep to function optimally. Some people thrive on 6 hours of sleep per night. Others feel tired all day if they get anything less than 10 hours. No one can tell you what the optimal amount of sleep is for you. Everyone’s brains and bodies are unique and require different amounts of rest.
If you feel like you’re not getting enough sleep, improving your diet and exercising daily can make a major difference. Going to sleep at the same time every night, limiting caffeine and other stimulants late in the day, and having a consistent sleep ritual can all help you get the rest that your body needs.
As a last resort, after you’ve improved your diet and increased your physical activity level, you may want to consider taking medication or supplements if you still aren’t getting enough sleep. There are a number of prescription medications available that are effective at helping you sleep. Unfortunately, many of them come with unwanted side effects, including morning grogginess.
There are also a variety of supplements that can help with sleep. Melatonin, kava, and valerian are all common supplements that can be used to help you fall asleep and stay asleep. Though they can also have unwanted side effects, most people find that they are much easier to tolerate than prescription drugs.
If you really want to improve cognitive function, you should make sure you’re getting enough sleep, exercise, and proper nutrition before even thinking about taking nootropics. Putting a turbocharger in a car that’s running low on gas, oil, and has a flat tire isn’t gonna do much good until you get those basic things taken care of first. The same thing is true with your brain: If it’s not functioning optimally already, taking a nootropic won’t be nearly as effective as it could be.
That being said, once you’ve made sure your brain is running at peak efficiency, nootropics can take your cognitive functioning to the next level. Whether you want to improve your memory, reduce anxiety, improve mood, or increase focus, there’s a nootropic that can help – just make sure to follow the advice in this post if you want to get the most of them.
1Erickson, K.I., Hillman, C.H., & Kramer, A.F. (2015). Physical activity, brain, and cognition. Current Opinion in Behavioral Science. 4:27-32.
2Guiney, H. & Machado, L. (2013). Benefits of regular aerobic exercise for executive functioning in healthy populations. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. 20(1):73-86.
3Buckley, J., Cohen, J.D., Kramer, A.F., McAuley, E., & Mullen, S.P. (2014). Cognitive control in the self-regulation of physical activity and sedentary behavior. Front Hum Neurosci. 8:747.
4Byrne, A., & Byrne, D.G. (1993). The effect of exercise on depression, anxiety and other mood states: A review. Journal of Psychosomatic Research. 37(6):565-574.
5Meeusen, R. & De Meirleir, K. (1995). Exercise and brain neurotransmission. Sports Medicine. 30(3):160-88.
6By “diet,” we simply mean the foods that you regularly consume. Not to be confused with “going on a diet,” which usually means intentionally changing the foods you eat to lose weight.
7Lieberman, H.R. (2013). Hydration and cognition: A critical review and recommendations for future research. Journal of the American College of Nutrition. 5:555S-561S
8Adan, A. (2011). Cognitive performance and dehydration. Journal of the American College of Nutrition. 31(2):71-78.
9What America’s Missing: A 2011 report on the nation’s nutrient gap. (2011). Retrieved December 15, 2016 from https://milklife.com/sites/default/files/field_pdf/Nutrition/2013/08/08/what_americas_missing.pdf
10New Sleep Health Index reveals snapshot of general population. (2014). National Sleep Foundation. Retrieved December 15, 2016 from https://sleepfoundation.org/media-center/press-release/lack-sleep-affecting-americans-finds-the-national-sleep-foundation
11Alhola, P., & Polo-Kantola, P. (2007). Sleep deprivation: Impact on cognitive performance. Neuropsychiatr Dis Tret. 3(5):553-567.