Nootropics are smart drugs that are designed to enhance mental performance. But you may be looking at some of the ingredients and thinking, do nootropics make you sleepy? Here, our nootropics expert James Dixon puts this myth to bed…
Nootropic supplements can improve cognitive function, memory, creativity, and motivation, among other things. However, many fear that some nootropics can cause sleepiness or fatigue, which can be inconvenient and, really, counterproductive.
There is some truth to this fear, too. Some nootropics are known to cause daytime sleepiness, particularly those that increase dopamine levels, as they suppress melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that controls sleep-wake cycles, and when dopamine levels rise, melatonin levels decrease. This can lead to difficulty falling asleep at night or excessive sleepiness during the day.
However, there is only some truth to these fears. Actually, there is a little more nuance at work – nuance that deserves a bit of a closer look.
What are nootropics, and how do they work?
As above, nootropics are supplements that can enhance cognitive function, memory, creativity, or motivation. They are designed to improve mental abilities without causing significant side effects, with few if any negative health effects, and often without the use of any prescription medication – plenty are available easily enough over the counter.
The exact mechanisms by which nootropics work can vary depending on the specific ingredients involved – there are plenty of different formulae with plenty of different, innovative takes out there. However, they generally target and regulate various neurotransmitters, receptors, and enzymes in the brain to enhance cognitive processes.
For example, the neurotransmitter acetylcholine is one of the main common nootropic targets. Acetylcholine plays a critical role in memory, attention, and learning. Nootropics that increase acetylcholine levels, such as the drug piracetam, work by facilitating its production and release or by inhibiting enzymes that break it down.
By boosting acetylcholine activity, these nootropics may enhance cognitive functions associated with acetylcholine pathways.
Then there is dopamine, another key neurotransmitter. Dopamine is involved in reward, motivation, and pleasure. Nootropics that act on dopamine receptors, such as modafinil, can increase dopamine levels or enhance dopamine signaling. This can lead to improved focus, attention, and motivation, making these kinds of ingredients great choices for those of us looking for increased productivity.
Some nootropics also work through mechanisms related to energy metabolism and cerebral blood flow. For example, ingredients may enhance brain energy production or improve blood circulation to the brain – the likes of creatine and caffeine spring to mind. By giving the brain this additional energy or improved delivery of oxygen and vital nutrients, these kinds of ingredient can work by promoting mental alertness, alacrity, and overall cognitive performance.
Alternatively, certain nootropics may have antioxidant or neuroprotective properties. They may help reduce oxidative stress, inflammation, or damage caused by harmful free radicals in the brain. By protecting neurons and supporting overall brain health, these substances can potentially contribute to optimal cognitive function and longevity.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. There really are myriad ingredients that can elicit some form of nootropic result. Many will give you energy. Some, however, may indeed make you sleepy.
Some ingredients (like melatonin, bacopa monnieri, valerian root, L-theanine, phenibut, kava, and GABA – see below) have been associated with relaxation, calming effects, and improved sleep quality, but may also lead to sleepiness in some individuals. It’s important to use these ingredients responsibly, follow recommended dosages, and be aware of potential side effects.
Which nootropic ingredients can make you sleepy?
We will all respond slightly differently to most nootropic ingredients – what gives you energy might make me sleepy, what gives me energy might have no impact on you at all. However, this caveat aside, there are several nootropic ingredients and mechanisms that can be quite likely to elicit sleepiness.
For example, melatonin is commonly used as a sleep aid. It is, however, also considered a nootropic due to its potential to enhance cognitive function and memory. Melatonin is a hormone that regulates sleep-wake cycles – taking it as a supplement can help to promote improved sleep. If using it as a nootropic, it is important to be mindful of the dosage and timing – higher doses or taking it during the day can lead to drowsiness.
