Citicoline Guide: Is this the ultimate focus-booster?
Citicoline is one of our favorite brain boosting supplements. We love it in part for its reliability, and in part for its potency. We’ve never encountered anybody who doesn’t benefit greatly from Citicoline consumption, and the benefits are always exactly what you expect; increased focus, heightened attention, more mental clarity, and better working memory.
We’re clearly not the only fans of Citicoline.
The best pre-made nootropics all use Citicoline as their primary focus-enhancing agent. A growing number of top-tier supplement manufacturers are starting to utilize Citicoline in their brain supplements.
We’ve also noticed a rising use of Citicoline as a standalone supplement. If you check out the main nootropic or biohacking forums, you’ll see that a lot of people are now building their own stacks around Citicoline.
This substance is now without question one of the most widely-used brain supplements in the world.
But a decade ago, you didn’t hear much about Citicoline.
Even today, you might struggle to find reliable information about what Citicoline actually is, how it works, what it does in the body, or how to use it properly.
The major nootropics blogs are all happy to tell you how amazing Citicoline is and why you should buy it from them. But too few take the time to explain exactly how this substance produces the benefits it does.
That’s exactly what we’re going to do here.
In this article, we’ll explain what Citicoline is, what it does for cognitive function, and how it works. We’ll take you through the main studies published on Citicoline and explain what they can or can’t tell us. We will also discuss the health and safety risks associated with Citicoline use.
If you have any questions, please post them in the comments section at the end.
What is Citicoline?
People commonly refer to Citicoline by several different names, which can be confusing. You might see it written as Cytidine diphosphate choline, cytidine 5′-diphosphocholine, CDP-Choline, or Cognizin© when in its purest, most bio-available, branded form (also its most expensive form by some margin).
These are all just different names for the same substance – Citicoline.
It is a naturally occurring compound; you will find it in the cells of all animal tissues, with a particularly high concentration in the organs (the brain most of all). It is needed in your cells because it is an intermediary in the synthesis of phosphatidylcholine (a crucial structural component of cell membranes) from choline. More on this later.
Citicoline is a cholinergic. This is the name we give a group of compounds which efficiently transfer choline to the brain.
This is the main reason we use the compound as a nootropic; it donates choline to the brain, and it raises brain choline levels far more efficiently than choline itself (due to the blood-brain barrier).
So why is choline so important?
Is that all citicoline does? Donate choline?
To understand the importance of raising brain choline levels, and to fully grasp the power of citicoline, we need to have a look at what choline is, what it does, and its role in human cognitive function.
What foods contain citicoline?
Unfortunately, not many foods contain citicoline in large quantities. The only reasonably rich food sources of citicoline are organ meats, such as liver and brain. It is therefore not practically possible to consume meaningful quantities of citicoline through food; doing so would mean consuming huge quantities of fat, cholesterol, toxins, and potentially dangerous amounts of Vitamin A.
However, if you want to naturally raise citicloline levels, you can try to consume more choline.
This is not a particularly effective way to boost citicoline (or to raise acetylcholine or phsophatidylcholine) as choline is not readily absorbed in the gut and it does not easily cross the blood-brain barrier. So again, you need to consume large quantities to see the same benefits as targeted citicoline supplements. But there are lots of food sources of choline which can support healthy acetylcholine and phosphatidylcholine levels over the long-term.
As many of you will know, choline is a water-soluble, naturally occurring essential nutrient. It is a constituent of lecithin, and as such is found in a wide variety of foods common in the human diet.
Foods that contain large amounts of choline include:
- Whole eggs
- Beef liver
- Soy beans
- Sunflower seeds
- Kidney beans
As stated above, choline is an essential nutrient. We cannot make choline ourselves. At least not without cannibalizing existing cells for their choline content. We therefore need to consume it on a regular basis to stay optimally healthy.
How important is Citicoline?
Few people realize just how important choline is for optimal health, and especially for optimal brain function.
For one thing, choline serves as a base raw material for the construction of cells. Choline is used to create various phospholipids which are then used to create cell membranes. Choline’s importance is particularly acute in the brain, where it is used to build new neurons, neuron dendrites, and other critical structures.
Another important role of choline is the synthesis of acetylcholine. Those of you who have been doing some research into nootropics will probably be quite familiar with acetylcholine already. Acetylcholine is the brain’s primary operational neurotransmitter. It is used for all executive brain functions – information processing, speech, muscle contraction, memory recall, everything!
Choline levels largely dictate the availability of acetylcholine in the brain, and thus they dictate your executive cognitive function to a great degree.
