What are Nootropics?
You know that brain boosting ‘zing’ you get from your first sip of coffee for the day? The cogs start working a little faster and your productivity levels rise with each subsequent sip… Most of us drinking coffee do so for this purpose - to energize, awaken and boost performance. Even if you’re not a coffee drinker, you’ll all know the effects it creates.
Similar to this mechanism (caffeine is actually used in many of these nootropic substances), an entire class of drugs and supplements has been created, and are being taken for this very reason - to boost our brain power and unlock our cognitive potential. Sounds like a heaven-send for life-hack lovers, hard workers, and productivity seekers, right?
Since the popularity of nootropics is continuously growing, the scientific research into the various available substances and their effects on our health is being documented at a steadily rising pace. Not to be confused with unauthorized drug taking (as was the case a few decades ago), below we explain why nootropics are in a difference class of substance. Read on for an objective beginners guide to nootropics.
What they aren’t
Think of the movie ‘limitless’ - that wonderful magic pill that unlocks the other 90% of the brain we are apparently ‘not using’.*
Smart drugs are the street name for these types of ‘pills’ - not quite as strong as limitless - though illegally used drugs by students, and professionals alike. They create an effect of intense focus with more efficient cognition to assist productivity. These early days of smart drugs were mostly focused on mis-using medications for conditions like ADHD, when the user doesn’t actually experience this condition. These aren’t what we mean when we speak of ‘nootropics’ in this present time - instead, we're talking about substances made specifically to boost cognition.
*The commonly spread phrase is actually not right on many levels - we aren’t walking around using only 10% of our brain constantly. Different parts of our brain light up with our cognitive functions depending on the context we are using it, hence how this myth has been perpetuated.
What they are
Nootropics are in a different league - though still often called ‘smart drugs’ as a street name. They are used specifically to enhance our productivity, increasing our ability to memorise, think creatively, and work to a higher capacity. Created for this purpose only, they aren’t drugs as mentioned above, made initially to treat cognitive conditions, but instead made to boost cognition.
Considered as the founding doctor of the term ‘nootropics’ in the 1960s, Romanian psychologist Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea created some criteria as to what characterizes a pure nootropic:
- Enhances cognitive functions like memory and learning
- Improved cognitive abilities under stress
- Neuroprotective abilities (for brain cell decline)
- Provides protection for the brain against injury (physical or chemical)
- Communication in neural pathways enhanced
- Proven by research to be effective
- Produces minimal-to-no side effects, with minimal-to-no toxicity.
When considering these strict guidelines, only a few nootropics contain all qualities - so the ‘pure nootropics’ of Dr. Giurgea’s definition are still in the minority of what is available to us now and what is being commonly used. Since the 1960s, the scope of nootropics has changed, and the definition expanded. The word is now used to describe any supplement that enhances the brain in any way.
Nootropics Brain Enhancing Benefits
Below are some of the reasons people seek out and use nootropics in their personal and professional lives. These benefits to our brain have been found through scientific research, as well as anecdotal evidence:
- Memory (working memory, recall, storage, knowledge retention)
- Learning (attention, concentration and focus)
- Mood (balance moods and uplifts energy, improves anxiety and depression symptoms)
- Creativity (idea formation, problem solving, artistic skill - relaxed brain waves enhance creative thinking)
- Physical body (focus, inspiration, motivation, and even metabolism boosting)
- Resistance to Stress (mood enhancing and clarity of mind)
How they do all of that
Nootropics work in a number of ways, depending on which particular supplement is used.
The mechanisms of the nootropics affect are related to how they interact with our brains pathways such as:
- Blood flow - circulation of the cerebral area can affect the way we function. Nootropics can assist in oxidizing blood, supporting the vessels in delivering oxygen and nutrients to our brain.
- Brian waves - nootropics have been known to alter and raise certain brain frequencies used to create various cognitive states (calm, concentrated etc.)
- Energy - about 20% of the body’s energy is actually consumed by the brain, which makes it the most energetically demanding organ of the body. The energy powerhouses of the cell (mitochondria) receive an enhanced metabolizing effect. Put simply: more energy, more fast.
- Protection - they have an antioxidant (stress reducing) affect on the brain, allowing more support for the brains natural defense mechanisms to toxicity.
- Regeneration - neurogenesis (the process of cell repair, maintenance and plasticity) has been linked to nootropic use in their ability to signal growth mechanisms.
