Article edited for scientific accuracy by Illuminate Labs Blog Editor Taylor Graber MD
Onnit Alpha Brain is arguably the most popular nootropic supplement in the U.S. with over 1 million bottles sold. It’s the brand made famous by Joe Rogan, who claims the products significantly improve his mental state and references them frequently on his podcast.
In this article we’ll analyze Alpha Brain’s formulation, as well as the two published medical studies on it, to see if there’s good science backing the product.
General Comments on Formulation
Prior to breaking down each blend in the formula, it’s important to note that Alpha Brain is a product that breaks the overall formulation into smaller, branded proprietary blends. This is generally an unscientific and non-ideal method of listing active ingredients on a Supplement Facts panel, because it doesn’t allow the consumer to see how much of each ingredient is in the product. Rather, the consumer only sees what the dosage is for the overall blend.
To illustrate why this method of documentation is deceiving, consider a supplement company with a nootropic prop blend listed at 500 mg dosage. The Supplement Facts panel may look like this:
Prop blend: 500 mg
Active ingredients: Caffeine, ginkgo biloba extract, l-tyrosine, panax ginseng extract
The above formula could actually contain 497 mg of caffeine, 1 mg of ginkgo biloba extract, 1 mg of l-tyrosine and 1 mg of panax ginseng extract.
Because prop blends don’t require the manufacturer to list the component dosages, the consumer cannot determine whether they’re getting an effective dose of any of the component ingredients.
Onnit Flow Blend
The first prop blend in Alpha Brain is called “Flow Blend” and contains l-theanine, l-tyrosine, phosphatidylserine and oat straw extract at a combined dosage of 650 mg.
Onnit’s site claims that amino acid l-theanine is “shown to promote attention and reaction time” which was a surprising claim to me because theanine is primarily used as an anxiolytic (for anxiety reduction).
That claim on their site is not cited, but due to the similar terminology it seems as though they’re referencing this study titled “Effects of l-theanine on attention and reaction time response.” The study found that l-theanine had “no convincing [nootropic] effect” in healthy subjects, and had a nootropic effect on subjects with anxiety. This suggests that the mechanism of action of l-theanine is anxiolytic rather than nootropic in nature, and that the anxious subjects only saw an improvement in mental function due to their return to homeostasis (i.e. reducing high anxiety helps brain function). Thus based on this study it’s not accurate to claim that the amino acid promotes attention and reaction time overall.
The second item in this blend is another amino acid, l-tyrosine. This compound has been studied more for nootropic effect than l-theanine, but the dosages in all of the studies I’ve come across are vastly higher than the entire prop blend (of which we’re unsure what percentage l-tyrosine is).
Here are three studies suggesting that tyrosine may aid cognitive function, but the lowest dose in any of them was 150 mg/kg, or 11,250 mg for an average-weight 75 kg man. The entire Alpha Brain Flow Blend is 650 mg, so it’s safe to conclude that the tyrosine dosage is underdosed.
The third ingredient in the Flow Blend is oat straw extract. A study on healthy adults found that 12 weeks of oat straw extract supplementation (at a dosage significantly higher than that in Alpha Brain) found no cognitive improvement. Two other studies found mild nootropic effect to oat straw supplementation, but the subjects already had cognitive decline, and both studies used dosages significantly higher than the entire Flow Blend.
The final ingredient in the Flow Blend is phosphatidylserine, which does have some promising research in regard to nootropic function. Several studies have found this compound to improve cognition short-term, at dosages of 300 mg and 400 mg respectively. Since the dosage of phosphatidylserine in the Flow Blend isn’t disclosed, we can’t determine if Alpha Brain contains an efficacious dose. The dosage of the entire Flow Blend is only 650 mg, so it’s unlikely that half of it is or more is oat straw extract since there are three other compounds in this blend.
Onnit Focus Blend
Strangely, this blend is the only one of the three in Alpha Brain that discloses the dosages of the component ingredients.
There is 100 mg of Alpha-GPC in this blend, which is significantly underdosed. As Examine concludes after summarizing all available research on this compound, “For the usage of alpha-GPC in attenuating symptoms of cognitive decline, almost all studies use a dosage of 1,200 mg daily”. That means that the effective dose of Alpha-GPC for nootropic effect is 12x more than that contained in Alpha Brain.
Bacopa extract is present in the Focus Blend at the dosage of 100 mg. This is, again, underdosed based on available research, which suggests that the minimum effective dose is 300 mg. The bacopa in Alpha Brain is also a generic extract, rather than standardized for bacosides, which is non-ideal because bacosides are thought to be the primary compound in the plant responsible for its nootropic effects.
The third compound in the Focus Blend is Toothed Clubmoss Extract at 40 mg, standardized to 1% huperzine A. This is an effective dose. This study found Huperzine A at 0.4 mg to confer cognitive benefits, as did this meta-study. There’s not a ton of research on this plant but it seems promising.
Onnit Fuel Blend
The first ingredient in this blend is l-leucine, an animo acid. I have not come across any studies even suggesting leucine has nootropic effect; it’s primarily used for exercise performance. Regardless, this entire blend has a dosage of 60 mg, which is absurdly low. Most studies on leucine have subjects taking multiple grams daily.
Pterostilbene is the second ingredient in this blend and it’s also not primarily a nootropic compound. It’s an analog of resveratrol that’s more bioavailable, but we haven’t found a single study proving it has nootropic benefit.
Other Active Ingredients
There are two active ingredients in Alpha Brain that aren’t included in the blends: Cat’s Claw Extract and Vitamin B6.
Cat’s Claw Extract is an interesting herb with some preliminary research suggesting it may reduce brain plaque formations. At the given dosage it should be fine as a preventative measure.
Vitamin B6 is important for many bodily functions, but should be easily obtainable through diet. Perhaps this is included for some synergistic effect with the other compounds, but its inclusion is not explained anywhere on the Alpha Brain site.
There are two published medical studies we could find on Alpha Brain. The first found that supplementation of Alpha Brain improved various cognitive measures in healthy young adults. The second found no benefit to Alpha Brain supplementation on performance in mentally-strenuous tasks for Army soldiers.
We credit Onnit for allowing the study with no benefit to be published, and for spending money to conduct clinical trials. More placebo-controlled, double-blinded studies are needed in the U.S. supplement space, and this is a sign that the company takes their research seriously.
Alpha Brain is a supplement that mostly contains ingredients which are nootropic, but tend to be underdosed in the formulation. Like many supplement brands, they throw together a mix of exotic ingredients in relatively small amounts so that they can have a trademarked prop blend. This is great for marketing but not great for efficacy.
Onnit doesn’t publish any third-party testing of their products, so consumers don’t know whether the product is accurately labeled or low in contaminants.
Consumers looking for nootropic supplements would be better off taking single-herb extracts like ginkgo which have been studied in hundreds of medical papers for nootropic effect. Illuminate Labs also publishes third-party test results for purity, potency and label accuracy right on each product page so consumers can see that our products are pure and accurately labeled.
We also published an article on natural alternatives to Adderall which includes both supplements and food products that are better-researched cognitive enhancers than Alpha Brain.
Ultimately, we applaud Onnit for funding clinical trials and we believe they’re doing better than many supplement companies in regards to formulation and research. But that’s more an indication of how low the bar is in the U.S. supplement industry than what amazing research Onnit is doing.