In recent years there’s been a major surge in popularity in “brain supplements,” especially among college students, recent grads and even hard-working corporate executives. Nootropics — or as many people like to call them, “smart pills” — are cognitive enhancers that purport to improve learning capability, motivation, concentration and creativity.
Do nootropics really work, and are they safe?
The best nootropics are considered to be non-addictive substances that can help the brain work more efficiently. While not all nootropics are safe or effective, there are a number that are, especially:
- adaptogen herbs
- medicinal mushrooms
- DHA/fish oil
- ginkgo biloba
Other types that can help improve memory, thinking speed and attention span are green coffee extract or matcha green tea, along with caffeine and L-theanine.
What Are Nootropics?
Nootropics are products, including natural and manmade dietary supplements, that are used to boost cognitive performance. They’re also called brain supplements because they can help with things like focus, attention and productivity.
The term “nootropics” covers a broad range of products. These include brain-boosting drugs, herbs, amino acids and other supplements that are all said to have cognitive-enhancing effects.
Nootropics are also called “smart drugs,” “brain boosters” or “memory-enhancing drugs.” This category can quickly become complicated because nootropics are often manufactured as “stacks,” or substances that include a variety of different ingredients that interact in complex ways.
How do they work?
It’s hard to describe exactly how nootropics work considering that each one is unique and has its own specific mechanisms of actions. Considering how many different brain supplements fall into this category, there are dozens of possible explanations for how they enhance cognitive function.
What most have in common is that they’re capable of altering levels of certain neurotransmitters, enzymes or hormones in the brain. Nootropics have been shown to impact acetylcholine, adrenaline, dopamine, serotonin and GABA levels, which affect energy, focus, motivation and more. Some may also have an effect ion channels, nerve growth factors, reuptake of transporters, antioxidants and amyloids.
Many can also increase alertness due to having stimulant effects or caffeine, while some promote blood flow and help protect the brain from oxidative stress.
Are nootropics natural, and are they even legal?
What makes nootropics different from most stimulants, illegal drugs and mood-altering prescriptions is that they’re considered non-toxic and non-addictive.
Many are derived from plants or isolated amino acids that are found in common protein-rich foods.
However, some are not natural (they’re synthetic), and these tend to have stronger effects and pose more risks.
How long have they been used?
Many of these compounds are nothing new. Natural types, like fungi and adaptogens, have been consumed for thousands of years.
Starting around the 1950s, Britain and American scientists began experimenting with mind-altering substances that could aid military personal and potentially fight certain diseases.
One of the first uses of brain supplements was assisting the CIA. Substances were combined with approaches like shock therapy and hypnosis, but these efforts mostly backfired and wound up causing harmful effects.
Dr. Corneliu Giurgea first coined the term “nootropics” in 1972. He researched them in regard to their ability to benefit memory and support other cognitive processes, but he also wanted to ensure they were safe and non-toxic. Giurgea came up with the word nootropics by combining the Greek words for “mind” and “bending.”
Giurgea first synthesized the substance piracetam in 1964, which is approved for therapeutic use in dozens of countries for adults and the elderly. Piracetam was found to “activate rather than quiet the brain,” according to Giurgea, and was then declared by him to belong in a new category of drugs.
Many of the pioneers in nootropic development worked in Silicon Valley in the 1990s and 2000s, during the time when the “Information Age” was unfolding. As a 2014 VICE article puts it, “Smart drugs could be seen as the key to unlocking our full potential within the narrow confines of a society reliant on technology.”
Now, there is a world of cognition-enhancing drugs (nootropics) available to the public — some of which are prescription, some over-the-counter and others only sold online on the “gray market.” Today some of the leaders in the nootropic category include Onnit, Nootroo, Thesis, TruBrain, BrainMD, Neurohacker Collective, MindPro and others.
What are their benefits?
Why are nootropics good for you if you want to boost cognitive performance and mental health? Below are some of the most common benefits associated with nootropics:
- Enhancing learning acquisition.
- Increasing the coupling of the brain’s two hemispheres (the way that the left and right sides of the brain work together to process information).
- Improving executive processing, which includes tasks like planning, organizing, focusing, remembering and spatial awareness.
- Improving one’s mood, energy, mental clarity, motivation and creativity.
- Possibly working as a natural remedy for ADHD.
- Building the body’s and brain’s defenses against a stressful and toxic environment.
