Imagine having the ability to dramatically boost your brain power, simply by taking a pill.
That idea has been played out recently in movies and on television screens (Limitless anyone?), but it actually has a basis in reality as well – through the idea of nootropics.
The name may be odd but it just refers to drugs that have the ability to increase mental function, cognition, memory and related areas.
Now, in fairness, even the best nootropics aren’t going to be as effective as they were on Limitless, reality simply doesn’t work that way. For that matter, any pill that had such dramatic impacts would probably have some serious side effects or health risks as well.
Still, that limitation hasn’t stopped people from being fascinated by the idea of boosting their brain power. For that matter, in 2015 alone, the nootropic industry was worth more than 1 billion dollars and the growth continues to be dramatic.
What Are Nootropics?
Nootropics is a fairly general idea and the emphasis is just on increasing the function of the brain. There are many potential directions that can be taken to achieve this goal, especially as there is still much that isn’t known about the brain.
The word nootropics comes from the Greek and means ‘towards the mind’. Definitions vary, but nootropics are considered to be compounds that are neurologically active and help to boost cognitive potential either directly or indirectly.
This results in an extremely broad class of compounds but one that has amazing implications.
As a consequence, there are many different types of nootropics and these can be similar or vary dramatically from one another.
For example, many of the nootropics that will be discussed and highlighted later in this post are relatively natural and will often be a type of herbal supplement. In these cases, the compounds in the herbs are thought to offer cognitive benefits.
Indeed, such a conclusion isn’t so shocking. Research has already linked some plant-based compounds to such outcomes. For example, the polyphenols in cocoa are thought to offer some cognitive benefits and there is growing evidence that a person’s diet can affect their brain chemistry.
For that matter, many of us consume a nootropic anyway, in the form of caffeine. Caffeine is a stimulant and many people do find that it increases their ability to think and to reason, along with their alertness in general.
But, caffeine and herbal products are just the tip of the iceberg.
In particular, there are many other types of nootropics out there – with more being discovered and developed on a regular basis. This includes products that are synthesized, rather than natural, along with others that may have a combination of natural and synthesized components.
Some of these may require a prescription, especially if they involve controlled substances.
Others may be illegal entirely. For example, some nootropics make use of drugs, like LSD (in micro doses) and medicinal mushrooms. The idea here is that the drugs may help expand the mind and the right quantities could offer benefits without the same side effects as typical drug use.
One example of a more controversial nootropic is Modafinil, which is sold under the brand names Alertec, Provigil and Modavigil. This is typically a prescription drug and is used to promote wakefulness, especially in people with sleep-based disorders. In the United States, the product is a controlled substance and its availability is strongly restricted.
However, there is also a significant off-label use, where people focus on the product as a way to boost cognition. For that matter, this is often promoted as one of the best places to start with nootropics.
There are also various threads online (particularly through reddit) where people have been discussing ways to get the most out of their minds. Furthermore, many executives and health-conscious individuals have been actively experimenting with different options. For some, this can include taking dozens of different supplements, including many that are unproven and some that may even be illegal.
For example, some people often rely on caffeine, in combination with prescription stimulants like Modafinil and Adderall (1).
Indeed, finding ways to ‘hack’ the body and optimize health has become increasingly popular, especially among people with money to burn. This can be clearly seen by the dramatic growth of interest in nootropics – growth that shows no signs of decline.
In many ways, the idea with nootropics is similar to stacking in bodybuilding. With stacking, people take a combination of different supplements to get the most possible benefits for their health. Often this will include a pre-workout, intra-workout and post-workout set of products.
As with nootropics, the individual supplements that are stacked may not be well-researched. Another factor to consider is that safety testing hasn’t focused on supplements them being used in conjunction with one another. As a result, there are some risks involved, although consulting a doctor first can help people be sure that they are supplementing in a healthy manner.
Important Considerations for Health
The issue of safety and efficacy is one of the biggest challenges with any type of alternative medicine and it is particularly significant for a field as cutting edge as nootropics. Even among the supplements that have been researched, the evidence is often much more limited than is ideal.
