As a full-time writer juggling multiple projects across international time zones, I’m all too aware of the importance of staying focused and alert while racing toward a deadline. Caffeine just doesn’t cut it for me as a way to stay focused — it makes me far too jittery to concentrate and be effective. As such, and rather than turning to drugs like Adderall, a common prescription drug used to treat ADHD, I’ve used a variety of other natural interventions over the years to support attention and mental performance, especially during times of acute stress.
But before we get into these natural ways of improving focus, we know that many people may have landed at this page because they may be on medication to help improve focus. Of these pharmaceuticals, Adderall is among the most popular, and unfortunately is often used recreationally without a prescription.
We’ll go into a little bit about what Adderall is, what it does, its side effects, and some natural Adderall alternatives to consider below. It is important to recognize that the natural substances listed below can come with side effects for some people as well. Before stopping adderall, or taking a new supplement, it’s always best to check first with your family doctor.
What is Adderall? Is it dangerous?
It certainly can be. Even if you have never been prescribed Adderall, you’ve still probably heard of it. Some people may joke that they “need an Adderall” to help them get through studying for a big test, or a big project at work. But Adderall is no laughing matter.
Adderall is a highly addictive prescription stimulant that’s used to treat ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and narcolepsy. It’s a brand name that is a combination of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine, meant to help increase your focus and improve behavior. Adderall works by stimulating the central nervous system, increasing synaptic concentration of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain, blocking the reabsorption of a neurotransmitter.1
Some people may be allergic to Adderall, and it may be dangerous to take with other drugs or herbal supplements. Some side effects may include nervousness and headache to more severe ones, including depression, hallucinating, and aggressive or hostile behavior.
While some proponents of Adderall claim it as safe, those are some pretty risk side effects — and it’s all too easy to misuse a prescription drug. Misuse of stimulants like Adderall can cause “psychosis, myocardial infarction, cardiomyopathy, and even sudden death,” and they may not be safe at all for families with a history of cardiovascular issues.23
That said, untreated ADHD has dangers on its own. Between 5-11% of the U.S. population has ADHD, with symptoms lasting into adulthood. But ADHD is often under diagnosed, misdiagnosed, or under treated.4
The limitations of this post can’t get into every facet of ADHD treatment, but should you be concerned that you or your child have ADHD, work with your doctor for a proper diagnosis and treatment plan.
5 natural Adderall alternatives that improve focus naturally
The following are evidence-based supplements to increase focus, backed by solid science and not just personal anecdotes. It’s important to note that these may work well for people just looking to get a little boost in their focus, but for folks who have ADHD, they should speak with their doctor before starting any sort of supplement regimen or going off a prescription drug.
Natural compounds to improve focus
What it does
Supports relaxation, nervous system health effects from caffeine, occasional stress relief
Omega-3s with curcumin, L-glutathione, and N-Acetyl-L-cysteine reduce oxidative stress and inflammation
Antioxidant that promotes cardiovascular health and healthy platelet function
Supports normal level of neurotransmitters in the brain, enhances mood/sleep/focus
Supports stress resistance, promotes normal energy levels
AKA keep calm and carry on.I grew up in the UK, so I’m no stranger to the myriad benefits of good-old black tea. In fact, copious consumption of tea is pretty much how I survive as a freelancer! A strong cuppa is my go-to when I need to focus, think clearly, but stay calm as I race toward each deadline without the jitters I experience after a cup of coffee.
Why is tea so special? Well, in large part it’s thanks to a little amino acid called L-theanine. This amino acid has been shown to help switch brain activity from beta brain waves to an alpha-wave pattern, the type associated with calm alertness, mental clarity, and deep relaxation similar to that achieved during meditation. L-theanine is converted into neurotransmitters dopamine and gamma amino butyric acid (GABA), helping to reduce scattered and anxious thought patterns and instead help us to feel happy, relaxed, and focused.
L-theanine and caffeine appear to work well together to enhance cognitive performance. In one study, volunteers who received a supplement containing 50 mg of caffeine and 100 mg of theanine did significantly better on a sustained attention task, with significantly fewer errors compared to placebo.5 What’s more, L-theanine appears to promote neurogenesis, i.e. the growth of new brain cells, which may mean it could help protect against neurodegenerative and neuropsychiatric disorders.6
L-theanine supplements are a great way to get in the zone without feeling overstimulated. They may help you focus in an important meeting, nail a key presentation, or even stay calm and attentive on a first date! What’s more, if you have an anxious animal companion, breaking open an L-theanine capsule and mixing the contents with their food could help them feel a little calmer without drowsiness during stressful events such as New Year’s Eve or the Fourth of July (read: fireworks).
Note: L-theanine supplements are contra-indicated for those with low blood pressure.
Curcumin is something of an all-star in the world of supplements. It acts as a master off-switch for inflammation, packs some serious antioxidant activity, supports liver health and cardiovascular health, and is also gaining increased attention for its potential neuroprotective effects.
A study published in 2017 found that curcumin had a positive effect on attention, as well as supporting memory and mood in older adults with minor memory issues (not dementia).7 The volunteers in this study took either a placebo or 90 mg of a highly bioavailable curcumin supplement, called Theracurmin, twice a day for 18 months. By the end of the trial, the group taking Theracurmin had a 28% improvement on memory tests!