- Chemical balance - the production, maintenance and breakdown of brain chemicals is enhances with nootropics, enabling faster communication in cognition abilities.
Not all Nootropics are the same
Most high quality nootropics used today (again, unlike the ‘smart pills’ of the past) are naturally extracted substances - fulfilling that pure nootropic quality of producing little-to-no adverse side effects.
Categories of Natural Nootropics
For example, B-Vitamins are considered to have a nootropic effect (B6, B12 and B12).
Many herbs are used for nootropic use. Extracts are often most commonly seen under their botanical name. The bioactive compounds are what make certain herbs (and often fungi, or other ‘foods’) brain boosting. Adaptogens come under the ‘herbal’ nootropic category, and are basically what the name suggests - an enhancement for the body’s ability to adapt to stressful conditions.
Coming under this category (sourced from links like soy, sunflower and even animal organs) is a popular nootropic on the market today known as Phosphatidylserine (PS)
Another natural supplementation allows the brain to form certain chemicals, as well as fats (which is vital for brain functioning). Often these are in the forms of nootropics dedicated to memory enhancement and mood boosting.
Protecting the brain against free radical stress, these are often derived from more natural plant based sources.
Improves energy and mental clarity, these are favoured among those using amino for metabolic effects for their physical fitness as well. L-Theanine is an example of an amino acid nootropic.
Over 200 drugs and supplements have been cited to enhance cognitive ability. They can be either natural dietary supplements, or chemically created synthetic nootropics.
The most common natural forms include:
Found in foods we eat (though often many of us can be deficient in this), Choline supplementation has nootropic effects. It helps to produce brain chemicals needed to function efficient, as well as even alleviating headaches.
Known also as the ‘Golden Root’, it Is a adaptogenic herb nootropic used in traditional medicine for centuries. It enhances energy, alters and lifts mood, and is often used as anti-anxiety and anti-depressant supplementation.
This aquatic herb, found in Southeast Asia, is a memory and cognition booster, which also helps to reduce stress and improve mood.
One of the most popular and researched herbal medicines on earth, Ginseng has been in traditional remedies in Asia and North America for centuries. There are a wide range of specifies, which all aid cognition in a number of ways. It’s most well known for boosting attention, memory and focus, as well as calming anxiety.
Lion Mane Mushroom
Unique in the family of mushrooms, it is very effective in stimulating the Nerve Growth Factor in our brain. Often described as a 'brain tonic', it's been used for centuries, especially in meditation experiences to heighten focus.
This South American vine has powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. It's used to restore DNA and immune function, as well as improve cognition and uplift mood.
Considered to be a 'living fossil' by scientists, it's known to date back 270 million years and still survives. The extract improves concentration, alertness, focus and aids in memory.
One we all know well, caffeine enhances our focus and alertness, gives us energy and uplifts mood, and is one of the most widely used nootropic on earth (most people unawares that it is considered a nootropic). Green Tea Extract is another example of caffeine based nootropics.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
For example, DHA is an essential acid that boosts learning, memory and cognition, as well as reducing brain inflammation and improving the growth of new brain cells. These acids are vital for healthy functioning of our brain, and are essential nutrients.
Used as a memory enhancer, it also reduces stress and uplifts mood. Often used to treat symptoms of ADHD, depression and anxiety, it is bioavailable and powerful, needing only a small amount to do the work for our brains
There is a range of synthetic nootropics that have similar or more potent and immediate effects. They’re usually supplements that are based on the drugs used to treat cognitive conditions.
Some of the most popular synthetic nootropics include:
Renowned as being the first synthesized nootropic by Dr. Giurgea, it is still used today in it's role of increasing creativity and verbal fluency, as well as a strong memory and learning enhancer.
Piracetam has been enhanced to this particular substance, which allows you to experience the benefits at a lower dosage as it’s more bioavailable for the body to absorb. Cognitive function, memory and concentration and attention span are all reported benefits of this nootropic.
One of the more popular synthetic nootropics, it increases reflex response, heightened learning ability with memory function, and enhances mood. The nootropic works on specific receptors in the brain, stimulating neurotransmitters to create these effects.
Often described as the strongest nootropic available, this was used originally for conditions like sleep disorders, to give people a boost of energy during their waking states. The energising effect is why people have turned to this as a nootropic, though it is suggested to use in smaller doses, as it is powerful in its effects.
As a super potent nootropic, Aniracetam is often used in small doses to boost learning and memory, relieve depression, and even assist in social interactions.
