If you suffer from mental lethargy or if you’re looking to increase your mind’s focus and motivation, you may have come across ‘nootropics’. But what are nootropics, exactly? James Dixon outlines everything you must know about what they do and how they work.
Nootropics, also known as smart drugs or cognitive enhancers, are supplements designed to improve cognitive functions such as memory, focus, creativity, motivation, and mental wellbeing. They’ve become increasingly popular in recent years as the weight of modern living bites people and as research into them and their base ingredients grows.
But what exactly are they? And what, exactly, can they do for you?
What Do Nootropics Do?
Nootropics are a pretty broad church. In fact, the term ‘nootropics’ encompass a wide range of substances, including both natural and synthetic compounds. These substances can be classified into several categories based on their mechanisms of action, though all will go some way towards bolstering cognitive health and function.
Some examples of popular nootropics include:
Racetams are a class of nootropics that have gained popularity due to their potential cognitive-enhancing effects. This category includes substances like piracetam, oxiracetam, and aniracetam, which are all thought to bolster memory and learning by modulating neurotransmitters in the brain and promoting neuronal communication.
Cholinergic nootropics are compounds known to increase the levels of acetylcholine in the brain. Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that plays a crucial role in various cognitive processes, including memory formation, attention, and learning. By increasing the availability of acetylcholine in the brain, cholinergic nootropics may enhance cognitive functions related to memory, attention, and learning.
One of the most popular cholinergic nootropics is Alpha-GPC (alpha-glycerophosphocholine). Alpha-GPC has been shown to increase acetylcholine levels in the brain, with resulting improvements to cognitive performance. One study found that Alpha-GPC supplementation resulted in improved memory and attention in healthy young adults. Another study found that Alpha-GPC reduced cognitive decline in patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease.
Adaptogens are natural substances with a centuries’ long history in various forms of traditional medicine practices. They are known for their ability to help the body adapt to stress and promote overall well-being.
Popular adaptogens include rhodiola rosea and ashwagandha, among others, which you will often see in leading commercial nootropics.
While adaptogens may not directly act on cognitive function, they can indirectly impact cognitive performance by reducing anxiety and improving mood. Stress is known to have a significant impact on cognitive function, negatively affecting memory, attention, and decision-making abilities. By helping the body adapt to stress, adaptogens then aid optimal cognitive function.
Stimulant nootropics, which are a popular category of cognitive-enhancing substances, are known for their ability to increase alertness, focus, and energy levels. We are of course talking about things like caffeine, widely consumed in tea, coffee, and other common drinks.
It works by blocking the action of adenosine, a neurotransmitter that promotes sleep and relaxation, in the brain. With adenosine blocked, caffeine stimulates the release of other neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and norepinephrine, which create a state of wakefulness, clarity, and alertness. Substances like caffeine work by stimulating the central nervous system and increasing neurotransmitter activity.
How Nootropics Work
There is no single way in which nootropics work – as above, it’s a broad church with plenty of different ingredients included, each with separate yet often overlapping (or at least complimentary) mechanisms of action. However, we can say as a bit of a general rule that they commonly target specific neurotransmitters, receptors, or enzymes in the brain.
Some common ways in which nootropics work include:
Increasing the production or availability of neurotransmitters in the brain
Nootropics have the potential to enhance cognitive function by increasing the production or availability of neurotransmitters in the brain.
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that play critical roles in various cognitive processes, including memory, attention, mood, and motivation. By optimizing the levels of neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine, serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, nootropics may improve cognitive performance.
Acetylcholine is an essential neurotransmitter involved in learning, memory, and attention. Nootropics like choline supplements or racetams have been found to increase acetylcholine synthesis or enhance its availability in the brain, which in turn can lead to improvements across memory formation, retention, recall, and cognitive flexibility.
Meanwhile, serotonin helps in regulating mood, sleep, and appetite. Some naturally derived nootropics like St. John’s Wort and 5-HTP are believed to boost serotonin levels in the brain.
