Learning, studying, concentrating and staying alert requires a lot of energy. Sometimes called “smart drugs” or “smart pills,” nootropics help your brain work faster and last longer. But are you sluggish in the mornings? Afternoons? Does it affect your focus level and ability to get important tasks done in time?
When used wisely, nootropics are a great way to give your productivity and mood levels a kick in the butt. Some nootropics can be used to improve memory function and even improve symptoms of cognitive decline. Many nootropics are all-natural, safe neuroprotective when used long-term. Others should only be taken in moderation for short-term use because they cause side effects or pose a risk for addiction.
“Nootropics” is a wide umbrella term that includes supplements ranging from fish oil to Adderall. Here’s a breakdown the different types of nootropics, the benefits they provide and the regulations around them. If you’re new to nootropics, read to the end to learn about 3 nootropic stacks you should try.
What’s a Nootropic?
A nootropic includes any compound, whether natural or synthetic, that enhances brain performance. A substance can only be a nootropic if it’s known to cause no adverse effects. There are hundreds of different nootropics out there and available to purchase online or from pharmacies as prescription-only drugs.
What Are the Benefits of Nootropics?
Signs of boosted brainpower when you take nootropics can include:
• Better memory
• Longer attention span
• Clearer thinking
• Increased motivation
• Sharpened focus
Because of these effects, nootropics are often beneficial for people with cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, ADHD, short-term memory issues and related problems. However, they also benefit individuals who are perfectly healthy, with no cognitive performance issues, by improving their concentration, thinking, and overall mental performance. It’s the same reason many people drink coffee–to promote wakefulness, boost productivity and enhance focus.
How Are Nootropics Regulated?
The FDA considers most nootropics to be dietary supplements, which are unregulated and therefore unapproved for the treatment of medical conditions. Other nootropics are prescription-only and made by their patent-holders. For example, Modafinil is a prescription drug for increasing wakefulness in patients with certain sleepiness conditions, such as narcolepsy. Nonetheless, college students tend to get their hands on these drugs for prolonging their focused study time.
Natural nootropics are 100 percent natural substances. They include coffee beans, tea leaves, mushrooms and herbs like Gingko Biloba or ginseng1. They also include naturally-derived supplements like omega-3 fish oil, krill oil or cod liver oil. Not only have natural nootropics been studied scientifically, but also they’ve been consumed by people for thousands of years. It’s clear that these nootropics are generally safe, and they’re definitely proven safer than synthetic nootropics, especially for long-term use.
The only safety risks with natural nootropics include the potential for an allergic reaction to a natural compound, and taking more than the recommended dose. Start with a small initial dose whenever you try a new natural nootropic, to see if you have any allergy to it. Refer to the product label for the suggested dosing amount, and avoid going above the recommended dose.
While some natural nootropics are whole plants, such as tea leaves you can brew, other natural nootropics undergo processing before becoming supplements. For example, eggs and fish contain an acid called creatine, which is a nootropic that enhances mental clarity, memory and concentration. It’s extracted and processed into the form of creatine monohydrate in order to be consumed in supplement form.
Whereas certain natural nootropics can be bought at your grocery store, synthetic nootropics are man-made, and since they’re actual drugs, many are prescription-only. Some of the better-known synthetic nootropics include Aniracetam, Adderall and Modafinil.
Most synthetic nootropics have been around for less than 50 years, which means not enough time has passed for the research to exist yet to determine their long-term effects. Additionally, many synthetic nootropics produce more side effects than natural nootropics. What’s worse, they can even be addicting. For example, Adderall is a central nervous stimulant, which people have been known to become dependent on and experience withdrawals without.
A “stack” is a combination of nootropics that enhance each other’s effects and work toward a common goal2. These are often sold as formulas, or you can buy the supplements separately and take them daily as a “stack.” For example, CILTEP is a stack that contains the nootropics: artichoke extract, forskolin, acetyl-L-Carnitine, L-Phenylalanine and vitamin B6. CEOS, Wall Street executives and college students use CILTEP for motivation, mental performance and concentration.
Whereas some stacks contain elements that enhance each other, others work by offsetting the side effects of other nootropics. For example, the side effects of caffeine are offset by L-theanine, which is also known to increase concentration and focus.
How Do Nootropics Work?
There are multiple ways nootropics work to produce their effects in your brain.
Modulating Neurotransmitter Levels
Your brain’s functioning runs on connections that are transmitted back and forth between receptors. Most nootropics work by modulating various receptors, in order to stimulate the release or inhibit the reuptake of certain neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are the hormone-like chemicals in your brain that produce certain effects3. Nootropics work to increase levels of dopamine and serotonin in the brain, helping increase your motivation, concentration, memory, mood, attention span and cognitive ability.
Increasing Oxygen Supply
Some nootropics work by boosting the supply of blood to your brain, in turn, increasing the supply of oxygen, nutrients and glucose the brain can utilize. According to studies, your brain uses as much as 20% of your overall energy expenditure despite making up 2% of your body weight. Nootropics that increase blood flow to the brain give it better access to energy, improving its endurance and ability to perform mental tasks. Some examples of these supplements are caffeine, creatine, Acetyl L-Carnitine, Ginkgo Biloba and vinpocetine.
Nootropics and the Aging Brain
In addition to providing short-term brain-boosting benefits, some nootropics help protect the brain in old age when used regularly over time. By modulating levels of brain chemicals that affect aging, some nootropics stimulate the growth of brain cells and protect them against damage. With long-term supplementation, they have the potential to delay cognitive decline and reduce your risk for developing neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. Here are some of the specific benefits nootropics can provide the aging brain:
Neuroplasticity represents how well your brain can make connections and strengthen them, such as in response to learning. Some nootropics improve neuroplasticity when taken long-term. They help improve brain health and protect cognitive function as you age.