Developed in the 1970s in one of the first groups of nootropics, it is known to improve both short and long-term memory. Concentration and focus are also benefits of taking this drug.
Science and future research
Neurohacker.com had a great description of where nootropics are in their phase of development, stating that nootropics are really just still in their ‘Nokia 1100’ stage. This is to say that we are just scratching the surface in how we can utilise substances in a safe and effective way to enhance our abilities to perform at higher productive standards. Below are some examples of how nootropics are researched in clinical settings.
One particular clinical review1 looked at the efficacy of one particular class of synthetic nootropic ‘piracetam-like’ substances. It stated that “piracetam-like nootropics are capable of achieving reversal of amnesia induced by e.g., scopolamine, electrocon-vulsive shock and hypoxia… Increased turnover of different neurotransmitters has been observed as well as other biochemical findings e.g., inhibition of enzymes such as prolylendopeptidase.”
The review noted that it is still not clear in the true mechanisms behind this action, which points to more research being conducted in this area to really understand how these improvements have occurred.
Nicergoline is another synthetic nootropic that’s been used for the past few decades to treat cognitive, behavioural and affective disorders in older populations. Prescribed initially for such disorders, it has been expanded for use with degenerative conditions such as dementia. Findings2 pointed to increased cognition in these populations, though side affects were also experienced in some cases.
The naturally derived nootropic Choline has had success in improving memory and cognitive functions in short and medium term studies3 with no side effects. The promising results point this research to head towards longer-term studies.
It was also found4 that natural nootropics like ginseng and bacopa (often called nutraceuticals - ‘functional foods’) had a positive effect on memory recall and reaction times.
Another study5 confirms that bacopa improves memory recall with evidence for enhancement in other cognitive abilities, though it was noted that more trials are needed to determine effects at different nootropic dosages.
This is just a select few studies in the area of nootropics, demonstrating that as it is still a relatively new class of substances, the effects are promising, as also require more research, especially in the area of long term benefits and synthetic side effects.
How to take Nootropics
- As single supplements - individual ingredient supplements that target a specific purpose.
- As nootropic stacks - multi-ingredient formula created to enhance several brain functions. They can either by DIY or pre-made manufactured supplements. Of course, if you are mixing nootropics at home, caution should always be taken in the amount and the specific blend. On the flip side, look out for the pre-made mixes to see if there are more additives that start to take away from this ‘natural’ quality that the nootropic would have otherwise had.
Some users report developing a tolerance to nootropics overtime, which means that more needs to be taken in order to experience the effects.
Withdrawal symptoms when stopping nootropics has also been a concern, with some reported brain-fog has cause for concern over the side effects. Though this doesn’t mean that there’s regression or damage.
It's suggested to ‘cycle’ in your use of nootropics. You can take the nootropic for a few days, and then take a break. Try for 5 days on, 2 days off. This can help reduce tolerance build up, and also support your system (and state of mind) to not rely every day on nootropic use.
A point to note here is that if it is a pure nootropic with no proven/known side effects, then daily use may not be detrimental at all - though do we really want to create a reliance on taking anything in our lives? That’s a personal question you’d answer yourself.
The issue of morality
Harvard Business Review online sparked an intriguing conversation on the morality of nootropics use. Some users interviewed revealed that they regularly take nootropics during their working day, and have chosen to hide this from their employers. The decision to hide may not have to do with whether there is a particular policy forbidding this, and more to do with the social implications and perhaps subsequent judgment, which is interesting to note.
In university students, it is quite common for those studying to use nootropics to enhance their study capacity, with many reports of still using the 'smart drug' prescription ADHD medications such as Ritalin and Adderall, as well as other cognitive altering drugs. It’s even been found that almost 20% of even Ivy League college students have tried nootropics at some point in their studies.
The Financial Times has claimed that nootropics are “becoming popular among city lawyers, bankers, and other professionals keen to gain a competitive advantage over colleagues.”
Studies have revealed the positive effects these drugs have on professionals such as lawyers, pilots, and even surgeons - most notably in those suffering from sleep deprivation.
This all begs the question - what about those who can’t access them in the professional environment, or their education experience? Is it fair for some to be able to 'enhance', while others are left out? How is this different to our daily dose of caffeine?
Now that you’ve got the low down on nootropics, it’s in your hands to decide whether using them is for you.
For more information, or to keep up to date with the research, these sites are particularly useful. Just search the term ‘nootropics.’