This kind of boost to serotonin availability can lead to a more positive mood and and outlook with greatly diminished symptoms of depression and anxiety. This will all come together to represent great improvements across cognitive function.
Dopamine is involved in motivation, reward, and attention. Some nootropics, like l-tyrosine or phenylalanine, are precursors to dopamine. They can therefore bolster its production in the brain. By optimizing dopamine levels, these substances may enhance motivation, focus, and productivity.
Norepinephrine regulates arousal, attention, and stress response. Nootropics like modafinil or certain herbal extracts, like rhodiola rosea, for example, have been found to increase norepinephrine release or inhibit its reuptake. This can lead to heightened alertness, improved concentration, and enhanced cognitive function, especially in moments of heightened stress or anxiety.
We should note that this is far from an exact or reliable science, at least at present. Whilst increasing neurotransmitter production or availability may have potential cognitive benefits, the effects may vary depending on individual factors and the specific mechanism of action of each nootropic.
Promoting cerebral blood flow
Promoting cerebral blood flow, a key nootropic ingredient mechanism, is an incredibly effective way to bolster cognitive health and function. Adequate blood flow to the brain is crucial for optimal brain function as it ensures that the brain gets all it needs to work – this means the oxygen and nutrients necessary for proper, and of course optimal, neuronal activity.
Some nootropics have been shown to improve blood flow to the brain, leading to enhanced cognitive performance and supporting overall brain health.
Ginkgo biloba extract serves this function very ably. It has a long history behind it – ginkgo biloba has been used for centuries in traditional medicine. It is thought to have vasodilatory effects, meaning that it causes the blood vessels to widen. This in turn should help to improve blood flow.
By enhancing cerebral blood flow, Ginkgo biloba may improve cognitive function, especially across areas such as memory and attention.
Moreover, certain nootropics also possess antioxidant properties, which further contribute to their benefits for cerebral blood flow. Antioxidants help protect the brain from oxidative stress and damage caused by free radicals. By reducing oxidative stress, these antioxidants can promote vascular health and improve blood flow to the brain.
Compounds commonly used in top-tier nootropic supplements that serve this purpose include the likes of resveratrol, green tea extract, and curcumin.
In addition to enhancing blood flow and delivering oxygen and nutrients to the brain, improved cerebral blood flow can also aid in the removal of waste products and toxins from brain tissue. This can support overall brain health and function by ensuring the brain operates in an optimal environment.
As above, this is all far from an exact or reliable science. Whilst enabling better blood flow to the brain may bring about potential cognitive benefits, the effects may vary depending on individual factors and the specific mechanism of action of each nootropic.
Protecting brain cells
Brain cells are obviously quite fundamental to cognitive function. Protecting them from harm is therefore a very good idea, especially if you want to ringfence long-term cognitive health. Free radicals and oxidative stress can lead to damage and death of brain cells, contributing to cognitive decline and neurological disorders.
Some nootropics have been shown to act as antioxidants and neuroprotective agents, which should keep your brain cells healthy in the long term and give you a good boost to your cognitive function. These include the likes of vitamin E, vitamin C, and resveratrol – they are all potent antioxidants not to be sniffed at. Included in a nootropic compound, they can help to protect brain cells from damage caused by free radicals, thus preserving cognitive function.
Moreover, certain nootropics can also act as neuroprotective agents by supporting the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).
BDNF is a protein that plays a crucial role in the growth, survival, and function of brain cells. Some nootropics, including the likes of lion’s mane mushroom and bacopa monnieri, are thought to bolster BDNF production. By promoting the growth and health of brain cells, they may enhance cognitive function and potentially reduce the risk of neurological disorders.
In addition, certain nootropics have been found to reduce inflammation in the brain. These include the likes of phosphatidylserine and omega-3 fatty acids. Chronic inflammation in the brain can damage brain cells and contribute to cognitive decline. By reducing inflammation, these ingredients may protect brain cells and enhance cognitive function.
As always, individual results and benefits may vary – we are dealing with a lot of variables at any one time with any nootropic formula.
