Over the last few years, a new type of supplement has taken the world by storm. Rather than muscle builders, creatine, or weight loss drugs, they’re brain enhancers. Simply put, it’s an exploding niche.
Commonly referred to as nootropics, they enhance memory, executive functioning, recall, creativity, motivation, and may even help with cognitive decline. Since almost anyone can be a customer, the market is potentially greater than the narrow fields of muscle building or weight loss.
In fact, even students are now commonly well-versed in nootropics - though they aren’t always taking the legal ones. It’s important to always do your research, and consult with your doctor, before taking any nootropics.
What Are Nootropics?
Nootropics can come in many different forms - from the caffeine found in coffee and energy drinks to more natural cures for depression, like Rhodiola. Commonly referred to as ‘smart drugs’, nootropics are any substances that enhance some aspect of brain activity.
In 2015, the market surpassed $1 billion and interest in nootropics has only grown in the years since then. However, growth has not come without controversy. The FDA determined that some smart drugs were using illegal marketing tactics and some products contained misleading ingredients.
In addition to a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep, taking supplements is the last bastion, to maximize your brain-power. Interestingly, we also have self-limiting beliefs and habits and sometimes these stop us from learning new things or trying harder to make progress. Nootropics are fascinating because for a large majority of them, scientists are still not entirely sure how they work.
While there are various mechanisms of action (MOA) -- from improved synapse firing to better cell protection -- no two nootropics are the same. In fact, the term ‘nootropic’ itself, was coined during the process of discovering piracetam - one of the most famous nootropics.
Remarkably, while piracetam improved multiple areas of mental performance, it did not come with negative side effects. This led the scientific researchers to believe that they had opened up an entirely new world, of potentially beneficial substances - with no real downsides.
There was also hope that people with debilitating brain disorders, may see benefits from taking nootropics. Alzheimer’s, dementia - crippling problems, with no real solutions. The term ‘nootropic’ itself, roughly translates from Greek as ‘mind change’.
It is a perfect name, for what these substances hope to achieve. Usually, nootropics are ‘stacked’. This simply means taking two different nootropics together, to have even greater benefits. Because our brain requires many different chemicals and substances - stacking makes sense.
While you may be curious and want to dive into the deep end, it’s a much better idea to try only one nootropic at a time. That way, you can determine exactly what each is doing, and whether or not you would benefit from continuing to take them.
What Are The Best Nootropics?
When it comes to nootropics, there is a myriad of great options. There are nootropics that improve your mood, those that improve memory, and those that help you think faster. There are also many substances, like docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which are technically not nootropics, but nonetheless help your brain function better.
The importance of eating a great diet, as well as daily exercise, and restful sleep - cannot be overstated enough. These are critical to optimal brain function, and supplements won’t do much to overcome hurdles like a complete lack of sleep.
That being said, nootropics are a great way to reach your absolute peak performance. We cover some of the best (and most popular) nootropics, below.
The world’s most widely consumed psychoactive substance, it is almost impossible for many of us to imagine starting out day without it. Coffee is, of course, the most common delivery vehicle for caffeine. There are also energy drinks, soda, pre-workouts, and many other products, which also contain this stimulant.
Caffeine works by binding to adenosine receptors, inside our brain. Adenosine helps to promote feelings of calmness, and tiredness. By blocking these receptors, we feel more alert, more energetic, and more motivated.
Of course, our body loves to stay in homeostasis, so it responds to caffeine by producing more adenosine receptors. This accounts for the tolerance effect, whereby we need more and more caffeine, just to get the same level of buzz.
What may come as a surprise to many, is just how addicted to caffeine we really are. Everyone thinks it’s a harmless, easily beatable addiction until they try to give it up. It is surprisingly difficult, and just like other drugs, there are withdrawal symptoms.
Lethargy, depression, tiredness, grouchiness - caffeine withdrawal is not pretty. Interestingly, you may find tyrosine beneficial during this phase - which is another nootropic on our list.
Piracetam is one of the more popular nootropics on the market and is a member of the racetam family. A derivative of GABA, which actually helps to calm your central nervous system, piracetam helps to speed up your brain.
