Nootropics or cognitive enhancers are substances that potentially improve executive functions such as concentration, memory, and attention span.
What Are Nootropics?
The term, Nootropics, (from Greek), means “mind-turning”, It includes a wide variety of substances that act as’ brain boosters helping us in alertness, intelligence and creativity.
Nootropics fall into two broad categories:
- Natural Nootropics: the all-natural ingredients like herbs and plant extracts that have been evaluated for their ability to enhance cognition. And
- Synthetic Nootropics: are pharmaceutical agents that can have a strong effect on mental functions. They often require a prescription and are used under medical supervision.
Depending on your individual needs, you may choose to go the natural or synthetic route to support your brain health. Both types of nootropics have advantages and disadvantages that should be considered. And although many nootropics are not regulated by the FDA, they may still be effective for a various number of conditions.
And many of these traditional substances have a longer history of use than their medicinal counterparts.
The most common nootropic in everyday use, caffeine, is a stimulant, psychoactive, nootropic. Studies show that caffeine can improve alertness and focus while reducing perceived fatigue.
Caffeine impacts the brain by blocking a chemical messenger called cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP), that makes you feel tired.
The absence of cAMP triggers the release of several other stimulating hormones and neurotransmitters in the brain, increasing feelings of alertness.
Caffeine has been found to offset the cognitive problems caused by sleep deprivation.
A 2002 study showed that the nootropic benefits of caffeine can occur both as part of a regular caffeine-intake habit (for example, 65 mg over five hours) or as a single large dose of 200 mg.
Up to 300 mg of caffeine a day or the equivalent of about 2 cups of coffee is considered safe for helping increase alertness and reaction time.
With caffeine being both legal and incredibly popular, it’s a great example of how natural nootropics can have subtle yet powerful effects.
An amino acid nootropic, typically derived from tea leaves, L-theanine has been shown to control stress and anxiety, even helping lower elevated blood pressure triggered by stress.
It may also help improve focus on certain mental tasks. L-theanine works by enhancing certain brain waves that increase creativity and promote feelings of “relaxed alertness”.
The relaxing aspect of L-theanine may be why a cup of tea is frequently used to unwind.
Being a naturally occurring amino acid, there are minimal side effects for L-theanine. Caffeine, found in black or green tea, seems to enhance the impact of L-theanine on the brain, and hence one of the most popular stacks that exist is the 100/200mg Caffeine L-Theanine combination.
Lion’s Mane Mushroom
Lion’s mane is a mushroom with a rich history of use in alternative medicine. Lion’s mane mushrooms contain two compounds called hericenones and erinacines that have been found to stimulate the growth of brain cells.
The discovery of these compounds in lion’s mane has sparked interest in the possibility it may help slow cognitive decline associated with aging. At this time, there are positive results from animal studies suggesting it can improve memory and combat the decline of cognitive health.
Human studies on lion’s mane are sparse. One human study found that regular supplementation with lion’s mane did improve cognitive function in older adults, but the effects disappeared once the supplementation stopped.
Although more research is needed in humans, some research points to lion’s mane mushrooms as a particular candidate for tackling issues affecting brain health.
Magnesium is an essential mineral in the human diet that plays a role in every cell in the body. According to the EFSA, an average adult’s diet should include 300-350 mg of magnesium a day for healthy psychological function.
Up to 48% of the US population falls short of the recommended intake, which can cause deficiency-related problems including detrimental effects on brain health.
Magnesium depletion has been associated with insomnia, depression, increased stress, and increase of ADHD symptoms in children.
Although it is well known that magnesium deficiency can lead to multiple cognitive concerns, there are limited human studies on the impact of magnesium supplementation on improving brain health.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is a plant in the nightshade family, popular in traditional medicine. It is considered an adaptogenic herb, which helps mitigate the impact of stress on the body.
A 2008 study found that when chronically stressed participants took ashwagandha for 60 days, they were found to have a more balanced stress response.
Participants also had improved levels of inflammation markers, cortisol, and blood pressure.
Other studies have found similar potential for ashwagandha as a stress-relieving agent.
There are several ways that ashwagandha may help relieve the physical effects of stress.
Firstly, it is said to contain compounds with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
It may also regulate hormones and neurotransmitters, reducing stress.
This is because ashwagandha could potentially interact with the adrenal glands, responsible for releasing the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline.
Ginkgo biloba (aka maidenhair tree) has been cultivated by humans for thousands of years and has a long history of use in traditional medicine.
Supplementation with ginkgo was found in a small study to enhance mental functioning and improve general well-being.