What does Citicoline supplementation do?
Citicoline is primarily a choline donor.
It delivers choline to the brain, where it is used to create phosphatidylcholine and acetylcholine.
Phosphatidylcholine is used to construct new neurons and related structures.
Acetylcholine is used to pass signals between neurons; this is effectively the very stuff of executive brain function.
In other words, Citicoline provides your brain with the raw materials it needs to create two of its most vital compounds – one for creating new cell structures, the other for actual mental performance.
This is why Citicoline is used by so many people. It is why it is present in so many pre-made nootropic stack; more specifically, it is why so many pre-made nootropics are built around Citicoline. It is a full-spectrum nootropic contained in a single molecule – a true brain booster.
Citicoline operates on a fundamental level, dealing with the basic necessities of optimal brain function. Basic necessities are not always easy to obtain in optimal quantities.
But at this point, you might be wondering – why not just take choline?
After all, it’s found in food. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to just eat more eggs and cauliflower?
Aren’t there cheaper choline analogues than Citicoline?
Thinking this way is completely reasonable, but it totally misses the point of Citicoline.
Why Citicoline is better than regular choline
Why do we bother taking refined choline analogues like Citicoline? If choline is available in the diet, then why not just eat more of it? Or why not use a cheaper form of choline, like Choline Bitartrate or even straight choline itself?
These are all good questions, and there are clear answers to all of them.
First of all, eating an optimal amount of choline from your normal diet is very difficult. You can get adequate amounts of choline from your diet, so long as it is rich in cauliflower, sunflower seeds, eggs, and beef liver. But we’re not interested in being adequate, and neither are you – otherwise you wouldn’t be a VAGA reader!
To really see a significant increase in both phosphatidylcholine and acetylcholine levels, you need to raise choline availability in the brain considerably. To do that from food alone, you’d need to consume a lot more food. This means more calories, and in the case of eggs and beef liver, a lot more saturated fat, cholesterol, and animal hormones too!
Part of the problem stems from the fact that dietary choline is not fully absorbed in the gut, and not all of it finds its way to the brain. This brings us neatly onto the next reason why Citicoline is preferable.
Citicoline is far more efficient at raising choline levels in the brain than straight choline. It is also far more efficient and effective than the lesser choline analogues like Choline Bitartrate or Choline Citrate.
It is readily absorbed in the gut, and almost none is used elsewhere in the body – the vast majority of the Citicoline you consume finds its way to the brain. Citicoline can easily cross the blood brain barrier, unlike Choline Bitartrate or straight choline.
On top of that, Citicoline also provides Cytidine to the brain.
Cytidine is a powerful nootropic agent in and of itself. It is a precursor to Uridine, which regulates synaptic strength, neuronal connectivity, and brain cell maturation. Uridine is also involved in the synthesis of RNA – the molecule which codes, decodes, and expresses various genes.
This two-for-one feature of Citicoline makes it significantly more powerful than other choline analogues.
So to sum up, we use Citicoline and not straight choline because:
- Citicoline is readily absorbed in the gut
- It crosses the blood-brain barrier very easily
- It raises choline levels quicker and more effectively than other choline sources
- Citicoline contains both choline and cytidine, which is a potent nootropic in its own right
- Getting an optimal amount of choline from food is difficult and hard to control
In our opinion, these facts make Citicoline the obvious choice for a cholinergic. Every nootropic stack needs a choline source, and we don’t know of a better candidate than Citicoline.
But why are we using a cholinergic in the first place?
Do they actually make that much of a difference to cognition?
That is something we haven’t explained at all yet.
Let’s go through some of the key studies and see exactly what Citicoline supplementation can do for you and your cognitive performance.
How effective is Citicoline as a nootropic?
We could ramble on about how Citicoline is the best cholinergic to have in a nootropic. But this doesn’t tell you what you really want to know – how does Citicoline affect your day-to-day cognitive performance? What does it mean in practical terms for your mental functioning?
The only way to really understand this is to look at how it has affected participants in clinical trials. We’ll now give you a brief overview of the main studies looking at Citicoline and its ability to improve cognitive function.
Thankfully, there are plenty of robust human clinical trials for us to look at here. We therefore don’t need to be as exhaustive as we do when using animal studies or case studies.
