Nootropics: A Beginner’s Guide
Today’s fast-paced, caffeine-laced society has everyone looking for a competitive edge. We want to accomplish more in less time without fatigue, stress, or anxiety. We’ve seen movies like Limitless or Lucy where the hero (and sometimes the villain) taps into the full potential of their brain and wish if only we could do the same.
While harnessing the maximum power of the space between our ears may still be the thing of Hollywood blockbusters, there are supplements available which can help us enhance our potential.
Allow me to introduce you to the mind-expanding world of nootropics.
What are Nootropics?
“Nootropic” is a broad term used to categorize a variety of substances used to enhance mental performance and brain function. Even the definition of nootropic uses two other broad terms which need further clarification: “substance” and “mental performance”.
Defining nootropics as a substance may be a better term simply because of the wide variety of forms and formulations labeled as “nootropic”. Some are nootropic supplements, some nootropics are natural herbs, some are vitamins, and some prescription medications get thrown into the mix.
“Mental performance” and “cognitive enhancement’ are other wide-reaching term used to cover the many different effects of nootropics. Some nootropics improve memory, some increased focus, some improve reflexes, some help with mood and anxiety.
When these catch-all words are used in blog posts, research articles, and news reports, it is hard to drill down to the facts and get some straight answers. Let’s take a more in-depth look at nootropics and determine the necessary information needed to make a “smart” choice about adding these to our daily routine.
The History of Nootropics
In the 1970s, a Romanian doctor named Dr. Corneliu Giurgea studied piracetam, a drug commonly used for motion sickness at that time, and showed a positive cognitive effect by improving memory. He then coined the term “nootropic” from two Greek root words meaning “to bend the mind”
According to Dr. Giurgea, nootropics should:
- Enhance memory and learning
- Improve cognition
- Protect brain cells
- Facilitate communication between cells
- Demonstrate brain bioactivity
- Possess few side effects
Since then, the definition of nootropics has expanded along with our understanding of the brain’s potential. Today, nootropics cover a wide variety of supplements used to enhance all aspects of life by boosting the brain’s ability and capacity.
What are Nootropics Stack?
Nootropic “stacks” are a fancy way to mix and match the different types of nootropics. Nootropics can be combined to produce a specific result, such as combining caffeine and L-theanine for energy and focus or to enhance the effects of individual supplements through synergy.
Nootropic stack recipes can be found online through a variety of resources. Several supplement companies also offer pre-mixed nootropics designed to achieve a desired effect on the brain. Pre-mixed supplements are great options for a beginner just learning about nootropics or for those who looking for a good overall cognitive enhancer.
Do Nootropics Work?
The evidence both for and against nootropics varies across the clinical literature. Some studies show benefit as a brain booster, while others show no difference against placebo. Much of the variation in the results come from both the study design and the nootropic being studied.
For example, one study showed a particular nootropic stack increased verbal recall by 12 percent and executive function completion time by 21 percent.
Two studies have shown nootropics improve functional independence and cognitive abilities impairment in older adults after cardiovascular events such as a stroke. Another proved effective in reducing symptoms of cognitive disorders such as dementia and Parkinson’s disease.
If you explore the product reviews on the various nootropics available, you will find the same wide array of results among individuals. Some customers sing the supplement’s praises boasting of enhanced focus and productivity while others complain of lack-luster results and bad side effects.
Important things to consider when choosing a nootropic is how best to take it. Most are taken first thing in the morning and often need a vacation period (typically a week) after 1 to 2 months of use. These supplements may take time to build up in your body and results may not fully take effect until a few days later. These concepts may contribute to how effective nootropics are overall for any given person.
In short, “individual results may vary.”
