This post was written by Kurtis Frank, co-founder of Examine.com, an online database of nutritional supplementation. The views expressed herein are his and his alone.
Disclaimer: This post involves significant discussion of nutritional supplements and their effects. Consult with your healthcare professional before starting a new supplementation routine or if you are experiencing any difficulties with mental clarity that could be indicative of a chronic problem.
Supplements, diets, and non-supplemental interventions to enhance the mind are a very popular topic these days. Of these, certain subsets of nutritional supplements are catered towards those wanting to enhance their mind. This article will focus on defining mental clarity and discussing common supplemental compounds that may help to enhance it.
Supplements designed to boost mental function are called "nootropics" or, more frequently, "cognitive enhancers." Nootropic is a term generally used to describe drugs or supplements that have a pro-cognitive effect (usually boosting memory). Cognitive enhancer is a more general term used to refer to anything that can enhance the functions of the mind, so it's a pretty vague term. For the purpose of this article, we’re looking more into cognitive enhancers, although nootropics may also be mentioned if they fit the criteria.
What Is "Mental Clarity"?
Mental clarity can be defined as meeting the following requirements:
- Not having a pounding headache and not being lightheaded (basically, having fairly normal blood pressure in the head).
- Being able to focus on a concept.
- Being awake, but not stimulated to the point of having jitters.
- An absence of either euphoria or depression.
In simplest terms, mental clarity is present when we are awake and focused without being stressed. Conversely, things that are known to hinder mental clarity are:
- Having a throbbing headache (akin to waking up with a hangover) or feeling faint enough to pass out.
- Having the attention span of an excited dog in a field of squirrels.
- Dozing off between learning concepts.
- Being so happy, stimulated, or depressed that you cannot focus on work.
The term brain fog can also define a situation in which mental clarity is not present (this "foggy" feeling is often related to a mixture of sedation and low blood pressure in the head).
Now that we have an idea of what we mean when it comes to mental clarity, let’s look at some of the issues more in-depth and explore the efficacy of certain supplements.
Achieving Mental Clarity
If you know what's causing headaches (e.g. excessive drinking, bright lights), then the elimination of these stimuli is an obvious solution. If you happen to be sensitive to food intake (e.g. getting a headache if not eating) then that must be accounted for as well. Supplemental interventions for reducing headaches are generally limited to compounds that reduce cerebral (brain) blood flow.
Caffeine, for example, is very good at this, though a special note needs to be made for caffeine. If you are unaccustomed to caffeine, then its usage may actually trigger headaches due to its stimulatory properties (which decline as the body acclimates to its use). Those used to caffeine may experience headaches when not enough caffeine is consumed; this is probably not an ideal state, but one we need to work with. It's recommended to find the lowest effective dosage of caffeine that works for you (i.e., consume as little caffeine as is required to promote stimulation and wakefulness).
Sedation and Wakefulness
The sleep-wake cycle in humans is a cycling of the body between periods of sleep and wakefulness. It's a balance within the body, and if either of the two is perturbed, the other is negatively influenced. The first and most obvious intervention here is to address any sleep problems that are present.
If falling asleep is the issue, melatonin is a popular compound for inducing sleep. Melatonin does not enhance sleep quality; it basically just knocks you out Effects of low oral doses of melatonin, given 2-4 hours before habitual bedtime, on sleep in normal young humans. Zhdanova, I.V., Wurtman, R.J., Morabito, C., et al Clinical Research Ceneter, MIT. Sleep. 1996. . Oleamide is another promising option, but melatonin is cheaper and much better supported with evidence. Reducing light and sound exposure during sleep will help somewhat with sleep quality. These things influence you despite you not being consciously aware of it. Unfortunately, there is a lack of substantial evidence in the sleep promotion field, so not much else is known on this topic.
For trouble with waking, anti-sleep compounds can be effective for a short period of time (this is more of a band-aid effect than a curative one; don’t put too much faith into it). Anti-sleep compounds are not inherently stimulants (there is some crossover); they simply work to reduce sedation. Caffeine is by far the most popular one in this category, and one of the only widely available supplemental options.
