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The term ‘nootropics’ actually encompasses a wide variety of different substance (both organic and synthetic) that share one basic commonality: they enhance the capacity of your brain to perform certain mental functions. From improved memory recall and cognition to better mood management, nootropic substances possess all sorts of benefits for your brain.
Also known as ‘smart drugs’ and ‘cognitive enhancers’, nootropics come in many forms. From organic-based compounds like herbs and amino acid supplements to completely synthetic drugs designed and manufactured in a laboratory. Their obtainability also ranges from widely available herbal extracts and supplements to prescription medications, all the way to illicit substances.
Nootropics of all kinds have seen tremendous growth in popularity in recent years. They are now used by athletes at all competitive levels and are relied on for enhanced mental processing by many programmers and developers in the tech world. In fact, nootropics have made their way into mainstream society.
Well if we want to be completely accurate, they’ve actually been there for quite some time! In reality, you’ve probably been taking nootropics for years. You just didn’t know it. If you’ve ever had a cup of coffee or a spot of tea, then you have taken a nootropic.
Caffeine is the naturally occurring psychoactive ingredient found in coffee beans and tea leaves. Its ability to jolt your brain into a heightened state of alertness makes it the most popular nootropic substance in the world. But it’s not just their energy-boosting properties that have made nootropics popular, they can augment higher brain functions on several levels.
What Are The Benefits of Taking Nootropics?
There are a number of different benefits associated with taking nootropics. Some have been thoroughly researched and discussed in the scientific journals while others have not. Here we’re going to focus on 6 scientifically backed aspects of your mental functioning and cognition that can be improved or enhanced by nootropics.
The tech world has played a major role in the popularization of nootropics in the mainstream. For decades now, some of Silicon Valley’s most creative minds have been experimenting with all different kinds of nootropics to enhance their creativity and imagination — some of them legal, some of them not so much.
While there are some extreme practices, like microdosing LSD, there are plenty of more conservative (and legal) nootropics that can expand your capacity for creative thinking. huperzine-a, for example, is a natural substance derived from the Huperzia Serrata plant. Artists across many different disciplines have found that supplementing with it helps to enhance the cognitive functions associated with the creative process.
There are also a number of nootropics that can help to support your peace of mind. Some in fact can help with the biochemical basis for how you handle stress. Natural amino acids like l-theanine can potentially help you to feel more relaxed and at ease.
Whether you’re a student, working professional or competitive athlete, people from all walks of life find themselves struggling to summon the inner motivation they need. Luckily, nootropics like 5-HTP help to boost your drive and will power through the regulation of brain chemicals like serotonin, which helps to produce a calm and focused state of mind.
One of the most popular reasons people take nootropic substances is for their memory-enhancing benefits. Through a number of different pathways (which we’ll get into in the following section), nootropics like ginseng can help to boost cognitive functions like working memory and memory recall.
In addition to enhancing cognitive skills like your working memory, some nootropics aid in other aspects of the learning process as well. From information processing to retention and storage, nootropics like l-tyrosine help to improve your cognitive capabilities both inside and outside of the classroom.
One reason prescription nootropic agents are ubiquitous on college campuses across the U.S. is that they can dramatically increase your ability to concentrate and focus for extended periods of time. Certain natural, herbal extracts and supplements like rhodiola rosea and choline are widely available and can also help to increase your concentration and overall productivity.
How Do Nootropics Actually Work?
When it comes to the question “how do nootropics work”, it is tough to boil things down into a one size fits all answer. There are hundreds of different nootropic substances and each of them interacts with the brain in a distinct way.
We can, however, break them down into different categories based on the brain functions in which they affect. Some nootropics may interact in your brain by influencing the production of certain chemicals, while others may instead help to promote improved blood circulation and nutrient absorption. Some may do both. Others may do neither.
In general, nootropics help to improve your cognitive abilities in one or more of the following ways:
Support Your Brain
Some nootropics function as neuroprotectors, meaning that they help to protect your brain against other substances that can impair cognitive abilities like memory and information processing.
