What Is A Nootropic?

what is a nootropic

Nootropics is one of the most exciting areas in nutritional medicine. Essentially, nootropics is the use of ‘smart’ supplements that aim to optimise your mental performance. Nootropics are often referred to as brain memory supplements but they are more than that. As well as improving your ability to learn and recall, a nootropic also aims to help you focus and think more clearly. While nootropics won’t turn you into a genius overnight, taking a nootropic supplement has a cumulative effect over the course of a few weeks, to help you become more productive, and more resilient to stress. That’s the theory, anyway, but do they work?

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What is a nootropic?

The word nootropic was first used in the early 1970s, and is derived from the Greek, with nous referring to the mind, or intellect, and tropos meaning to bend or change. A nootropic is designed to enhance brain function and mental performance.

If you’ve ever downed a cup of strong coffee as a stimulant to stay awake, or taken omega-3 fish oil to support brain health, or a B vitamin complex to boost your energy levels (especially following a night out), then you have already practiced nootropics.

While a single nootropic substance is often helpful on its own, taking a carefully selected blend of nootropics in the form of adaptogenic herbs, amino acids, complementary vitamins and minerals, antioxidants and other cognitive enhancers, has a synergistic effect that helps to boost brain function and mental performance. Natural nootropics are increasingly taken as a safe alternative to so-called ‘smart drugs’ to give you an edge.

What is a nootropic stack?

Different nootropics have different actions. Some work better in the morning, some work better at night, while others are taken 30 or more minutes after the first supplement to kick-start its action.

Two or more different nootropic ingredients that are designed to be taken together, or on top of one another, is referred to as a brain ‘stack’, and taking them is known as ‘stacking’. These terms are borrowed from the world of elite athletes, body-builders and sports nutrition.

When nootropics are used in combination, lower doses are needed than when the supplements are used individually, which also reduces the chance of side effects.

Best nootropic supplements

Nootropic supplements contain blends of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, essential fatty acids, anti-inflammatory antioxidants and adaptogenic herbs designed to enhance memory and mental performance. Each range is formulated by company neuroscientists and physiologists to provide what they believe is the best nootropics supplements.

When I decided to take a nootropic supplement myself, I first investigated the published evidence that these ingredients actually work, and share my findings here.

Do you want caffeine in your nootropic?

One of the most important decisions is whether or not to take a nootropic supplement that includes caffeine, or a caffeine source such as guarana or kola nut.

If, like me, you are sensitive to the effects of caffeine, you may find these too stimulating. Equally, if you drink a lot of tea or coffee, you may already be at the upper recommended level. Most national guidelines advise that intakes of up to 400mg caffeine a day should have no consequences for healthy adults, and average intakes are around 200mg to 300mg a day. However, if you have high blood pressure, you may need to restrict your caffeine intake. Find out how to assess your caffeine intake, and whether or not caffeine affects your blood pressure, via this link.

Having said that, nootropics that do contain caffeine (for rapid focus) usually temper its effects with L-theanine, an amino acid which works synergistically with caffeine to reduce stress responses and ‘jitteriness’ for a smoother effect. Together, caffeine and L-theanine provide clarity and focus, and promote alpha brain waves associated with relaxation and creative thoughts.

You can find out more about each individual ingredient further down this post.

NB As always, seek medical advice before taking any supplement if you have a health condition or are taking prescribed medicines, as interactions are likely. Do not take nootropic supplements if you are pregnant or breast feeding.

First level nootropic supplements

ginkgo as a nootropic
<strong> Ginkgo biloba<strong>

If you are new to nootropics I suggest you start with a formula that includes Ginkgo biloba, one of the most widely used herbal medicines for improving blood flow and the supply of oxygen and nutrients to the brain.

Gingko biloba

Ginkgo biloba leaves contain unique ginkgolides (terpene trilactones) which, according to latest evidence, also target the system of microtubules within neurons. These hollow microtubules transport nutrients and the brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) which are involved in nerve cell communication, to improve cell processing ability, short-term working memory, concentration and cognition (the ability to think straight).