At the same time, natural supplements are rarely studied in conjunction with one another. So, even if a specific nootropic is safe and effective on its own, less is known about how it interacts with other supplements, medications or medical conditions.
These patterns mean that you do have to pay close attention to the way that your body responds.
Likewise, you should always talk to your doctor before taking any new supplement, especially if you are considering using multiple ones. Doing so may seem frustrating, as doctors often have a dim view of new approaches.
Nevertheless, your doctor will be able to provide you with more information about the risks of any supplements, especially in terms of your current health and any conditions that you may have.
Additionally, as a general rule, nootropics are not a good choice for anyone with a mental condition, especially if they are taking medication for it.
After all, nootropics are focused on impacting the function of the brain. This process could easily have unintended impacts for a person with a mental disorder or someone taking medication that already affects their brain.
Likewise, nootropics are not recommended for anyone pregnant or nursing. In most cases, the safety for the baby has not been established and there is significant risk of side effects.
Some Interesting Nootropics
Nootropics is a huge field and new products are frequently being developed. At the same time, research into nootropics and their effectiveness is ongoing. As a result, there are some supplements that have proven benefits and are safe, along with others that are more questionable.
Before I get into specific nootropics that you can readily buy, I want to talk about Modafinil, partly because it is so popular among people experimenting with nootropics.
Modafinil is probably the most popular nootropic on the market and it is also one that has a considerable amount of support. It is often promoted as being amazing for boosting alertness and cognition, and has relatively few side effects.
However, it is a prescription drug, typically provided for people with disorders like narcolepsy and people with obstructive sleep apnea. Because of this, most people can’t legally access it for cognitive benefits (although, as you might expect, people do find ways around this restriction).
But, for those with a related condition, Modafinil does represent a particularly powerful cognitive enhancer.
Like many other nootropics, the underlying mechanism isn’t completely understood. But, research suggests that it acts as a type of weak dopamine reuptake inhibitor. By doing so, the drug increase dopamine levels, which form part of the body’s reward system.
This process is similar to the way that some drugs work, like cocaine. However, the impact is more limited, so people get a cognitive boost without the other implications or side effects that come from hard drugs.
Modafinil is particularly interesting because research supports its effectiveness in people who are young and healthy. The effects include helping people who are sleep-deprived to be better at planning, less impulsive and have improved cognitive function (2,3). This outcome is unusual, as most nootropics effects are proven for the elderly or for people that have cognitive defects.
As a result, research indicates that Modafinil is particularly powerful for people who are sleep deprived, which is why it tends to be prescribed for those uses.
The benefits of Modafinil do also come with disadvantages. In particular, researchers have noted that the drug can make it harder for people to fall asleep when they have the opportunity to do so (4). This could theoretically make sleep issues worse in the long-term.
Likewise, the drug has the potential to be addictive because it does affect your dopamine levels. This is a key reason why it is so tightly controlled.
Finally, most research into Modafinil is short-term only, especially when it comes to cognitive benefits. So, the impacts of long-term supplementation aren’t clear.
Despite its power, Modafinil won’t be an option for most people, as you do need a prescription to get it. Furthermore, the popularity of Modafinil as a nootropic means that it tends to be tightly controlled.
However, Adrafinil is an alternative to Modafinil that has some of the same impacts and is easier to obtain. Adrafinil is significant because it is a prodrug for Modafinil. This means that it is converted into Modafinil in the body.
As a result, Adrafinil also offers increased alertness and wakefulness, making it particularly relevant for staying awake. Like Modafinil, it may also have an impact on cognition, particularly in relation to memory.
The prodrug nature of Adrafinil means that it has significant potential as a nootropic. However, the time to get an effect tends to be slower, as Adrafinil does need to be metabolized first. There is also more potential for side effects with this supplement because of the extra step.
Additionally, Adrafinil hasn’t been the subject of much research. Instead, most of the studies have focused on Modafinil. This means that less is known about the efficacy and safety of Adrafinil.
