Brain enhancement is a hot topic in today’s world. With the world moving as fast as at it is, people are looking for any way they can to give themselves an edge or just keep up. One way that people are enhancing their minds? Nootropics.
“Nootropics” is a word that’s been showing up frequently these recent years, yet many people have no idea what it means. Have we truly stumbled upon pills that will “unlock 100% of our brain”? Are marketers catering to our insatiable need for more focus with fancified placebos? Have the snake oil salesmen of the old west made their way into contemporary times?
Not quite. The reality is, nootropics have a very loose definition, allowing for all manner of claims to be made. Many of which have been dreamed up by marketers, but some of which are quite valid. If you’re looking for Bradley Cooper level performance boosts, we’ll have to point our finger back to Hollywood.
Increasing focus, inducing calmness, improving memory, and all manner of positive effects can be found in the realm of nootropics. Some nootropics are quite common, you probably have them in your cupboard. Others are exotic with only a handful of producers around the world offering them. Some existing medications and other synthetic substances have positive effects on the mind, coupled with unfortunate side effects.
So what are nootropics?
Anything that affects your brain in a positive manner could be considered a nootropic. Nootropics, also called smart drugs and cognitive enhancers—are drugs, supplements, or other substances such as herbs that improve cognitive function, particularly executive functions, memory, creativity, or motivation, in healthy individuals.
The loose definition of “nootropic” allows for many claims to be made across a wide spectrum of products. From herbs, to amino acids, psychedelics or even existing medicines. Household names like caffeine make the list, along with eastern herbs such as ashwagandha (is that a mouthful or what?).
Reddit has a subreddit dedicated to the subject. The posters talk about their own experiences with nootropics, and ask questions regarding various nootropics coming to market. Beware, some of the /r/nootropics posters are utilizing illegal substances. Many of the posts go very in depth, to the point of incomprehensible jargon. If a nootropic needs that much explaining, do you really want to use it?
But nootropics do need some explaining, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this!
The first nootropic drug, found in the 1960s, was utilized as a tool to help people with motion sickness. After that, the drug was tested for memory enhancement. In the 70s, the first studies were done on piracetam, a nootropic thought to improve memory. With the advent of this drug, the term “nootropics” was actually coined by a Romanian doctor named Dr. Corneliu Giurgea. With his tests on piracetam, he decided to use a Greek combination of nous meaning "mind" and trepein meaning “to bend”. Literally, nootropics were meant to bend the mind.
Do nootropics really work?
It really depends on the nootropic. There are some established nootropics whose effects have been backed by studies. Here are some examples of study backed nootropics, all of which are natural herbs:
Gotu kola comes from the Eastern medicine family, and is an herbal stress reliever. Studies published in the Nepal Medical College Journal and the Journal of Ethnopharmacology found that participants who took gotu kola had reduced stress and increased cognition.
Ashwagandha is found in India and is an herb used in Ayurvedic Medicine. In two double-blind, placebo-controlled studies published in the Indian Journal of Phsychiatry(2), Ashwagandha was shown to decrease anxiety.
Rhodiola rosea is an herb that helps reduce mental fatigue. Studies were done with students and with physicians and showed that Rhodiola reduces the mental fatigue that the subjects experienced in stressful environments. The studies were both published in Phytomedicine: International Journal of Phytotherapy and Phytopharmacology.
How do nootropics work?
In order to answer “how do nootropics work” we will first visit how the human brain functions. The common perception says the brain runs on electrical signals, zapping back and forth between neurons. But this isn’t the full story.
The brain runs on chemical reactions, albeit very fast chemical reactions that many mistake as simple electrical signals. These chemical reactions can be affected by hormones, internal chemistry, and outside chemicals being ingested or injected. If you’ve ever heard someone mention a “chemical imbalance” when referring to conditions such as ADHD or depression, this may be brain chemistry they are referring to.
How do nootropics affect brain chemistry?