To start off, take a look at this paper, published in a 2012 edition of Food and Nutrition Sciences. Here, researchers gave 60 women aged 40-60 either 250mg of Citicoline, 500mg, or placebo for 28 days. The researchers found that both Citicoline groups made fewer errors in cognitively-demanding tasks than baseline or the placebo group. Interestingly, the researchers found that the 500mg group made significantly fewer errors than the 250mg group.
Another study found that supplementation with higher doses of Citicoline produces significant improvements in memory function in older people. Researchers gave 47 female and 48 male volunteers 1000mg of Citicoline per day for 3 months. The participants were aged between 50 and 85. The researchers then did a crossover study with a subset of participants who had very inefficient memories. It is worth quoting their findings in full:
In the initial study, citicoline therapy improved delayed recall on logical memory only for the subjects with relatively inefficient memories. In the crossover study, the higher dosage of citicoline was clearly associated with improved immediate and delayed logical memory…Citicoline therapy improved verbal memory functioning in older individuals with relatively inefficient memories. Citicoline may prove effective in treating age-related cognitive decline that may be the precursor of dementia.
A related trial – conducted a year later and published in Methods and Findings in Experimental and Clinical Pharmacology – produced very similar results. The researchers in that study were explicitly looking at how Citcoline affected older people with memory deficits. They found that Citicoline administration massively improved performance in memory recall tasks (source).
We also have a host of studies showing exactly how Citicoline produces these improvements in focus, learning and memory.
We strongly advise you to read this paper in full if you want to understand how Citicoline works a bit better. It describes how 500mg of Citicoline per day significantly increased the participants’ phosphodiesters levels. Phosphodiesters are metabolites produced during brain cell repair.
So great was the increase in phosphodiester levels that the researchers felt confident stating: “The increases in phosphodiesters seen in this study indicate that phospholipid synthesis and turnover were stimulated by 6 weeks of oral citicoline. These results in humans support previous in vitro and animal studies and suggest that the administration of oral citicoline may be of use in reversing age-related changes in the brain.”
Another study – published in a 2008 issue of NMR in Biomedicine – revealed that Citicoline administration enhances frontal lobe bioenergetics (source). In plain English, that means that Citicoline effectively raises energy levels in the part of the brain associated with the ‘higher order’ cognitive function – reasoning, speech, abstract thought, etc.
Again, it is worth citing the authors’ conclusion at length: “Citicoline supplementation may therefore help to mitigate cognitive declines associated with aging by increasing energy reserves and utilization, as well as increasing the amount of essential phospholipid membrane components needed to synthesize and maintain cell membranes.”
It is clear from the available clinical trials and the scientific literature that Citicoline is a reliable, efficient, and powerful nootropic agent.
So who should be using it exactly?
Who should use Citicoline?
Citicoline is a fantastic all-round nootropic substance. It has direct physical effects on the brain.
As such, it enhances multiple different aspects of cognitive performance.
It raises acetylcholine levels, which means enhanced focus, learning, verbal fluency, and muscle contraction in the short term.
It increases acetylcholine levels, which leads to more robust neurons and greater dendrite interconnectivity.
Finally, it elevates uridine levels, which in turn promotes health RNA synthesis.
With such massive and varied effects, it shouldn’t be surprising to see Citicoline being used as a central ingredient in most top-tier nootropic stacks. Citicoline enhances every aspect of executive cognitive function.
As such, citicoline is ideal for a wide range of users, including:
- Older people looking to increase focus and information processing speeds
If your goal is overall brain optimization, then you should definitely consider including a hefty dose of Citicoline in your stack. In our opinion, it is the ideal cholinergic; safe, well-tolerated, predictable, and powerful.
Citicoline Dosage: How much should you take?
For day-to-day cognitive enhancement, we recommend starting with 150mg of Citicoline per day, and then increasing to 250mg per day if necessary. This should be all you need to promote better brain function and healthier neuron formation over the long-haul.
Above 200mg per day, you’ll experience significant improvements in attention and working memory.
At 250mg of Citicoline per day, you’ll also see some pretty dramatic increases in focus, clarity, and information processing too.
Ideally, we think you should try to use a highly potent, standardized, branded form of Citicoline. Cognizin is best, although it is a little more expensive than standard Citicoline.
Of course, these recommendations are for otherwise healthy people looking to use Citicoline to enhance their cognitive performance. For clinical purposes, far larger doses of Citicoline are typically recommended.
For age-related cognitive decline, clinicians recommend you take 1000-2000 mg of citicoline per day.
For recovery from stroke or brain injury, it is recommended to take 500-2000 mg of citicoline per day starting within 24 hours of the event.