In another randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, 60 healthy adults aged 60-85 were tested for cognitive ability, memory and mood, one and three hours after a single dose of curcumin, and again four weeks after taking the supplement. Compared to placebo, the curcumin group had significantly better scores for sustained attention and working memory after the single dose and significantly better working memory and mood after four weeks. This included improvements in general fatigue, calmness, contentedness, and fatigue induced by psychological stress.8
How does curcumin support brain health and cognitive performance? Well, in that first study, researchers also performed brain scans on some of the volunteers and found that the curcumin group had less development of amyloid plaques and tau signals (associated with cognitive decline and memory loss) in the areas of the brain that control memory and emotion (the amygdala and hypothalamus). This backs up earlier research finding a similar protective benefit in brain tissue, particularly against metabolic and structural changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease.9
In a laboratory study, curcumin was found to inhibit oxidative stress-induced inflammation, cell death, and mitochondria fragmentation in key nerve cells called astrocytes derived from the spinal cord.10 The researchers found that treating the cells with curcumin inhibited oxidative stress and associated inflammation induced by hydrogen peroxide. This seemed to be linked to curcumin’s ability to upregulate GFAP, vimentin, and Prdx6, which helped cells to survive and maintain cellular function.
Note: some studies report digestive problems as a side effect of taking curcumin.
Resveratrol is the antioxidant polyphenol found in abundance in grape skins and, as a result, in red wine. While a glass of wine won’t do much to help you focus, resveratrol does appear to enhance the synthesis of nitric oxide, which promotes vasodilation and improved blood flow. In theory, this may enhance cognitive function, given that cerebral blood volume and metabolism of oxygen decline as we age, leading to cognitive decline.
In one randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover study, 22 healthy adults took either a placebo or a 250-mg or 500-mg dose of resveratrol on separate days and were tested 45 minutes later to assess cognitive performance. The researchers used near-infrared spectroscopy to monitor blood flow in the frontal cortex of the volunteers’ brains and took blood samples to determine the absorption of resveratrol and blood oxygenation. The results showed that resveratrol increased cerebral blood flow in a dose-dependent fashion and was associated with increased oxygen extraction throughout the testing period.11
In one recent study, healthy young adults who consumed 230 mL of purple grape juice (a rich source of polyphenols) had significant improvements in reaction time and feelings of calmness during testing 20 minutes later compared to matched controls who consumed a similarly sugary drink without the polyphenols.12 In a study involving 80 post-menopausal women aged 45-85, resveratrol taken daily for 14 weeks was associated not only with improved blood flow to the brain but with corresponding significant improvements in the verbal memory and overall cognitive performance.13 However, another study found improvements in cerebral blood flow but no significant associated cognitive benefits of resveratrol.14
Note: resveratrol at doses of more than 2.5 g per day has been linked to side effects like nausea and vomiting, as well as liver damage.
#4. Rhodiola rosea
Rhodiola is an adaptogenic (stress-busting) herb that contains compounds that affect neurotransmitters including serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. It’s not all that surprising, then, that Rhodiola has a reputation for supporting mental energy, attention, learning, memory, and performance. Rhodiola may also help guard against free-radical damage to brain tissue and can also support better mood and sleep.
In one study, a group of healthy, young doctors working night shifts were given either a placebo or Rhodiola extract for two weeks, with a washout period in between. Rhodiola was associated with statistically significant improvements in overall level of mental fatigue, as well as complex perceptive and cognitive cerebral functions, including “associative thinking, short-term memory, calculation and ability of concentration, and speed of audio-visual perception.”15 There were no noted side effects, and researchers concluded that Rhodiola can “reduce general fatigue under certain stressful conditions.”
Note: Rhodiola side effects can include irritability and insomnia.
#5. Siberian ginseng
Siberian ginseng (also known as eleuthero) isn’t a true ginseng like Panax ginseng, but it does appear to enhance mental and physical resilience and help with attention and cognitive performance.
In one placebo-controlled, double-blind, randomized study, healthy volunteers aged 40 and older took either a placebo or Siberian ginseng for 8 to 9 weeks. On average, those taking ginseng had faster reaction times and significantly better abstract thinking than those taking the placebo (Sorensen).
Researchers have also looked at the effects of a combination of Siberian ginseng, Rhodiola rosea, and Schisandra on cognitive performance and in the laboratory. They found that this combination, sold as ADAPT-232, altered gene expression in human neuroglial cells, affecting energy metabolism in these key brain cells in such a way as to protect against negative effects of stress. Specifically, the adaptogens in this supplement up-regulated the PLCB1 gene, which encodes key regulator of the Nuclear factor-κB-mediated defense responses. 16
Outside the laboratory, this same combination was found in two clinical pilot studies to significantly improve attention and increase speed and accuracy during stressful cognitive tasks compared to placebo. In one study, ADAPT-232 significantly decreased the number of mistakes volunteers made on complicated psychometric tests.1718 In another study, healthy women aged 20-68 who had experienced chronic stress were given either a placebo or ADAPT-232 and then tested for cognitive performance two hours later. The ADAPT-232 group had rapid improvements in attention and increased speed and accuracy during stressful cognitive tasks compared to placebo. These volunteers also had fewer errors. 19
Note: Siberian ginseng can cause side effects such as insomnia and high blood pressure.
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Several other supplements have been investigated for their potential benefits for attention and focus. Those showing promise include sage, brown seaweed extract, ginkgo biloba, bacopa, cocoa flavonols, black currant extract, and Montmorency cherries.2021222324252627
Other top tips for enhancing cognitive performance and attention include staying hydrated, getting regular exercise, and avoiding prolonged periods of sitting.
Leigh Matthews, BA Hons, H.Dip. NT
Leigh Matthews, BA Hons, H.Dip. NT, is a health and wellness writer for Gene Food specializing in plant-based nutrition. Read her full bio here.
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