- Neuroprotective benefits, in other words protecting your brain from damage and degeneration.
- Increasing willpower.
- Improving long-term memory and short-term memorization of facts.
- Affecting plasticity of synapses in the brain, or in other words how the brain changes depending on experiences.
- Enhancing cellular membrane fluidity.
- Improving cerebral blood flow.
- Providing metabolic support, such as helping with mitochondrial production of ATP (the main “energy currency” that the body uses).
Nootropics vs. Adaptogens:
- Adaptogens are considered some of the best nootropics because adding these herbs to your routine can make you more resilient to the damaging effects of chronic stress. For example, they offer protection against perpetually high cortisol levels, which if elevated over long periods of time can affect every physiological system in your body.
- Adaptogens are a unique class of healing plants because they help balance, restore and protect the body as it responds to various stressors, normalizing physiological functions like blood pressure and hormonal balance. They can also help increase antioxidant activity, quelling excessive oxidative stress that damages the brain.
- Adaptogenic herbs that can help boost resilience and mental performance include Panax ginseng, holy basil, ashwagandha, astragalus root, licorice root, rhodiola rosea and cordyceps.
- However, adaptogenic herbs can interact with certain prescription medications and are not recommended for people with some conditions, so talk to your doctor first if you currently take any medications.
Which nootropic works best? While not all natural nootropics are a good fit for every person (see above about adaptogens), natural types tend to be less risky.
Plant-derived supplements, as opposed to synthetic products, usually have milder effects, but you still want to start by using low doses and increasing your intake gradually.
Ultimately, the best nootropics for you depend on what you’re hoping to improve or enhance, such as focus or creativity.
Some examples of popular nootropics to consider trying include:
- B vitamins (vitamin B1, B2, B6, B12, etc.)
- Vitamins A, C, D and E
- Ginkgo biloba
- Medicinal mushrooms, such as chaga, cordyceps and reishi
- Caffeine, such as from coffee or green tea extract
- Fish oil, including omega-3s like DHA
- Alpha GPC
- Bacopa monnieri
- Cat’s claw extract
- Artichoke leaf extract
- Rhodiola rosea root
- Mucuna pruriens extract
Nootropics that have been studied most extensively and shown to offer real mental health benefits include:
1. Medicinal Mushrooms
Medicinal mushrooms describes species like reishi, cordyceps, lion’s mane, turkey tail and chaga. These fungi have been shown in studies to help support cognitive function in some of the following ways:
- fighting cognitive impairment in older adults
- possessing antioxidant properties that protect the brain
- acting as adaptogens that increase resilience during times of stress
- helping regulate cortisol levels
- fighting fatigue and low immune function
- possessing anti-tumor and immune-enhancing properties
2. Adaptogen Herbs
Adaptogens include herbs and fungi like ginseng, holy basil, ashwagandha, astragalus root, licorice root, rhodiola rosea and cordyceps.
Holy basil is one adaptogen that may be effective in improving stress response, lowering blood corticosterone levels (another stress hormone) and creating positive alterations in the neurotransmitter system of the brain.
Rhodiola and astragalus can help those suffering from stress-related fatigue and may boost mental performance, particularly the ability to concentrate, and decreases cortisol response.
Licorice root has antioxidant effects and can help increase energy and endurance and boost the immune system.
Ashwagandha has been shown to impact the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis in a way that lowers stress. It may prevent stress-related gastric ulcers, poor cognition and memory, neurodegenerative diseases, inflammation, and dysregulation of the adrenal glands caused by high cortisol levels.
3. Bacopa Monnieri
This herbal remedy, also known as brahmi, has been used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine that originated in India for hundreds of years. According to one analysis, it’s used to help manage a broad range of mental and mood-related health concerns, including Alzheimer’s disease, memory loss, anxiety, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder symptoms and more.
Bacopa has been shown to help regulate dopamine and serotonin production and also works as a natural stress reliever. Studies suggest that bacopa is non-addictive, can improve memory, reduce anxiety and depression, and support focus, attention, learning and memory. Best of all, it has very few (if any) side effects.
4. Fish Oil and Omega-3s
Omega-3 fatty acids, such as DHA and EPA, are essential building blocks for a healthy brain and may offer protection against damage to brain cells. They may also help support memory and focus and reduce inflammation.
Omega-3s can be found in fish like salmon or sardines, nuts like walnuts, chia seeds and flaxseeds, and also obtained from taking fish oil capsules.
