If someone told you there was a drug that would instantly make you smarter and more creative, what would you think? Probably something like “no way” or “BS” or “horsefeathers” or “baloney” or even “malarkey”, right? That’s the right reaction — there’s no such thing as a magic pill. So what about a class of cognitive-enhancing supplements called “nootropics” that can help with focus, memory, energy, and reducing the effects of stress?
Supplement hustlers and snake-oil peddlers have muddied the waters around the term ‘nootropics’ with outlandish claims, making it difficult to figure what works and what’s safe, but if you’re wondering what nootropics are really good for, we’re here to help.
In this article you will learn:
- What nootropics are and where they came from
- How nootropics work
- What nootropics are used for
What Are Nootropics?
First created by Romanian psychologist and chemist Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea in 1972, true nootropics have a very specific definition and must possess all of the following traits:
- Improved mental function under stress
- Enhancement of learning and memory
- Protection of brain cells from cognitive impairment
- Enhancement of neuronal firing mechanisms
- Absence of certain pharmacological effects of psychotropic drugs and prescription medications (no stimulant, toxic or sedative effects)
How Do Nootropics Work?
Nootropics are defined by their shared effects, but their mechanisms of action differ broadly. When researching nootropics or taking them yourself, it’s important to appreciate the complexity of the human brain and the fact that, by taking a nootropic, you’re taking something that is designed to interact with the most complex part of your entire body. As such, it’s important to take precautions and stick with ingredients that are well-researched and understood.
Also, if you’re taking an herb or supplement, for example, ashwagandha, which is a popular stress-reducing supplement, it’s critical that you start in small doses to test your tolerance, as some people may experience negative reactions even with the most time-tested herbs. There are other nootropic ingredients that have generally been very well-tolerated and are demonstrated by well-designed studies to offer reliable benefits and few side-effects.. Some of these natural ingredients include:
- Bacopa monnieri: Bacopa monnieri has been shown to offer a broad array of benefits for cognitive health linked to 5HT serotonin binding activity and antioxidant capacity.
- Rhodiola rosea: A flowering plant, Rhodiola rosea has been used for centuries before the term “nootropic” even came into existence. In recent decades, research has lent support to the idea that Rhodiola rosea has properties that have a positive effect on energy and focus. Specifically, a 2010 meta-analysis of 11 randomized placebo-controlled trials showed that Rhodiola rosea has benefits in fatigue reduction during physical activity, and increased mental performance under stress.
- Panax ginseng: Placebo-controlled randomized trials with healthy young subjects have shown that panax ginseng may help improve working memory, increase calmness, support cognitive performance, reduce the perception of mental fatigue, and improve mental health and social functioning.
- L-Theanine: A non-dietary, non-essential amino acid, L-Theanine is found predominantly in tea and some mushrooms. It’s structurally similar to GABA, a neuroamine critical to relaxation, and glutamate, a neurotransmitter critical to learning and memory. Multiple studies have shown L-Theanine to support relaxation and to enhance attention.
True nootropics like the ones listed above work to enhance cognitive function in the following ways:
Brain Energy – Did you know that the brain consumes more energy than any other organ in the body? The brain accounts for roughly 20% of the body’s total energy consumption. Nootropics may have positive effects on energy metabolism by delivering raw material for fuel and enhancing mitochondrial efficiency.
Brain Blood Flow – Whether stemming from chemical insults like fatigue, alcohol use, or stress, impaired cerebral circulation can diminish cerebral function. Some nootropics’ benefits may be attributable to support for nitric oxide levels and blood vessel integrity, which may increase the delivery of nutrients and oxygen to the brain.
Brain Chemicals – Neurotransmitters are messengers that facilitate neuron-to-neuron communication, which means they play an important role in regulating memory and cognitive functions. Sharpening receptor sensitivity, increasing neurotransmitter production, and inhibiting brain chemical breakdown contribute to better-optimized neurotransmitters, and nootropics may be able to help promote these processes.
Brain Protection – Nootropic neuroprotectors have been shown to assist the brain’s natural defenses against adverse conditions through several adaptive processes such as apoptogenic resistance to stress and antioxidant reduction in free radical damage.
Brain Waves – In order from highest to lowest, gamma, beta, alpha, theta, and delta are brainwave frequencies that correspond to different mental states. Some nootropics have been shown to help raise brain electrical activity associated with some of these frequencies to stimulate desired cognitive effects such as calmness.
Brain Regeneration – The process that promotes brain growth and the development of neuronal tissue with the goal of brain cell repair, plasticity, and maintenance, is known as neurogenesis. Some nootropics may be able to support this process by signaling growth factor synthesis and release along with helping to supply raw nutritional building blocks to the brain.
What Are Nootropics Used for?
Now that you understand what they are, where they come from, and how they work, you might be wondering what exactly nootropics are used for. You know now that nootropics are cognitive enhancers, but it’s also important to understand that nootropics are not miracle drugs. You will not immediately become superman or superwoman after taking your first dose of ginseng or bacopa. Nootropics offer the most reliable and sustainable benefit as a long-term contributor to health and wellness. When taken consistently over time, nootropics can have positive cognitive benefits. Some nootropic marketers promise to make healthy people function above their normal baseline, on demand, but, realistically – if that sort of thing were possible, they’d put it in the cheeseburgers, right?
With that in mind, here are some of the more legitimate reasons that people take nootropics:
Improves Concentration and Memory:
Since first discovered, nootropics have shown potential to help improve working memory and brain health. This is because they can enhance retention by working to promote short-term memory function. This can be beneficial to college students, for example, who need higher levels of concentration to study for long periods of time, and it’s why traditional nootropics like Bacopa monnieri are well-known as “students’ herbs” in India.
Almost everyone suffers from stress from time to time, and for some, external, chronic stressors contribute to a chemical imbalance that exacerbates their symptoms of stress, leading to a vicious cycle.
If the levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter responsible for reducing cell activity and producing relaxation, are low, that condition can lead to feelings of panic or anxiety. Some nootropic supplements may help to regulate GABA levels, helping you to feel at ease and potentially reducing feelings of anxiety, without needing a prescription drug.
Boost Energy Levels: Many of the ‘energy’ products on the market, whether drinks or supplements or gums or goos, offer a temporary boost by way of stimulating effects. Caffeine and nicotine are the most commonly-used stimulants, and they’re often paired with sugar. True nootropics, on the other hand, help “boost” the brain in a few more sustainable ways:
- Helping to supply glucose and oxygen to the brain to be used for energy
- Working to optimize the function of mitochondria in the brain (the ‘power plants’ of your cells) for energy production
- Helping to improve the brain’s resistance to stress, thus freeing up chemical energy for the things you’d like to be doing
According to a study in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than a third of American adults are not getting enough sleep on a regular basis. This is a huge problem because sleep deprivation can result in excessive daytime sleepiness, reduced focus, irritability, impaired memory function, and much more. The good news is that studies suggest that nootropics may help support healthy sleep by encouraging relaxation and wakefulness.
From increasing focus to improving working memory to reducing symptoms of stress, if you’re looking for safe, sustainable ways to be at your best more of the time, choosing a well-formulated nootropic might be right for you. If you’re in the market for a nootropic that is simple, safe, and effective, may we suggest Plato, which is unequivocally the best nootropic available. We’re not just saying it’s the best because we made it, we made it the best so we could say it. Does that make sense? Plato is the best. That’s the takeaway.