Long-term supplementation with Adrafinil isn’t advised because the conversion from Adrafinil to Modafinil occurs in the liver, and there is no evidence about liver safety (5).
So, generally speaking, if you want the benefits of Modafinil, Adrafinil is the closest that you will get. Still, the lack of safety information means that you should limit your intake and pay attention to the way your body responds.
Best Natural Nootropic Ingredients
Drugs like Modafinil and Adrafinil may be powerful but they aren’t the only direction to go. Instead, many people prefer to focus on herbal supplements as nootropics and may stack multiple options at the same time.
As discussed previously, the idea is that various compounds in plants offer benefits that can help with cognition, memory, concentration and related areas. There is no shortage of such products on the market.
Natural Nootropics and the Brain
As a general rule, natural nootropics function by making the brain healthier overall. By doing so, they are able to promote more efficient processing and result in better long-term and short-term benefits.
This is very different than drugs like Modafinil, which use a specific mechanism to boost brain function in the short-term. Such medications are unlikely to be effective in the long-term and rarely support brain health.
Some key effects of natural nootropics include the following list.
- Increase circulation in the brain
- Provide missing nutrients (particularly significant for vegetarians)
- Reduce brain inflammation
- Reduce some effects of brain aging
- Improve neuroplasticity
- Stimulate new brain cell formation
- Provide precursors to important brain chemicals
- Increase oxygen, energy and/or nutrient flow
- Neutralize free radical damage
The various supplements and ingredients that will be discussed won't target the entire list. Instead, they may affect a few areas within it.
But, regardless of which effects they do have, the overall trend is for natural nootrophics to promote brain health overall - and improve function that way.
Later on, I will discuss specific supplements. But, before that, this list looks at key ingredients that are commonly used in nootropic supplements. These are all natural options for promoting brain health and have typically been the subject of research.
In many cases, you may be able to buy these ingredients as individual supplements as well. Doing so could be especially relevant if you planned to stack supplements.
If not, it’s still worth being aware of the ingredients. This can help you figure out which nootropic supplements have the most potential for benefit.
Herbs and Spices
Throughout history, herbs and spices have played a key role in traditional medicine and in health. For example, cinnamon, ginger and turmeric all offer health benefits and are even supplemented on some occasions.
The pattern isn’t surprising, as plants contain a large number of unusual compounds. Many of these have the potential to directly impact health.
At the same time, the sheer number of compounds present means that there is much we don’t know about the implications of various herbs for health.
There is a wide range of different herbs with nootropic benefits, many of which have been used throughout history.
Some key examples are given below but there are others too. Indeed, new nootropic herbs are likely to be discovered as time goes on and we learn more about herbs and the compounds they contain.
American Ginseng. Ginseng itself is sometimes called the ‘elixir of life’ and may offer significant health benefits, including advantages to the brain. Interestingly, the American variety is actually more popular right now than the Chinese one (6,7).
Artic Root (Rhodiola rosea). This herb is an adaptogen and, as such, can help with handling stress. It also increases levels of key neurotransmitters and may help improve concentration and energy levels (8).
Bacopa (Bacopa monnieri). This herb has a long history in traditional medicine and helps to balance levels of brain hormones and reduce levels of cortisol (the stress hormone). It can also help boost memory overall (9). Unlike many other nootropics, the effects of Bacopa tend to be long-term and you may not even see benefits until you have been taking it for a few months.
Gingko (Ginkgo biloba). Gingko is already a common supplement and ingredient for health, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that it also offers nootropic benefits. The key advantages of gingko come from its ability to increase circulation to the brain and to protect from free radical damage (10).
Peppermint. Unlike the other herb-based nootropics, you wouldn’t tend to supplement peppermint. Instead, the benefits appear to be aroma-based (11). As a result, you would inhale the essential oil. Such an effect would also be true for some other essential oils as well, like rosemary (12).
This set of nootropics is slightly different. In particular, they are common ingredients that are derived from plants. However, they involve some human processing. In some cases, these may be extracted from plants. In other cases, they are synthesized versions of compounds found in plants.