The Benefits of Nootropics
We’ve already sort of run through the benefits above – their mechanisms of action are nootropics’ benefits. However, we can highlight a few core advantages that should represent benefits to most people. These include:
Improved memory and learning
Improved memory and learning is one of the better known benefits of nootropics. Certain nootropics, such as racetams and cholinergic compounds, are particularly effective at enhancing memory formation and retention.
These ingredients work by increasing the production of acetylcholine, which we have already seen – it is a neurotransmitter that is essential for learning and memory.
Acetylcholine plays a crucial role in the transmission of information between neurons in the brain. It is involved in several key functions, including learning, attention, and sensory perception. By increasing the production of acetylcholine in the brain, nootropics can improve the brain’s ability to store and recall information, thus enhancing memory and learning capacity.
Racetams are particularly effective at improving memory and learning. They work by enhancing the activity of glutamate, an important neurotransmitter involved in learning and memory processes. Piracetam is perhaps the best known racetam – it has been proven to enhance memory and improve cognitive function, especially in those suffering with age-related cognitive decline.
Meanwhile, cholinergic ingredients work by increasing acetylcholine production in the brain. As we have seen, Alpha-GPC is particularly good at this. It’s a natural compound that has been shown to increase acetylcholine levels in the brain and, as a result, improve overall cognitive function.
It’s not all about racetams and cholinergics, of course. There are some great additional nootropics that have been found to enhance memory and learning.
For example, bacopa monnieri, which we met above, has been shown to improve memory and attention in healthy adults. Indeed, it’s got a long history of use in ayurverdic medicine partly for this reason. These effects are believed to be due to its ability to increase levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that promotes the growth and survival of brain cells.
Improved focus and concentration
Nootropics should also give you benefits to focus and concentration, boosting both. Certain types of nootropics, such as stimulants and adaptogens, have been found to increase mental alertness and improve focus.
Stimulants are a type of nootropic that can help boost energy levels and promote wakefulness. We’ve already seen caffeine above. As we saw, it works by blocking adenosine receptors in the brain, which helps increase alertness and boost focus. By reducing feelings of tiredness and enhancing mental alertness, stimulant nootropics can help individuals concentrate better on tasks and improve productivity.
Adaptogens can also enhance focus and concentration, as well as providing relief from stress and anxiety. Adaptogens are natural substances that are known to help the body cope with stress and promote mental clarity. This is where the likes of ashwagandha come into play.
Herbs like ashwagandha have been shown to increase the production of certain neurotransmitters, including, for example, norepinephrine and dopamine, which are involved in promoting alertness and focus. By reducing stress and increasing mental clarity, adaptogens can help you to maintain focus and concentration for longer periods of time.
Other nootropics have also been found to enhance focus and concentration through various mechanisms.
For example, l-theanine, seen above, is an amino acid found in green tea that has been shown to increase alpha brain waves, which in turn have been linked to greater relaxation and mental clarity. By promoting a calm and focused state of mind, l-theanine can help individuals stay focused on tasks and improve concentration.
This is a bit nebulous – how do you measure creativity, after all? However, whichever measurement or definition you want to use, certain nootropics can lead to greatly increased creativity as a potential and profound benefit. Many are thought to enhance creative thinking by promoting divergent thinking, improving problem-solving skills, and enhancing cognitive flexibility.
Divergent thinking is a cognitive process that involves generating multiple ideas and solutions to a problem. It is considered a key component of creativity. Certain nootropics, such as aniracetam, have been shown to enhance divergent thinking by increasing dopamine release and activating certain receptors in the brain. By stimulating creative thinking, these nootropics can help you to come up with unique and innovative ideas.
Problem-solving skills are also closely linked to creativity. Nootropics that enhance cognitive function and neurotransmitter activity in the brain can improve problem-solving abilities.
For example, modafinil, a nootropic often used to increase wakefulness whilst reducing lethargy and fatigue, has been found to enhance cognitive flexibility and improve problem-solving skills. By increasing mental stamina and promoting clear thinking, modafinil can help individuals approach problems from different perspectives, thereby enabling creative problem-solving.