The results from nine trials, involving over 2,500 people, show that Ginkgo biloba is more effective than placebo for improving cognition in older people. Ginkgo was found to stabilise or slow the decline in behaviour and daily function for people with dementia, with no safety concerns.

Whether or not it improves memory in healthy people remains uncertain, but if you have subjective memory impairment Ginkgo biloba may well help.

Nootropics for focus

My next recommended level of nootropic supplements are designed to provide rapid clarity and focus. Some of these include Gotu kola and kola nut which, despite their similar names, are different herbal medicines.

gotu kola nootropic
<strong> Gotu kola<strong>

Gotu kola

Gotu kola (Centella asiatica) is a rejuvenating, Ayurvedic herb known as Asian pennywort, and as the Fountain of Youth. In Asia, many people regularly eat one Gotu kola leaf a day in the hope of prolonging their life. Gotu kola leaves high concentrations of unique glycosides and triterpenoids.

Gotu kola has been shown to improve learning and memory through neuroprotective effects on brain cells, and has shown positive effects on memory, cognition and mood in healthy elderly volunteers. Gotu kola is not related to the kola nut and does not contain caffeine.

kola nut
<strong> kola nut<strong>

Kola nut

In contrast, kola nut is the seed of a tree, usually Cola acuminata or Cola nitida. Kola nuts contains two main stimulants, caffeine and theobromine. The concentration of caffeine within kola nuts is typically 2% to 4%, and it is one of the original ingredients of cola style drinks as it has a bitter-sweet flavour.

Kola nuts are chewed in some cultures to restore vitality, and are the source of a dye known as kola red.

Rhodiola rosea

Rhodiola is my favourite adaptogen as it is both energising and relaxing. It contains a number of unique substances, such as rhodioflavonoside, which are believed to have a calming action, increasing levels of serotonin to improve mood while also suppressing the stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline. It also has an energising action which enhances performance and is particularly helpful when burn-out causes fatigue, reduced energy, sleep difficulties, poor appetite, irritability, hypertension and headaches. See more on Rhodiola below.

Bacopa monnieri formulations

bacopa as a nootropic
<strong> Bacopa monnieri<strong>

Supplements containing the herb, Bacopa monnieri,  are the next step up the nootropic ladder. In preclinical studies, this exciting herbal nootropic was shown to increase the number and density of brain cell dendrites – the branches that connect and communicate with neighbouring neurons.

Bacopa monnieri is the most powerful Ayurvedic herb for improving memory and clarity of thought, as well as reducing anxiety. Also known as Brahmi, or water hyssop, Bacopa monnieri contains at least 12 unique anti-oxidants, known as bacosides, which have anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective effects to reduce brain cell damage, and enhance synaptic changes involved in learning. Bacopa monnieri increases cerebral blood flow, and has effects on acetylcholine and monoamine neurotransmitter levels.

In one extraordinary preclinical study, brain cells (neurons) in a part of the brain known as the amygdala (which is involved in memory and learning) dramatically increased their number of branching points (dendrites connecting to neighbouring brain cells) within 6 weeks of exposure to Bacopa monnieri, compared with controls.

bacopa monnieri effect on brain cells

Derived from Vollala et al, 2011

For optimum results, look for a nootropic supplement that contains Bacopa monnieri.

Nootropic herbs

Many of the herbal medicines used to enhance mental performance are also used as adaptogenic herbs to help reduce anxiety and other stress-related symptoms. I’ve already covered some, such as Ginkgo biloba, Bacopa monnieri and Gotu kola above.

lion's mane mushroom nootropic
<strong> Lions mane<strong>

The following overview explains how other ingredients included in different nootropic stacks work.

Lion’s Mane mushroom

Lion’s Mane mushroom (Hericium erinaceus) is an edible and medicinal mushroom that is particularly valued in Asia for its ability to protect brain cells and even promote their regeneration.

Lion’s mane includes numerous active substances, including unique hericenones and erinacines.

