Nootropics are an exciting category of “smart drugs” with major potential to impact brain power and performance. This article will review some of their common benefits, and give examples of how some nootropics work. Although there is more research to be done on nootropics’ long term effects, they have the potential to play a role in both exercise and daily life.
What are Nootropics?
Nootropics are a class of supplements that can be thought of as brain enhancers. The term “nootropic” itself comes from the Greek words nous which means “mind”. This class of supplements has a wide range of potential benefits, from increased cognition, attention, comprehension, and memory to support better intelligence.1 They may also have a protective effect on the brain against aging and injury.1
Nootropics range from simple nutrients like vitamins and amino acids, commonly known natural substances like ginkgo biloba, to prescription medications. Their mechanisms of action and side effects vary widely. Although many compounds may fall under the category of potential nootropics, there are only a few that have shown efficacy through extensive research over time.2 Nootropic supplements continue to be a fascinating topic of study by many scientists and pharmaceutical companies.
How Do Nootropics Work?
Just like the wide range of types of nootropic supplements, the way they influence brain power varies greatly. Some have an effect on dopamine (the “feel good” hormone) and other transmitters in the brain, others have an anti-inflammatory protective effect.3 The class of nootropics is like a large umbrella, with many types of brain supplements and potential benefits falling underneath.
Best Uses of Nootropic Supplements
Although many nootropics impact multiple areas of cognition and brain health, the following categories are the most common reasons for taking brain boosting supplements.1 Because some nootropics work differently, some people prefer to “stack” their effects by taking more than one supplement at a time. Here are the most common reasons for using nootropic supplements:
i) Memory & Focus
Nootropic supplements for memory and focus are widely used, from college students to those wanting to prevent cognitive decline due to aging. While prescription amphetamines like Adderall change brain chemistry to increase attention, energy, and focus, they are designed for people with ADHD but widely abused without a prescription.4
Conversely, something as simple as Vitamin D (which we can obtain from the sun, food, or a simple multivitamin) has been shown to be clinically low in patients with declining cognitive function.5
Ginkgo biloba is one commonly known supplement with extensive research related to improved memory. It is thought to work by increasing blood flow to the brain, similarly to amphetamines. Typically sold in the form of ginkgo extract, this plant-based supplement has been widely studied for its potential to improve memory and mental processes, with few side effects.6
ii) Anxiety & Depression
Anxiety and depression are common diagnoses with many prescription and natural treatments available on the market today. St. John’s Wort has a known history of being prescribed to treat depression, but could also show promise with improving memory.1
Ginseng has been used as a traditional herbal medicine with multiple benefits for thousands of years. Many would say the primarily nootropic benefit of ginseng is treatment and prevention of major depression and anxiety.7 It can also boost energy and protect the brain from neurodegenerative diseases.7 Research shows that there are more than five different mechanisms of interaction between the brain and ginseng which also has cognitive enhancing properties.7
Adaptogens are a category of herbs that work by impacting hormones and your body’s physiologic response to stress. They are typically available in both supplement and team forms. Rhodiola rosea is an adaptogen commonly used for several nootropic benefits, most of all for anxiety and depression.8 Rhodiola has been shown particularly useful in mediating the short-term impact of stress, or the “fight-or-flight” response.8
Creatine is a commonly used ergogenic aid to improve power and short-term bursts of energy, but has also been shown to have a beneficial effect on the brain. Creatine supplementation has shown positive impacts on both memory and intelligence, which may work by increasing energy supply to the brain and acting as an antioxidant.9
Green tea has been widely used for years as a metabolism booster, but may show nootropic effects due to its high L-Theanine amino acid content. L-Theanine, in particular, may improve brain function through its strong anti-oxidant like properties, and is sometimes marketed as a nootropic supplement itself.10 While L-Theanine is promising, it is important to keep in mind that the beneficial effects of green tea are potentially due a combination of bioactive components rather than just L-Theanine alone.
iv) Brain Health
Omega-3 fatty acids are a classic example of a brain boosting supplement. These heart healthy fats have many benefits to the body, but particularly they protect the brain’s neurons, reduce inflammation, and improve brain-cell function.11 Some studies even show an impact of Omega-3s on brain recovery, which can potentially help with prevention of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease.11
Racetams are a class of synthetically produced nootropic supplements aimed at boosting brain health and enhancing the learning process. Some of the most popular on the market are piracetam, aniracetam, and nefiracetam. There are many derivatives that work in various ways to impact memory, motivation, and attention.3 Research on this class of brain supplements shows the most promise for those with neurodegenerative disorders or injuries, and less in healthy individuals, although more research is needed.12
Safety of Nootropic Supplements
Nootropics are a new class of supplements and are constantly being researched. Even though plant based supplements like ginkgo and ginseng are natural, there is very limited control over the purity and effectiveness of dietary supplements.13 Because over the counter supplements can interact with other medications you may be taking or impact preexisting health conditions, it is best to speak with your doctor before taking any new substances.
Top Nootropic Side Effects to be Aware of
Caffeine and nicotine could be considered nootropic agents for the boost in energy and blood flow they provide to the brain, but they also have clear side effects and health impacts in large and repeated doses– something to consider when taking any supplement, especially those without extensive research.14
Although some nootropics show benefits to those with cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s, they may not have an impact on healthy individuals. Furthermore, those with a history of mental illness or substance use disorders may experience worsening symptoms when taking certain nootropics2, which should be monitored.
Take Home Message
One clear method for improving brain health and mood is regular exercise. Exercise’s many benefits extend beyond muscle tone and weight loss – it can also increase cognition and protect the brain and body as we age.15 Nootropics are an exciting new class of supplements with a wide range of potential brain health benefits.
While nootropics (and other over the counter medications) are still being researched they may be effective for some individuals. Nootropic stacking is popular to try to boost brain health, but it may also increase the potential for negative side effects. It is best to speak with your doctor before consuming any medication.