The benefits of these nootropics are still significant. However, the fact that they are not as natural may make them unappealing for some people.
Curcumin. Curcumin is the active ingredient in turmeric and has been connected to a wide range of health benefits, including some connected to brain function (13,14). While you can supplement turmeric directly or include it in your diet (such as through curries or turmeric golden milk), there are also curcumin supplements on the market. These use formulations to increase bioavailability and may result in more health advantages overall.
Vinpocetine. This is a fairly new product and is based on the compound vincamine found in periwinkle. The supplement hasn’t become especially popular in the United States but it can help to reduce brain inflammation, increase blood flow and balance neurotransmitters (18,19,20).
Amino acids play a key role in many of the processes throughout our bodies. We can biologically produce some of these but we need to get the others from food (21).
As a result, not getting enough of each amino acid could mean that some processes in our bodies aren’t occurring optimally. It’s easy to see how that could cause issues, including problems with brain function.
Furthermore, some theories suggest that higher levels of specific amino acids could promote nootropic outcomes. This may mean that it is worth supplementing amino acids even if you aren’t deficient in them.
Some specific amino acids to consider include the following.
Creatine. Often used by bodybuilders and contained in red meat, creatine is also associated with providing energy to the brain (22) and improving memory, processing speed and intelligence scores (23).
Taurine. Especially common in energy drinks, taurine is present in high concentrations in the brain. It plays a role in moving various compounds and is associated with the neurotransmitter GABA (24,25). Despite being common in energy drinks, the main benefits of taurine are actually calming the mind and increasing attention, especially for people who are easily distracted (26).
Tryptophan. Tryptophan is significant for increasing focus and memory, along with helping with a range of mental health conditions (27).
Tyrosine. Tyrosine is a precursor for dopamine and can help to improve focus. In particular, having too little dopamine can often result in symptoms including fatigue and an inability to concentrate (28). As such, tyrosine can help to remedy some of those symptoms.
A related ingredient is acetyl-l-carnitine (ALCAR). This is a specific form of the amino acid carnitine and it plays a role in the production of acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is important because it is a key neurotransmitter for memory function and learning. As a result, ALCAR has the potential to boost those areas (29).
ALCAR is also significant because its structure helps it to cross the blood-brain barrier, which is necessary for effects on the brain (30).
Now, the amino acid carnitine is primarily found in red meat. So, this supplement becomes particularly important for anyone who doesn’t eat red meat often.
Not surprisingly, nutrients that are relevant to health are also going to be significant for brain health as well.
This is particularly true for nutrients that have a direct impact on the brain.
Some of the most common examples include the following.
The B Vitamins. All of the B vitamins are relevant to the brain, with vitamin B12 being particularly significant. Vitamin B12 is associated with energy and mental function, along with your nervous system (31). Now, the B vitamins (including B12) are only relevant if you are deficient in them. But, vitamin B12 deficiency is more common than most people imagine – so you may not be getting enough.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Omega-3 is well known for brain health and is best obtained from fatty fish or supplements (33,34). Getting enough omega-3 truly is important for health, including brain health – and many of us are deficient (35).
The Best Nootropic Supplements
Neuro-Peak is one of the most popular nootropic supplements on Amazon right now, partly because the brand has such a good reputation.
The supplement itself contains six main ingredients, which are as follows:
- Vitamin B12
- Bacopa Monnieri
- Ginko Biloba
- Rhodiola Rosea extract
Most of these are herbal extracts, which may potentially have some implication for mental function. However, the main one of interest is DMAE, which is short for dimethylethanolamine.
DMAE is a commonly used in nootropics and has been associated with some brain benefits. Additionally, it is an antioxidant and is often used in skin creams because of that action.
Some research has highlighted the use of DMAE to fight cognitive impairment, including a trend towards DMAE being effective (36). However, the outcome wasn’t statistically significant and the study isn’t relevant for healthy individuals.
While research is relatively limited, DMAE does have potential, especially as it has the ability to cross the blood-brain barrier. Likewise, there are some indications of mechanisms that could allow DMAE to improve cognitive outcomes (37).