Most any facet of your brain can be effected by nootropics, just like the many functions of your body respond to various vitamins and medicines. Pinpointing a singular way to enhance brain function, or even narrowing it down to a few is quite hard, given the sheer complexity of the human mind. A lot of nootropics, such as piracetam, increase the efficacy of the neurotransmitter, acetylcholine. Because the brain is so complex and the equipment used to study it is very new, we still do do not know exactly how all nootropics work. However, we know how some work based on data from clinical studies.
What are the best nootropics?
With the definition of “nootropic” being so loose, there are quite a number of companies peddling their nootropics online. Many companies promise unrealistic benefits, some just relabel existing products, and a few do their best to provide safe products and honest information.
One of the more popular producers of nootropics, with an almost cult-like following, is Onnit Nutrition. Most notably, their Alpha Brain supplement has landed itself as one of the most popularly searched branded nootropic supplement.
Are nootropics popular?
According to google trends, searches for nootropics have been rising in popularity since early 2011. This rise in popularity is very likely tied to the release of the movie “Limitless” where the main character, played by Bradley Cooper, takes a pill called NZT that enhances his brain function to superhuman levels. Many nootropics companies directly reference this movie in their branding, sometimes selling false promises.
Nootropics’ popularity appears to still be on the rise, with tales of silicon valley entrepreneurs and wall street execs relying on their effects to get an edge.
How should I use Nootropics?
If you are just starting out, you can use a premixed nootropic such as Onnit’s Alpha Brain or Mobius Breakfast. If you’re willing to do some research you can find various natural nootropics around the web. Try them one at a time to see what works for you and your desired effects. Once you have tried a few nootropics you can mix them to create what /r/Nootropics refers to as a “stack”.
A word of caution
Many of the synthetic nootropics carry risks and should not be mixed with each other, research thoroughly before you take any chances. It should also be noted that the quality of nootropics can be questionable depending upon their source. Be sure that the source of your nootropics have been verified for not containing heavy metals or other contaminates. Most companies display this information on their site, or will be happy to verify upon request.
Below is a list of natural nootropics to get you started
We aren’t advocating the use of any of these nootropics specifically. This list is purely for informative purposes. While we have listed a quick summary of supposed benefits for each one, we encourage you to dig further. Happy brain boosting!
Acetyl-L-Carnitine: often used as a brain booster, due to its ability to increase alertness and mitochondrial capacity while providing support for the neurons. -Examine.com
Ashwagandha: It is supplemented primarily for its ability to prevent anxiety. It also shows promise for relieving insomnia and stress-induced depression. -Examin.com
Bacopa: Supplementing Bacopa monnieri has been shown to improve Cognition, by means of reducing Anxiety. It is also reliable for improving Memory formation.-Examine.com
Caffeine: It is classified as a Nootropic because it sensitizes neurons and provides mental stimulation. -Examine.com
Gotu Kola: In regards to its cognitive enhancing properties, it requires a few weeks to work and seems to cause an increase in neuronal growth (not how many neurons there are, but how far their dendrites branch out). -Examine.com
Huperzine A: It is known as an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor, which means that it stops an enzyme from breaking down acetylcholine which results in increases in acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is known as the learning neurotransmitter, and is involved in muscle contraction as well. -Examine.com
L-Theanine: The properties of L-theanine can be summed up as being a relaxing agent without sedation, and is also implicated in reducing the perception of stress and slightly improving attention. -Examine.com
Lion’s Mane: One human study using 3g of 98% Yamabushitake(AKA: Lion’s Mane) powder (in capsule form) showed significant improvements on a rating scale of dementia in persons suffering from general cognitive decline. -Examine.com
Rhodiola Rosea: In regards to fatigue, rhodiola appears to be able to significantly reduce the effects of prolonged and minor physical exhaustion that results in fatigue. -Examine.com
Vinpocetine: Vinpocetine is commonly used as a Nootropic compound in the hopes that it may promote memory formation. -Examine.com
Curious about other potential nootropics? Or just curious?
Please contact us or shoot us a message on social media [@MobiusNutrition] and we’d love to help you discover more about nootropics. Whether you have a specific question about a specific nootropic, or just a generic question about what nootropics really are. Hopefully you now have a better idea of what nootropics are all about, if not please let us know!