It’s usually ‘stacked’ with a choline source for better results. Piracetam was originally put on the market all the way back in 1971. When scientists were trying to make a sleeping pill, they accidentally stumbled across gold. To this day, piracetam is still one of the best nootropics on the market, and offers no downsides, while offering clear benefits.
Alpha GPC Choline
Alpha GPC choline is another popular nootropic, which provides benefits across the board. It works to boost overall choline levels, which cause an uptick in cerebral performance.
Scientific studies have even shown physical performance benefits, after taking alpha GPC for only six days. Alpha GPC takes effect quickly, raising choline levels in the brain, resulting in better cognition. In some situations, alpha GPC may even help repair a faulty memory but only to a limited degree.
Another nootropic from the racetam family, Noopept is very popular with programmers and biohackers. Noopept also has the added benefit of requiring a much smaller dose than most nootropics, needing only 10-25 milligrams, before taking effect.
Noopept was originally developed to be a more bioavailable form of piracetam. ‘Bioavailable’ simply means that the body can use the substance in question. It was also developed from the core molecule of piracetam -- proline. Many scientific studies have shown fairly remarkable upticks in those with brain or learning impairments when taking noopept.
One of the most famous nootropics -- modafinil -- is used by programmers, night shift workers, and students alike. Originally used for sleep apnea, narcolepsy, and shift disorders, it has crossed over into biohacker circles.
Scientists are also unsure of exactly how modafinil works. That’s right, it works, but even the smartest minds in the world aren’t entirely sure how. It is quite effective but lacks the side effects of more serious stimulants.
It should be noted that some users do not react well, and psychiatric reactions that are strong in nature can occur. The US Air Force sometimes uses this nootropic to help avoid fatigue and in situations where sleep deprivation has occurred.
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The word ‘adderall’ has become a popular word in the American lexicon and for good reason. This nootropic is commonly prescribed for ADHD, but it has become a staple of Silicon Valley programmers. Used to stay awake and focused, it also causes light euphoria, as well as better cognitive control.
Since Adderall is made from four salts of amphetamine, it is quite strong, and technically a stimulant. When stacked with other stimulants like caffeine, it is even more potent. It should be noted however that this is a prescription medication.
Phosphatidylserine is a communicator between cells in the brain, as well as a protector of them. The thinking in supplementing with more phosphatidylserine is that the amounts in your brain will increase, leading to better cognitive functioning.
Many scientific studies have shown that phosphatidylserine levels decline as we age. Therefore, the theory is that supplementing with the substance, will help.
There are two main sources of phosphatidylserine, soy and bovine. They are markedly different and do not have the same impact. Phosphatidylserine can also be found in different foods, though not nearly in therapeutic or desired amounts.
Carnitine is another popular nootropic. Not only is it linked to potential benefits in memory, but it also works synergistically as a fat burner. Since it has benefits to your actual mitochondria, carnitine works at the lowest level possible, inside the body.
It actually plays an essential role in energy production, which is done by transferring fatty acids directly into the mitochondria, where they are burned for energy.
Bacopa monnieri is an herb, which has gained popularity as a cutting edge nootropic. It does seem to help with memory, although marketing claims are often unrelated to this aspect, and are sometimes very overblown.
Some studies show promising results in terms of reducing oxidative damage, as well as cognitive enhancement. Bacopa monnieri is also well-known for helping to alleviate mental and cognitive disorders. It has also been used in ayurvedic medicine for centuries. The mechanism of action seems to be an increase in the production of brain chemicals which are critical to neuronal functions.
CDP choline is another great way to enhance your overall choline levels and can lead to better neuronal functioning. CDP choline is also known as citicoline and is a biosynthetic intermediate in the formation of choline.
It aids in overall cognitive ability, as well as recall, executive functioning, and memory formation. When we take it, we notice an almost-immediate uptake in mental and verbal abilities, though this is still within normal limits. Those who suffer from minor depression or a foggy brain may also see benefits from taking it.
Tyrosine is an ‘older’ nootropic, in the sense that it is not new, and has been around health and wellness circles for over 20 years. Commonly recommended as a great way to fight caffeine withdrawal, it helps to boost communication between nerves, as well as boosting mood and even helping with low-grade depression.
Interestingly, tyrosine is also found in cheese, which is where it was originally discovered. Technically, tyrosine is an amino acid made from phenylalanine. It works great for naturally boosting your mood and has no reported side effects.