Protecting Against Oxidative Stress
Oxidative stress4 is a buildup of free radicals–harm-causing molecules linked to aging and age-related diseases. Excessively high free radical levels can come from poor diets, drugs and exposure to pollution or other toxins. Many nootropics improve brain health with their antioxidant compounds, which neutralize free radicals and prevent them from causing damage to cells and DNA.
Improving Memory Function
If you experience problems with memory recall, nootropics could potentially help. They can improve memory function and protect against age-related neurodegeneration. Some could potentially be used as adjunctive therapy to treat Alzheimer’s disease when overseen by a doctor. Choline, Acetyl-L-Carnitine and 1-Huperzine A are some examples of supplements that have been shown to improve symptoms in Alzheimer’s patients.
Nootropics that raise acetylcholine levels in the brain help the brain remove beta-amyloid in the brain, which is a protein that builds up as metabolic waste and is linked to the progression of Alzheimer’s. They also work by boosting blood flow to the brain and improving neuroplasticity.
3 Nootropic Stacks for Beginners to Try
If you just want to dip your toe into nootropics because you’re brand new, here are some great nootropics combinations (“stacks”) to try:
1. Caffeine + L-Theanine
Caffeine is a stimulant that is found naturally in coffee beans, cacao and tea leaves5. Caffeine improves memory, mood, alertness and mental performance. It even improves physical performance by promoting the use of fat stores and enhancing muscle activation signaling. Interestingly, caffeine has been linked to the prevention of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.
If you’re already a coffee drinker, you should be taking an L-theanine supplement every time you drink a cup, or at least once a day. L-theanine is a nootropic on its own that’s commonly used to promote calmness in people with anxiety. When combined with caffeine, it counters the negative effects of caffeine many people experience, such as jitters or hyperactivity. Instead, it promotes a state of relaxed concentration, while preventing anxiety and reducing the severity of energy crashes.
2. Choline + Lecithin + Acetyl-L-Carnitine
Anyone who wants sustained mental performance can benefit from choline, lecithin and acetyl-L-carnitine. This stack promotes better mental clarity, mood and focus. It can even increase your brain’s processing speed and improve your reflexes.
Here’s a quick breakdown of what’s in this stack:
Choline is an essential nutrient found in food like eggs and liver, and it’s required for cellular functioning, DNA synthesis and a healthy brain and nervous system. It’s a precursor in the synthesis of a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, which is responsible for memory and muscle control. Choline bitartrate is the most absorbable form of choline, as the bitartrate improves its absorbency. You can take choline whether you have a healthy brain or you’re trying to counter age-related cognitive decline. In fact, choline supplementation is even shown to improve Alzheimer’s symptoms.
Lecithin is a naturally-occurring substance found in soy and sunflower seeds, and you can take it in supplement form as a nootropic. It works by supporting the integrity of your brain cell walls, which are where your receptors transmit communication signals (neurotransmitters). The walls of your brain cells are made of phospholipids–a type of fat that is found abundantly in lecithin. Lecithin on its own is a yellowish, pasty and oily substance, and taking it as a daily supplement long-term is linked to better mental performance.
Acetyl-L-carnitine is an amino acid that produces nootropic effects in multiple ways. One of which is by enhancing mitochondrial function–that is, the ability of your cells to utilize the energy you get from food. Through this mechanism, acetyl-L-carnitine can potentially combat the cognitive signs of aging, because your brain cells can maintain their energy and youthfulness. Acetyl-L-carnitine also improves circulation, so by increasing the brain’s cellular energy and oxygen levels, this supplement enhances brain function and mood levels.
3. Bacopa Monnieri + Lion’s Mane + Omega-3 Fish Oil
If you’re starting to think about protecting your cognitive ability as you age, consider stacking bacopa monnieri with lion’s mane and omega-3 fish oil. You can also get omega-3s from krill oil, cod liver oil, salmon liver oil or another source. However, make sure it’s DHA and EPA, rather than ALA. These are the different forms of omega-3 fatty acids, and it’s the DHA and EPA found in fish that work to lower inflammation in the brain and spinal cord, and improve brain cell health. ALA is found in plant foods like flaxseed and chia seeds, but the body only converts a fraction of it into the necessary DHA and EPA it requires.
Bacopa monnieri is an herb with nootropic effects shown to improve memory recall and retention. You can find a supplement that is standardized to as high as 50% bacosides, which is the active natural compound in bacopa monnieri. Getting 150mg of bacosides daily can improve your memory over the long-term. It’s an adaptogenic herb, which means it also fights stress and promotes relaxation. If you need help with falling asleep at night, take this stack after dinner.
Lion’s mane, the third nootropic in this stack, is a neuroprotective herb that works by increasing levels of nerve growth factor (NGF) in your brain. NGF is responsible for the development, survival and maintenance of your brain cells. One of NGF’s roles is to help clear beta-amyloid from the brain during sleep each night, to avoid a buildup that leads to amyloid plaque over time–a condition linked to Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia.
Getting Started with Nootropics
Nootropics include a wide range of supplements that improve brain performance and/or health, both in the long-term and short-term. They can benefit an equally wide range of individuals, from college students who want to boost their memory and test performance, to older folks experiencing symptoms of cognitive decline. Hopefully, by the end of this post, you’re ready to get started with nootropics if you’ve decided you want to try them out.
If you’re currently on medication, consult with your prescribing physician before trying nootropics, in case there are interactions between them. Read the product label before taking nootropics and don’t take more than the recommended dose. There’s always a potential risk for allergic reactions to supplements, whether natural or synthetic. Take only half the recommended dose the first time, so that if you are allergic, the reaction won’t be as severe. The next day, you can move up to the recommended dose.
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