Cognitive flexibility is another important aspect of creativity. It refers to the ability to shift thinking and adapt to new situations. Nootropics that enhance cognitive flexibility can help individuals think outside the box and come up with novel ideas. One example is creatine, a naturally occurring compound that is involved in energy production in the brain. Research suggests that creatine supplementation can improve cognitive performance, including flexible thinking and problem-solving.
Improved mood enhancement
Most nootropic supplements will also help to cheer you up – mood enhancement is a key tenet of many nootropic ingredients. They can work by increasing the production of neurotransmitters associated with happiness and well-being, including the likes of serotonin and dopamine, as well as some lesser-known neurotransmitters and neuromodulators.
These additional neurotransmitters and neuromodulators can affect mood and emotional well-being quite profoundly. For example, GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter involved in promoting relaxation, mitigating the effects of stress and anxiety. Nootropics that enhance GABA function, including things like phenibut and ashwagandha, can help to alleviate symptoms of anxiety and promote a more positive mood.
Nootropic use for mood enhancement should be approached with caution, however – some of these substances can have negative side effects or interact with medications.
It is important to consult with healthcare professionals before incorporating nootropics into your routine, especially if you have a history of mood disorders or are taking medications. Nootropics are not a substitute for correct and appropriate healthcare.
Risks and Considerations
Nootropics are generally safe. Over-the-counter nootropic supplements, like NooCube or Mind Lab Pro, are generally safe. They are made from natural ingredients with a minor list of minor possible side effects.
This being said, there are a few things to look out for when considering nootropic use, especially longer term. These include:
Dependency: Long-term use of some nootropics may lead to dependence or tolerance, meaning that the body becomes used to the substance’s effects and may require higher doses to achieve the same effects. This is quite common with stimulants like caffeine or guarana.
Interactions with medications: Some nootropics can interact with prescription medications, potentially leading to adverse effects. It is important to consult with your healthcare provider before incorporating nootropics into a supplement regimen, especially if you’re suffering from any pre-existing health concerns.
Ethical concerns: Some individuals may have ethical concerns regarding the use of cognitive enhancers, particularly in competitive or academic settings. They represent a bit of a leg up to those who can afford them – and as they tend to be quite pricey, this is far from everyone.
You should always approach a new supplement with a degree of healthy scepticism. Be cautious, especially when trying out something like a nootropic with potentially drastic effects on your mental and cognitive health and long term wellbeing.
Bear the following in mind when considering nootropic use:
Research with due diligence: Consult scientific studies and reliable sources when researching individual nootropics, brands, and possible side effects. Look for third-party independent testing carried out by well-recognized labs. Check out online reviews from reputable sites – we frequently and objectively review market-leading and what we consider to be the best nootropic supplements.
Start with low doses: Begin with the lowest effective dose if you’re trying out a new nootropic, especially if it is your first time. Nootropics are potent substances and taking high doses can cause unwanted side effects and interfere with natural bodily functions.
Monitor and adjust: It is important to pay close attention to how your body reacts to nootropics – your mind especially. Monitor any changes in your mood, sleep patterns, and digestion, and look out for side effects like headaches or nausea. Reduce the dosage or discontinue the use of nootropics if negative effects arise.
Consult with your healthcare provider: As above, if you are suffering with any underlying medical conditions or are currently taking medication of any kind, speak with your doctor before trying out a new nootropic (or, indeed, any new supplement of any kind). They will be able to properly advise you with your unique medical history in mind.
To sum up
Nootropics have gained significant attention as potential cognitive enhancers, offering benefits such as improved memory, focus, and creativity. While the nootropics field and marketplace are still evolving, many people use them to gain a mental edge in their personal, professional, and even athletic lives.
I do personally – the results can be profound. My mental health and cognitive functioning are both much improved for the sake of a couple of pills per day.
Just remember that it is important to consider the potential risks and consult with healthcare professionals before incorporating nootropics into your routine. With careful thought and consideration, nootropics can be a valuable tool for optimizing cognitive performance and overall brain health.