Onnit Labs' Alpha BRAIN is a nootropic supplement designed to enhance brain function and improve your memory.
Developed in a joint venture between entrepreneur and holistic health enthusiast Aubrey Marcus and the wildly popular comedian / podcast host / MMA commentator / reality TV host Joe Rogan, Alpha BRAIN is the flagship nootropic offering from Onnit. It has a cult following among nootropic enthusiasts, but since it's relatively new and combines several different supplements and herbal extracts, there aren't a ton of scientific studies on its effects in humans.
Onnit's Alpha BRAIN supplement contains several bioactive ingredients, grouped into three categories.
The first category is the ingredients in the "Onnit Flow" blend. These include tyrosine, theanine, oat extract, and phosphatidylserine.
Tyrosine, theanine, and phosphatidylserine are amino acids—your body uses them as biological building blocks to make more complex molecules. As supplements, they are thought to help reduce stress and improve cognitive performance, especially in stressful situations.
Oat extract has similar effects. A 2011 study suggests it might help concentration and focus, allowing you to perform cognitively demanding tasks with precision (1).
The "Onnit Focus" blend includes A-GPC, Bacopa extract, and Huperzia serrata extract. As the name suggests, these ingredients are geared towards improving your focus, memory, and mental acuity. A-GPC, also known as L-Alpha glycerylphosphorylcholine, helps deliver an essential nutrient called choline to the brain. The other two herbal extracts are from plants native to Asia, and both have been associated with positive changes in cognition. Huperzia serrata extract has been investigated as an Alzheimer's treatment (2), while Bacopa extract has been associated with improvements in memory recall (3).
Finally, the "Onnit Fuel" blend includes leucine (an essential amino acid), pterostilbene (an antioxidant related to the compounds found in red wine and red grapes), and vinpocetine, a synthetic compound related to periwinkle extract. It seems to have antioxidant and neuroprotective effects (4).
Though Onnit's Alpha BRAIN is marketed as a total cognitive improvement supplement, the most solid evidence for its effects is in the area of memory. In a randomized double-blind clinical trial, researchers at the Boston Center for Memory tested the effects of Alpha BRAIN on a group of 63 adults. Half the group received a placebo, while the other half received Alpha BRAIN, and the participants were tracked for six weeks (5).
At the study's conclusion, the researchers found that Alpha BRAIN helped improve the subjects' performance on delayed verbal recall and executive functioning.
This means that the benefits of Alpha BRAIN are going to be realized most fully by people whose lives demand a lot of memory recall—being a student, for example, or keeping track of a large number of ongoing projects at work. If your main goal is to improve your focus, concentration, or performance on other cognitive tasks, this might not be the right supplement for you.
Since it's a blend of a large number of different supplements and herbal extracts, a list of every possible side effect from each ingredient would be very long. Further, since it's not a widely used supplement, there aren't any major studies that have evaluated its potential side effects.
For what it's worth, the 2016 Boston Memory Center found no difference in the rate of reported side effects among the subjects who took Alpha BRAIN versus those who were taking a placebo pill.
Further, none of the ingredients raise any red flags. Unlike other supplements on the market, like diet pills which are still using analogues of risky herbal extracts, there aren't any reports of serious side effects from the herbal extracts in Alpha BRAIN.
Still, some users anecdotally report headaches or jitteriness, so that's something to monitor and consider. As is often the case, different individuals will have different tolerances for the same supplement.
One curious side effect (or benefit, depending on what you are looking for) is the anecdotal reports of extremely vivid and sometimes lucid dreams when Alpha BRAIN is taken before bed. Users report dreams that are much more detailed and longer than usual, and sometimes experience "lucid dreams" where the dreamer can actually take control of the dream. If you're looking to explore your subconscious, this could be just what you want to hear, but if all you want is a good night's sleep, it may not be your cup of tea.
Speaking of tea, one positive aspect of Alpha BRAIN for many users is its lack of caffeine. Though caffeine is a powerful cognitive enhancer, most people consume it in their everyday life anyways, and including it in this supplement would make taking it before bed a bad idea. Fortunately, since it's stimulant-free, you can take it whenever you want.
The Bottom Line
Onnit Labs' Alpha BRAIN is a nootropic supplement that's safe, fairly mild in demeanor, and seems to be effective at moderately improving your memory. It will fare best among people who need to tune up their brain to remember facts, words, and learning material more effectively. Students will find it especially useful.
If, in contrast, you're looking for something to juice up your brain before an all-night essay writing session or the day of a big board examination, it's probably not what you're looking for. Alpha BRAIN excels in the memory department; it's not a tremendous mood-booster, energy supplement, or focusing agent.
When it comes to sleep, it really depends what you're looking for. If you want a deeper slumber, look elsewhere. But if you want your nighttime dreams to be more interesting, it might be worth a try to see if you, too, get "Alpha BRAIN dreams" when you take it before bed.