For example, l-theanine is an amino acid found in tea leaves. One of its functions is to inhibit the release of the excitatory chemical glutamate in the brain. Glutamate is a natural and necessary substance in your brain, but at high levels, can induce feelings of stress and uneasiness.(1)
Boost or Inhibit Neurotransmitters in Your Brain
Nootropics also work by increasing the production of certain types of chemicals in your brain, known as neurotransmitters. These are signal messengers that travel from nerve to nerve. Brain chemicals such as GABA, serotonin, and dopamine are known to enhance your feeling of well-being. For example, a nootropic like 5 HTP boosts the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin in your brain, which helps to produce a relaxed, worry-free state of mind. (2),(3)
On the flip side, some types of nootropics work in the opposite way: by blocking the production of neurotransmitters that produce unwanted effects like stress and apprehension. For instance, some nootropics help to improve your mood by targeting and inhibiting the production of cortisol, which is a neurotransmitter directly associated with stress. (4)
Support Brain Energy
Some Nootropics such as creatine (a non-essential amino acid) help to boost the brain’s energy by increasing the output of certain chemicals such as adenosine triphosphate (ATP) in your brain cells. ATP is derived from the breakdown of food molecules like amino acids and glucose and is your brain’s primary chemical fuel source.
The increased availability of ATP in the brain is believed to boost cognitive skills such as critical thinking and short-term memory. Some studies on creatine, for instance, have demonstrated that it increases ATP production which in turn helps to improve the cognitive performances of consumers.(5)
Support Brain Blood Flow & Oxygenation
Improved blood flow, circulation, and oxygen utilization are also benefits associated with some nootropics. Substances like ginkgo biloba (a natural herb), target tiny blood vessels in the brain, helping to increase oxygen uptake by the nerve cells these vessels suppy and also nutrient absorption. Increased cerebral blood circulation is believed to improve your ability to perform cognitive tasks such as those requiring memory recall and information processing.(6)
Regulate Brain Waves
Another way in which some nootropics interact with your brain is through regulating the frequency of your brain waves. It all sounds pretty complicated…and it kind of is.
But in general, your brain waves fluctuate across a number of different frequencies, from delta at the low end, all the way up to gamma at the high end. Different frequencies are associated with different states of mind. Some nootropics help to boost a particular brain wave frequency to produce a desired mental state.
For instance, theta brain waves (which are on the lower end of the frequency spectrum) are believed to be closely associated with the creative process and the subconscious mind. On the other hand, nootropics like GABA help to boost Alpha brain waves (they’re more in the middle of the spectrum), which helps to alleviate stress related feelings by producing a calm, relaxed mental state.(7)
What Are The Different Forms That Nootropics Come In?
As we’ve already touched on, nootropics come in many different forms, which can make them somewhat tricky to categorize. However, one of the simplest ways to organize them is to break them down into 3 basic categories: natural, synthetic and hybrid nootropics.
Natural nootropics are plant-based substances like ginseng, rhodiola rosea, and bacopa monnieri. They generally come in the form of herbs or herbal extracts. When we say natural, we mean that the compound comes from nature and has not been subjected to any type of laboratory processes. Natural nootropics can have a wide variety of different effects, including all of the benefits we discussed above.
Hybrid nootropics like choline, creatine, and GABA are substances that are naturally occurring in man and/or plants but are manufactured and processed in a laboratory. They are the central ingredients in many different dietary supplements and come in a number of different forms including amino acids and antioxidants just to name a few.
Some nootropic compounds don’t occur in nature at all and instead are completely designed and created in a laboratory. In some cases, there may be added risk involved in taking synthetic substances that relatively little is known about. However, a number of artificial nootropics like Adderall, Ritalin, and Piracetam have been extensively studied.