Ginseng (or Panax ginseng) is one well-known adaptogen that has been shown to successfully improve calmness and some aspects of working memory performance in healthy young adults.
Studies suggest that ginseng possesses significant anti-stress properties and can be used for the treatment of stress-induced disorders, including anxiety, lack of focus, fatigue, etc. One comprehensive review found that it also has antioxidant effects, may offer neuroprotection, and has been found to improve mood, mental performance and fasting blood sugar levels.
6. Ginkgo Biloba
Ginkgo is one of the most commonly ingested herbs taken for brain health. A 2022 systematic review states: “Ginkgo biloba is the most relevant nootropic regarding perceptual and motor functions.”
It has been widely studied for its effective anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, platelet-forming and circulation-boosting effects.
Ginkgo biloba can improve cognitive function, lead to a more positive mood, increase energy, improve memory and reduce symptoms related to multiple chronic diseases, like ADHD and dementia.
Other safe honorable mentions include:
- Forskolin, an Ayurvedic herb that may support learning and memory.
- L-theanine, which can improve alertness and arousal.
- Artichoke extract, which may boost motivation and learning capability.
- Cat’s claw, which can help fight fatigue and has anti-inflammatory, antimutagenic and antioxidant properties that protect the brain.
Since the term nootropic can mean many different things, there’s no ruling out the possibility that strong stimulants can fall into this category. These ingredients should be used with caution, since they can pose the risk for side effects.
Many different “brain boosting” substances are actually considered stimulants, including:
- caffeine (found in coffee, tea, and some soft drinks or energy drinks)
- diet pills
- amphetamines like Adderall
- methamphetamines drugs
- over-the-counter stimulants like NoDoz
- illegal drugs like cocaine
Be especially careful if using types such as:
- Modafinil (Provigil)
- Armodafinil (Nuvigil)
- stimulants like Adderall
These can all have strong effects, similar to some medications or street drugs.
Nootropics vs. Stimulants:
The definition of a stimulant is “a substance that raises levels of physiological or nervous activity in the body.” Stimulants are sometimes referred to as “uppers” because they make you feel less tired and more alert.
Why is caffeine considered a nootropic?
Caffeine fights fatigue and can increase focus, mental clarity and sometimes reduce symptoms of sadness. It’s a chemical that affects the central nervous system and considered a stimulant of the methylxanthine class of psychoactive drugs.
While it might have benefits, in high amounts it can also have negative effects. For example, caffeine affects blood pressure, brain activity, hormonal balance, blood sugar levels and overall mood.
A caffeine overdose can make you feel physically sick and very dizzy, nervous and out of control.
Is nicotine a nootropic?
Nicotine is considered to be a potent nootropic that is naturally occurring in many plants, especially tobacco. Nicotine acts on acetylcholine receptors in the brain and increases release of “feel good” neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. This increases alertness, memory and mood.
Nicotine is usually used in small doses as a lozenge or gum for cognitive enhancement, but smoking or using tobacco rarely is for this purpose. While nicotine may have some benefits, it can also be addictive and cause increased heart rate, dizziness, cough, sneezing, sinus problems, upset stomach, constipation and headaches.
Can nootropics cause anxiety if they are also stimulants?
Definitely. There are both physical and mental side effects associated with stimulants, especially when they are overused.
Physical side effects include:
- flushed skin
- chest pains with palpitations
- excessive sweating
- abdominal cramps
Mental/psychological effects include agitation, hostility, panic, aggression, insomnia and anxiety.
Nootropics vs. Adderall:
- Adderall is a form of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine that is legally prescribed in a limited number of countries, primarily the U.S. and Canada.
- Stimulant medications including Ritalin, Adderall and Modafinil were originally developed to help manage symptoms of specific disorders, such as ADHD or narcolepsy. Today there’s growing concern over these drugs being commonly misused by both teenagers and adults looking to be more productive, energized and focused.
- One difference between nootropics and these medications is that nootropics are intended to gradually improve brainpower in healthy adults over extended periods of time, rather than working immediately and having effects that are temporary.
- There are both pros and cons associated with Adderall. For example, when used appropriately by people with prescriptions, the drug can help counteract symptoms of ADHD by increasing availability of certain neurotransmitters like norepinephrine and dopamine in the brain. This can help boost alertness, attention and energy levels, and it may help with test taking or performance at work or in school.