Lion’s mane stimulates the production of Nerve Growth Factor to promote the growth and differentiation of neurons and the production of new brain cell branches (dendrites) and connections.

mucuna seeds as a nootropic
<strong> Mucuna<strong>

Mucuna pruriens

Mucuna pruriens is also known as velvet bean, thanks to its fuzzy seed pods. The seeds are used as a mood enhancer and to increase focus and motivation.

Mucuna seeds contain an unusually high concentration of l-dopa (levodopa), an amino acid that is used as a building block to make brain neurotransmitters such as dopamine.

Coleus forskohlii

Coleus forskohlii (or Plectranthus barbatus) is a member of the mint family whose leaves contain a unique substance called forskolin.

coleus forskohlii as a nootropic
<strong> Coleus <strong>

Forskolin has nootropic and adaptogenic effects, increasing energy production in brain cells, raising levels of the neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, and decreasing perceptions of fatigue.

Preclinical studies suggest that forskolin may help to improve learning and memory, and also enhances mental stamina.

Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha is an Ayurvedic herbal adaptogen that is also known as Indian ginseng. Ashwagandha roots and leaves contain a series of unique substances known as withanolides with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory actions.

Ashwagandha is a traditional, restorative tonic used to treat anxiety, insomnia, loss of memory and for its neuroprotective effects against several neurodegenerative conditions.

ashwagandha as a nootropic
<strong> Ashwagandha<strong>

Although studies on memory are lacking, in people with bipolar disorder at least, Ashwagandha appears to improve cognitive function, especially working memory and reaction time.

Rhodiola rosea

Rhodila rosea, also known as golden root and mountain ginseng, is both calming and energising, and is used to overcome stress and fatigue.

Rhodiola root contains unique substances called rosavins which can influence levels of serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline to support mood and cognition.

Some of the beneficial effects of Rhodiola against anxiety may involve activation of the brain’s own natural opiate-like endorphin system, improved cerebral blood flow and oxygen processing. It is one of my favourite adaptogenic herbs, and prevented altitude sickness when I followed the original Inca trail to Machu Picchu.

rhodiola as a nootropic
<strong> Rhodiola<strong>

The combination of Rhodiola rosea and Ginkgo biloba can produce more significant improvements in cognitive function than either used alone.

Artichoke

Artichoke is one of the world’s oldest medicinal plants, best known for its protective effects on the liver and for reducing cholesterol levels. Its unique antioxidant polyphenols, such as cynarin, are highly antioxidant, and have beneficial protective effects on the brain, too, enhancing memory recall.

Another way in which artichoke extracts are beneficial is in promoting dilation of blood vessels to improve cerebral (as well as coronary) blood flow.

<strong> Gynostemma<strong>

Gynostemma

Gynostemma, more commonly known as Jiaogulan, is a Chinese vine known locally as the herb of immortality.

Gynostemma leaves contain almost 100 substances known as gypenosides, most of which are unique to Jiaogulan, but some of which are identical to those found in Korean ginseng. These have antioxidant, tonic and adaptogenic effects used to increase vigour, alertness, reflexes and to reduce anxiety.

Recent preclinical studies suggest that Gynostemma extracts activate dopamine receptors to increase learning and spatial memory.

Panax ginseng

Panax ginseng, or Korean ginseng, is one of the most popular adaptogenic plants, revered as a revitalising tonic for over 5000 years. Ginseng roots contain at least 50 unique ginsenosides, some of which are stimulating, and some are relaxing and restorative. Clinical trials show that ginseng supplements can reduce fatigue by 34% compared with placebo, for example. This may account for some of the nootropic effects of Panax ginseng in improving reaction times. A Cochrane review stated that Ginseng may improve some aspects of cognition, behaviour and quality of life in healthy people, but more research is needed.

Nootropic enhancers

The following ingredients are commonly added to premium nootropics to enhance blood flow, neurotransmitter balance, speed of thought processing, and memory recall.