While Adderall and Ritalin are currently available as prescription medications here in the U.S., Piracetam inhabits more of a grey area — it’s not a banned substance but it’s also not approved by the FDA, which means that it cannot be distributed as a dietary supplement or prescription medication.
Are Nootropics Safe?
When taken at the correct dosages, there are many nootropics that appear to be safe for adults. However, it is important to point out that there has yet to be much research on the long term effects of many nootropic substances.
In any case, here are some basic rules to follow in order to minimize the potential dangers associated with taking nootropic substances:
Hold Off Until Your Brain Fully Develops
The primary function of a nootropic is to interact with your brain. However, when your brain is still developing, you may be at an increased risk of doing unintended damage. Long story short, it’s probably best to hold off on the cognitive enhancers until your brain is fully developed — for most people, that’s somewhere in their mid 20s.(8)
Do Your Research
Know exactly what it is you are taking and why it is you are taking it. You should at least have a basic understanding of how the substance works and what its effects are before you begin taking it. If you are looking for nootropic supplements, make sure that you are getting products from reputable manufacturers and distributors. Unfortunately, there are many tainted and/or miss-advertised supplements out there, so make sure that you are purchasing 3rd party tested, well-reviewed products.
Take an Appropriate Dosage
While it might be tempting to take extra amounts for added effects, you can potentially run into some serious side effects (or even worse) if you don’t follow the appropriate dosage recommendations. Even when you’re within the correct dosage range, it’s probably wise to go with the minimum amount necessary to produce the desired effects. Some nootropics will have different effects at different dosages.
Beware of Interactions With Other Drugs
One of the biggest things to be aware of before taking any nootropic product is potential interactions it may have when combined with medication that you’re already on. If you are regularly taking some type of prescription drug, you will want to consult with a medical professional before adding a nootropic substance into the mix.
Can You Take Different Nootropics Together AKA ‘Stack’ Them?
The short answer is yes, you can definitely take certain nootropics together in order to enhance their effects. In fact, a number of supplement companies offer ‘nootropics stacks’ that combine several different ingredients to further enhance their effects on your brain.
There are lots of different nootropics that become more effective when paired together; however, there are also some that become more dangerous. As such, one of the easiest ways to avoid any of the dangers associated with stacking nootropics is by leaving the mixing and matching to the professionals. As with any supplement, do your research and be sure that you’re using ingredients that are safety and quality tested!
- Nathan P.J., Lu K., Gray M., Oliver C. “The neuropharmacology of L-theanine(N-ethyl-L-glutamine): a possible neuroprotective and cognitive enhancing agent.” Journal of Herbal Pharmacotherapy. 2006;6(2):21-30.
- Turner E.H., Loftis J.M., Blackwell A.D. “Serotonin a la carte: supplementation with the serotonin precursor 5-hydroxytryptophan.”Pharmacology and Therapeutics. 2006 Mar;109(3):325-38.
- Hinz M., Stein A., Uncini T. “APRESS: apical regulatory super system, serotonin, and dopamine interaction.” Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment. 2011;7:457-63.
- Kennedy D.O. “B Vitamins and the Brain: Mechanisms, Dose and Efficacy—A Review” Nutrients. 2016 Feb; 8(2): 68.
- Li X.T., Chen R., Jin L.M., Chen H.Y. “Regulation on energy metabolism and protection on mitochondria of Panax ginseng polysaccharide.” American Journal of Chinese Medicine. 2009;37(6):1139-52.
- Watanabe A., Kato N., Kato T. “Effects of creatine on mental fatigue and cerebral hemoglobin oxygenation.” Neuroscience Research. 2002 Apr;42(4):279-85.
- Abdou A.M., Higashiguchi S., Horie K., Kim M., Hatta H, Yokogoshi H. “Relaxation and immunity enhancement effects of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) administration in humans.” Biofactors. 2006;26(3):201-8.
- Urban K.R., Gao, W.J. “Performance enhancement at the cost of potential brain plasticity: neural ramifications of nootropic drugs in the healthy developing brain” Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience May 2014