Stress is a surprisingly hard topic to address in regards to supplementation, in part because the term is so overused that we’ve lost a standard definition. There are two types of stress we'll discuss here: actue and chronic.
An acute stress response (the fight or flight response) is primarily mediated by compounds called catecholamines (such as adrenaline) and is short term; if you overdose on stimulants or are about to get hit by a car, this is what you feel. It is not what is likely hindering mental clarity. The other type of stress is a chronic stress model. The chronic stress is mediated mostly by compounds called corticosteroids (such as cortisol) and is longer lasting. Cortisol is not a bad thing per se — it burns fat and is anti-inflammatory, technically — but it also happens to be correlated with periods of chronic stress.
There is a class of dietary supplements known as adaptogens (a non-scientific term) that seem to prevent certain effects of stress from occurring when consumed before a stressful event. Although there are a large variety of adaptogens, the two most supported and well known are Panax ginseng and Rhodiola rosea Panax ginseng improves aspects of working memory performance and subjective ratings of calmness in healthy young adults. Reay, J.L., Scholey, A.B., Kennedy, D.O. Brain Performance and Nutrition Research Centre, Northumbria University. Human Psychopharmacology. 2010 Aug. The effectiveness and efficacy of Rhodiola rosea L.: a systematic review of randomized clinical trials. Hung, S.K., Perry, R., Ernst, E. PCMD, University of Exeter. Phytomedicine 2011 Feb. .
In the end, a cheap adaptogen could be a useful addition to aid in the fight against chronic stress. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of comparative studies between the herbs (i.e., which is better for what) so sticking to the most popular ones, which are usually cheapest and have most toxicological data on them, might be prudent. It's improtant to talk to your healthcare professional before trying these supplements, especially when it comes to dosage.
Creating Mental Clarity
Although there aren't any over-the-counter drugs sold to specifically enhance mental clarity, the current go-to recommendation is a combination of the sedative amino acid l-theanine and some supplemental caffeine (a coffee or tea can be used here) in the doses of 200mg each. L-theanine is a naturally occurring amino acid found in tea and various plant products, although usually in small amounts; the 200mg recommendation is well below the observed toxicity of 4000mg per kilogram of bodyweight (at least in rats) A 13-week dietary toxicity and toxicokinetic study with l-theanine in rats. Borzelleca, J.F., Peters, D., Hall, W. Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, Medical College of Virginia. Food Chem Toxicol. 2006 Jul. .
The combination of caffeine and theanine is essentially one that reduces the perception of sleep (caffeine) while reducing stress (theanine). Caffeine also negates the possible sedation-inducing effects of theanine. This combination is actually supported in clinical trials (which are pretty rare when it comes to the topic of nutritional supplements for mental clarity) The combined effects of L-theanine and caffeine on cognitive performance and mood. Owen, G.N., Parnell, H., De Bruin, E.A., et al. Unilever Research and Development, Colworth House, Sharnbrook. Nutr. Neurosci. 2008 Aug. . Although in theory other compounds should help to create a simultaneous anti-sleep + relaxing effect, evidence in favor of other supplements is slim. Caffeine seems to be the only socially available anti-sleep compound. Another ‘relaxing’ compound is lemon balm (which tends to induce relaxation and contentment at the cost of attention, and may go nicely with a stimulant).
Mental clarity can be seen as avoiding both too much stimulation and too much sedation (i.e., balancing in the middle), paired with an absence of distracting stimuli. Interventions to reduce stress, promote better sleep, control headaches or lightheadedness, and promote attention will all lead to improved mental clarity (at worst, it will not worsen).
Unfortunately, there is currently not much scientific support for supplementation when it comes to promoting or preserving mental clarity. The best evidence so far suggests that the best option is a combination of anti-sleep compounds (which is essentially limited to caffeine) and slight sedation/relaxant compounds (l-theanine being most researched, lemon balm also being promising). Adaptogens are promising, but the evidence around their efficacy as well as an understanding of how they work is limited. More research is needed in order to develop a better understanding of the ways in which supplementation can boost our mental clarity.
What helps you enhance your mental clarity? Sleep, caffeine, concentration techniques, or something else entirely? Sound off in the comments below!