The topic of supplements can be a shady and pricey proposition. Even the most basic supplements like whey protein can be fraught with misinformation as you try to find the best one for your needs and budget. Now, with even more supplements on the market, it’s nearly impossible to know what you need and what you can — and probably should — skip. The latest craze in the wellness community is nootropics, purported to help cognitive function like memory and attention.
HOW NOOTROPICS HELP RUNNERS
If you follow any fitness influencers, you’ve probably heard of this odd-sounding type of supplement. (If you thought someone was just saying “new tropics,” that’s how it’s pronounced — it’s a mashup of two Greek words, ‘mind’ and ‘bending.’)
For starters, scientific literature around it boosting athletic performance is slim. But that hasn’t stopped companies from touting nootropics’ ability to lower stress and improve attention span and focus. For a trail runner, that might sound intriguing: Improved focus could mean speedier descents, and what runner doesn’t want to get more efficient with work so there’s more time for mileage?
Nootropics are divided into two categories: synthetic lab-created compounds, and the less-controversial natural, herb-based options like ginkgo biloba. The more natural options, like ginkgo, are easily the safer pick. Ginkgo and ginseng, for instance, have both been shown to reduce inflammation in the brain, minimize brain aging and potentially enhance thinking and memory capabilities. Ginseng has also been shown to potentially increase intellectual work capacity, and — less definitively — physical work capacity. Some supplements like caffeine are even considered nootropic in nature, since it can improve cognitive function.
Since the supplement industry is not tightly regulated, make sure you’re buying from a trusted source — especially if you’re a competitive runner who could get drug-tested. (Even nootropics containing caffeine should be checked carefully, as high amounts of caffeine can sometimes be illegal in competition.) Be warned: Nootropics can leave a sizable dent in your credit card bill.
WHOLE-FOOD ALTERNATIVES FOR NOOTROPICS
Instead of shelling out cash for these supplements, try eating real, whole-foods instead. The foods on the list below have been proven to be brain-boosting:
Eating a diet high in vitamin D and omega-3s, found in fatty fish, can actually improve your brain cognition, according to a study done in Manchester. The researchers found middle-aged men with higher levels of vitamin D performed better in a test that gauged attention and speed of information processing. Fish also contains omega-3 fatty acids, which can help improve memory.
Eating a serving of blueberries each day — in your cereal or your smoothie — won’t just give you the antioxidants to help your body repair after a tough workout, it could boost your brain as well. Compounds in blueberries have been shown to increase neural signaling in the brain center. The anti-inflammatory qualities in blueberries can also help decrease inflammation, avoiding some of the cognitive declines associated with aging and disease, including memory loss.
Mix some walnuts with those blueberries in your morning oatmeal, and you’re essentially eating a bowl of brain food: They’re packed with omega-3s, but may even be better for you than animal versions of omega-3s like fish, since the fatty acid chains are shorter. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the essential omega-3 fatty acid in walnuts, is a powerful antioxidant that can help avoid inflammation in your brain. Walnuts have also been shown to reduce the risk, delay the onset or slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease in mice.
If you struggle with focusing on work in the morning, your breakfast may be the culprit, not your lack of nootropic supplementation. One study showed that having a protein-rich breakfast (that donut with your coffee doesn’t count!) can actually improve your focus by blunting your food cravings, leading you to eat smarter throughout the day as a result.
You may notice fish, berries, walnuts and even eating a decent breakfast all are elements of the typical Mediterranean diet, which is classified as a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, potatoes, nuts, olive oil and fish. Processed foods are rarely included. This diet, rich in antioxidants and omega-3s, gives your brain a boost: One study showed older people who ate Mediterranean diets scored “significantly better” on cognitive function tests.
And all of these food options listed are in line with what almost every sports nutrition book suggests: a diet packed with whole foods, fruits, vegetables, healthy omega-3 fats and clean sources of protein. Funny how what’s good for our bodies is good for our brains, right? So put down the supplements and pick up that smoothie.