Although modern science has uncovered the truth behind the placebic nature of many supplements, certain companies continue to make claims that their products can help with every ailment under the sun. The loose enforcement of claims around supplements is, in part, due to the fact that supplements are regulated differently than drugs by the FDA, and, in part, that the FDA simply lacks the resources to police the supplements industry effectively.
However, some consumers rightfully do their due diligence by using the resources available to discover what really does and does not work. Informed consumers not only want to get healthy, but they don’t want to waste their money buying things that have little to no impact. Movements favoring “single ingredient” products and “whole foods” exemplify these consumer trends toward healthier, more honest food.
One supplement category that is particularly wrought with exaggerated and misleading claims is the nootropic industry. For those who don’t know, nootropics are cognitive-enhancing supplements with a spectrum of specific benefits ranging from supporting concentration to improving working memory and focus. Nootropics have acquired a problematic reputation because marketers have touted nootropics with magical, expansive claims no supplement could possibly deliver on. Skeptics, rightfully, don’t buy it. If you’re expecting nootropics to turn you into Einstein, you are certainly expecting too much.
The other side of the problem relates to the use of under-researched ingredients. Traditional medicines the world over have natural remedies for increasing energy or enhancing cognition. While some of these natural ingredients do hold up to scientific scrutiny, many of them do not, and there is rarely enough research to prove that an ingredient is safe and effective for most people. Certain natural nootropics, like Bacognize®, a standardized extract of Bacopa monnieri, have loads of established empirical evidence–for example, studies have shown that Bacopa monnieri supports a positive mood. But there are many, many other ingredients that claim to do this with virtually no support or evidence.
Consumers can’t be expected to get a PhD in pharmacology simply because they are interested in nootropics and other health supplements, but, because of the lack of enforcement and regulation in the supplements industry, the responsibility does fall to the consumer to choose companies that do the proper research and show their work. One way to determine whether you’re dealing with an honest brand is to pay attention to the language used on the company’s products and marketing. If the claims are unsupported or seem too good to be true, trust your gut!
The Birth of Nootropics
“Man is not going to wait passively for millions of years before evolution offers him a better brain.” – Dr. Corneliu E. Girugea.
In this article, you will learn:
- What nootropic means
- Where nootropics came from
- What nootropics do
- What benefits nootropics can offer
What Does It Mean?
The term nootropic was coined in 1972 by Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea,from the Greek word noos, which means pertaining to “mind,” and tropos, which means “to turn” or “bend.” Simply put, “nootropic” literally means “mind turning.” But where did nootropics come from?
Sometime in the 1960s, Dr. Girugea, a Romanian psychologist and chemist, set off to develop a sleeping aid. He was originally attempting to develop a form of the neurotransmitter GABA that would be able to cross the blood-brain barrier and assist those who struggled with sleep. While he and his team were not exactly triumphant in their initial task, they did manage to develop a molecule with the ability to enter the brain. Dr. Giurgea called this breakthrough discovery “piracetam,” the first discovered nootropic.
Piracetam quickly demonstrated beneficial properties for mental performance, memory consolidation, and information processing, which were all benefits new and unique to any synthesized substance derived from a lab at this point in time. Consequently, Dr. Giurgea used piracetam as a model to establish criteria as to what can be classified as a nootropic:
- Improve working memory
- Possess the ability to learn to prevent cognitive decline
- Enable the brain to function properly under adverse conditions
- Enhance neuronal firing mechanisms and reaction times
- Not have any stimulant, sedative, or toxic effects
- Shield the brain from injury by physical or chemical measures
- Increase the efficacy of the tonic cortical/subcortical control mechanisms
This is the strictest definition of nootropics, and if you were to abide by this criteria, you would quickly find that only a handful of “true” nootropics exist.