Another study found that it enhances cognitive processing ability in older adults.
A larger scale meta-analysis of the impact of gingko on cognitive function found no consistent improvements in attention and memory.
At this time, research on the impact of ginkgo on brain health is mixed. Even so, it remains a popular ingredient in the nootropic industry.
Cannabidiol or CBD is a compound derived from the plants of the Cannabis sativa family, hemp or marijuana. CBD can be extracted from either plant. With the recent legalization of this class of plants in the 2018 Farm Bill, interest in using CBD for a variety of health purposes has exploded.
CBD was only legalized for research purposes in 2015, therefore research is sparse.
CBD is believed to impact a part of the nervous system called the endocannabinoid system, directly modifying communication with the brain.
It is theorized that modifying this system may help improve mood, sleep, stress, and pain. CBD is also an anti-inflammatory compound, which may translate to additional health benefits.
With all the interest in CBD for health, the number of companies selling CBD has exploded in recent years. For this reason and the lack of available research, the FDA has significantly limited claims that can be made about this promising compound.
Bacopa monnieri is a herb found throughout the world. It has enjoyed a long history of use in the Ayurvedic medical tradition.
A 12 week study found that taking 300 mg of Bacopa monnieri increased processing speed, learning, and memory when compared to a placebo.
Multiple other studies have shown the nootropic potential of Bacopa monnieri, highlighting its incredible potential as a natural nootropic.
Bacopa monnieri works by impacting levels of neurotransmitters related to regulating stress and improving memory and brain function.
It also has antioxidant properties that may help reduce oxidative stress in the brain.
Modafinil is a substance often used to treat sleep-related disorders like narcolepsy and obstructive sleep apnoea.
It has been approved for medical use in the US since 1998 and is available on prescription in the UK.
Provigil is one of its most recognized brand names.
Modafinil is also used as a cognitive enhancer, though research on its efficacy is currently inconclusive.
Armed forces throughout the world consider modafinil a possible alternative to the amphetamines often used for combat missions to tackle sleep deprivation.
It’s also available to ISS astronauts to counteract the effects of fatigue caused by circadian disruption.
Side effects associated with modafinil range from common problems like nausea and headaches to more serious problems like skin lesions and rashes. Although rare, some of these side effects can be severe.
Noopept is a brand name for a powerful psychoactive nootropic.
For this reason, it has attracted clinical interest for its potential use in tackling the effects of traumatic brain injury, though research is ongoing.
It also has protective effects on the brain and may slow cognitive decline.
Interestingly, the effects are only seen in those with active brain damage. There is no evidence that it will improve brain function in healthy people.
The legal status of Noopept varies greatly depending on the jurisdiction.
In Russia, you can access Noopept without a prescription, while the UK lists it as a scheduled substance.
In the United States, it is available over-the-counter in supplement form.
Noopept in the UAE is not regulated.
It is sold as a medicine throughout Europe, but as a dietary supplement in the US.
In the UK, Piracetam is available on prescription for the treatment of jerking spasms called myoclonus, but is not otherwise prescribed for nootropic purposes.
It has been prescribed to treat illnesses like depression, anxiety disorders, seizures, dementia, and dyslexia.
It works by improving neuroplasticity in the brain and modifying the function of neurotransmitters, slowing down the nervous system.
Evidence for Piracetam’s effectiveness is mixed, though it also has very few side effects.
Do Nootropics really work?
The word nootropic has come to embody many different supplements and medications, which means this is not a simple question to answer.
It is important to note that doctors primarily use pharmaceutical nootropics to treat mental health conditions and aging-related symptoms.
Unfortunately, these drugs’ potent effects have meant that increasing numbers of healthy people use them recklessly to improve their mental performance.
Natural nootropics may be a safer option if you’re determined to gain an advantage. Still, the main disadvantage is that many of these substances lack conclusive evidence.
Caffeine is by far the most reliable ingredient to try should you wish to experience subtle benefits such as increased alertness and wakefulness. However, there is no suggestion this stimulant can aid memory.
Aside from that, supplementation with B vitamins could potentially help you feel more energetic throughout the day.
Nootropics for memory
In theory, a nootropic ‘super pill’ sounds like the perfect solution to help you achieve better results in your exams and career. In reality, there is no natural substance or pharmaceutical that can increase intelligence or IQ.
Cholinesterase inhibitors are one type of drug designed to treat illnesses associated with mental decline. They are used to delay the onset of symptoms relating to memory, language, and judgment.
However, under no circumstances should these be used by healthy adults. Their use is limited to people who have a genuine medical need.