How Nootropics Work in the Brain
Just like with the clinical data mentioned above, how a nootropic works in the brain depends on which specific nootropic being discussed. Each may work in one or more different ways to improve cognitive abilities. This is especially true when considering the combinations found in nootropic stacks. Here are a few examples of how these supplements can work:
Activity of Neurotransmitters
Nootropics can increase levels of certain mood-altering chemicals such as dopamine, acetylcholine, and serotonin by increasing the concentration of their respective neurotransmitters. Altering the neurochemical levels in your brain can result in better mood, performance, focus, cognition, and sleep while also reducing stress and anxiety.
Improve Blood Flow
Many nootropics also double as vasodilators and increase blood flow to the brain and other organs. Nootropics, such as ginseng and gingko, improve circulation which increases oxygen uptake and nutrient absorption in the brain. This produces improved mental speed, accuracy, and performance.
Chronic inflammation is linked to a laundry list of diseases and disorders. Inflammation and the resulting effects are a large part of the aging process including the cognitive decline associated with old age. Nootropics can suppress inflammatory molecules in the brain resulting in better functioning brain cells.
We’ve already mentioned how nootropics have shown benefits in different types of cognitive disorders such as Parkinson’s, dementia, and stroke. In addition to chronic inflammation, oxidative stress and the release of free radicals increase the aging process of the brain. For example, one potential cause of Alzheimer’s has been linked to oxidative stress. Some nootropics, especially the cholinergic nootropics, have been reported to reduce oxidative stress and reverse cell death.
The brain is the most demanding organ in the entire body. It consumes close to 20% of the total energy produced by your cells. Nootropics increase brain energy through enhanced mitochondrial efficiency and increased blood, oxygen, and nutrient delivery (think back to nootropics also being vasodilators). Nootropics make the brain run like a fine-tuned engine by delivering the high-octane fuel it needs to max out performance.
What are the Benefits of Nootropics?
Nootropics aid in both long-term and short-term memory. Nootropics enhance brain chemicals, transmitters, and receptors used in the creation, processing, storage, and recall of knowledge and experiences.
Nootropics promote attention and focus as a framework to enhance cognitive performance. Nootropics help weed out distractions, maintain focus, switch seamlessly between tasks, and juggle multiple objectives at the same time.
Nootropics aid in creativity by enhancing brain functions and reducing stress. When energy, focus, and motivation are increased in a relaxed environment, creativity can flow freely and more abundantly.
As with creativity, nootropics assist in learning by promoting recall, energy, motivation, and focus while reducing the stress and pressure surrounding the educational process.
Stress depletes important neurochemicals related to cognitive performance. Over the long term, stress also leads to mental fatigue and burnout. Nootropics work against stress by replacing those neurochemicals the brain desperately requires.
You can have all the enhanced learning, focus, and creativity you want; but, if you don’t have the motivation and drive to go with it, nothing will be accomplished. In addition to supporting brain health in a variety of ways, nootropics can help regulate dopamine and give us that sense of reward that pushes us forward.
Nootropics energize the brain by reducing stress, increasing blood flow, and optimizing nerve cells. Some nootropics also promote a better, deeper sleep cycle by creating a calm, relaxed state of mind. Improved sleep allows both the brain and the body to recover and prepare for the next day.
The Different Types of Nootropics
Choline is an essential nutrient found in meat, seafood, eggs, and other dairy products. Even though our bodies produce choline and source the rest for our diets, studies show a majority of people do not consume adequate amounts of choline.
The name may look familiar because it is a vital component of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Acetylcholine (ACh) plays an integral part in memory and muscle control. In the brain, ACh also works in a variety of areas dealing with attention, arousal, and motivation, as well as promote deeper, more restful sleep. Increasing choline, whether through diet or supplementation, increases the concentration of this important neurotransmitter.
Available supplements for choline include:
- Choline Bitartrate (Recommended starting dose: 650mg daily)
- Alpha GPC (Recommended starting dose: 300mg daily)
- Citicoline (Recommended starting dose: 250mg daily)
- Lecithin (Recommended starting dose: 2,500mg daily)
Racetams work in almost the same way as choline. Both works on the acetylcholine transmitter and are often used together to obtain a synergistic effect. Most nootropic users actually recommend adding a choline source when using racetam nootropics. As mentioned before, choline helps with the production of ACh and will help to prevent side effects.