Since Giurgea’s initial discovery, additional research has uncovered more smart drugs and brain beneficial supplements. In addition, aggressive marketing attempting to cash in on the hype around nootropics has expanded the original Dr. Giurgea-inspired definition of ‘nootropics’. Today, any substance — natural and synthetic – that can help the brain in any way, may be marketed as a nootropic. In case you couldn’t guess, we’re not thrilled about that.
True cognitive boosting enhancers include extracts of natural plants like:
- Bacopa monnieri
- Rhodiola rosea
- Panax ginseng
As well as synthetic ingredients like:
How Do Nootropics Work?
The brain communicates internally and to the distant body via the nervous system. Nerve cells can be, by cell standards, enormously long, but they don’t continue all the way from the brain to the destination of the brain’s signals — they meet other nerve cells at junctions known as synapses. The chemicals responsible for transmitting signals from one nerve to another – across the synapse – are known as neurotransmitters.
Some brain-enhancing supplements target systems within the brain that are facilitated by the binding of neurotransmitters to receptor sites. These systems are broadly referred to as “neural pathways.” Nootropics like Bacognize® Bacopa monnieri, which support optimal brain health, can enhance cognition by interacting with these pathways in ways that support natural, healthy brain function. Generally speaking, nootropic supplements are designed to target one or more (ideally, all) of the following brain pathways listed below:
- Brain Regeneration – One of your brain’s maintenance processes is known as neurogenesis, a process which works to promote brain growth and develop neuronal tissue, enhancing plasticity, brain cell repair, and maintenance. Some nootropics stimulate neurogenesis by signaling growth factor release along with supplying raw nutritional building blocks to support brain health.
- Brain Protection – Nootropic neuroprotectors may support the brain’s natural defenses against toxic conditions and compounds through processes like antioxidant reduction in free radical damage.
- Brain Waves – Did you know that your brain’s electrical impulses operate at different brainwave frequencies? In order from lowest to highest, the frequencies known as delta, theta, alpha, beta, and gamma each appear to correspond to different mental states. Some nootropics may help to promote brain activity associated with these frequencies to stimulate a desired cognitive effect. This is a case where our observation of a complex system is a bit reductive, but these periodic electrical effects are an indication that we have promoted organized cellular activity of a kind we wish to see.
- Brain Chemicals – Cell-to-cell communication, or synaptic transmission, occurs when one neuron releases chemicals (neurotransmitters) to another neuron. Similar to a message carrier, neurotransmitters essentially regulate all cognitive function through neuronal communication. Some nootropics act directly on the release or uptake of neurotransmitters by stimulating their production or occupying the binding sites at which their ‘messages’ are received, thus preventing the ‘real message’ from coming through. While it’s not a true nootropic, caffeine is an example of a chemical that prevents the uptake of a neurotransmitter, in this case adenosine, to prevent its normal effect (making you sleepy) for a short time. Check out our article on caffeine as a nootropic for more on that topic.
What Are the Benefits of Nootropics?
Nootropics can be used for, among others, the following reasons:
- Memory and Concentration – Many studies suggest natural nootropics may enhance retention by boosting and repairing memory function. In addition, some nootropics may help to improve focus, resistance to stress, resistance to fatigue, and motivation, which could be beneficial for those needing a little extra help with concentration.
- Reduce Anxiety – Did you know that if your body remains in a state of stress for too long, your neurochemistry could become imbalanced? This is due to a neurotransmitter called GABA which is responsible in part for assuaging the nervous, anxious, and uneasy feeling that is associated with anxiety. Low GABA levels can be associated with feelings of panic and worry and difficulty sleeping. Some nootropics may help regulate GABA levels, thereby helping to put your mind at ease.
Some additional benefits that users have found which may be associated with certain nootropics like L-Theanine, Bacognize Bacopa monnieri, Panax ginseng root extract, and Rhodiola root extract are:
- Improved mood
- Increased energy
- Improved sleep
- Improved mental performance under stress
- Reduced perception of mental fatigue
- Support for concentration
- Help to maintain normal heart rate in stressful situations