Nootropics for anxiety
Improving cognitive function isn’t all about focus and concentration. Many people who buy nootropics are seeking to alleviate symptoms such as anxiety.
For those looking for natural options to help calm their nerves, substances like ashwagandha and CBD have both been studied for their soothing qualities, which have made them increasingly popular.
However, many claims about these substances don’t yet have full scientific backing and aren’t approved by regulatory bodies.
If you have severe anxiety, you may need prescription medications to help manage it.
Common medications for anxiety include Xanax, Ativan, and Valium. These should not be used without supervision by a medical doctor.
While nootropics may help with mood regulation, they’re unlikely to work well in a vacuum.
Instead, consider them a partner for other changes you can make to control anxiety, such as lifestyle and dietary modifications or therapeutic solutions like CBT.
Nootropics for Motivation & Energy
How much more could you accomplish with just a little extra motivation?
Your sense of motivation is influenced by everything from your mental hang-ups to your diet and overall well-being. Nootropics could help you out by tweaking those many factors affecting your sense of drive.
Think about your morning cup of coffee and the caffeine it contains. With that nootropic boost, you can shake off brain fog and stay motivated for longer—and both of those benefits are well-supported by science. Could nootropic supplements allow you to do even more? Possibly.
As previously stated, none of this makes nootropics a substitute for addressing the underlying causes of your motivational issues.
Improving your sleep routine, getting more exercise, and eating a healthy diet will have by far the most significant impact on your level of motivation. However, nootropics may compound the effects of other changes, improving the perceived result of the lifestyle changes you’ve made.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is it safe to take nootropics?
The study of nootropics’ long-term safety is ongoing. However, many natural nootropics contain supplement-level ingredients, including common herbs and vitamins, which are likely to have minimal long-term effects. Synthetic nootropics may have more potent long-term effects.
Is it legal to use nootropics?
Nootropics come in a wide range of forms, from an everyday cup of coffee to potent psychoactive drugs. As such, their legality varies from place to place. As a general rule, nootropic supplements using natural ingredients aren’t typically regulated as a drug. Still, you’ll need to investigate your local laws to know for sure.
What is a nootropic stack?
Stacking is a popular method of using nootropics that involves taking a mix of nootropics to “stack” their effects. Many nootropic supplements are effectively stacks, as they combine multiple nootropic ingredients to create synergy. Some common examples include pairing L-theanine with caffeine or taking multiple adaptogens together, like ashwagandha, Rhodiola, and lion’s mane. However, stacking is more commonly used in the context of personal, tailored nootropic combinations.
What is the most potent nootropic?
Again, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution here. The best nootropic for you will be determined by your requirements. Someone looking for the best nootropic for memory, focus, and concentration, for example, may look for different ingredients than someone looking for anxiety relief.
Do nootropics have any adverse side effects?
Nootropics, like any other drug, can have side effects. Most natural nootropics have only the rare and subtle side effects you’d expect from a cup of coffee. In contrast, intelligent drugs are more similar to pharmaceutical agents and have a higher potential for side effects. Some of the more severe smart drug side effects include:
Poor mood regulation
You should take care when using nootropics if you have a pre-existing medical condition, particularly if you’re already taking prescription medication. These could have unexpected interactions with supplements. If in doubt, consult your doctor.
Will nootropics help with brain fog?
Brain fog is a universal symptom of a diverse set of underlying problems. Whatever the cause, brain fog seems to cloud your thoughts and inhibit focus and motivation. In theory, some nootropics could potentially help you combat this symptom, depending on the cause. For instance, a 2010 study on caffeine found that sleep-deprived shift workers made fewer mistakes when ingesting caffeine than those who didn’t. That shows the potential benefits of using nootropics to combat brain fog that is related to sleep deprivation.
Suppose you are looking to improve your memory, alertness and increase your productivity. In that case, you may be considering a nootropic if, like millions of other people, you are looking to improve your memory.
However, research on the efficacy and safety of nootropics is still young, and the conclusions so far aren’t solid. As the research body grows, we’ll have a better idea of whether nootropics have anything to offer.
Meanwhile, you may benefit from nootropics as part of a well-balanced and healthy lifestyle. Nootropics aren’t a panacea, so consider making changes to your lifestyle that will enhance the effects of nootropics, such as improving your sleep quality, diet, or exposure to natural light and fresh air.
This article’s information does not constitute medical advice and is only be used at your own risk.
Under no circumstances should the information in this article be taken as medical advice or be used to prevent, diagnose, or treat any disease or illness.
Credits to Discover Magazine