- Adderall can also increase heart rate and the flow of blood to the muscles, leading to increased stamina and feelings of energy and invigoration. Additionally, some may experience a mood-enhancing effect after using Adderall, since it can create rewarding feelings of euphoria.
- On the other hand, Adderall can be highly addictive and dangerous, sometimes even when taken as prescribed. Negative effects can potentially include appetite suppression and unhealthy weight loss, increased tolerance and dependence, withdrawal symptoms, irritability, anxiousness, restlessness, twitching and involuntary movements, trouble sleeping, and potentially dangerous cardiac issues.
- Most of all, Adderall should be used with caution because amphetamine has addictive potential and can cause insomnia, stress and anxiety.
How to Use (Dosage, Recipes)
Nootropics are available in several forms, including capsules, powders, extracts, oils, teas and syrups.
Purchase from a reputable brand that lists all of the ingredients clearly on the label. If using an herbal product, look for one that’s organic or wild-crafted to reduce the likelihood of contamination and GMOs.
Each product/stack works differently, so always read dosage directions carefully. Also pay attention to whether to take the product on an empty stomach or with food and whether to avoid taking it too close to bedtime.
Consider trying a popular strategy: cycling. To cycle nootropics, take them for a predetermined period of time (for example, five to seven days), and then take a two-day break from using them.
You can then continue this cycle, giving yourself a break every week or so. This is intended to lessen the risk of dependence, withdrawal or a built-up tolerance.
- Homemade Bacopa Tea — This tea has an uplifting and simultaneously relaxing effect. To make tea, you can add a few fresh leaves or a good pinch of dried bacopa to one cup of boiled water and allow to steep up to 10 minutes. If you use fresh leaves, you can tear and bruise the leaves so the aromatic oils are released into the water. Strain off the infused water so the leaves don’t get in the way of drinking. Add some raw honey if you want to disguise bacopa’s taste.
- Mushroom Coffee — Several companies are now making a powdered combination of instant coffee and mushrooms extracts that can be instantly added to hot water to create a cup of mushroom coffee. There are also packets of mushroom extracts with healthy ingredients like organic peppermint and anise extracts along with some stevia. A packet like this can be added to your favorite tea to create a hot cup of mushroom tea.
In addition to incorporating nootropics into your routine, consider how you can include more brain-boosting foods in your diet to naturally improve focus and memory. Examples of nutrient-dense “superfoods” that include vitamins, phytonutrients and antioxidants that studies show can support cognitive function include:
- Wild-caught fish, like salmon
- Bone broth
- Egg yolks
- Organ meats like liver
- Olive oil
- Leafy greens
- Green tea and organic coffee
Risks and Side Effects
Not much is known about the the potential long-term side effects of using many nootropics, especially when taken in “stacks” (complex formulas that combine various products). While most are generally considered to be safe, there are possible side effects to be aware of.
What are the side effects of nootropics? These include:
- developing a tolerance (which means you’ll need more to get the same affects)
- symptoms of withdrawal
- brain fog when discontinuing nootropics
- trouble sleeping
Certain types may also taste unpleasant and cause an upset stomach if taken without food.
Keep in mind that many brain supplements are intended to work gradually when it comes to providing cognitive benefits, so you may not experience many improvements for eight to 12 weeks.
If you’re concerned about any interactions between supplements and medications you’re taking, always consult your doctor. Stop using supplements if you experience side effects, especially if combining them with other drugs.
- Nootropics are compounds, whether natural or manmade dietary supplements, that are used to boost cognitive performance.
- Benefits of nootropics can include enhancing learning acquisition; increasing the coupling of the brain’s two hemispheres; improving executive processing (planning, organizing, focusing, remembering and spatial awareness); improving mood, energy, mental clarity, motivation and creativity; and protecting the brain from oxidative stress.
- What is the most popular nootropic? Bestselling types include adaptogen herbs, medicinal mushrooms, fish oil/omega-3s, ginkgo biloba, bacopa and ginseng.
- Can nootropics be harmful? It’s possible that they can cause side effects, such as indigestion, headaches and insomnia. It ultimately depends on the exact type, the individual and the dose.
- Use caution if taking Modafinil (Provigil), Adrafinil, Armodafinil (Nuvigil), Piracetam, Lucidril, Phenibut, nicotine and stimulants like Adderall, or even high doses of caffeine.
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