Some racetams have an added benefit of working on the ACh receptor as well. Like choline, racetams increase oxygen and nutrient delivery to the brain. Some of the most common and most popular racetams are:
- Piracetam (Recommended starting dose: 800mg three times daily)
- Aniracetam (Recommended starting dose: 750mg one to three times daily)
- Oxiracetam (Recommended starting dose: 700mg daily)
- Phenylpiracetam (Recommended starting dose: 100mg daily)
- Pramiracetam (Recommended starting dose: 400mg three times daily)
NOTE: Phenylpiracetam has been labeled a banned substance by the World Anti-Doping Agency. This is extremely important to any competitive athletes considering nootropics. Be sure to check their website for updates or changes which could include similar nootropic supplements.
Ampakines are considered some of the most potent nootropics on the market. While they have a similar structure to the racetams, ampakines work on a different component in the brain. As the name implies, AMPAkines stimulate AMPA receptors causing synapse growth in brain cells. Increasing the number of synapses allows for better and quicker communication in the brain. This, in turn, results in the desired effects of increased memory, alertness, concentration, and learning.
Ampakines also affect NMDA receptors and the neurotransmitter glutamate. NMDA is already a target for certain prescription drugs (Namenda) used to treat memory loss and Alzheimer’s. Both AMPA and NMDA receptors are dependent on glutamate production which is stimulated by ampakine nootropics.
Two popular ampakines are:
- Sunifiram (Recommended starting dose: 4mg daily)
- Unifiram (Recommended starting dose: 4mg daily)
Peptides are another class of potent nootropics. Like other nootropics mentioned above, these increase choline and glutamate activity in the brain.
Peptide nootropics have also shown to increase nerve growth factor (NGF) and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). NGF is directly involved in the growth and longevity of brain cells while BDNF is crucial to both long and short-term memory formation. Peptide nootropics can improve communication and associations between the two brain hemispheres. This connection bridges the gap between “right-brain” and “left-brain” thinking and enhances memory, learning, and processing of information.
The top peptide nootropics include:
- Noopept (Recommended starting dose: 10mg three times daily)
- Semax (Recommended starting dose: 0.25mg daily delivered as a nasal spray)
- Selank (Recommended starting dose: 0.15mg three times daily delivered as a nasal spray)
“Smart drugs” is another one of those catch-all terms often lumped in with nootropics. The term refers to prescription medications, such as Adderall, Vyvanse, or Focalin, typically used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Many college-level students and practicing professionals are using these medicines as a shortcut to study faster, stay awake longer, or beat out the competition.
While smart-drugs have obvious nootropic effects, they put the user at increased risk for side effects and adverse events. These drugs are considered a class II scheduled substance by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and carry a serious risk for addiction and other health problems when used incorrectly.
Vitamin B Derivatives
B vitamins are part of many biochemical processes in your body. These essential compounds can increase your ability to create energy and use it more effectively. Enhanced metabolism of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins decreases the delivery time to the brain and other organs while increasing their ability for optimal performance. B vitamins can reduce free radicals in the blood while also improving oxygen delivery throughout the body.
Most people obtain enough B vitamins in their diet from foods such as fish, poultry, red meat, eggs, and dairy. However, sometimes diet isn’t enough. When considering adding vitamin B, you can supplement with individual vitamin or a combination such as a vitamin B complex. The latter may be a better option because it allows your body to maintain a balance between the different types of vitamin B and prevents a dependence on one particular form.
Natural Herbal Nootropics
The list of herbs and plants claiming to have nootropic effects is quite extensive. Many of these natural remedies have been studied, consumed, and past down for generations through the Native American, Viking, Indian, Chinese, and other cultures. Over time, these traditional brain boosters have evolved from raw plants and simple teas to a booming, modernized industry with multiple methods of consumption.