Vinpocetine

Vinpocetine is a vinca alkaloid similar to those found in the Periwinkle plant. Vinpocetine increases cerebral blood flow and has been used medically to protect brain cells when oxygen levels are low.

Three studies involving older people with memory problems found that vinpocetine was significantly more effective than placebo for improving attention, concentration, and memory.

A small study, published in 1985, involving 12 normal, healthy women, found that taking vinpocetine for three days significantly improved memory performance in the Sternberg Memory Scanning Test compared with placebo.

Huperzine A

Huperzine A is an alkaloid extracted from toothed clubmoss (Huperzia serrata). It acts as an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor to raise brain levels of acetylcholine, and has beneficial effects via nicotinic and muscarinic receptors in the brain.

Huperzine A also has anti-inflammatory effects and is used in Chinese herbal medicine to protect brain cells from a variety of damaging chemicals to enhance brain cell survival. Clinical trials in China have shown that huperzine A significantly improves memory in older people with age-related forgetfulness.

Phosphatidylserine

Phosphatidylserine is one of the main structural components of brain cell membranes, and regulates the release of nerve cell communication chemicals (neurotransmitters) such as acetylcholine, dopamine and noradrenaline.

Phosphatidylserine appears to slow, halt, or even reverse some of the structural deterioration that impairs the transmission of messages between brain cells. This helps to improve the ability to create, consolidate and recall memories. Phosphatidylcholine is used to support the ability to learn and recall information, the ability to focus attention and concentrate, the ability to reason and solve problems, and to maintain rapid reactions and reflexes. So far, most of the research has involved people with memory complaints rather than healthy adults.

Phosphatidylcholine and other choline sources, such as citicoline, centrophenoxine and DMAE (dimethylaminoethanol, a lesser known component of oily fish such as anchovies) and Alpha-GPC (glycerophosphocholine) are used in many memory-boosting supplements. These choline sources have shown benefit in clinical trials involving healthy volunteers and people with cognitive impairment.

Choline is an essential substance related to the B vitamins and is vital for the structural integrity of brain cell membranes. Choline also acts as a building block for producing key neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine, noradrenaline and dopamine.

Choline sources increase brain levels of acetylcholine and are used to improve alertness, concentration, memory storage and retrieval. Preclinical research identified phosphatidylcholine as a promising enhancer of learning, memory and improved cognitive function. When 80 college students took either phosphatidylcholine or placebo, on two separate occasions, significant improvements in explicit memory during a serial learning task were observed 90 minutes after taking the phosphatidylcholine, but not after the placebo.

Uridine monophosphate

Uridine monophosphate is a nucleotide used to make messenger RNA, and provides building blocks for making energy and for the formation of neuronal membranes. Preclinical studies suggest that uridine enhances brain cell dendrite formation and density. Uridine monophosphate was also found to stimulate the synthesis of proteins involved in transmitting brain messages from one brain cell to another.

Omega 3 

The long-chain omega-3s (from fish or algae) have structural, cell signalling and anti-inflammatory actions in the brain. Data from 15 trials, involving over 7000 people with mild memory complaints, found significant improvements in immediate recall for those taking more than 1g omega 3 fish oil per day. In healthy, older adults taking omega-3 supplements have also been shown to improve memory recall of object locations better than placebo.

Nootropic stimulants

Some ingredients within a nootropic stack are designed to perk you up quickly by increasing alertness. These stimulating ingredients support brain alpha wave activity which is the best state in which to think, concentration, study, learn and remember.

Hordenine

Hordenine is a plant alkaloid found in barley and bitter orange (Citrus aurantium). It is used to increase energy and focus and appears to work as an inhibitor of noradrenaline uptake. This produces a mild stimulant effect which is described as having a smoother and less jittery effect than other stimulants. NB Hordenine may cross-react with some urine drug tests to give a false positive result.

Caffeine

Caffeine is a plant alkaloid found in coffee, tea and chocolate, and is the most widely consumed stimulant in the world and mainly works via adenosine receptors in the brain. Caffeine increases the local release of serotonin, noradrenaline, dopamine and glutamine.