Is Citicoline Safe?: Side Effects & Health Risks
Does Citicoline cause side effects?
The evidence suggests that no, Citicoline does not cause side effects. When used in recommended doses, Citicoline does not appear to regularly cause side effects in most users. Clinical trials looking at Citicoline do not routinely report participants dropping out due to adverse effects of health risks.
Most people who take citicoline by mouth don’t experience any side effects at all. But rarely people do experience side effects such as difficulty sleeping (insomnia), headaches, confusion, loss of focus, diarrhea, nausea, stomach cramps, muscle cramps, and more. However, these Citicoline side effects are rare. When they do occur, they are mild and transient.
One thing that will affect the likelihood of you experiencing side effects from Citicoline is the dosage you’re using. Higher doses of cholinergics like Citicoline will always be more likely to cause side effects, and more severe side effects too.
This is why we strongly recommend keeping the dose of Citicoline that you use at 250mg per day or under unless otherwise advised by a medical doctor. For otherwise healthy people just looking for extra focus, clarity and memory function, anything over 250mg of Citicoline per day is just going to increase side effect risks without adding much extra benefit!
The Best Citicoline Supplements
Citicoline is now one of the most commonly used ingredients in pre-made nootropic stacks.
A few years ago, this wasn’t the case; citicoline was something you had to buy directly from wholesalers, as makers of pre-made stacks filled their products with cheap cholinergics like choline bitartrate. But today, practically every premium brain supplement uses either citicoline or a good alternative like Alpha-GPC.
The options for buying citicoline are also a lot more varied now. Years ago you had to have a good “supplier” or a lot of cash to buy in bulk from a wholesaler, but today things are different. There are dozens of websites offering generic citicoline powder and capsules for very reasonable prices.
So what should you go for if you want to try supplementing with citicoline?
We think the best option for using citicoline, especially if you’re new to nootropics, is to use a pre-made nootropic stack containing citicoline along with some supporting ingredients.
Ideally, you should use a supplement that provides a large dose of Cognizin (the most potent and expensive form of CDP-Choline) coupled with ingredients to further promote cognitive function.
Our current top rated nootropic, Mind Lab Pro, contains 250mg of Cognizin per serving along with a dozen other proven cognitive enhancers.
However, if you are mostly interested in the effects of CDP-Choline, we actually recommend using Performance Lab Mind instead. This stack contains just 4 ingredients instead of the 12 in Mind Lab Pro. Using it instead will give you a better idea of the effects of citicoline on your cognitive performance.
However you choose to use citicoline, try to use a highly bio-available form, and use it in conjunction with practices that support good brain health.
Is citicoline a stimulant?
No, Citicoline is not a stimulant. It has absolutely no stimulatory properties. Citicoline heightens focus, supports you ability to concentrate on complex subjects for long periods of time, and increases your mental stamina. However, it does not do this by increasing mental energy or reducing the perception of fatigue. Citicoline primarily works by increasing acetylcholine levels.
Is citicoline a vitamin?
No, citicoline is not a vitamin. It is a compound containing choline and cytidine.It is naturally occuring in human bodily tissues, but we do need to consume more to meet out needs. It does not act like a vitamin.
What foods contain citicoline?
No foods contain citicoline. Citicoline is a compound made up of different naturally-occurring substances. No foods contain this exact compound. However, lots of foods contain choline (e.g peanuts, eggs, broccoli), and lots of foods contain cytidine (e.g brewer’s yeast, organ meats, beer).
What are the side effects of citicoline?
Citicoline is among the safest nootropics you can use. Clinical trials show that side effects are very rare, and when they do occur, are generally mild. The only side effects commonly associated with citicoline use are headaches and muscle cramps. These side effects almost always come from over-use.
Can too much choline be harmful?
Consuming too much choline has been associated with some unwanted and potentially harmful side effects. Common side effects associated with having too much choline in the diet – be it from food sources, supplements, or more likely both – include nausea, stomach cramps, muscle cramps, headaches, and in some cases, foul body odor. Although the safe upper limit of choline consumption is set at 3.5g per day, we think it is safest to aim lower but supplement with a cholinergic like citicoline.
Brian Johnson is a former academic researcher, psychologist, and tireless proponent of bio-hacking. Brian has dedicated all of his time since leaving academia and private practice to promoting the benefits to be obtained from the application of biotechnology and bio-hacking supplements. He has years of experience with nootropics, as well as prebiotics, probiotics, and other natural nutritional supplements. He has published scholarly research on natural nootropics; you can find his papers on his Google Scholar page.