Some important caveats to consider when selecting a “natural” nootropic are safety and efficacy. First, just because a substance is classified as natural does not necessarily mean it is risk-free. St. John’s Wort, for example, can interact with several different prescription medications; and, as mentioned before, gingko and ginseng can increase the risk for bleeding in patients taking anticoagulant medicine.
Related to safety, how the natural product is manufactured can change the nootropic effects. The nootropic compounds found in plants are not universally distributed throughout the stem, leaves, and roots. Manufacturers also use chemical processes to isolate the nootropics from the rest of the plant matter. While the chemicals may be removed and the nootropics cleaned afterward, this is not a complete process. Ultimately, how and where the nootropic is harvested affects the end result and is important in assessing the quality of the final product.
Here is a sample list of natural herbal nootropics:
- Coleus Forskohlii
- Holy Basil
- St. John’s Wort
- Mucuna Pruriens
- Gingko Biloba
- Valerian Root
Some Common Nootropics Negative Side Effects
Since nootropics work in the brain, it would make sense that one of the most reported side effects is a headache. Remember, nootropics are changing levels of neurochemicals, transmitters, and receptors and changing things up could be taxing on the brain.
To reduce the risk of headaches, stick with the lowest dose and work your way up slowly. Make sure you are taking nootropics from quality sources and companies. Some users recommend taking time off (usually a week) after about two months of nootropic use.
Some nootropics can cause jitters. This is often due to caffeine being included in the nootropic stack or the nootropic producing a caffeine-link response in the brain. Like other side effects, jitters are usually due to too high of a dose or a poorly formulated product. Be sure to check all the ingredients and the dosage to minimize the chance for the shakes.
Nausea and Upset Stomach
The gut is often called the “second brain” and is full of nerves and transmitters similar to the real brain. Taking nootropics, especially those loaded with artificial components, can do a number on your digestive tract.
Starting with the lowest dose is also helpful when it comes to reducing GI side effects. Look for quality products from natural sources (plants, herbs, or vitamins) without artificial colors and flavors.
Other potential side effects
Other potential side effects are few and occur only on rare conditions. One example is strange or lucid dreams. This results from taking the nootropic late in the day or too close to bedtime. However, in some cases, lucid or strange dreams are the desired effect. Excitotoxicity, especially with ampakines, is a rare side effect worth mentioning. Excitotoxicity happens when NMDA and AMPA receptors are over-activated and lead to too much glutamate. This can trigger damage and death to the affected cells.
Are Nootropics Safe?
Other than the side effects already mentioned, nootropics are typically a safe way to improve cognitive performance without the use of stimulants. Based on Dr. Giurgea’s definition, nootropics should contain few, if any, side effects thereby reducing the risk involved.
Some case reports with adverse events do exist but often happen due to misuse or in combination with other medications. Remember to always consult with a healthcare provider if you are taking other prescription medications or have conditions which would warrant further evaluation.
The Reddit Nootropics Community
The Reddit Nootropic community is a treasure trove of information on a wide variety of nootropics. These self-experimenters discuss formulations, results, dosages, side effects and everything in-between. The two main Reddit threads are /r/Nootropics and /r/stacks and are full with other outside links to clinical studies, other useful articles, and the best retail sites.
There is even a beginner’s guide to nootropics which is a great place to get started.
Remember these posts are often based on individual results and made not correlate to your overall health and your fitness goals. Use it as a resource but be sure to do your own research and seek advice from a healthcare provider if necessary.
Final Thoughts on Nootropics
Nootropics offer a key to unlock more of our brain’s potential. When taken correctly, nootropics can increase mental power, enhance focus, fuel creativity, and diminish stress without the risk of serious side effects. Take a peek behind the curtain and see if nootropics could be another addition to your toolbox. You might find another level of brain power you didn’t know you had.