Caffeine has an alerting effect that increases earning and speed of performing attention and difficult mental tasks, such as arithmetic, as well as reducing the perception of fatigue. If taken late in the day, some people find that caffeine keeps them awake.

Theobromine

Theobromine is a methylxanthine related to caffeine that is present in high levels in cocoa and chocolate. Theobromine has an alerting effect and may contribute to the positive mood-related effects associated with chocolate. Emerging evidence suggests theobromine may have protective effects against the accumulation of amyloid which is the hallmark of Alzheimer’s dementia.

Guarana

Guarana is an energising supplement derived from the seeds of a Brazilian bush, and is traditionally used to reduce tiredness and fatigue. Guarana improves secondary memory performance and increases alert and feelings of contentedness.

A combination of guarana plus a vitamin and mineral complex taken before exercise reduced later mental fatigue and improved memory and performance during challenging mental tasks, with significantly increased accuracy and speed of picture recognition, compared to placebo.

Nootropic antioxidants

Many of the ingredients included in nootropic supplements are antioxidants, which have anti-inflammatory, anti-ageing protective effects on brain cells. Most work via beneficial effects on mitochondria – the oxygen processing and energy generating ‘batteries’ within brain cells.

turmericCurcumin

Turmeric interacts with cells in at least 20 different ways. It helps to regulate the action of enzymes, hormones, inflammatory molecules, gene transcription and cell growth factors to have benefits throughout the body, including the brain. The curcumin in turmeric has been shown to aid attention and memory performance.

Curcumin (diferuloylmethane) is a yellow polyphenol that is the main component of turmeric spice. Curcumin has neuroprotective effects that are increasingly used to treat neurodegenerative diseases, and to improve cognitive decline and memory loss. A study involving 60 healthy older adults found that a lipid-soluble form of curcumin (which can cross the blood-brain barrier) significantly improve cognitive function, working memory and mood (calmness, contentedness and stress-related fatigue) within four weeks. Significant effects on alertness and contentedness were also seen within 1 to 3 hours of a dose in those using it regularly.

Piperine, an alkaloid extracted from black pepper, is often added to boost curcumin absorption by as much as 2000% (a forty-fold increase).  Piperine does this by blocking the enzyme breakdown (glucuronidation) of curcumin in the intestinal wall so more remains available for absorption.

Polyphenols

Polyphenols such as quercetin, pterostilbene, resveratrol, and green tea flavanols (catechins) are also included in many nootropics for their neuroprotective effects. Some products include polyphenols in the form of blackberry extract.

Pyrroloquinoline quinone (BioPQQ)

BioPQQ is an antioxidant that protects cells from the free radicals generated during energy production. In healthy older people (aged 50 to 70 years) taking BioPQQ (20 mg) a day for 12 weeks increased cerebral blood flow in the right prefrontal cortex, compared with placebo, resulting in enhanced cognitive function. A previous study suggested that BioPQQ could prevent age-related reductions in brain function to help preserve attention and memory.

Coenzyme Q10

Coenzyme Q10 (ubiquinone, ubiquinol) is an antioxidant needed for energy production in brain cells. Coenzyme Q10 has neuroprotective effects and preliminary evidence suggests it can reverse the memory problems and fatigue associated with taking a statin to lower cholesterol levels.

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Nootropic amino acids  

Amino acids are building blocks for making peptide chains and proteins, but some also have nootropic effects on their own through interactions with certain brain receptors.

what is a nootropic

Amino acids that are active in the body have a symmetry that rotates light to the left, and are known as levorotatory (L-) to differentiate them from the mirror image molecules that rotate light to their right (dextro-rotatory or D-) which are usually inactive. Synthetic versions may contain mixtures of the two (dl-).

L-Theanine

L-theanine is an amino acid found in tea. When consumed together with caffeine, it has a synergistic alerting effect but l-theanine has the opposite effect on emotional arousal, to reduce stress responses and ‘jitteriness’. The results from 11 clinical trials show that caffeine plus l-theanine can promote alertness, attention, and task switching, with the strongest effects seen during the first hour post-dose.

