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What are Nootropics?

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A gloved hand holding assorted pills

This internet is full of health ‘hacks’, shortcuts, dieting tips, and ‘one shocking thing your doctor won’t tell you.’. But we all know, or should know, not to trust everything we see. This is just as true when it comes to health and fitness products. You might think, “what about supplements? Aren’t supplements well-regulated?” The short answer is that — unfortunately — in many cases they are not. 

Without getting too far in the weeds, the important thing to understand is that, as far as the FDA is concerned, there is a difference between “food” and “drugs.” Drugs can be used and marketed to treat, prevent, diagnose, or cure diseases, whereas food cannot. This is important because in order for drug companies to market their products as cures for certain ailments, they must undergo enormous amounts of research. Food, on the other hand, is not subject to the same level of scrutiny, and nootropics fall under, perhaps surprisingly, the regulatory category of food! Dietary supplements are for many purposes regulated the same as “food” by the FDA.

Okay, so does this mean that all supplements – or all nootropics – are snake oil? No. It simply means that you, as a health-conscious consumer, must be wary of too-good-to-be-true sounding claims coming from nootropics marketers about the benefits of their products. A good rule of thumb is that if you find a nootropic that claims to do everything, you can be pretty certain the people marketing it have a loose association with the truth.

While a carefully-formulated nootropic may offer a chance to improve your memory, focus, and learning, even the best supplements have nothing in common with the magic pills Bradley Cooper takes in the movie Limitless.

In this article we’re going to cover:

  • What nootropics are and where they came from
  • How nootropics work
  • The benefits of taking nootropics

What are Nootropics?

So, what exactly are nootropics?

Nootropics are substances that work to enhance cognitive function. For a substance to qualify as a true nootropic, it must do one or more of the following:

  • Enhance neuronal firing mechanisms (i.e., cell-to-cell communication)
  • Improve cognitive performance (like memory and learning)
  • Protect brain cells from harmful chemical damage (adaptogenic, or neuroprotective behavior)
  • Improve brain health, such as memory and ability to learn (the strict definition defines this in a much more technical way, but we’ve simplified it for this discussion)
  • Be a cognitive enhancer, enabling the brain to function properly under disruptive situations
  • Possess very few toxic, stimulant, or sedative effects

Where did this definition come from? 

The word “nootropic” comes from the Greek “noos,” pertaining to “mind” paired with “trope,” signifying “to turn” or “bend.” Put together, it means “mind turning.” The word, when used very loosely, refers to any substance that can influence cognitive ability in a positive way. 

The term was first coined in 1972 by Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea, known today as the father of nootropics. Dr. Giurgea was a Romanian psychologist and chemist who was the first to develop nootropic compounds, a project he began in the 1960s. Despite the fact that nootropic research began so long ago, by the strictest definition, only a handful of “true” nootropics exist today. 

The story goes that Dr. Giurgea was looking to develop a form of the neurotransmitter GABA capable of crossing the blood-brain barrier. Doing so would, in theory, help patients who were struggling with sleep. While he didn’t succeed in his initial aim, Dr. Giurgea did develop the first nootropic, piracetam, which is a substance that is still used today. 

Cognitive science and neuroscience have come a long way since the 1960s, and, with them, nootropics have evolved and advanced as well.

Today’s most widely-used natural nootropics are:

  • L-Theanine
  • Ginseng
  • Ginkgo biloba
  • Rhodiola rosea
  • Bacopa monnieri

As far as synthetic compounds go, the most popular nootropics are: 

  • Piracetam
  • Phenotropil
  • Noopept

How Do Nootropics Work?

True nootropics are designed to target one or more of the following:

  1. Brain Chemicals: Neurotransmitters are messenger chemicals that facilitate neuron-to-neuron communication, with one of their communicative roles being to regulate memory and cognitive functions. Neuroprotective and excitatory roles of some nootropics, such as increasing production of neurotransmitters, inhibiting brain chemical breakdown, and sharpening receptor sensitivity, can contribute to a more optimized neurotransmitter status and, potentially, a better-functioning brain.
  2. Brain Energy: Believe it or not, the brain consumes about 20% of the body’s total energy, qualifying in that sense as the body’s most demanding organ. Some nootropics may support energy metabolism by working to enhance the efficiency of your brain’s mitochondria – the power plants of your body’s cells.
  3. Brain Blood Flow: Whether diminished by aging, an injury, or chemical effectors like alcohol use or stress, impaired cerebral circulation can diminish cerebral function. Some nootropics’ vasodilating effects can support the functioning of your blood vessels and brain blood nitric oxide levels, which in turn may help to increase the delivery of nutrients and oxygen to the brain. 
  4. Brain Protection: Nootropics that act as neuroprotectors, or adaptogens, may assist the brain’s natural defenses against toxic conditions and compounds through a number of adaptive processes. One such process is the antioxidant reduction of free radical damage.
  5. Brain Waves: Gamma, beta, alpha, theta, and delta are the terms for discrete brainwave frequencies that correspond to different mental states like alertness, information processing, sleep, and more. Some nootropics have been shown to help raise brain activity associated with certain frequencies, thereby stimulating mind states like calmness and focus. 
  6. Brain Regeneration and Healing: The process by which the brain grows and develops neuronal tissue, resulting in brain cell repair and plasticity, is known as neurogenesis. Some nootropics may support this process by providing raw nutritional building blocks and helping to signal synthesis and release of human growth factor for increased neurogenesis, working toward stimulating cellular rejuvenation in the brain.

A diver swimming past a brain coral in the foreground.

What are the Benefits?

Nootropics can contribute to improvement in mental functions that support optimal performance, mood, and well-being. The most important benefits include:

Memory 

In the 60 years since nootropics were first discovered, studies have shown certain nootropics can provide benefits to working memory, recall, and longer-term memory. Memory is a slippery subject, but certain nootropic ingredients have shown repeated, significant benefits to subjects’ ability to recall content in controlled studies. 

Attention

Multiple nootropic ingredients have been shown in well-structured studies to improve attention, concentration while distracted, focus, and task-switching. They can’t directly prevent you from using your smartphone, but they might be able to help you ignore the nagging voice in your head telling you to check Instagram every 30 seconds. 

Creativity

Some nootropics can promote brain wave activity that encourages free-flowing and relaxed thinking conducive to artistic exploration. These are those alpha waves we talked about earlier!

Mood

Some nootropics have been shown to help with relaxation, motivation, confidence, happiness, mood balance, anxiety, and much more. 

Physical

Due to all the benefits related to performance and human optimization, it didn’t take long for nootropics to enter the world of sports nutrition. Though nootropics are primarily used for brain health, many athletes swear by nootropics for their ability to help improve motivation, help intensify training, and promotion of focus in the gym or in competitive sports. As a wise coach once said: “Sports are 80% mental!”

Stress 

Stress is “the silent killer.” Elevated stress levels can contribute to poor health, premature death, obesity, sexual dysfunction, and hair loss–the list goes on and on. But, stress is a place that nootropics and adaptogens can really help! Some nootropics have well-documented stress-fighting properties that may help to increase overall calmness, and can thus improve performance for just about anyone, from competitive athletes to multitasking professionals.

Energy

Nootropics can increase feelings of energy, and can maybe even increase actual available energy in the brain. It’s believed this effect is due to a number of factors:

  • Some nootropics may optimize mitochondria (your cell’s power plants) in the brain for more efficient production of energy
  • They may increase the brain’s alpha wave activity, associated with increased feelings of wakeful relaxation
  • Some nootropics can increase blood flow to the brain, supplying additional oxygen and glucose that are used for energy production in the aforementioned mitochondria
  • Lastly, some nootropics can strengthen the brain’s resistance to stress, acting as adaptogens and decreasing the energy needed to fend off chemical insults from fatigue and distraction

Sleep

Adequate sleep has benefits that go way beyond just waking up feeling rested. Healthy sleep patterns have been shown to be associated with lowered stress levels, healthier eating habits, better focus, and even longer lifespans! Since some nootropics work to reduce stress levels, it stands to reason that some nootropics may offer benefits to sleep as well.

Learning

Students and lifelong learners can benefit from the effects of nootropics for their potential for enhancements in cognitive learning processes, memory formation, recall, and storage. 

Learning is related to nearly all of the other benefits we’ve discussed here — attention, memory, mood, even sleep plays a significant role in the brain’s ability to learn. Nootropics’ potential benefits to all those aspects of your health can set you up for more efficient, more effective learning.

A Final Word

In short, nootropics are supplements that may improve how you learn, focus, remember, and feel. There are many good reasons to add nootropics to your daily routine but remember, before taking any supplement, you should do your research and treat any claim you see with a healthy dose of skepticism. As always, it’s recommended that you consult your primary healthcare provider before adding any new supplement into your daily routine. 

 

 

Sources

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0014299908000277

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5021479/

https://chadd.org/about-adhd/general-prevalence/

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/cne.903020423

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