Qualia is part of a brand called Neurohacker Collective, which has a strong focus on promoting the best neurological outcomes. This process involves a focus on the interface between the body and the brain, along with the idea that diet can improve brain function.
This particular supplement is unusual in that it has 42 individual ingredients and the company describes it like this:
The sheer number of ingredients is appealing, especially as many of these do have some association with brain function. Indeed, this is also another supplement that contains DHEA, so it may be appealing for that reason alone.
I’m not going to go into the research associated with each of the ingredients here, although some of the ingredients were covered in earlier sections. But, the supplement has received positive reviews, particularly by experienced bloggers in the field.
In particular, you can read a powerful review of the supplement at Eris Fit, which provides more information about what the supplement offers and how it works. Another useful discussion can be found at Ben Greenfield Fitness.
In both cases, the reviewers are extremely enthusiastic and share their own experiences with the supplement and the impacts that it had for them.
Caffeine and L-theanine
Caffeine may seem like an odd choice but it is actually a powerful nootropic and has a considerable amount of evidence behind it. I’m not going to go into this area in detail, but caffeine’s effects on the brain are well known.
After all, there is a reason that many of us simply can’t think clearly before we’ve had our morning coffee. Research suggests that the mental impacts of caffeine are based on its ability to increase catecholamine signaling (38).
The most logical way to get mental advantages from caffeine is from coffee, especially as there are many health benefits of coffee anyway.
Indeed, if you’re already a habitual coffee drinker, then this may be a good solution.
But, nootropic intakes of caffeine can be higher than you get with coffee. As a result, supplementing with caffeine can be an appealing outcome.
A second interesting compound is L-theanine, which is an amino acid. It is associated with promoting alertness and attention when used in conjunction with caffeine (39). L-theanine can also decrease the stress response, which may reduce side effects of caffeine (40).
For nootropic purposes, one common recommendation is 100 mg of caffeine with 200 mg of L-theanine (41). You could get this from a cup of strong coffee along with an L-theanine supplement.
However, there are also prepackaged supplements that contain both caffeine and L-theanine, like the examples below.
Alpha BRAIN is unusual in that the supplement itself has been directly studied for nootropic benefits. The research found that the supplement significantly improved executive function and recall tasks compared to the placebo (42).
While the results are far from conclusive, this is more evidence than many other nootropics have, making it a particularly significant option.
Like most other nootropics on this list, the product does contain a range of different compounds. This includes some that come from plants and others that don’t, such as L-theanine and L-tyrosine, both of which are amino acids.
Interestingly, the reviews for this particular option are less positive than many other nootropics. Still, there are more than enough positive reviews to suggest that the supplement is effective for many people.
One final nootropic supplement to mention is Prevagen. This is marketed particularly heavily, with a strong focus on memory improvement and clearer thinking.
The idea here is slightly different than other nootropics on the list, as it mostly relies on one compound, apoequorin. The compound itself comes from jellyfish, although Prevagen uses a synthesized version.
There is significant controversy surrounding Prevagen, mostly because the marketing is heavy-handed but there is relatively little evidence of positive effects. The main study into the supplement did find benefits but it was also extremely limited (43).
In particular, the benefits that were observed in the study were for elderly patients experiencing age-related cognitive declines.
With that in mind, there is no proof that the supplement has an nootropic impact for the general population. Still, the potential for an effect does exist and the supplement appears to be safe. Likewise, many people do swear that Prevagen helps them, and this alone may make it worth trying.
The field of nootropics is a large and a complex one. There are countless different products out there that can help to improve brain function, far too many to ever cover in a single list.
Additionally, there are many supplements that make use of a combination of different nootropics to try and provide the greatest possible benefit.
While there may not be a single nootropic or supplement out there that works better than others, picking one that uses a range of key ingredients can often be a good first step.
You can also turn to advice about improving your cognition in other ways. For example, the site Elite Man Magazine discusses the idea of biohacking and people can improve their outcomes.
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