5-HTP

5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) is an amino acid that is only found in the human body, and in the seeds of a West African medicinal plant, Griffonia simplicifolia. In the brain, 5-HTP stimulates the production of key neurotransmitters such as serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine or 5-HT), melatonin and endorphins which lift mood, improve sleep and has positive effects on cognitive performance.

Noopept

Noopept is the brand name of a small amino acid chain (peptide) developed and used in Russia to enhance cognitive function. Within brain cells, noopept (whose chemical name is N-phenylacetyl-L-polyglycine ethyl ester) is converted into an active neuropeptide, cycloprolylglycine, which has nootropic effects via acetylcholine receptors. While Noopept is not available in the UK, products that contain it can be imported for personal use.

Other amino acids used in nootropic supplements (either as building blocks for making brain messengers or for promoting energy processing in brain cells) include l-tyrosine (a precursor for dopamine), l-carnitine (a dipeptide), phenylalanine and taurine.

Nootropic vitamins and minerals

A number of vitamins and minerals contribute to the normal functioning of the nervous system and psychological function, or the reduction of tiredness and fatigue, including vitamin C, vitamin D3, and B vitamin complexes, especially B1, B3, B5, B6 and B12.

B vitamins are needed for energy production in brain cells and to improve mood and clarity of thought. Lack of vitamin B12, for example, has been linked with poor memory and lack of concentration.

Oxford scientists have found that high dose B vitamins can slow the progression of brain shrinkage by 40% compared with placebo – but only if blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA) were also high.

Vitamin D is now known to be important for memory and is involved in regulating synthesis of brain neurotransmitters such as serotonin.

Low vitamin D levels are also associated with loss of brain volume, and an international consensus of experts concluded that low levels of vitamin D increase the risk of cognitive decline in older people, and that deficiency should be treated with supplements

Among the minerals, iodine, magnesium, zinc and even lithium are added to some nootropic supplements, as their neuroprotective effects have been shown to improve energy production in brain cells, memory, learning and may help to preserve cognitive function.

Nootropic hormones

DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) is a hormone whose levels decline with age. During your early 20s, you produce around 30mg DHEA per day, but this drops to less than 6 mg per day by the age of 50. This reduction in DHEA levels is believed to contribute to the increased prevalence of numerous age-related conditions, including a decline in cognitive function and memory. While DHEA is not available in the UK, products containing it can be imported for personal use.

Phenylethylamine (PEA) is a hormone-like alkaloid that has been described as the hormone of love. It is a mood-altering substance that produces a mild, confidence-instilling buzz, intensifies feelings of pleasure and is responsible for those sensations of swooning and walking on air that occur when you first fall in love. Phenylethylamine is also released during love-making, and is found in chocolate. While most chocolate-derived phenylethylamine is metabolised before it reaches the brain, some people are sensitive to the effects of even small quantities.

So there you have it. Three week’s worth of researching and investigating nootropics! Please leave a comment on your experience with nootropics. Thanks.

Click here to see my recommended Nootropics on Amazon

Image credits: andrew_butko/wikimedia; forest&kim_starr/wikimedia; katya/flickr; azekhoria_benjamin/wikimedia; ton_rulkens/flickr; dinesh_valke/flickr; business-creations/shutterstock; badagnani/wikimedia; chaivat/wikimedia; pixabay

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Dr Sarah Brewer
QUORA EXPERT - TOP WRITER 2018 Dr Sarah Brewer MSc (Nutr Med), MA (Cantab), MB, BChir, RNutr, MBANT, CNHC Cert IoD qualified from Cambridge University with degrees in Natural Sciences, Medicine and Surgery. After working in general practice, she gained a master's degree in nutritional medicine from the University of Surrey. Sarah is a registered Medical Doctor, a registered Nutritionist and a registered Nutritional Therapist. She is an award winning author of over 70 popular self-help books and a columnist for Prima magazine.

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