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Alpha Brain Review: Does it Really Work?

Alpha Brain Review: Does it Really Work?


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Read our Editorial Guidelines to learn more about what makes our site the premier resource for online health information.


Read our Editorial Guidelines to learn more about what makes our site the premier resource for online health information.

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 "The Joe Rogan Experience."

In this article we’ll analyze Alpha Brain’s formulation, as well as the two published medical studies on the supplement, to see if there’s good science backing it.

General Comments on Formulation

Prior to breaking down all of the ingredients, we'd like to note that Alpha Brain is a product that uses proprietary ("prop") blends, which allow manufacturers to list the total dose of a "blend" rather than the individual dose of each active ingredient. 

We don't agree with this practice, because it prevents the consumer from knowing what the dose of each individual ingredient is. We believe this is a consumer safety issue and that the government should mandate that dietary supplement companies list the dose of every active ingredient individually.

To illustrate why this method of documentation can be deceiving, consider a hypothetical supplement with a nootropic prop blend at 500 milligram (mg) total 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 or safe dose of any of the ingredients.

We're not suggesting that Onnit is using prop blends to be intentionally deceiving; rather, arguing why we believe the practice as a whole is unethical and should be disallowed for the sake of consumers.

Onnit Flow Blend

Onnit Flow Blend Supplement Facts label

The first prop blend in Alpha Brain is called “Flow Blend” and contains four active ingredients at a combined dosage of 650 mg.

Onnit claims that amino acid l-theanine is “shown to promote attention and reaction time” which is a surprising claim in our opinion, given that l-theanine is typically used as an anxiolytic (for anxiety reduction). 

That claim on their website is not cited, but due to the similar terminology it seems as though the brand is referencing this medical 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 study suggests that the mechanism of action of l-theanine is anxiolytic rather than cognitive-enhancing in nature. People with anxiety who take the amino acid may notice an improvement in mental function due to their return to homeostasis (i.e. reducing high anxiety helps the brain function properly), but it doesn't seem clear from the available research that this ingredient can improve cognitive function in healthy adults without anxiety. Based on this study we don't believe it's 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 we've come across are vastly higher than the entire Flow Bend (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 is 150 milligrams per kilogram (mg/kg), or 11,250 mg for an average-weight 75 kg man. The entire Alpha Brain Flow Blend is 650 mg, so we believe tyrosine is underdosed in this formulation.

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) caused no cognitive improvement. Two other studies on this ingredient reported some cognitive improvement, 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 backing 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.

Overall we would consider this blend to be poorly formulated. All of the ingredients do appear to have some research backing for improving cognition, but we don't believe the majority of them are effectively dosed.

Onnit Focus Blend

Onnit Focus Blend Supplement Facts label

Strangely, Alpha Brain's Focus Blend is the only one of the three blends that discloses individual ingredient doses. Two of the three doses are reported, which allows us to determine the other through subtraction.

There is 100 mg of Alpha GPC in this blend, which we would consider 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 apparent effective dose of Alpha-GPC for nootropic effect is 12x higher than the dose contained in Alpha Brain.

Bacopa extract is present in the Focus Blend at the dosage of 100 mg. We would also consider this ingredient 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

Onnit Fuel Blend Supplement Facts label

The first ingredient in the Fuel Blend is l-leucine, an animo acid. We 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 total dosage of 60 mg, which is quite low. Most studies on leucine have subjects taking thousands of milligrams daily.

Pterostilbene is the only other ingredient in this blend, and like leucine, it's not primarily considered to be 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 of 350 mg, we believe it's an effective ingredient choice as a preventative measure.

Vitamin B6 is important for many bodily functions, but should be 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. We don't believe that random vitamin supplementation is logical, because vitamin supplementation is unlikely to provide any benefit to patients with optimal levels of the vitamin to begin with.

Medical Studies

There are two published medical studies we could find on Alpha Brain. It's uncommon for a dietary supplement to have research published in legitimate peer-reviewed journals, so this is a great sign about the brand's values. 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 Black Label Review

Alpha Brain Black Label ingredients

Onnit sells an alternate version of Alpha Brain called Alpha Brain Black Label with a more potent formulation. It retails for $124.95 so we would expect it to be well formulated.

Three of the active ingredients in this formulation are the same as in standard Alpha Brain: phosphatidylserine, l-theanine and toothed club moss. We don't consider any of these effective for improving cognition at their given doses.

Alpha Brain Black Label contains velvet bean extract at a dose of 1,000 mg. We cannot find any medical studies suggesting this ingredient is effective for improving brain function, nor does Onnit link to any, so we'll consider it ineffective.

Lion's mane is the next-listed ingredient. A clinical trial found that this mushroom improved cognitive function and reduced mental deterioration caused by dementia at a dose of 800 mg. An animal study found that this ingredient increased the rate of neurons formed in the brain, and improved memory.

The dosage of lion’s mane in Alpha Brain Black Label is 500 mg, so we’ll consider this ingredient likely to be effective.

Citicoline is another effective nootropic ingredient, but as we noted in our review of 5 Hour Energy, the minimum effective dose, at least according to the few medical trials we could find on this ingredient, is 500 mg. The dose in Alpha Brain Black Label is 250 mg.

Alpha Brain’s dose is 150 mg a day, which appears to be in the effective range.

This product contains a strangely low caffeine dose of 25 mg. Even one single cup of coffee contains around 95 mg. We cannot locate any medical research suggesting such a low dose of caffeine has nootropic effects. The lowest dose proven effective that we could find is 40 mg, which was documented in the linked study to improve cognitive performance and increase alertness.

Another active ingredient in this formulation we would consider a strange choice is “Lutemax 2020,” which is a patented form of a marigold flower extract. The only clinical studies we can find on this ingredient involve its effects on the skin and eyes rather than the brain.

Alpha Brain Black Label also contains the added sugar sucrose as an inactive ingredient. While there’s almost certainly a small amount of it, we find it strange for a nootropic supplement to include added sugar, given that excessive sugar intake is associated with worse cognitive function in medical research, and given that many consumers in developed countries already consume excess sugar from their diet. We recommend avoiding supplements with added sugar.

Overall we wouldn’t recommend this formulation, due to the inclusion of added sugar and our belief that several of the ingredients are underdosed.

Alpha Brain Side Effects

While any consumer can experience side effects from any medication or supplement due to individual biochemistry, we don’t believe Alpha Brain is likely to cause any significant side effects based on its ingredients and their respective dosages.

Even though we don’t recommend any of the brand’s supplements, we don’t consider any of the ingredients unsafe, and the clinical trials funded by Onnit didn’t either.

We wouldn’t worry about side effects while taking Alpha Brain, but patients on prescription medication may want to check with their doctor prior to taking the supplement to ensure there’s no risk of interaction with their medications, which can cause side effects.

Alpha Brain Real User Review

One of the most popular reviews of Alpha Brain from a real user comes from a YouTube creator called “Your Inception.” They share their personal experience of the supplement, dosage recommendations and compare it to other nootropic supplements:

Stay up-to-date on our research reviews

Conclusion

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.

We believe that consumers looking for nootropic supplements would be better off taking single-herb extracts like bacopa, ginseng or rhodiola which have been studied in hundreds of medical papers for nootropic effect.

We also published an article on natural alternatives to Adderall which includes both supplements and food products that are superior nootropics than Alpha Brain in our opinion.

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.





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