Bacopa monnieri is a herbal ingredient with potential nootropic effects. It’s one of my favourites, in fact – a great little herb. It is known for its cognitive-enhancing properties, including improved memory and focus. However, some users can experience mild sedative effects from its use. This can lead to feelings of relaxation and sleepiness – not bad things at all, but make sure you use it appropriately. It’s often a good idea to start with a lower dose and gradually increase it to get a handle on your individual response.
Valerian root is another herb that is often used as a natural sleep aid. It has calming and relaxing properties and can help promote better sleep quality. However, valerian root may also cause drowsiness in some users. Due to its sedative effects, it’s important to use valerian root with caution and avoid operating heavy machinery or driving after taking it.
I always like to see the amino acid l-theanine, commonly found in tea leaves, used in nootropics. Most top-tier nootropics include it in some way. It is known for promoting relaxation without causing drowsiness. However, some users may experience a calming effect that can potentially lead to sleepiness.
You will often see l-theanine paired with caffeine in nootropic stacks, in part to counteract caffeine’s stimulant effects.
GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that promotes relaxation and reduces stress and anxiety. Supplementing with GABA can have a lovely, calming effect whilst also supporting better sleep quality. However, some users may experience this calming effect a little too much – drowsiness is a common side effect of GABA supplementation.
Phenibut, a synthetic compound often used in nootropics, is structurally similar to the neurotransmitter GABA. Like GABA, it is used to promote relaxation, reduce anxiety, and improve sleep quality. However, phenibut can have sedative effects, and some users may experience drowsiness or excessive sleepiness when taking it. Practice caution when taking phenibut and follow recommended dosages to minimize the risk of side effects.
Nootropic’s calming role will often see this kind of effect taking place. For instance, kava, a plant, is often used for its calming and anxiety-reducing effects. It has been traditionally used in Pacific Island cultures to induce relaxation and improve sleep. While kava can promote a sense of tranquillity, it may also lead to sedation and drowsiness. (It’s also important to note that kava has been associated with potential liver toxicity, so approach its use with caution and under medical supervision – I personally don’t like to see it used in nootropics.)
As above, individual responses to nootropic ingredients can vary. Some of us may not experience sleepiness even with these ingredients – I tend not to. Additionally, it’s important to consider the dosage and timing of supplementation, and potential interactions with other medications, ingredients or supplements.
I don’t usually feel sleepy with nootropic use because I tend to pick nootropics known for their energy-boosting effects – improved vascularity, or a big caffeine hit, or something similar, as mentioned above.
So, do nootropics make you sleepy?
And that’s sort of the rub. Nootropics can make you sleepy. This doesn’t mean that they necessarily do or will. In fact, nootropics will probably do the opposite – most of them are known to improve alertness and energy levels.
While some nootropic ingredients can potentially cause sleepiness or drowsiness in certain individuals, this is not the case for the majority of them. The primary goal of most nootropics is to enhance cognitive function and promote mental alertness rather than inducing sleepiness.
This has generally been my experience with them, and my experience is really quite typical.
Many popular nootropic ingredients, including the likes of caffeine, modafinil, and racetams, are widely recognized for their ability to increase alertness and improve energy levels.
Caffeine, as we have seen, is a well-known stimulant that can enhance focus and reduce fatigue. It stimulates the central nervous system and blocks the receptors for the neurotransmitter adenosine, which is responsible for promoting sleep and relaxation. By inhibiting the effects of adenosine, caffeine increases wakefulness and mental alertness. It’s included in plenty of common nootropic supplements.
So we come to a bit of a yin and yang situation. It comes out quite balanced. Well, actually it doesn’t – the balance goes largely in favor of increased energy levels. Most nootropics will give you an energy boost accompanied by slower, longer-lasting energy release. The opposite, in short, of making you sleepy.
Whilst it’s definitely possible for some nootropic ingredients to cause sleepiness or drowsiness in specific individuals, the majority of nootropics are designed to enhance alertness and energy levels. They achieve this purpose ably.
For every slightly relaxing GABA or bacopa monnieri inclusion, there’s caffeine or something similar to counteract it. I would be very surprised if a nootropic supplement as a whole made you feel sleepy all told.