Not that I don’t need the help: I’m taking the GRE in a few months and memorizing stacks of grad school vocab can be a little hirsute (adjective: hairy, shaggy). So I put four herbal supplements that promise enhanced brain function through several rounds of vocabulary-retention tests and GRE math drills to cull the frauds from the real deal.
Here’s how we tested: I took the allotted dose of each drug over a 48-hour period. At the same time every day, I took two GRE practice tests, one math and the other vocab-retention. The vocab test consisted of memorizing 15 new GRE words over 10 minutes, waiting a half hour, then retesting. The math consisted of 30 different problems in trigonometry, geometry and algebra. Between drugs I took a 24-hour break to (hopefully) clear out my system.
With no drugs in my system, I got these control numbers:
Vocab-Retention Score: 11/15
GRE Math Score: 22/30
A word of warning: These pills aren’t supported by FDA testing or scientific studies of their efficacy. Our testing was admittedly unscientific (N=1, a 24-year-old woman) but the results suggest that some, in fact, do work better than others. But our review’s no substitute for medical advice. So, if in doubt, consult your doctor.
Smart Nutrition Get Smart
This is a blended cocktail of every vaguely credible herbal supplement, rolled into a single pill. There’s Huperzine A (an extract from Chinese moss that prevents brain deterioration), Periwinkle extract, and Pyritinol (a drug used in Europe to aid healing in severe head trauma).
Not only did Get Smart repeatedly perform better in memory tests, I noticed the effects long after the evaluation time had ended. While testing I wrote an insightful and pithy cover letter, won a debate on the function of the Vietnam War, and finally baked a perfect chocolate soufflé. I may have even cured cancer in my sleep (unfortunately I can’t find my notes on that). In the case of Get Smart, it really was matter over mind.
Vocab-Retention Score: 15/15
GRE Math Score: 25/30
WIRED Will unleash your inner Doogie Howser. Improves focus and memory, and appears to enhance creativity.
TIRED The only thing harder to swallow than the pill’s bulky mass is its high cost — nearly a dollar per capsule. Even Steve Carrell is rolling his eyes at the name.
Natural Factors Learning Factors
Strong enough for slacker millennials, but gentle enough to feed your hyperactive tot, Learning Factors combines tuna-fish–oil extract and omega-6 fatty acids to nourish your neurons and improve concentration. Just for good measure the makers also added borage oil, an anti-inflammatory shown to decrease pain in arthritis sufferers. But for me this drug led to high performance in memory-retention tests and comprehension. Not to mention, we hear fish oil does a body good.
Vocab-Retention Score: 12.5/15
GRE Math Score: 23/30
WIRED Comes in liquid, capsules and nutrient powder. Calmed my mind and improved word retention significantly within 24 hours of use. Tuna oil is pesticide-free and dolphin-friendly.
TIRED Chewable capsules taste like peach-flavored tuna fish.
Ginkgold 60 MG
Despite conflicting scientific findings, Ginkgo biloba has been one of the most popular supplements for almost two decades and, surprise, Ginkgold is chock full of it. The claim: By improving circulation you increase the blood flow to the brain, and the ginkgo extract helps you make connections, retain information and keep focused.
Be warned: Get the dose slightly wrong and it can make you more Young Einstein than Albert Einstein. After taking the recommended dose my mind was on warp speed. But I was paranoid and loopy, too. It felt like drinking three Red Bulls and trying to meditate. I adjusted the doses, and the crazy-pill effects subdued — along with the memory help.
Vocab-Retention Score: 11/15
GRE Math Score: 22/30
WIRED You can strike Ginkgold practically anywhere (it’s widely available at natural food stores and supermarkets.)
TIRED More ups and downs than an afternoon at Magic Mountain. Increased blood flow created a series of overwhelming energy bursts, affecting quantitative test scores for the worse.
Planetary Herbals Bacopa Extract
Common to the Indian Ayurveda homeopathic medicine system, Bacopa monnieri is a flowering perennial that supposedly calms nerves and improves memory. But will it dust off your cranium? Unlikely. Bacopa extract performed the lowest in our memory tests and pretty poorly in quantitative study.
A slew of scientific evaluations show it might become more effective with long-term use, but side effects made me wary of taking it any longer than necessary. Bacopa made me groggy — and downright mopey. After a day of putzing around the house avoiding GRE books, all the studying lost was not worth any cognitive pathways gained.
Vocab-Retention Score: 7/15
GRE Math Score: 19/30
WIRED Immediate calming effects might help test-day jitters. Australian studies suggest long-term bacopa use improves short-term memory drastically. But what do Australians know? They gave the world Yahoo Serious.
TIRED Bacopa made me tired of life, tired of studying, but mostly tired of taking bacopa.